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Full Court Reference on the passing away of the Hon'ble Mr Justice Sabyasachi Mukharji,
Chief Justice of India on October 1, 1990

by Hon'ble Mr Justice Ranganath Misra, Acting Chief Justice of India

Cite as : (1990) 4 SCC (Jour) 1

We have gathered here this morning in a gloomy atmosphere to pay homage to our departed Chief Justice Sabyasachi Mukharji. He was sitting in this Court-hall as the presiding Judge until the 7th of September and when I met him that afternoon before returning home to wish him bon voyage he smiled back to say that we shall meet on his return. The unseen hands of God have prematurely withdrawn him from our midst. It is said:

"Death is a debt

all mortal men must pay Aye,

there is no man living

who can say

If life will last him yet

a single day!"

He had become so much a part of the institution in these seven and odd years that it has been difficult for us to believe that he is no more.

Chief Justice Mukharji was born on June 1, 1927, as the third son of Rai Bahadur Bejoy Behari Mukharji who retired as the Director, Land Records & Survey of the undivided Bengal. His eldest brother Dr P.B. Mukharji was Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court and passed away in January 1984. The second is Dr. A.B. Mukharji who is a leading Cardiologist of Calcutta. Both the sisters of Chief Justice Mukharji — an elder and the other younger — are alive. Chief Justice Mukharji was married on January 25,1962. He had his education at the Mitra Institute, Bhowanipore and the Presidency College at Calcutta from where he graduated with the Honours Degree in Economics in 1946. He was called to the Bar by the Society of Middle Temple, London and got enrolled as an advocate of the Calcutta High Court on November 23, 1949. While studying in the Presidency College he had been elected as the General Secretary of the Students Union in 1945 and when studying in London he became General Secretary of the Indian Socialist Group for the year 1948-49. He was also elected as a Member of the Committee of the Inns of Court Students Union representing the Middle Temple.

At the Bar, Chief Justice Mukharji made a mark within a few years and became standing counsel for the Income Tax Department at Calcutta from 1958 and continued to hold the position till he was elevated as a Judge of the High Court at Calcutta on July 31, 1968. He was a Member of the Study Team on Administrative Tribunals which functioned as a wing of the Administrative Reforms Commission during the year 1964-65. While he was continuing as a Judge of the High Court he was appointed as a Member of the Eighth Finance Commission in June 1982, from where he resigned on his elevation to this Court in March 1983. He was the senior most Judge of the Calcutta High Court and was made Acting Chief Justice thereof from March 1, 1983. I clearly remember that we boarded the same plane from Calcutta on March 13, 1983, when along with two other colleagues we were summoned to take oath as Judges of this Court on March 15, 1983. I had occasion to meet him once or twice prior to our meeting of March 13, at the Dumdum Airport. During the years that followed we had occasion to know each other closely. I always found that he was a Judge of conviction and was anxious to do justice in every case that came before him. He had the quality of firmness and was slow in changing his position as a measure of compromise. He was always anxious to rise to the challenging needs of the occasion and was even prepared to sacrifice comfort and leisure when the call of duty warranted attention otherwise.

We had two occasions to be together at Puri and I found that he was extremely religious. He was associated closely with the activities of the Rama Krishna Mission. He was the sitting President of the Kali Bari at New Delhi and got associated as the supporter of several Bengali cultural associations. A connoisseur of music and art, he also supported these institutions at Calcutta and Delhi.

He exhibited embarrassing firmness as and when he considered such conduct necessary in the interest of the institution. In him I noticed a living realization of trusteeship of social power.

He assumed office as Chief Justice of India on December 18, 1989 and in these nine months discharged his role with acumen and sagacity.

In August of this year he participated in an International Conference in Australia. Just before he left for the Conference he had suffered an injury on his leg. Perhaps many of us would not have undertaken the trip with that injury but with strong determination he went over and returned in good time. With a short interval he had to proceed to the States for participating in the World Appellate Judges Conference. While returning from the Conference he had planned a brief stop-over at London and visit some of his relations. It is at the Heathrow Airport while descending from the plane that he had a setback. It appears that he was taken to the house of his host after he improved on being given treatment but when he felt uneasy he was taken to the Royal Free Hospital. We have come to learn that adequate and timely treatment was not extended to him. If what is alleged is true it is indeed unfortunate and becomes a matter of concern for all of us and needs to be adequately tackled.

