Justice Sachar: The ‘Cycling Judge sahab’ and human rights stalwart

Justice Sachar is remembered for his committee’s report on the condition of Muslims in India, but he was much more than that

Getty images
Getty images

Kavita Srivastava

The image of Justice Sachar in the city of Jodhpur, where he was a judge of the Rajasthan High court, was that of the cycling judge. Five feet tall, stylishly dressed in a sherwani, chudidar and a topi, he moved around the city on a bicycle. He also cycled to the High Court in his work clothes almost every day. That was way back in 1976- 1977 when he got the name of the Cycling Judge Sahab. His ways were very uncharacteristic of feudal Rajasthan, recalled the late senior counsel Marudhar Mridul when we were in Jodhpur trying to revive PUCL in Rajasthan in 1997. He was a true socialist even when he was a judge and was not allured by the glamour and charm of being a high and mighty judge sahab.

Before he came to Rajasthan, Justice Sachar had the privilege of being the first judge (the acting Chief Justice) of the Sikkim High Court in May 1975 soon after the accession of Sikkim. It was at this time that Emergency was imposed. He shared with us a story about a flight that he would never forget. He said that he was flying back to Gangtok from New Delhi in the early hours of June 26 when he heard from his fellow passenger, West Bengal Chief Minister Siddharth Shanker Ray, that Emergency has been imposed since the middle of the night and that the President has signed the ordinance. It was unbelievable that such a severe and drastic step could be taken by the Prime Minister, he said. But what subsequently followed was unimaginable. Since newspapers were then available twice a week in Gangtok, and that severely censored, he did not get to know about the arrest of his own father, Bhim Sen Sachar, the former Chief Minister of Punjab.

A delegation of eminent people led by Bhim Sen Sachar had met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stating their opposition to the throttling of dissent, mass arrests of leaders and the gagging of the media. Justice Sachar told us that he later learnt that the delegation led by his father had had a very polite conversation with the Prime Minister but that soon after, he was picked up from home and thrown into the jail. Interestingly, he was sent to the same jail in Ambala which he had inaugurated as the Chief Minister. Justice Sachar says that a couple of days after his father’s arrest, he learnt from his young son over the phone that Dadaji had been taken away by the police. It had taken them two days to get in touch with him. Such were the trunk call lines of yesteryears. He then flew out of Sikkim, reached Delhi and subsequently went to Ambala. He stopped the guards from saluting as he said he was on a private visit to meet his father who had been imprisoned. His father told him that as a judge he must do his duty and uphold the Constitution in everything he did.

His own brother-in-law and famous editor Kuldip Nayar was also thrown into the jail. When Justice Sachar’s wife passed away, we had gone over to grieve his loss. It was then he told us that Kuldip Nayar had married his sister and his wife was Kuldip Nayar’s sister. It was a Watta Satta wedding (simultaneous marriage between two pairs of brothers and sisters, a very common practice in Afghanistan, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat).

When PUCL members and the organisation was attacked in the name of Maoism and Dr Binayak Sen, Ajay TG and Seema Azad were incarcerated on false charges, he wrote several letters and participated in our protests. 

Justice Sachar got transferred to the Delhi High Court in June 1976. He rose to become the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court.

Post the genocide of Sikhs, an application for fair investigation and arrest of the accused by PUDR came up in front. Justice Sachars’ court in December 1984. He issued notices, but before he could pass orders the bench was changed. This was one of the reasons perhaps that the Government did not elevate him in 1985 to the Supreme Court and he ended up retiring soon after.

The gain was ours.

After retirement in 1985, he joined PUCL and he took over the reigns of the PUCL as president for two terms from 1987 to 1991. PUCL was his platform for articulation on human rights issues till he died. There was rarely an occasion when he missed a meeting. From planning details of fact finding missions to elections of the office bearers, he was an active member.

One of his last meetings was the PUCL executive meeting in Jaipur last year, on July 1 and 2. Despite his age, he moved around independently. He had stayed at the Marriott Hotel. When we went to pick him up to take him to the airport, an entourage of hotel staff stood to see him off. He paid his bill by card which impressed us a lot. I do not have a card. I asked him whether he had difficulties in remembering the pin number. He said he had a tall memory being a young 94 year old. He was pleased that he had been well looked after. I asked the hotel staff whether they feared that a guest so old was staying by himself. They said they had provided all the help Justice Sachar needed. He generously tipped so many people right till the exit gate that we understood why they loved him.

Justice Sachar is best known since 2005 for the Sachar Committee that examined the socio-economic conditions of Muslims in India. He always corrected all on the use of the term Sachar Committee, saying that it was a team of seven that did the work. I met him frequently during the year 2005- 2006 at his office on Sansad Marg circle. Out of the 20 months that the committee sat in that office, he must have travelled for at least 200 days, covering one state after another. The report was out promptly without any extension. On the last day, I had gone to collect my signed copy from the great man. He told me that he hated when commissions sat, seeking endless extensions. He was very pleased that the team was able to keep time. The report was the first its kind. A bench mark, a policy document which mapped for the first time the declining socio-economic condition of the Muslims and the structures of discrimination. Even today, it remains a very significant document. His lament was that the UPA government did not set up the Equal Opportunities Commission although the committee had put a lot of hard work into the same.

