Reminiscences: The Cycling Judge Sahab, the great human rights stalwart of South Asia, Justice Rajinder Sachar

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. 5 feet high, stylishly dressed in a sherwani or achkan and chudidar and a topi he moved around the city cycling. He also cycled almost on a daily basis in his formal court clothes to the High Court. 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 the 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 acession of Sikkim, the independent princely country in the east to the union of India. It was in this period that emergency was imposed. He shared with us a story about a flight that he could never forget.

He said that he was flying back to Gangtok from Delhi in the early hours of the 26th of June that he heard from a fellow passenger the CM of West Bengal Siddharth Shanker Ray that emergency had been imposed in country since the middle of the night and that the President had signed the ordinance. It was unbelievable, he said that such a severe and drastic step could be taken by the Prime Minister. But what subsequently followed was unimaginable.

Since the newspapers were available mostly twice a week in Gangtok, and that too with censorship, he did not get to know about the arrest of his own father, the famous Bhim Sen Sachar, the former chief minister of the Punjab. A delegation of eminent people led by Shri Bhim Sen Sachar, had met the Prime Minister Ms. Indira Gandhi, stating their opposition to the throttling of dissent, mass arrests of leaders and the gaging of the people and 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 soon after that he was picked up from home and thrown into the jail.

Interestingly he was sent to the same jail in Patiala which he had inaugurated as a 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 lines of yesteryears. He then flew out of Sikkim, reached Delhi and subsequently went to Patiala. 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, the famous journalist and editor Sh. Kuldip Nayar was also thrown into Jail. When Justice Sachar's wife passed away, we had gone to grieve the loss, when he told us that Kuldip Nayar sahab had married his sister and his own wife was Kuldip Nayar's sister. It was a Watta Satta wedding (simultaneous marriage between two pairs of brothers and sister a very common practice in Afghanistan, the Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat).

Getting back to the dark days of the emergency for Sachar sahab, it was a battle being fought by his family personally as well as politically. Justice Sachar in the middle of this got transferred to the Delhi High Court in June 1976.

He rose to become the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court. After retirement in 1985 he joined the PUCL and he took over the reigns of the PUCL as President for two terms from 1987 to 1991. The PUCL was his platform for Human Rights till he died. Rarely was an occasion when he missed a meeting. Was very active at all levels. From planning details of fact finding missions to elections of the office bearers.

One of his last meetings was the PUCL executive meeting in Jaipur last year, 2017, on the 1st and 2nd of July. Despite his age he moved around independently. He had stayed two nights at the Marriott Hotel. When we went to pick him up to drop him off at the airport an entourage of staff stood to see him off. He paid his bill by card, which impressed us a lot. Yours truly has no 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 very well looked after.

Curious, I asked them whether they feared that a guest so senior in age was living by himself. They said they had provided all the help Justice Sachar needed for his personal care. And of course as was Sachar Sahab's style, he generously tipped so many people right till the exit gate that we also understood why they loved him.

Sachar sahab was more than just of the PUCL. His most famous identity since 2005 was that of the Sachar committee, examining the Socio economic conditions of the Muslims in India. Although he always corrected the use of the term Sachar committee and said that it was a team of six members and him 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 traveled atleast 200 days covering State after state. 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 endlessly seeking extensions. He was very pleased that he and his team were 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 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 a lot of work had been.done by them as Sachar committee and given to the Government.

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 the hotel, well in advance to whichever meeting planned. I saw this with my own eyes in Raipur, Jaipur, Gujarat, 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, deeply injured it's body it's soul. They came to talk to Sachar sahab as to how they could prevent this 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 of becoming completely disenfranchised as citizens. He immediately shared his idea of why we should begin an inter community dialogue as most Hindus were not a part of the hate project, and 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 the PUCL members and the organisation was attacked in the name of Maoism and Dr. Binayak Sen, Ajay TG, Seema Azad and others were incarcerated against false charges, one after the other, he wrote several letters and participated in our protests. As recently as last year extremely pained that Saibaba had been convicted and had been subjected to inhuman treatment during his incarceration disturbed him and he wrote letters for his release. Even during Singur and Nandigram he wrote to the CPIM government. He was in full support of the people the movement in Bhangur against the power grid, that when the movement representatives came and met him he promised to do something.

