Justice P.B. Sawant

Justice P.B. Sawant (1930-2021): Champion of civil liberties

Print edition : March 12, 2021

Justice P.B. Sawant at a symposium on the Ayodhya verdict in New Delhi on December 7, 2010. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Justice (retired) P.B. Sawant (1930-2021) will be remembered for his deep involvement in social activism, his unfaltering position on civil and human rights, and his anti-communal and anti-caste standpoints.

Retired Supreme Court Justice P. B. Sawant died at his home in Pune on February 15 at the age of 91. He will be deeply missed by those who hold social justice and civil liberties in the highest regard.

Born on June 30, 1930, Justice Sawant began his professional career as a lawyer in the High Court of Bombay, practising all branches of the law. In 1973, he was appointed a judge of the High Court of Bombay. From 1989 to 1995, he served as a judge of the Supreme Court of India. He was also the Governor’s nominee for the selection of Vice-Chancellor of Shivaji University in 1986, on the Staff Selection Committee of the Bombay University from 1986 to 1987 and in the Senate of the Pune University in 1987.

He was one of the three retired judges appointed to the Indian People’s Tribunal, an independent investigation agency set up in 2002 to look into the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat. The report strongly castigated Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Justice Sawant also headed a Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Maharashtra government in 2003 to investigate the charges of corruption levelled against four Ministers by anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare. Two Ministers resigned after the Commission published its report.

Even as a practising lawyer, Justice Sawant was an office-bearer of, and adviser to, trade unions as well as a few educational institutions. But it was after retirement that he came into his own. His deep involvement in social activism and his unfaltering position on civil and human rights and his anti-communal and anti-caste standpoints are what he will be remembered for.

Elgar Parishad

His last fight was in the defence of freedom of speech and civil liberties. On December 31, 2017, Justice Sawant, along with Justice (retired) Kolse-Patil, organised the Elgar Parishad, a meeting of anti-communal activists, in Pune. This was denounced as a meeting of anti-nationals and the participants have since been arrested and hounded. While both judges have repeatedly stated that they were the sole organisers and funders of the meeting, a first information report (FIR) filed by a Pune businessman alleged that the Parishad was the cause of the violence that occurred at Bhima-Koregaon on January 1, 2018. Some of the civil rights activists who participated in the Parishad were arrested on the grounds that they belonged to outlawed Maoist groups and were part of a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both judges had, at the time, said that the only conspiracy was to silence any criticism of the state. Indeed, the subsequent persecution of the activists has only served to corroborate their statement, as has a recent United States-based forensic lab’s report that says that the “evidence” was planted in the laptops of the accused.

While talking to this correspondent in October 2019, Justice Sawant said: “…civil liberties are the foundation of democracy and an infringement even of one of them seriously affects the democratic functioning of society. Secondly, civil liberties also consist of inherent and inalienable rights of man. These rights are born with man, and in a democratic society they are the essential accoutrement of the citizen. They are not given by any statute, including the fundamental statute, the Constitution, and hence they cannot be taken away by any statute. That is why the right to life is not mentioned in our Constitution in specific terms and is assured, while imposing the restrictions on its deprivation in Article 21.”

Staunch critic of the BJP

A staunch and outspoken critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Justice Sawant made no bones about associating the party with the increasing clampdown on civil rights and freedom of speech. He said: “Instances of repression of civil rights have been galore since the Bharatiya Janata Party/Modi government came to power in 2014. …. some of these instances [are]… the abrogation of Article 370, including the clampdown on the media; the treatment of the Bhima Koregaon activists; the vindictiveness against the police officer Sanjiv Bhatt; the… Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act amendment; and the action against [former] Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa. In addition, mob lynching and the persecution of Dalits and members of religious minority communities have to be strongly emphasised. There are many such instances which are not reported in the media taking place almost every day in all corners of the country. The other prominent instances are the murders of Judge B.H. Loya and Haren Pandya, the Sohrabuddin encounter, the Malegaon bomb blast conspiracy where Lieutenant Colonel Prasad Purohit and Sadhvi Pragya Thakur are the accused. It is interesting to note that Amit Shah, who was one of the accused in the Sohrabuddin encounter case, is the president of the ruling party and now the Home Minister…

“We should not be surprised by these developments. This government does not accept our Constitution and they have, from time to time, made it clear, including in their manifesto, that they want to change the same. They are against democracy, secularism and socialism. Their avowed objective is to establish a dictatorship, a Hindu Rashtra, in this country and give free rein to the free market economy. In pursuance of this objective, they have already made inroads into key institutions of governance and have even been trying to control the judiciary by various ways, including interference in judicial appointments. The media are infiltrated by the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] gentry and are also repressed by controlling the owners of both print and electronic media. The critics of this regime are trolled, the opposition is sought to be silenced, and even independent writers, speakers and social activists are sought to be subdued. Untruth, false propaganda, illusions and manufactured events are being used as weapons for misguiding and fooling the people. These are all the trappings of a fascist regime, to which the country has been treated since the inception of the present regime.”

Justice Sawant linked the suppression of civil liberties with capitalism and corporatocracy. He said: “At present only eight families rule the economy of the world. This is the natural culmination of capitalism into monopoly capitalism. These families not only dictate economic politics but also interfere in the political, social and cultural life of every country in order to strengthen their economic hold over the world. In the past, we had imperialism which tried to colonise the world by grabbing territories and ruling them. Today we have its new incarnation, economic imperialism, which is imperceptible but more deadly. There is not a single country where corporatocracy does not rule. Hence, peace, the environment and justice are threatened all over the world. The trade war and the competition to capture markets, the hunger for more and more profits by any means, including the destruction and pollution of the environment, global warming and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few to the detriment of almost 99 per cent of the population, have become the prominent features of the present age. The growing stock of all sorts of weapons of mass destruction, the threats given by the holders of nuclear weapons from time to time and the suppression of liberties of the citizens who protest against these developments have become the signature mark of the present world.”

Justice Sawant memorably told Frontline in 2019: “The present government and the ruling party [i.e., the BJP] do not believe in democracy and their entire objective is to have a dictatorship. That is also clear from the fact that they believe in Manusmriti and not in our Constitution. They, even today, swear by Chaturvarnya and the caste system. These are the portents of the future.” National events that have snowballed since then have proved that Justice Sawant correctly read the pulse of current politics and what is yet to come..

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