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M.C. Bhandari Memorial Lecture Public Interest Litigation Vis-a-vis Human Rights
by Justice Arijit Pasayat*

Cite as : (2001) 7 SCC (Jour) 11

My Lord the Hon'ble Chief Justice of India, Dr Justice A.S. Anand, my esteemed Brother Justice A.R. Lakshmanan, respected sitting and retired Judges of the Rajasthan High Court, Dr L.M. Singhvi, Shri Muralidhar Purohit, my dear Brother Justice Dalveer Bhandari and other members of his family, learned Members of the Bar and Judicial Officers present, ladies and gentlemen.

I deem it a great honour to be amidst you to be a part of this function. The decision of relations, friends and admirers of the late Shri Mahaveer Chand Bhandari to commemorate his memory by organising a series of memorial lectures is indeed a real tribute to a person who symbolised a true lawyer. What I have heard and read about the late Shri Bhandari makes me believe that he can be described as Guru Dronacharya of the Rajasthan judicial family. I am happy that the topic chosen is of contemporary social relevance i.e. PUBLIC INTEREST LITIGATION VIS-A-VIS HUMAN RIGHTS.

Human rights are those minimal rights, which every individual must have against the State or other public authority by virtue of his being a member of the human family, irrespective of any other consideration. The concept of human rights embodies the minimum rights of an individual versus his own State and it is as old as political philosophy. Human rights are those rights which are inherent in nature and without which one cannot live as a human being.

The first documentary use of the expression "human rights" is found in the Charter of the United Nations, which was adopted after the Second World War at San Francisco on 25-6-1945 and was later ratified by the majority of its signatories in October that year. The Preamble of the Charter declared its object "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights". The first concrete step of formulating various human rights was taken by the United Nations General Assembly by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Public interest litigation in the true sense of its term is integrally linked with protection of human rights. By several landmark judgments, this aspect has been highlighted by the Apex Court and several High Courts. Public interest lawyers have done a lot of good in certain areas of human rights jurisprudence. They have demonstrated that the common man can raise voice, impress, and when the need arises, fight against wrongful political and executive actions. The resultant effect that emerged is that destitutes got the benefits to which they are entitled.

In Sniadach v. Family Finance Corpn.1 public interest lawyers of the United States were responsible for a Supreme Court verdict, which invalidated all State laws throughout the country that permitted garnishment of wages before an official hearing. Human rights jurisprudence can get a boost on account of affirmative action. Following the American Supreme Court decision in Munn v. People of Illinois2 the Apex Court of our country held in Kharak Singh v. State of U.P.3 that "life" means more than mere animal existence.

In Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity v. State of W.B.4 the Apex Court recognized the need for providing medical treatment to a person. Denial of such treatment, it was held, results in violation of "right to life" guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In Bodhisattwa Gautam v. Subhra Chakraborty5 the Supreme Court awarded an interim compensation of Rs 1000 per month to the victim of rape. The logic behind this order appears to be that the complainant's most cherished fundamental right to live with human dignity is violated by the accused. Every human being is a divine being entitled to dignity, liberty, equality and other basic rights.

"Personal liberty" in Article 21 of the Constitution was a compendious term encompassing all the varieties of life, which go to make up the personal liberty of man except those mentioned in Article 19(1) of the Constitution, which deals with particular species or attributes of that freedom.

Public interest petition, when filed bona fide, not seeking publicity, not seeking political vendetta, not for personal gains is always welcome. PIL should only stand for public interest litigation. It should not be publicity interest litigation, or, private interest litigation, or, politics interest litigation, or, paisa income litigation. Unfortunately, it is being misutilised for oblique purposes like, blackmail or harassment. Real public interest litigation is a saviour in many cases. Such litigation has done well-recognized work in certain areas of human rights jurisprudence such as civil rights, poverty, environmental law, women's rights, child exploitation and mental health care, though in some areas like product safety, compulsory education, etc., it seems to be lagging behind.

In an epoch-making judgment, the Apex Court in Nilabati Behera v. State of Orissa6 said: (SCC p. 762)

" 'A claim in public law for compensation' for contravention of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the protection of which is guaranteed in the Constitution, is an acknowledged remedy for enforcement and protection of such rights...."

In another landmark judgment D.K. Basu v. State of W.B.7 another abominable violation of human rights i.e. "torture" was highlighted. It was observed: (SCC p. 424, para 10)

" 'Torture' of a human being by another human being is essentially an instrument to impose the will of the 'strong' over the 'weak'.... 'Torture is a wound in the soul so painful that sometimes you can almost touch it, but it is also so intangible that there is no way to heal it. ... 'Torture' is despair and fear and rage and hate. It is a desire to kill and destroy including yourself.' "

D.K. Basu case 7 is a classic example of unique interdependence between human right and public interest litigation. Compassion for all creation, particularly human fellow-beings, said an eminent jurist, finds its finest hour only when the last and the least person is liberated.

*   Chief Justice of Delhi High Court. Lecture delivered at Jodhpur on 25-8-2001 Return to Text

  1. 395 US 337 : 23 L Ed 2d 349 (1969) Return to Text
  2. 94 US 113 : 24 L Ed 77 (1877) Return to Text
  3. AIR 1963 SC 1295 : (1963) 2 Cri LJ 329 Return to Text
  4. (1996) 4 SCC 37 Return to Text
  5. (1996) 1 SCC 490 : 1996 SCC (Cri) 133 Return to Text
  6. (1993) 2 SCC 746 : 1993 SCC (Cri) 527 Return to Text
  7. (1997) 1 SCC 416 : 1997 SCC (Cri) 92 Return to Text
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