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Justice Rajindar Sachar (1923–2018)

​Azra Razzack (azrarazzack@yahoo.com) teaches at the Dr K R Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia. Tanweer Fazal (fazaltanweer@yahoo.co.in) teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Both worked closely with Justice Rajindar Sachar as consultants.

Justice Rajindar Sachar was a man of unshakeable integrity. His erudition, humility, and warmth captivated everyone who came into contact with him. The report of the high level committee he chaired, which popularly came to be called the Sachar Committee, made him a household name throughout India. Till the very end of his life, he was deeply concerned about public matters, especially those that affected Muslim minorities.

Justice Rajindar Sachar will be remembered for many things: his judicial pronouncements in various courts of India, his activism through which he strove for civil liberties (both as a lawyer and a campaigner), his gentle demeanour, empathy, and innate humaneness. His appointment as the chairperson in 2005 of the Prime Minister’s High Level Committee for Preparation of Report on Social, Economic, and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India, and the subsequent report that came to be popularly known as the “Sachar Committee Report” (SCR), turned him into a star, even as he had to battle many brickbats. For the Muslim community, he became a household name overnight.

Life and Work

Justice Sachar was born in 1923 into a prominent family of Lahore. His father, Bhimsen Sachar (1894–1978) was a freedom fighter and a popular Congress leader who went on to become the chief minister of post-partition Punjab twice. Subsequently, he became the governor of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh and also the Indian high commissioner to Sri Lanka. A man of conviction, Bhimsen Sachar was imprisoned during the Emergency for opposing press censorship imposed by Indira Gandhi. Justice Sachar inherited his father’s moral universe; yet he charted his own course. Unlike his father, he chose to be close to Congress socialists and the Socialist Party. During his long stint in public life Justice Sachar donned many hats. He began as a political worker with definite socialist leanings, took to studying law, became a member of the Bar at Simla in 1952, and then, in 1960, an advocate in the Supreme Court. In 1970, he was inducted as a judge of the Delhi High Court and after a brief stint in Sikkim and Rajasthan, he returned to the Delhi High Court as its chief justice. In retirement, he devoted himself entirely to public causes. With illustrious colleagues like Justice V M Tarkunde, Rajni Kothari, K G Kannabiran, and others, Justice Sachar was at the forefront of the civil liberties movement. In 1986, he was elected president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and continued to head it for the next 10 years. He served as a member of the United Nation (UN)’s Sub-committee on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and as a UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. In 2009, he consented to be a member of the Dublin-based Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on the war crimes in Sri Lanka.

Ultimate human values of justice, peace, and equity were his moral compass. Guided by these, he would leave a distinct and indelible imprint on every position he held. As a young political worker, he was jailed along with Ram Manohar Lohia, whom he idealised. As a jurist, his expertise in constitutional law came to the aid of the victims and survivors of state neglect and structural violence. As a judge, he refused to budge when many others were ready to crawl during the Emergency, and in return was shunted out of Delhi. During the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, he directed the police to register first information reports against political leaders accused of fomenting violence. In his second innings as a lawyer, he argued against draconian laws such as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, against the continuation of capital punishment, against encounter killings, and a host of other issues. As a member of the Tribunal on war crimes in Sri Lanka, he was a signatory to the report that indicted the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Sri Lankan government for engineering the genocidal killings of Tamils during the military campaign to wipe out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Justice Sachar personally witnessed the killings of Hindus in present-day Pakistan at the time of partition. Memories of partition violence, which continue to simmer and nurture hatred among many of those who witnessed it at close quarters as well as generations that grew up on these partition stories, seemed, instead, to have instilled in him a deep and abiding abhorrence against communal prejudice, turning him into an untiring champion of peace. His sense of integrity, justice, and fairness comes through this voluminous report of the Prime Minister’s High Level Committee on the status of Indian Muslims that he headed. The report, on the basis of empirical data, highlighted the vulnerability of the Muslim community, trashed the appeasement theory and shattered many stereotypes, which had for long put the Muslims at the receiving end of ridicule and scorn. It is hardly surprising that with the report, Justice Sachar, an advocate of human rights, came to be seen as a messiah of Indian Muslims as well.

