M. Patanjali Sastri
M. Patanjali Sastri
Former Chief Justice of India
Assumed Office7th Nov, 1951
Retired On4th Jan, 1954
Sitting Judge of the Federal CourtDecember 6th, 1947 - 25th January, 1950
Sitting Judge of the Madras High CourtMarch 15th,1939 - December 5th, 1947
Advocate in the Madras High Court1914 - March 14th, 1939
Early life and education
Chief Justice M.P. Sastri was born on 4 January 1889 in Madras (now Chennai), Tamil Nadu. His father, Mr. Krishna Sastri, was a senior Sanskrit pandit of the Pachaiyappa’s College in Madras. Notably, Chief Justice Sastri was among four out of the initial eight judges of the Federal Court who hailed from Sanskrit scholar families.
He completed his BA education at Pachaiyappa’s College, the very institute where his father had taught for many years. He received the Godavari Sanskrit scholarship during that time. For about two years, he taught high school students before pursuing a career in law. In 1912, he obtained his BL degree from Madras Law College starting his pursuit as a first-generation lawyer, from a Brahmin, wealthy family.
Career as an Advocate
In 1914, Chief Justice Sastri enrolled in the Madras High Court where he quickly developed a reputation as a reliable tax lawyer. According to V.C. Gopalratnam, he established himself as a lawyer adept at complex tax matters.
In 1922, the Union enacted the Income Tax Act. The Central government, recognising Chief Justice Sastri’s impeccable portfolio in tax law, appointed him as a Standing Counsel to the Commissioner of Income Tax. He served in this position until his appointment as a Judge.
Career as a Judge
On 15 March 1939, Justice Sastri replaced Sir Srinivasa Veradachariar as a judge of the Madras High Court. Sir Veradachariar, a close friend and associate of Justice Sastri, was elevated to the Federal Court.
On 6 December 1947, Justice Sastri was elevated to the Federal Court after serving as a permanent judge of the Madras High Court for nine years. The story of his appointment to the top Court is interesting. Then Chief Justice of the Federal Court, Patrick Spens resigned two days before India’s independence. Justice H.J. Kania replaced him as the new Chief Justice of the Federal Court and became the first Chief Justice of independent India. This opened up a spot for Justice Sastri to fill. He served at the Federal Court till it dissolved on 26 January 1950. Judges of the Supreme Court of India by George H. Gadbois, Jr. reported that along with Chandrashekhara Aiyer, Sastri’s appointment brought representation from the southern states among the first eight judges appointed to the Federal Court.
Under ordinary circumstances, Justice Sastri would never have become the Chief Justice by means of seniority. However, the untimely death of Chief Justice Kania on 6 November 1951 made Justice Sastri, the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court. On 7 November 1951, Justice Sastri took over as the Chief Justice of the Federal Court. Discussions from that era suggest that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru preferred Justice M.C. Chagla (who was third in seniority) to be the Chief Justice instead of Justice Sastri. In his autobiography, former Attorney General M.C. Setalvad mentions that Nehru ultimately conceded when Supreme Court judges “threatened to resign” if Justice Sastri’s seniority was overlooked.
On 4 January 1954, Justice Sastri retired after serving as India’s Chief Justice for 2 years 1 month and 28 days.
Tenure at the Supreme Court in Numbers
Figure 1 shows that Justice Sastri authored 75 judgements and was a part of 171 benches.
Justice Sastri’s judgements dealt mostly with Constitutional Law (51%), followed by Direct Taxation (17%) and Criminal Law (15%).
In A.K. Gopalan v The State of Madras (1950), a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, in a 4:2 majority, upheld the constitutionality of the Preventive Detention Act, 1950. Gopalan was a communist politician who was detained for three speeches he delivered in 1947. He filed a writ of habeas corpus under Article 32 of the newly adopted Constitution, alleging violations of Articles 13, 19, 21 and 22. The majority, including Justice Sastri, found a violation concerning only one provision of the Act—Section 14, which prohibited disclosure of reasons for detention. The bench held that this provision was severable from the rest of the statute.
