Among the most prominent justices from the Supreme Court who were involved in the politics of social justice before their elevation to the bench, two names come to mind. Justice P B Sawant is one of them. The other is Justice V R Krishna Iyer. Justice Sawant was active in the land and peasants’ movement even when he was a student of law. This unwavering clarity and commitment to deepening democracy at the grassroots was a passion for this jurist and also led him to be recognised for verdicts of depth and calibre. Be it the Mandal verdict or the famed S R Bommai judgment — these ironically could be counted among the least cited verdicts of the highest court in the land — both displayed an understanding of Indian state and society that was real and rooted.
Arguably, this clear vision and orientation may have actually hindered his appointment, in the first instance, to the Supreme Court in the mid-1980s, despite a dozen years at the Bombay High Court as a judge. After retirement in 1995, he focused on dissecting the corrosive reality of caste in Indian society, state and governance structures and politics.
Justice Sawant was a long-time associate of Pune-based Baba Adhav, known for organising Hamal panchayats and for the Ek Gaon Ek Kuan (one village, one well) movement and the president of the Mahatma Phule Samata Pratishthan. He would attend several conventions of BAMCEF over the years. As chairperson of the Press Council of India, his erudition and understanding of power, autonomy, independence and media were reflected in the reports he prepared. These restricted the publication of exit polls till the last vote was cast and cautioned against the corporate ownership of the media. All these concerns and more are evident in his 2013 book, The Grammar of Democracy. He told me that “as long as we do not ensure every person’s right to contest an election, we cannot say that we have a truly representative democracy”. The book urges that attention is paid to proportionate representation, smaller electoral constituencies for greater accountability and a re-haul of the election machinery.
He had a rare and unique understanding of the concept of secularism. A nine-member bench had delivered the verdict in S R Bommai. The part of the verdict Justice Sawant authored for himself and Justice Kuldip Singh offers a crucial insight into India’s constitutional federal structure and Indian secularism. In Para 148, they write: “One thing which prominently emerges from the above discussion on secularism under our Constitution is that whatever the attitude of the State towards the religions, religious sects and denominations, religion cannot be mixed with any secular activity of the State. In fact, the encroachment of religion into secular activities is strictly prohibited. This is evident from the provisions of the Constitution to which we have made reference above. The State’s tolerance of religion or religions does not make it either a religious or a theocratic State. When the State allows citizens to practise and profess their religions, it does not either explicitly or implicitly allow them to introduce religion into non-religious and secular activities of the State… This is also clear from sub-section (3) of Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 which prohibits an appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any other person with the consent of the candidate or his election agent to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion, race, caste, community or language or the use of or appeal to religious symbols. Subsection (3-A) of the same section prohibits the promotion or attempt to promote feelings of enmity and hatred between different classes of the citizens of India on the grounds of religion, race, caste, community or language by a candidate or his agent or any other person with the consent of the candidate or his election agent for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate. A breach of the provisions of the said sub-sections (3) and (3-A) are deemed to be corrupt practices within the meaning of the said section.”
I have often wondered why this crucial verdict from India’s constitutional court is not cited or relied upon more often. Not content with this judicial pronouncement delivered on March 11, 1994, Justice Sawant personally authored Secularism and the Constitution, a concluding chapter to the Concerned Citizens Tribunal Report, Crimes against Humanity, Gujarat 2002. This 4,500-word essay written 19 years ago traces the roots of Indian diversity, pluralism and secularism to centuries’-old battles between the shramans who fought for equality and against discrimination by the Brahmans. To those who say that justice, equality and non-discrimination are “foreign” concepts, Justice Sawant would say: “Know, learn and read our own history.”
At about 9.30 am on February 15, this man of gentle and quiet demeanour, packed with formidable political and moral courage, left us. For his wife, sons, daughters, daughter-in-law, sons-in-law and grandchildren, the loss is deeply personal. For those of us in the social justice movement, the gaping void is hard to fill. For men and women of stature and position who unflinchingly speak truth to power are not just rare but impossible to find. Adieu and salute, Sir.
The author is secretary, Citizens for Justice and Peace and co-editor, Sabrangindia.in