High Level Committee

Survived by his son and daughter, Justice Sachar leaves behind a great legacy. In remembering him we are remembering a generation that is diminishing fast. Already over 80 years of age when he was appointed as the chairperson of the committee by the Prime Minister’s Office, the task of putting together a report of this nature and scope was formidable. However, Justice Sachar played his innings to the hilt. Being a mere rubber stamp as a chairperson was not his style. Along with his team, he toured the length and breadth of the country. Closed-door meetings with bureaucrats, politicians, and heads of state governments were invariably complemented with public hearings. There were special sessions with women representatives, activists of non-governmental organisations, and community leaders. Everyone was heard out patiently. The mammoth exercise of putting together a report of over 400 pages was completed in a record time of 18 months. Justice Sachar religiously sat through the extensive editing of each chapter, one by one. This meticulous effort resulted in a report that was one of a kind, with a distinct flavour.

Justice Sachar’s concern for the Muslim community was exceptionally sincere. While going through the draft questionnaires being sent out to the state governments he was apprehensive about the inclusion of questions pertaining to the number of Muslims in jails. While it was common knowledge that the representation of Muslims was much higher than that of other communities, for us, as researchers, this was a matter of data and statistics and needed to be collected. Justice Sachar, however, could foresee the malice this kind of data could generate. When quizzed about his apprehension he expressed his concern that this data would be twisted to paint an even more macabre image of the Muslim community. Nevertheless, on our insistence, the data was collected. But when it was leaked to the press, Justice Sachar decided not to include it in the report.

The committee’s first visit was to Hyderabad, in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. Along with scheduled meetings with different groups, there were visits to parts of Muslim-dominated areas of the city, especially in the vicinity of Charminar and Mecca Masjid. However, when the committee’s visit seemed as if it was to be monopolised by politically-astute interests, Justice Sachar decided to rescind these visits (in Muslim areas) altogether in order to protect the committee’s work from the influence of local state politics.

From a vast array of well-thought-out recommendations in the report, one that stands out for its uniqueness is the one pertaining to madrasa graduates. The recognition given in the report to madrasas as educational institutions was indeed pioneering. Provision of “equivalence” to madrasa certificates/degrees, recognition of madrasa degrees for eligibility in competitive examinations such as the civil services, banks, armed forces, and other such examinations was far-reaching in its scope and a sincere effort towards inclusion—more so because madrasas were looked upon with suspicion as dens of terrorism. Given the prevailing mainstream opinion, the recommendation that madrasa graduates be considered at par with other graduates was indeed exceptional. For him, this also made immense sense. Recognition, equivalence, and eligibility would by itself lead to their “modernisation.”

Revered and Loved

Justice Sachar’s simplicity and his gentleness made us take liberties with him as well. What would be deemed irreverent to any other, did not seem so with him. Despite being younger in age and lower in the hierarchy, we could walk into his office whenever we wanted—the office of the chairperson was open to everyone. We still remember how easily we walked into his office one late evening demanding that our voice be heard when one of our younger colleagues, we felt, was being wrongly harassed by his office. Justice Sachar heard us out patiently. We even went to the extent to tell him that he should consider this a gherao of sorts and we would not relent until he got the decision reverted. This was much beyond office hours. It was a winter evening, and it had turned quite dark by then. But not a flicker of irritation crossed Justice Sachar’s face.

