What Made Justice P.B. Sawant an Outstanding Judge

His kindness and concern for India had shined through during a key case in 1993.

Justice P.B. Sawant, a former judge of the Supreme Court, is no more. He passed away in Pune on the morning of February 15, at the age of 91.

He has been an outstanding judge, whose heart was always with the impoverished. I remember one unforgettable hearing before him that I attended.

It was 9 pm on November 15, 1993, and the hearing was at the drawing room of 3, Janpath, New Delhi – the official residence of Justice J.S. Verma, who subsequently became the Chief Justice of India (CJI).

A division bench of Justices J.S. Verma and P.B. Sawant had assembled in rather extraordinary and urgent circumstances. It was a controversy arising out of the Hero Cup Cricket Tournament organised by the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), celebrating its diamond jubilee. Doordarshan (DD) and CAB were fighting for telecasting rights before the Calcutta high court. A division bench of the Calcutta high court passed an order that did not suit CAB, Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and Star TV. Star TV was brought into telecasting by CAB, and Doordarshan felt slighted at being ignored.

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By 9:30 pm, after hearing both sides, Justices Verma and Sawant stayed the order of Calcutta high court. The author and Kitty Kumaramangalam represented Doordarshan, while CAB and BCCI were represented by Kapil Sibal, Arun Jaitley, Manmohan (now a judge), Raian N. Karanjawala and Radha Rangaswamy.

As Justice Sawant was dictating the interim stay and immediate release of telecasting equipment (of Star TV) seized by Bombay Customs, Kumaramangalam got upset. Justice Sawant issued a stern warning to her, and then looked at me. Frankly, I was scared. Fortunately, we both escaped that night. But for Doordarshan, worse was to follow.

When Doordarshan filed its counter affidavit, the language was clearly contumacious or wilfully disobedient to authority. Justice Sawant immediately issued a contempt notice to the deponent and asked him to name lawyers who had drafted the filed affidavit. Contempt notices were also issued to both lawyers (not me, to clarify).

Ultimately, two lawyers were discharged from contempt proceedings but a deputy secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was convicted of criminal contempt and sentenced to pay a fine of Rs 2,000, and in default, to undergo simple imprisonment for a week. Justice Sawant’s kindness overpowered him and so he ruled: “We direct that the Government should not initiate any departmental disciplinary proceedings against him.”

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This case turned out to be historic. The Supreme Court held that airwaves constitute public property and delivering the verdict on February 9, 1995, was a three-judge bench comprising Justices P.B. Sawant, S. Mohan and B.P. Jeevan Reddy. Some of the observations of the SC are ringing:

“Airwaves must be utilised for advancing public good. It is the duty of the State to see that airwaves are so utilized as to advance the free speech right of citizens which is served by ensuring plurality, diversity of views, opinions and ideas. There is an inseparable inter-connection between freedom of speech and the stability of the Society, that is, the stability of a nation-State. They contribute to each other. Ours is a nascent republic. We are yet to achieve the goal of a stable society”.

Those were indeed prophetic words.

With the above observations, inter-alia, the Supreme Court held that this country cannot afford to read into Article 19 (1)(a) as an unrestricted right to licensing (here, right of broadcasting), as claimed by CAB and BCCI.

Justice Sawant’s name shall remain etched in golden letters in the history of the Supreme Court.

Bishwajit Bhattacharyya is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India.