Prafullachandra Bhagwati
17th Chief Justice of India
In office
12 July 1985 – 20 December 1986
Appointed byGiani Zail Singh
Preceded byY. V. Chandrachud
Succeeded byR. S. Pathak
Governor of Gujarat (acting)
In office
17 March 1973 – 4 April 1973
Preceded byShriman Narayan
Succeeded byK. K. Viswanathan
Chief Justice, Gujarat High Court
In office
16 August 1967 – 17 July 1973
Governor of Gujarat (acting)
In office
7 December 1967 – 26 December 1967
Preceded byNityanand Kanungo
Succeeded byShriman Narayan
Personal details
Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati

(1921-12-21)21 December 1921
Ahmedabad,[1] Bombay Presidency, British India
Died15 June 2017(2017-06-15) (aged 95)
New Delhi, India
SpousePrabhavati Shethji
RelativesJagdish Bhagwati (brother)
Padma Desai (sister-in-law)
Shardul S. Shroff (son-in-law)
Alma materBombay University, Government Law College, Bombay

Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati (21 December 1921 – 15 June 2017) was the 17th Chief Justice of India, serving from 12 July 1985 until his retirement on 20 December 1986. He introduced the concepts of public interest litigation and absolute liability in India, and for this reason is held, along with Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, to be a pioneer of judicial activism in the country. He is the longest-served supreme court judge (including Chief Justice to tenure) in India.

Early and personal life

P. N. Bhagwati was born in Gujarat. His father was Justice Natwarlal H. Bhagwati, a Supreme Court judge.[2] He was the elder brother of the economist Jagdish Bhagwati and the neurosurgeon/president of the Neurological Society of India S. N. Bhagwati - father of economist Ketki Bhagwati.[3] He was married to Prabhavati (née Shethji) and the couple have three daughters, Parul, Pallavi, and Sonali.[4] Pallavi is currently the managing partner of leading Indian law firm Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co and is married to Shardul S. Shroff. Bhagwati was a devotee of the popular Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba, and was also a member of Sathya Sai Trust till his death.

Bhagwati received his education in Mumbai. He studied at Elphinstone College, taking a Mathematics (Hons.) degree from Bombay University in 1941. In 1942, he courted arrest during the Indian Independence Movement and went underground for four months. He later received a law degree from Bombay University after studying at Government Law College, Bombay.[4]


Bhagwati began his career practicing at the Bombay High Court.[4] In July 1960, he was appointed a judge of the Gujarat High Court. In September 1967, he was appointed the Chief Justice of that court. On two occasions, he acted temporarily as Governor of Gujarat (7 December 1967 to 25 December 1967 and 17 March 1973 to 3 April 1973).[5] In July 1973, he was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court of India. In August 1985, he became Chief Justice of India.

As a supreme court judge, Bhagwati introduced the concepts of public interest litigation and absolute liability to the Indian judicial system. He is therefore held, along with Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, to have pioneered judicial activism in the country.[6][7]

Chief Justice Bhagwati had an expansive view of the judicial role, saying in an interview that "I practically rewrote Part III and Part IV of the Constitution. I moulded the law. I still remember those days. It was a thrilling experience."[8]

In 2007 Bhagwati was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in public affairs, India's second highest civilian award.[9]


Habeas corpus case controversy

A controversial judgement of Bhagwati was in the ADM Jabalpur v. Shivkant Shukla case (popularly referred to as the ADM Jabalpur case or the habeas corpus case) where he decreed that during the Emergency of 1975 to 1977, a person's right to not be unlawfully detained (i.e. habeas corpus) can be suspended. This judgement received a lot of criticism since it reduced the importance attached to Fundamental Rights under the Indian Constitution. Going against the previous decision of High Courts, the bench which included Bhagwati concluded in favour of the then Indira Gandhi government while only Justice Hans Raj Khanna was opposed to it. Bhagwati openly praised Indira Gandhi during the Emergency period, later criticized her when Janata Party-led government was formed, and again backed Gandhi when she got re-elected to form government in 1980. Bhagwati was criticized for these change of stands, favouring the ruling government, which were deemed as to have been taken to better his career prospects.[10] Bhagwati later in 2011 agreed with popular opinion that this judgement was short-sighted and "apologised".[11][10]

Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India

Maneka Gandhi was requested, through an official letter from the Regional Passport Officer, Delhi on 2 July 1977 to return her passport within seven days "in public interest" under section 10(3) of The Passports Act (1967). Gandhi, who had been issued Indian passport on 1 June 1976, in return asked the office to give a statement of reason in accordance with section 10(5) to which the office replied that "in the interest of general public" the Government had decided to not furnish any such statement further. Under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which deals with Right to Freedom, Gandhi filed a writ petition in which Bhagwati and Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer ruled in favour of Gandhi.[12][13]

Other activities

In 1982, Bhagwati was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences while being affiliated with the Columbia University.[14] He had been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee from 1995 to 2009, being re-elected after every two years on expiry of his term.[15] He was also chairman of the committee in 2001-03.[16] As of 2006, he had also served as a member of the Committee of Experts of the International Labour Organization for over 27 years.[17] He was appointed Chancellor of Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning on 6 May 2011.[18]


Justice Bhagwati died on 15 June 2017 at the age of 95 after a brief illness at his home in New Delhi. His funeral was held on 17 June.[19] Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled his death, calling him "stalwart of India's legal fraternity".[20]


  1. ^ Who's who in India 1986, Guide Publications, p. 57
  2. ^ "Hon'ble Mr. Justice Natwarlal Harilal Bhagwati". Supreme Court of India. 2014. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  3. ^ Sumit Mitra (15 August 1985). "Age of activism". India Today. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  4. ^ a b c "Judges Biography: P. N. Bhagwati". Supreme Court of India. Archived from the original on 10 May 2012. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  5. ^ "Information about the tenure of the Governors of Gujarat". Raj Bhavan (Gujarat) (Govt. of Gujarat). Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  6. ^ "P.N. Bhagwati on the role of judicial activism". 6 March 1996. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  7. ^ "Starting the PIL revolution". 26 January 2010. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  8. ^ Justice P.N. Bhagwati - Interview with, retrieved 15 February 2023
  9. ^ "Padma Awards Directory (1954-2007)" (PDF). Ministry of Home Affairs. Retrieved 7 December 2010.
  10. ^ a b Jayan, Shanmugham D; Sudheesh, Raghul (16 September 2011). "A Chief Justice of India says "I am sorry" but 30 years too late". First Post. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  11. ^ "Interview with Justice Bhagwati (2011)". Video on
  12. ^ Iyear, Krishna; Swamy, Krishna (2004). V.R. Krishna Iyer - A Living Legend. Universal Law Publishing. p. 190. ISBN 9788175341586. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  13. ^ Girja Kumar (2009). Censorship in India: Studies in Fundamentalism, Obscenity, and Law. Har Anand Publications. p. 254. ISBN 9788124114148. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  14. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 25 June 2011.
  15. ^ "United Nations Human Rights Committee Members (1977-2014)" (PDF). United Nations Human Rights Committee. 2014. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  16. ^ "United Nations Human Rights Committee Members of Bureau (1977-2014)" (PDF). United Nations Human Rights Committee. 2014. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  17. ^ "Justice PN Bhagwati re-elected to UN human rights committee". Daily News and Analysis. 10 September 2006. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  18. ^ "Press statement released by Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Prasanthi Nilayam". Sri Sathya Sai Media Foundation. 6 May 2011. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  19. ^ "PN Bhagwati, former Chief Justice of India, dies at 95 after brief illness". Hindustan Times. 15 June 2017. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  20. ^ "PM Narendra Modi condoles death of former CJI P.N. Bhagwati". Economic Times. 16 June 2017. Retrieved 16 June 2017.