RAJINDER SACHAR

Tireless crusader

Print edition : May 25, 2018

HE fought so many battles, and for so long, that his life itself became a war. Yet when Justice Rajinder Sachar breathed one last time at the age of 94, he left behind a lingering feeling that he was needed to fight one more round. Such was his prowess, so strong was his arsenal, so undaunted was his spirit. He backed up the sharp eye of a legal eagle with the spine of a true warrior to enable various sections of India and Indians stand on their feet. For many he was a beacon of hope, for the entire country he was an irreplaceable asset.

From refusing to kow-tow to Indira Gandhi’s dictates during the Emergency in 1975 to fighting for Mumbai slum dwellers’ housing rights in 2000 to heading what came to be called the Sachar Committee, which looked into the socio-economic marginalisation of India’s largest minority and submitted its report in 2006, Justice Sachar never shied away from a battle, whatever the consequences. Thus, when he lost the battle for life on April 20, the unanimous opinion was that in these dark times, with challenges confronting Muslims, Christians and Dalits, his was the comforting shoulder the nation needed. But that was not to be.

However, much before he breathed his last at Fortis Hospital in New Delhi following a bout of pneumonia, Justice Sachar had ensured that the lives of those affected by his judgments and his many battles would be that much better. Until the end, he was a fearless crusader. After Narendra Modi’s epic victory in 2014, many retired judges, bureaucrats, cricketers, film stars and authors started singing paeans to him. They stopped short of calling him an avatar. Gradually, the nation slipped into “Hail Modi or Quit India” syndrome, as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders were wont to periodically remind their opponents. Justice Sachar, though, stood up to be counted. Refusing to play the courtier, he pointed out that the ruling dispensation had feet of clay and ugly pockmarks. Just last year, when the Hindutva hardliner Yogi Adityanath was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, he pulled no punches in criticising the decision. While less sharp people called Modi the only face of the BJP, Justice Sachar made bold to state that Modi was not the only face. Rather, he was only the face of an ugly, hate-filled narrative of Hindutva fuelled from Nagpur.

Fearlessly taking on the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), he went back to Gujarat and wondered how Narendra Modi, post-2002 riots, was suddenly touted as a development man. The reality was that Modi enjoyed corporate backing and cared not to say a word about Muslims languishing in relief camps years after their dwellings were set on fire when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Justice Sachar saw in Adityanath a replay of history. A hate purveyor was once again occupying centre stage.

All through his long and enviably distinguished legal career—he fought his first case in 1952 in Shimla where he enrolled as an advocate before moving to the Supreme Court in 1960—Justice Sachar had the ability to call a spade a spade. When the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government headed by Manmohan Singh appointed him in 2005 to head of a committee to examine the socio-economic and educational status of Muslims in India, he came up with an exhaustive 403-page report, which was submitted to Parliament in November 2006. Without prevaricating, Justice Sachar went for the jugular. According to the report his committee submitted, there was greater backwardness among Muslims than even the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. They lagged in education, and their representation in the administrative services and the police was abysmally low. With one report, he took the sting out of the BJP’s claims of appeasement of Muslims and instead showed the minority community to be the most deserving of affirmative action by the state.

All this did not endear him to the BJP-led government that came to power in 2014. However, he was not silenced. A little before Modi became the Prime Minister, his government in Gujarat had questioned the Sachar Committee’s legal standing. The Gujarat government in 2013 had termed the minority scholarship scheme of the Centre as arbitrary and discriminatory, submitting before the Supreme Court that the Sachar Committee was unconstitutional and its target was to help Muslims only. The mask was off.

The affidavit stated: “The Sachar Committee is neither constitutional nor statutory. It has not taken into consideration other religious minorities, that is, the Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and Parsis. Therefore, it cannot form the basis of the scheme.” Justice Sachar stood his ground. If Dalits could be helped, he asked, why could the same yardstick not be used for poor Muslims? “Like any other community, Muslims are citizens of this country. There is an urgent need for an equality commission. Muslims have been part of this country for centuries, large numbers of Muslims have converted in the past for different reasons,” he argued.

“Swami Vivekananda said the Muslims converted because they were in the worst conditions. Hindus and Muslims coming together, Vivekananda said, is the only remedy for India.” In reminding the nation about Vivekananda’s sentiments on Muslims, he struck a blow for a secular, pluralist ethos of the country, one that took everyone along. And he said it much before “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” was reduced to a catchy slogan by the Modi government at the Centre.

Early evidence of uprightness

Justice Sachar had his duels, he had his skirmishes, but he never quit. Back in 1975, he gave early evidence of this trait. He served as the Acting Chief Justice of the Sikkim High Court from May 1975 to May 1976. Then, without his consent, he was made a judge of the Rajasthan High Court. He refused to do the government’s bidding at a time when all powers were centralised in the hands of the Prime Minister. He won his battle after the Emergency was revoked: he was appointed to the Delhi High Court in July 1977. He rose to be the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court in 1985.

Those surprised by his defiance during the Emergency had probably not been keeping a tab on the growth of the advocate who started his career in Shimla and soon hit the headlines with his penchant for the truth. Back in 1963, when a breakaway group of Congress legislators formed the Prajatantra Party, he helped this group prepare serious corruption charges against Pratap Singh Kairon, who was the Chief Minister of Punjab. A year later, Justice Sudhi Ranjan Das found the Chief Minister guilty on eight counts; Sachar had helped notch up a significant victory in the fight against corruption.

Justice Sachar also faced a significant defeat in his career as a judge in Delhi, one from which he never entirely recovered. It was in 1984 in Delhi that Justice Sachar issued a notice to the police following a writ petition filed by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) on the basis of evidence of the anti-Sikh riot victims. He asked for first information reports (FIRs) to be registered against those named in the affidavit. However, in the next hearing, the case was transferred to two other judges, who dismissed the petition. It left Justice Sachar distraught. It was a rare defeat he could never come to terms with, for it did not mean defeat of Sachar the Justice, but Sachar the person, a person who stood up for the deprived, the displaced, the dispossessed.

It was this sentiment for speaking up for the voiceless that was to be the abiding feature of his life post-retirement. While most judges prefer to soak in the mellow sunshine of the autumn of life, Justice Sachar knew no full stops; for him no fight was final, no issue worth neglecting. In fact, after retirement, he went on to carve out for himself the identity of a persevering crusader for human rights.

He was happy to associate with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and his was the opinion first sought by the media when it came to the alleged brutalities of the police or the Army. His was the opinion sought when it came to any issue concerning Muslims. He was sought out, too, when public discourse veered around the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. And not many forgot his fight for the housing rights of Kenyans when he was a United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. So loved was Justice Sachar that most organisers were happy to reschedule their seminars, their meets, and their protests to suit his availability. After all, his was the voice that rose above the din. And if there was a voice that refused to reiterate the popular sentiment, choosing instead to speak the truth, you could be certain it was Justice Rajinder Sachar’s.

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