Chief Justice Mukharji has left behind his widow Mrs Ratna Mukharji and a daughter. The shock of sudden death has overtaken them and we noticed their grief and sorrow when we had collected to receive the dead body at the Airport at Delhi. The mortal remains of Chief Justice Mukharji were consigned at the electric crematorium but his fond memory shall remain unfaded in our minds for many years to come. As members of his team we offer our sincerest condolences to our until-the-other-day captain. In his death the country has lost a brilliant Judge and we have lost our leader and a true friend.

May his soul rest in peace!

Reference Made by Shri Soli J. Sorabjee,
Attorney-General for India

My Lords, today we are assembled here under the shadow of a great tragedy — the unexpected and untimely demise of our dear departed Chief Justice, Sabyasachi Mukharji. The suddenness of the event makes it difficult to reconcile ourselves to the painful fact that he who administered justice without fear or favour in this very court room is no more with us.

Born in a family with a long tradition of legal learning, he carried on that tradition with distinction. A proud product of the Presidency College, Calcutta, he proceeded to England for the study of law after graduating with honours in Economics from Calcutta University in 1946. He joined the Middle Temple, and was called to the Bar in 1949. In England he was a prominent member of the Inns of Court Students' Union and the General Secretary of the Indian Socialist Group in Europe.

Mr Mukharji joined the Calcutta High Court in 1949 and practised till 1968, specialising particularly in revenue laws. He was standing counsel for the Income Tax Department from 1958 to 1968.

He was appointed a permanent judge of the Calcutta High Court in 1968, was appointed acting Chief Justice of the High Court on 1.3.1983 and soon thereafter was elevated to the Supreme Court on March 15, 1983 and was appointed Chief Justice of India on December 18, 1989.

One remarkable characteristic of late Justice Mukharji was the wide range of law covered by his judgments. He was equally at home in company law and commercial law as he was when grappling with intricate problems of constitutional law. His experience at the Bar with fiscal matters served him in good stead in dealing with customs, excise and income tax matters. He disposed of many customs and excise appeals by delivering oral judgments on the spot. The Law Reports bear ample testimony to his industry, erudition and clarity of thought and expression.

But what the Law Reports do not and cannot reflect was the immense satisfaction he gave to members of the Bar by the patient and full hearing accorded to them. At the same time he was in full control of the proceedings and gently but firmly brought counsel back on the rails when the arguments tended to get derailed by emotion or cluttered with irrelevancies.

Late Justice Mukharji did not subscribe to the philosophy of pragmatism if that entailed sacrifice of principles at the altar of expediency and short-term results. During the last few months when I came to know him better I was struck by his simplicity and absence of any pomp or formality. I was impressed by his keen desire to take any decision or action on the basis of a principle, or, to use his favourite expression, "discernible principles". One of his main concerns was to restore and enhance the reputation and image of the judiciary which had suffered a decline on account of certain recent events.

Late Justice Mukharji had great regard for tradition, which in Carlyle's words, is an enormous magnifier. But traditions, my lords, are not like instant coffee. They are not taught but absorbed and imbibed over a period of time. And alas, whatever, limited time there was for Justice Mukharji to build up traditions in this Court was cut short when Death did not knock on the door but like the veritable thief in the night, snatched him away from us on last tuesday, September 25, 1990 when he breathed his last in London, barely an hour before I reached the hospital.

In the death of Chief Justice Mukharji the nation and particularly the judiciary and the legal profession have suffered a deep loss. But not by lamentations and mournful chants, My Lords, ought we to mourn his loss or commemorate his memory. Rather we should resolve to pursue the quest for discernible principles with renewed vigour.

At this sad moment our hearts go out to the members of his family, and particularly to Mrs Mukharji for whom this event has been shattering, a traumatic experience which she has borne with great courage and dignity.

My Lords, on behalf of the Bar and myself, we offer our sincerest condolences to Mrs Mukharji and to all other members of his family.

