Book Review: Justice Rajinder Sachar's Life Is a Testimony to the Importance of Speaking Up

In his autobiography, the judge reveals by example how several types of challenges must and should be met.

The autobiography of Justice Rajinder Sachar has emerged posthumously mainly due to the efforts of his loyal personal secretary, Niranjan Kaushik, and an intrepid journalist, Chitra Padmanabhan. The two sifted through his notes and recordings after his death – something Sachar did not live long enough to do himself. The commitment of those who collated all that he left behind is commendable, but that he attracted such loyalty also speaks volumes of the fellowship that Sachar saheb extended to those he crossed paths with. His ease of engaging with people of all backgrounds, conversing and connecting, never stopped to acknowledge barriers of age. He always believed in the possibility of a better world and managed to nudge most people he encountered to also work towards it.

Born in 1923 in Pakistan and into a political family, Rajinder Sachar was the son of Bhim Sen Sachar, a Gandhian, freedom fighter and then the chief minister of Punjab. All this gave him a ringside view of politics and power, and also the tumult and action. Often this was literally the case, as he was one of those present in Pakistan to hear Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s speech when Pakistan marked its independence. As a young man, he sometimes referred to himself as Rajinder Lal, not wanting to be marked by his surname which spelt privilege and would immediately identify him as his father’s son.

Rajinder Sachar was a victim of Partition and among the many Hindus and Sikhs who had to leave their homeland in terrible and abrupt circumstances. Notwithstanding the prolonged communal strife he was a direct victim of, the last few decades of his active public life in India, he was most high profile for making a case to improve the lot of India’s largest minority – Muslims. He was also focused on how best to revive the Socialist Party of India. Running through his autobiography is the main thread of his life, his ability to hold his own and retain a zest to battle a little more each day, with his spirit never diminished by the shadow of his own personal encounter with bigotry. Sachar, as he himself admits, lived by his father and grandfather’s ideals, a steadfast commitment to universal humanist ideals, absolutely clear that there was no conflict between fraternity and piety.

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In Pursuit of Justice, for many reasons, is a highly recommended read for 2021.

One, because you get to see Justice Sachar traversing through life, as a son, a student, a lawyer, a judge, a political creature, an activist and then a mentor to many who sought solace in difficult times, steadfastly pursuing justice. This illustrates that it is possible to work towards meaningful ideals, regardless of the role you pick for yourself – as a lawyer or a judge or the head of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, nothing constrained the pursuit of Sachar’s basic ideals, no room was too small.

In Pursuit of Justice: An Autobiography
Justice Rajinder Sachar
Rupa Publications, 2020

Second, as the book encompasses a whole range of momentous times, when he talks about Bhagat Singh taking walks with his father in the jail compound, to the time when Jinnah lectures Pakistan in August 1947, to witnessing a shocked Nehru speaking outside Birla House after the assassination of the Mahatma, Emergency, fighting it back, 1984, and the more recent pushback he had to face after authoring the report on the status of Muslims, what comes through is the long arc of struggle that is inevitable in the life of nations and must be batted through. Sachar almost reveals by example how several types of challenges must and should be met.

Something that his life is a testimony to is the importance of speaking up, and not sub-contracting engaging in political struggle to politicians alone. Speaking shapes discourse and may appear like banging one’s head against the wall at the time, but it chips at juggernauts and leaders who appear unbeatable. It is hard to recognise them as it is all still work in progress, but reading about Sachar’s life makes clear how important the role of former judges like Justice A.P. Shah, Justice Madan Lokur, Justice Gopal Gowda and so many others is, when they use their familiarity and knowledge of the system to hold it to account and keep articulating when it is failing to live up to its promise of delivering justice in the fullest sense of the phrase.

Sachar was loath to being seen as a ‘retired judge’ or a ‘retiree’ of any variety. His life is a lesson and a conversation with future judges and all those who engage with the law, on the necessity of using law to do what it must – ensure that the most powerless get heard and be their voice if they don’t. He evaded the trappings of suit-boot and there is an incident which he describes which would make all readers smile. He had adopted Indian clothing early in life, having been rebuffed in a locality when out on union work with workers for wearing trousers and a shirt. As he became a judge he was told it was high time he switched to regular court clothes. He breezily, in his characteristic manner, told the lawyer off – his contention was, that when he had been wearing an achkan and pyjama in other people’s courts, then surely, he could continue to do so “in my own”. That ended the matter and Sachar was never seen in Western attire after that.

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He was to be best identified in his last years for documenting the social, economic and educational backwardness of Indian Muslims as the head of the prime minister’s high-level committee on the subject appointed by Dr Manmohan Singh’s government. It provided documentation that changed the discourse on Muslims for a long time to come, both outside and within the community. It shifted the discussion sharply away from identity to those of entitlement and empowerment. The report resulted in important questions being asked of the community’s own commitment to these issues. At the same time, it also took the wind out of the sails of those who spoke of Muslims in the same breath as ‘appeasement’. It is another matter that just eight years after that, things dramatically altered, regressing rapidly back from identity and becoming about security and even existence.

Had he lived longer, Justice Sachar would have had plenty to say on the protests last year against the linking of citizenship with religion via new citizenship laws. But we know what he thought about this linkage the last time it was made. It then managed to reach its dreaded conclusion, resulting in his eviction from his own home in Lahore. Maybe it is okay that he did not have to relive his memories all over again.

Seema Chishti is a journalist based in New Delhi.