7th Chief Justice of India
Assumed Office1st Feb, 1964
Retired On15th Mar, 1966
Chancellor, Gandhigram Rural Institute, Tamil Nadu1975-79
Chairman, Indian Council of Agricultural Research Institute Inquiry Commission1972
Awarded Padma Vibhushan1972
Member, Expert Committee for the implementation of International Labour Organisation’s recommendations1971-77
Appointed by Indira Gandhi as Chairman, Sixth Law Commission of India1971-77
Chairman, Benaras Hindu University Inquiry Commission1968-69
President, Asiatic Society1966-71
Chairman, Press Trust of India1966-70
Chairman, National Commission of Labour1966-69
Chairman, Jammu and Kashmir Commission of Inquiry1966-68
Chairman, Dearness Allowance Commission1966-67
Vice Chancellor, Bombay UniversityMarch, 1966-1971
Retires from the Supreme CourtMarch 15th, 1966
Chairman, Committee for Re-organisation of Legal Education at University of Delhi1964
Appointed Chief Justice of India: Appointed Judge at the Supreme Court
Chairman, Bank Award CommissionMarch-July, 1955
President, Maharashtra Social Conference1953-54
Permanent Judge, Bombay High Court1947-57
Appointed as Additional Judge at the Bombay High CourtMarch 6th, 1945
Joins the Bombay Appellate Side BarAugust 25th, 1926
Justice Pralhad Balacharya Gajendragadkar was the 7th Chief Justice of India. Gajendragadkar J’s rich judicial history reveals him to be a staunch defender of labour rights, ‘the Court’s greatest assenter’ in its 75-year post-independence history, and the Indira Gandhi-appointed Chairman of the Sixth Law Commission of India that operated during the Emergency.
Born on March 16th, 1901, Gajendragadkar J came from a family of Sanskrit scholars—who traced their profession back to the Maratha courts reigning over the Deccan a few centuries earlier. This proclivity for the language is reflected in Gajendragadkar’s education. While he had completed an LL.B. from the Indian Law Society’s Law College in Pune by 1926, between 1922-26, he earned a B.A. and M.A. in English and Sanskrit from the nearby Deccan College.
On August 25th, 1926, a few months after obtaining his legal education, Gajendragadkar J enrolled as an advocate at the Bombay High Court. The early days of his practice saw few and far cases land on his desk—Gajendragadkar J even considered giving up the profession altogether to become an English professor. His legal career eventually picked up—two decades down the line, in 1947, he was appointed as a permanent Judge at the Bombay High Court. He would hold this position until 1957—on January 17th of the same year, he was elevated as a Judge of the Supreme Court.
Gajendragadkar J was expected to replace the presiding CJI S.J. Imam on April 18th, 1965, and to serve for only a few months. Due to the latter’s poor health, Gajendragadkar J was elevated earlier on February 1st, 1964. He would serve as CJI for over two years.
Gajendragadkar J retired from the SC office on March 15th, 1966. During his time at the SC, Gajendragadkar J authored 494 Judgments and sat on 1,337 Benches.
Gajendragadkar J largely adjudicated on labour, industrial, and constitutional matters.
One of Gajendragadkar J’s most well-known Judgments is State of Bombay v Narasu Appa Mali (1951), written while he was a Judge of the Bombay High Court. In this case, a two-Judge Bench consisting of Justices Chagla and Gajendragadkar held that personal laws cannot be subject to Part III (Fundamental Rights Chapter) of the Constitution of India, 1950. Article 13 of the Constitution states that ‘laws in force’ that are inconsistent with Fundamental Rights are void. The Court held that personal laws, customs, and usages did not fall within the meaning of ‘laws in force’ and were not void by virtue of violating the rights in Part III. In Indian Young Lawyers’ Association v State of Kerala (2018), or the Sabarimala case, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud pointed to the flawed reasoning in Narasu, holding that customs and usages fell within the meaning of ‘law’ in Article 13.
In State of Bombay v Hospital Mazdoor Sabha (1960), Gajendragadkar J interpreted the meaning of ‘industry’ under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, holding that hospitals are industries within the meaning of the Act. The Court used the doctrine of noscitur a sociis (where the meaning of an ambiguous word is determined with reference to the other words it is associated within the statute or contract) in its interpretation. Disputes between trade unions and hospitals could be decided by the Industrial Tribunal.
A seven-Judge Bench of the SC in Durgah Committee, Ajmer v Syed Hussain Ali (1961) held that the State may interfere even in those practices that are not ‘essential’ and integral to a religion. Superstitious practices that are ancillary to a religion are not ‘essential’ and are not protected under the Right to Freedom of Religion under Article 25 of the Constitution.
In MR Balaji v State of Mysore (1962), a seven-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court held that reservations must not exceed 50% of seats. The Court examined the newly inserted Article 15(4) of the Constitution, holding that backwardness must be determined not just on the basis of caste but on the basis of the backwardness of a class. Subsequently, however, the Court began to permit the use of caste as a sole criterion to determine backwardness.
Gajendragadkar J, writing for the majority in Sajjan Singh v State of Rajasthan (1964), held that Parliament has the power to amend all parts of the Constitution. The Court later reversed this decision in Golak Nath v State of Punjab (1967), where it held that Parliament cannot amend the Fundamental Rights Chapter of the Constitution. Golaknath was subsequently overruled in Kesavananda Bharti v State of Kerala (1973), where the Court held that Parliament could amend all parts of the Constitution, including the Fundamental Chapter, as long as it did not abrogate the ‘Basic Structure’ of the Constitution.
Life Outside the Court
Gajendragadkar J was already well-known while at the Bombay High Court as Chairman of the Bank Award Commission—and for his 1955 report which secured higher pay scales and stronger labour rights for bank employees. Post his retirement from the SC, Gajendragadkar J chaired a wide array of Committees and Commissions of Inquiry—while also serving as President of the Asiatic Society and Vice Chancellor of Bombay University.
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi appointed Gajendragadkar J as the Chairman of the Sixth Law Commission of India in 1971, a position he held for two terms until 1977. Justice A.N. Ray’s controversial appointment as CJI took place during this period, as did the Emergency. Gajendragadkar J did not critique the ills of the Emergency during his tenure, even when it reduced the independence and powers of the Supreme Court—a silence he later came to publicly regret.
Gajendragadkar’s knowledge of both the law and Sanskrit—which he learnt as part of his Brahminical upbringing—resulted in deep scholarship of India’s Hindu personal laws. He spoke and wrote widely on these laws, and was also involved with religious and social reform movements in Maharashtra across his career.