An ardent supporter of the NBA and the NAPM, he would walk an extra mile to support it's 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 new nation when it came into being ought to have had as its priority. He always contributed to our struggles.

He was also always ready to shoot letters for any cause of justice. Despite going in and out of hospital. One of his last cases in the Supreme Court were his arguments in the Rajbala Vs GOH and GOI in which he expressed shocked at an exclusionist policy of education for elections in Panchayati Raj Institutions. While the SC put its stamp on the exclusionist policy. Justice Sachar was far from giving up. He told us that he would also argue against the Rajasthan law, once the SLP would come up for hearing.

‌Around 8 years ago in 2010 he was the moving 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, far from it being a self promotional exercise, it was clearly the revival of a platform with other diehard Socialists with the reality and an understanding that socialism had disappeared from most parties who called themselves the followers of Lohia. Instead had become hackneyed mainstream parties with no agenda for social justice. As stated clearly in the first press release put out in 2010 that the socialist party of India was being launched with the objective to fight the neo colonial Indian Economy, Polity and culture in order to establish a socialist order.

He traveled 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 up for this purpose. For several years together the midnight of 14th and 15th August would see both Kuldip Nagar and Justice Sachar, light candles on the Wagah border with the Pakistani friends with their candles on the other side. He always appreciated our work in Rajasthan which has been working consistently on the release of Pakistani prisoners in Rajasthan jails and simultaneously the release of Indian Prisoners particularly from Rajasthan from the jails in Pakistan.

In the 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 nineties, when the PUCL went several times to the valley including with Justice Tarkunde and he said that he could only think of solutions within the Union of India framework. He said that you can write that my position is going back to all that was promised to the Kashmiris by the UOI at the time of accession, complete autonomy, but an argument for an Independent Kashmir is difficult for me to accept, he said. We told him that atleast we needed to discuss these diverse positions within the PUCL, which much later he agreed to. 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 group which brought to the fore evidence of the disappearance of more than 8000 Sikhs in the Punjab between 1987 and 1993, wanted him to support the exercise. He was very forthcoming and talked about the PUCL FFT which he led as President of the PUCL to the Punjab. 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 in High Court. 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 PDAP in its present exercise but also wanted to strategise on the ongoing cases. It was important to get convictions in the ongoing cases.

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 Madhu who took great care of him, his grand son, who is a budding writer which made the grandfather so proud along with other family members who doted on him.

2018 saw him being frequently hospitalised. I too was busy with my own hospital duties towards Neelabh, his sad demise and the bereavement thereafter. I regret not looking up Justice Sachar. I procrastinated going and now regret as time doesnot 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 live in our hearts always.

A Timeline of Justice Sachar from the Delhi High Court website:

Justice Rajinder Sachar, LL.B - Born on 22.12.1923. Educated at D.A.V. High School, Lahore, Government College Lahore and Law College, Lahore. Enrolled as an Advocate on 22.4.1952 at Simla and on 8.12.1960 in 

Supreme Court. Practised on all types of civil, criminal and revenue cases. Appointed as Additional Judge of the Delhi High Court w.e.f. 12.2.1970 for a period of two years. Reappointed for two years w.e.f. 12.2.1972. Appointed permanent Judge of Delhi High Court w.e.f. 5.7.72. Appointed Acting Chief Justice of the Sikkim High Court with effect from 16-05-1975. Transferred to Rajasthan High Court as Judge with effect from 10-05-1976. Retransferred to Delhi High Court on 09-07-1977. Appointed Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court on 06-08-1985. Retired on 22.12.1985.

 

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Related Bulletin : May 2018