Tribute by Shri K.K. Venugopal,
President, Supreme Court Bar Association

My Lords,

The passing away of the Chief Justice of India, Shri Sabyasachi Mukharji, has caused great grief and anguish to the entire country. The causes are many. He died in harness while he was the Chief Justice of India. He scarcely had the time to settle down in his august office and mould the direction in which the law had to be developed, when cruel fate intervened. He was only 63 years old. He died in far away London, with only his wife with him, and without the other members of his family and friends even knowing that his life was in danger. We were all caught unawares and were unable even to lift a finger to help him. He had to leave his tasks unfinished.

As I said earlier, Chief Justice Mukharji had just commenced the delicate and difficult task of giving a direction to the development of law. He opened wide the gates of natural justice and fairplay by applying the strict standards of non-arbitrariness in State action in the realm of legal expectations. In the case of Mahabir Auto Sales, whose contract, acted upon for 18 years, was terminated overnight by a public sector corporation, Chief Justice Mukharji held that notice should have been given, applying the test of non-arbitrariness, even to such action. Likewise in the Bombay Port Trust's case, Justice Mukharji injuncted the Bombay Port Trust from terminating the tenancy of its premises without cause like an ordinary landlord, merely because it had been relieved of the restrictions of the Rent Control Act.

Delivering the judgment on behalf of two 7-Judge Benches in the Chemicals and Synthetics case and in the India Cements case he felt constrained to reverse longstanding judgments of Constitution Benches on the ground that the judgments had been erroneously decided and mere length of time would not justify the perpetuation of such erroneous judgments. Of equal significance is his judgment in the Reliance Petrochemical case where he traced the "right to know" to Article 21 of the Constitution. We can only visualise the new horizons which would have been opened up, if Chief Justice Mukharji had completed his full tenure.

My Lords, Chief Justice Mukharji was a multi-faceted personality. Little is known of the fact that he was closely associated with the late Shri Jayaprakash Narayan in the Socialist movement. He was also connected with the Sarat Bose Academy of Calcutta and the Tagore Law Society for Rural Development.

I had come into close contact with him as the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association. He revived the monthly meetings which the Executive Committee of the Bar was to have with the Chief Justice to discuss matters of mutual concern to the Bar and the Bench. I am afraid we were rather selfish. We placed our various demands before him and it was a measure of his magnanimity that he saw reason in each one of our requests and never said "no" to any one of them. He would turn over his shoulder to his officers standing behind him and tell them "Please see that this is done".

The Bar will surely miss Chief Justice Mukharji who excelled as a judge and jurist. Much has been said about his past career and I do not think any purpose would be served by my repeating it again. He was an illustrious judge while functioning at the High Court in Calcutta, and rose to still greater heights as a Judge of the Supreme Court and Chief Justice of India.

His loss has been a great blow to his family and has equally been a great blow to us, the members of the Bar. We share our anguish with the members of his family and convey to Mrs Sabyasachi Mukharji, his daughter and the other members of his family our grief and sorrow.

Chief Justice Sabyasachi Mukharji
A Tribute

It is with a feeling of immense grief and sorrow that we record the sad and sudden demise of the Chief Justice of India, Hon'ble Mr Justice Sabyasachi Mukharji in London on September 25, 1990 while he was returning from a visit to the U.S.

In him the nation has lost a great judge and jurist, and a humanitarian who touched everyone with his soft spoken words and amiable smile. A distinguished judge and thinker, he has left a deep mark on Indian Jurisprudence by his special contribution in many areas of law, especially Administrative and Constitutional Law, Arbitration, Commercial and Taxation Laws, Rent Control and Service Law. He pursued the concept of fairness and fair play in action and extended it to situations where the formal rules of natural justice did not apply and covered even the business dealings of public corporations. He adjudicated upon vexed questions of law and laid down the rule in simple language with a just, balanced and humane approach. He would be long cited for his pronouncements which adorn the law reports.

We of the SCC would especially miss him for his encouragement and guidance. He appreciated the need for prompt reporting yet cautioned against being hasty; being a permanent record he commended every attempt at proper analysis and accurate reporting in the best style. In him we have lost a friend and a well wisher.

On behalf of the Editorial Board, the staff of SCC and the publishers, we convey our heartfelt condolences to the members of his family and pray to the Almighty for peace to the departed soul.

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