Gopalan had importantly argued that his detention violated Article 21 as it was without a “procedure established by law.” The majority observed that “law” in “procedure established by law” was understood to be State-made law, distinct from the “due process of law” philosophy adopted in the US.
Justice Sastri wrote that “law” under Article 21 did not mean “jus naturale civil law”, meaning Article 21 could not be interpreted through natural law, but it was law in a positive sense. He also clarified that “procedure established by law” would not be any law enacted by a “competent legislature”—rather it should be understood as the well-established normative criminal procedure only. In later years, however, the Court moved away from Gopalan’s restrictive reading of Article 21.
In State of West Bengal v Bela Banerjee (1953), a five-judge bench led by Justice Sastri, by a 3:2 majority, struck down the West Bengal Land Development and Planning Act, 1948, a land acquisition legislation from West Bengal. The Act was made to simplify property development to accommodate large-scale immigration from East Pakistan after the partition.
Section 8(i) of the Act allowed the State to declare and acquire any land for “public purpose” without any challenge. Section 8(ii) fixed the upper valuation of the amount to be paid for acquisition as the “market value of the land” as of 1946.
Justice Sastri, leading the majority, struck down the provisions, holding that the public purpose had to be “objectively” established. He relied on Article 31(2) of the Constitution, a provision later omitted by the 44th Amendment. Article 31(2), as it existed, stated that property could only be acquired by the state for public purposes and upon payment of compensation which was backed by the authority of law. Justice Sastri stated that “compensation” envisioned in Article 31(2) was the sum equivalent to what the owner was deprived of, and nothing less.
Justice Sastri’s contribution to the freedom of trade and rights of companies and shareholders was demonstrated in Chiranjeet Lal Chowdhuri v Union of India. In this case, the constitutionality of a law enacted by the Union government to regulate the affairs of one economically significant establishment, the Sholapur Spinning and Weaving Company, which had fallen into mismanagement, was challenged. The challenge was based on a contended violation of Article 14. It was argued that since the law regulated and laid obligations on only a single company and not others it violated the test of “reasonable classification”, a cornerstone test of the right to equality.
In 3:2, the 5-judge bench held that the law did not violate Article 14. The majority led by Chief Justice Kania noted that even if a law only applied to a single class, if there was a sufficient basis for the law, there was a strong presumption for its constitutionality. They found the Sholapur Spinning Company to construe a class by itself, because of its high economic value. Dissenting against the majority opinion, Justice Sastri held that laws legislated to govern single entities violated Article 14. He observed that reasonable classification did not exist in this case, and hence the legislation was “plainly discriminatory” in nature. As a general practice, the Court has often struck down single-entity-oriented laws, and Chiranjeet Lal’s majority is not considered a bright precedent, although Justice Sastri set important discussions on Article 14 into motion.
In State of Madras v Champakam Dorairajan (1951), a seven-judge bench, including Justice Sastri, set aside an Order by the Tamil Nadu Government which reserved seats for ‘Non-Brahmin (Hindus)’, ‘Backward Hindus’, ‘Harijans’, Anglo-Indians and Indian Christians, and Muslims in engineering and medical colleges. The Bench observed that the Order was violative of Article 29 (2) of the Constitution. Article 29(2) states that admission to an educational institution cannot be denied on grounds of caste or religion. The Court, for the first time, discussed the interplay between directive principles of state policy (DPSP) and fundamental rights as the Order was passed in furtherance of a DPSP. The full Court agreed that DPSPs could not override fundamental rights.
Champakam Dorairajan is considered independent India’s first major reservation judgement.
After the Court
In 1953, Justice Sastri became the pro-chancellor of the University of Delhi, which was 31 years old at that time. After retirement, Justice Sastri continued to serve at the institute while also chairing the Central Sanskrit Board from 1959. He also headed the Kendriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth Society in Tirupati, reconciling with his admiration for Sanskrit.
During the 1950s, he held various senior positions in several institutions such as the International Law Association, the Press Trust of India, and the Airlines Compensation Commission. This institution engaged with the idea of nationalising airlines in India. In 1958, Justice Sastri was nominated as a member of the Madras Legislative Council. He served as a member of the Council for three years between 1959 and 1962. He was also a member of the Banaras Hindu University till his death in March 1963.