His fight against sectarianism and communalism was amazing. He almost emerged as a messiah. Wherever he would go, the community of secular people, and we are proud of being called that, would reach his hotel, well in advance. I saw this with my own eyes in Raipur, Jaipur, Lucknow, Ajmer, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Bhopal and Hyderabad where I had the opportunity to be with him. The profiling of Muslims as terrorists was something which affected the community and deeply injured its body and soul. They came to talk to Sachar Sahab as to how they could prevent this kind of profiling. During the 2017 visit to Jaipur, he wanted to understand directly from the Muslim community what they were going through due to the spate of killings in the name of gau raksha, the constant hate speeches against Muslims and their political marginalisation. It came as a shock to him when most of the middle class, as well business class Muslims who had gathered for the meeting shared the sense of deep injury to their soul as they were on their way to becoming completely disenfranchised as citizens. He immediately shared his idea of an inter-community dialogue as most Hindus were not a part of the hate project. He felt that they must know what Muslims were going through and we could not allow the Hindutva politics to tear the social fabric of inter-community trust in this fashion.

When PUCL members and the organisation was attacked in the name of Maoism and Dr Binayak Sen, Ajay TG, Seema Azad and others were incarcerated on false charges, he wrote several letters and participated in our protests. As recently as last year, he was extremely pained that Saibaba had been convicted and had been subjected to inhuman treatment during his incarceration. He wrote many letters for his release. Even during Singur and Nandigram, he wrote to the then CPI(M) government in West Bengal. He was in full support of the people’s movement in Bhangor against the power grid. An ardent supporter of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and the National Alliance People’s Movement (NAPM), he would always go the proverbial extra mile to support its cause. He also participated in the protests organised by the Right to Food Campaign and he said that he was shocked that our country had not resolved the question of hunger and malnutrition in 70 years of our existence, an agenda that the nation, when it came into being, ought to have had as its priority. He always contributed to people’s struggles.

He was also always ready to shoot off letters for any cause of justice, despite being in and out of the hospital. One of his last cases in the Supreme Court were his arguments in the Rajbala Vs Government of Haryana and Government of India case in which he expressed shock at the exclusionist policy for contesting elections in Panchayati Raj Institutions. While the Supreme Court put its stamp on the exclusionist policy, Justice Sachar was not giving up. He told us that he would also argue against the Rajasthan law, once it came up for hearing.

Around eight years ago in 2010, he was the person behind the revival of the Socialist Party of Ram Manohar Lohia and Jai Prakash Narayan. I frequently pulled his leg that he was becoming politically ambitious as an octogenarian and at such a late stage in his life. Far from being a self-promotional exercise, it was clearly about the revival of a platform with other diehard socialists with an understanding that socialism had disappeared from most parties who called themselves the followers of Lohia and had instead become hackneyed mainstream parties with no agenda for social justice. As stated clearly in the first press release put out in 2010, the Socialist Party of India was launched with the objective to fight the neo-colonial Indian economy, polity and culture in order to establish a socialist order. He travelled the length and breadth of the country rebuilding this party. He was active with the idea till the end.

One of the issues closest to his heart was peace between India and Pakistan. He was always interested in platforms that came forward for this purpose. For several years, the midnight of August 14 and 15 would see both Kuldip Nayar and Justice Sachar light candles on the Wagah border with their Pakistani friends on the other side. He always appreciated our efforts in Rajasthan which has been working consistently on the release of Pakistani prisoners in Rajasthan’s jails and the release of Indian prisoners, particularly from Rajasthan, from the jails in Pakistan.

In PUCL, we would disagree vehemently with Justice Sachar. But his affection remained unchanged; he never held it against us. I could present a long list of our disagreements and arguments. One such issue was regarding the right to self-determination of the Kashmiri people. He told me that he was willing to fight against every atrocity, bullet, pellet, arrest but the right to self-determination was difficult for him to accept. He said he had had several discussions with a diversity of politicians including former CM Sheikh Abdullah, Human rights thinkers like Balraj Puri and other stalwart lawyers in Kashmir including the present president of the bar in Srinagar who was arrested in the early 90’s, when PUCL went several times to the Valley. Justice Tarkunde had accompanied PUCL on a few of these visits. Justice Sachar said that he could only think of solutions within the Union of India framework. He said that his position was going back to all that was promised to the Kashmiris by the Union of India at the time of accession. But an argument for an independent Kashmir was difficult for him to accept. We told him that at least we needed to discuss these diverse positions within PUCL which he agreed to much later. He could not come to the meeting organised in November, 2017 for this purpose and his absence was deeply felt.

One of my last meetings with him was when the members of the Punjab Documentation and Advocacy (PDA) group, which brought to the fore evidence of the disappearance of more than 8000 Sikhs in Punjab between 1987 and 1993, wanted him to support the exercise. He was very forthcoming. But he also shared his concerns about the obstructions in the trial of some of the cases that were underway despite the SC having monitored the investigations. He wanted to talk to the lawyer in the High court who was dealing with the challenge to the trial. But the lawyer was not available. He told us that he would speak to him and get back to us. He said he wanted to support the PDA in its present exercise but also wanted to strategise on the ongoing cases. It was important to get convictions in the ongoing cases, he maintained.

This was a meeting that took place in his house. Meeting him at his house was always special. Apart from the variety of snacks that we were fed, it was always a pleasure to meet his daughter Madhavi who took great care of him and his grandson, a budding writer which made his grandfather so proud of him.

The year 2018 saw him being frequently hospitalised. I too was busy with my own hospital duties towards Neelabh, his sad demise and the bereavement process thereafter. I regret not visiting Justice Sachar. I procrastinated and unfortunately, time does not wait for anyone. The grand old man, the cycling judge, the stalwart human rights jurist, the secularist, the humanist, the peace activist, the socialist may have departed but will forever live on in our hearts.

Kavita Srivastava is PUCL’s national secretary.

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