Like other commissions and committees, the Sachar Committee too was not spared of controversies and clashes. When valuable data was leaked a few months before the release of the report, Justice Sachar did not allow this to perturb him even though many others were terribly agitated. As accusatory glances were passed around, Justice Sachar remained calm and composed. He was never one to draw conclusions without sufficient evidence. The controversy surrounding the data from the armed forces saddened him. He was distraught over media reports and the stand taken by the Army. The committee was accused of communalising the armed forces by seeking religiously disaggregated data from them. Not a person to be cowed down, a fitting reply was sent off from his office to the Indian Express, the newspaper that had carried the story, as well as to the armed forces. He defended the decision to seek the headcount of the defence forces on grounds that since it drew from the public exchequer, it was accountable. However, on the request of the Ministry of Defence, the data provided by the Navy and the Air Force was not used finally in the report.

With many members of the committee being doyens in their own fields, clashes and differences of opinion were bound to happen. It goes to Justice Sachar’s credit that he managed to give everyone their due, weaving a beautiful and everlasting relationship with each one of his colleagues. Long after the report was submitted, he continued to build upon those relationships with regular interaction with many of us, sharing his views, trying to make sense of what was happening around us, seeking clarity on the innumerable issues plaguing Indian society, and, many times, reaching out personally. His early morning call on the festival of Eid each year is part of the warm memories he has left behind. Always generous in his praise for his colleagues, especially those much younger to him, Justice Sachar would never let an opportunity go by to draw attention to the contribution made by junior colleagues, consultants, and researchers in the writing of the report. On many public occasions where he was being extolled for the report, he would turn towards us. The effusive accolades by him would sometimes leave us embarrassed.

Concern for Muslim Community

Justice Sachar passed away on 20 April 2018, nearly 12 years after the submission of the report that became identified with him in public mind. All through these long years he kept abreast with what was happening with the Muslim community. For him, the submission of the report was not enough. He was restless about the recommendations not being implemented and expressed his concerns at various forums. Other issues and conflicts, into which the Muslim community was constantly drawn, disturbed him deeply. The recent controversy generated over the issue of triple talaq pained him. He entered into extensive discussions with members of the Muslim community to understand the reality. He was convinced that the practice of triple talaq, as it played out in India, was borne out of incorrect interpretation of Islamic practices as well as a lack of proper education. He knew that the politics being played out in this context was dangerous. Though uneasy and troubled with the turn of events, Justice Sachar was careful not to overstep on sensitive ground. He wanted the Muslim community to take the matter in their own hands and respond proactively to what was being usurped. He was apprehensive that inaction on the part of an enlightened Muslim leadership would result in politics being played out, making state intervention inevitable. Desperate that this be avoided, a meeting was organised at his residence in New Friends Colony. Representatives of the Muslim Personal Law Board, the Jamaat-e-Islami, Majlis-e-Mushawarat, alongside other academics and activists were present. Justice Sachar sat through the entire discussion, inviting them to discuss, reflect, and respond. Recognising that mischief was afoot, he literally pleaded before the Muslim community. Such was Justice Sachar.

Justice Sachar’s optimism knew no bounds. In politics, he had immense confidence. He looked with dismay as the Anna Hazare movement swayed his socialist colleagues one after another. With his prescience, he could see the onset of fascism. In spite of his advancing age, he founded the Socialist Party, and devotedly campaigned for it. Like a young party enthusiast, he was constantly on the lookout to rope in new people. His politics was, however, not inanimate and mechanical; it was fashioned out of humane and life-affirming values.

Justice Sachar made a special place in the hearts of innumerable people. His diminutive frame belied a powerful presence. An inspiration for many, his passion, commitment, forceful articulation, and indomitable spirit will be remembered across generations. Justice Sachar belonged to the league of nationalists who upheld the values and traditions of true Indian secularism and the rights of minorities in a new and democratic post-independence India. With the passing away of Justice Sachar, an era has surely come to an end.

To quote Iqbal:

ā.īn-e-javāñ-mardāñ haq-goī o be-bākī

allāh ke sheroñ ko aatī nahīñ rūbāhī

[Men bold and firm uphold the truth

And let no fears assail their hearts:

No doubt, the mighty lions of God

Know no tricks and know no arts.]

Updated On : 18th May, 2018

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