Mehr Chand Mahajan
Mehr Chand Mahajan
Former Chief Justice of India
Assumed Office26th Jan, 1950
Retired On22nd Dec, 1954
Chief Justice of IndiaJanuary 4th, 1954 - December 22nd, 1954
Judge, Federal Court/Supreme Court, October 4th, 1948 - January 3rd, 1954
Prime Minister, Jammu and Kashmir1947-1948
Judge, East Punjab High Court1947
Judge, Lahore High Court1943
President, High Court Bar Association, Lahore1938-1943
Early Life and Education
Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan was born on December 23, 1889, in Kangra, Punjab (now Himachal Pradesh). Justice Mahajan came from a family of shopkeepers and moneylenders, and he was a zamindar himself. His father looked after his large landholdings and also practised law in Dharamsala.
Justice Mahajan graduated from Government College, Lahore, with a BA (honours) in history in 1910 and then started an MSc in chemistry. He switched to law and pursued his LLB from the University Law College, Lahore, in 1912.
Career as a Lawyer
Justice Mahajan joined his father’s practice in the lower courts at Dharamsala in 1912 and moved to Gurdaspur in 1914 to start his own. In October 1918, he shifted to the Chief Court of Lahore, which became the Lahore High Court the next year. He practised there for almost 30 years.
Career as a Judge
Justice Mahajan turned down an offer of an Additional Judgeship at the Lahore High Court in November 1942, waiting to be appointed as a Permanent Judge. In September 1943, he became a Permanent Judge of the Lahore High Court at the age of 53. After India became independent and partitioned, he remained a judge of the new East Punjab High Court at Simla.
In September 1947, Justice Mahajan was appointed the Interim Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir by Maharaja Hari Singh . He played a vital role in the state’s accession to India in October 1947 and became the first Prime Minister of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir till Sheikh Abdullah replaced him in March 1948.
After leaving Kashmir, Justice Mahajan became the constitutional adviser of the Maharaja of Bikaner. He resumed his High Court duties in June 1948.
Justice Mahajan turned down offers to be the Chief Justice of Assam, the Chief Justice of the United States of Rajasthan and the adviser of the Maharaja of Patiala. In October 1948, he joined the Federal Court as a judge at 58 years old, representing the North along with Justice Fazl Ali.
Justice Mahajan’s appointment as Federal Court Judge was challenged by the Chief Justice of Lahore High Court, Dewan Ram Lal, who wanted the same post and had Nehru’s support. Justice Lal was senior to Justice Mahajan, and was concerned about being superceded. However, Justice Mahajan secured the position with the help of the Home Minister Sardar Patel, and then Chief Justice of India, H. J. Kania.
Justice Mahajan had an interesting connection with Justice B.K Mukerjea, another one of the eight judges of the erstwhile Federal Court. He was also invited by Justice Kania to join the Federal Court around the same time as Justice Mahajan.
However, Justice Mukherjea came to Delhi after Justice Mahajan. This mattered because Justice Mahajan was sworn in earlier on 4 October 1948, making him more senior. As a result, following the trend of seniority, Justice Mahajan became third in line, after Justice Kania and Justice M. Patanjali Sastri. This happened despite his relatively limited experience compared to Justice Mukherjea. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have had the chance to become the Chief Justice of India.
Justice Mahajan became the Chief Justice of India on January 4, 1954, when he was 65 years old. He served as CJI for almost a year, retiring on December 22, 1954.
Between 1950-1954, Justice M.C. Mahajan authored 132 judgments and sat on 337 Benches.
Subject Matter of Judgements
In Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras (1950) dealt with the validity of the Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1949, which banned a weekly journal called Cross Roads for public safety reasons. The issue was whether the ban infringed on the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. The majority, which included Justice Mahajan, stated that the freedom of speech and expression covers the freedom to spread ideas, which hinges upon on the freedom of circulation. He also said that the phrase ‘in the interests of public order’ in Article 19(2) should be interpreted narrowly and not include vague ideas of public safety or peace. The ban was held to be unconstitutional and void.
In Bharat Bank Ltd. Delhi v. Employees of the Bharat Bank Limited Delhi, the employees of the Bharat Bank made certain demands and once they received unfavourable responses they began a strike. A three-judge panel examined if the Constitution allowed appeals under Article 136 against Industrial Tribunal Awards. Justice Mahajan said that the word "tribunal" in Article 136 has to be construed liberally and not in any narrow sense. An Industrial Tribunal, which discharges functions of a judicial nature in accordance with the law, comes within the ambit of Article 136. Based on its decision, an application for special leave stands valid.
In Dwarkadas Shrinivas v. Sholapur Spinning and Weaving Co. Ltd., the owners of the mill closed down due to an accumulation of stock and other financial difficulties. The case dealt with the validity of section 15 of the Sholapur Spinning and Weaving Company (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1950, (1950 Act) which allowed the government to appoint directors and take over assets and management of the mills. Due to this, the company was left solely with “paper ownership”. Justice Mahajan stated that any assessment of the validity of a law must include the law’s actual effect on society. He further stated that the 1950 Act had overstepped the limits of legitimate social control legislation and has infringed the fundamental right of the company guaranteed to it under Article 31(2) of the Constitution.
In Brij Bhushan v. the State of Delhi dealt with the legality of an Order made by the Chief Commissioner of Delhi under Section 7(1)(c) of the East Punjab Public Safety Act, 1949 asking to subject the paper for scrutiny prior to publication of English weekly of Delhi called the “Organizer”. The majority, which included Justice Mahajan, stated that pre-censorship violated the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1) of the Constitution. After this, Parliament amended the Constitution, and expanded the scope of permissible restriction, on the right of freedom of speech, by adding ‘public order’, as one of the grounds of reasonable restriction.
Life outside the courtroom:
Starting from 1919, Mahajan followed the Arya Samaj faith and headed its D.A.V. College Trust and Managing Committee from 1938-1943. He also joined the Congress movement, taught law part-time(1922-1931), advised a Maharaja on legal matters (1930), served as a director of the Punjab National Bank (1934-1943), led the Lahore Bar Association (1938-1943), and was the president of the All-India Fruit Producers Association (1945). He took part in the investigation of the Royal navy Mutiny Inquiry (1946) and the division of Punjab (Radcliffe committee in 1947). He turned down the offer to be vice-chancellor of various universities but stayed connected with the D.A.V. College Trust and Punjab University. He was also on the Banaras Hindu University Enquiry Committee and dean of two faculties at Punjab University. He got an honorary LLD from Punjab University in 1948.
He was a hard-working and prominent man who had different roles in the public and private sectors. He chaired the Punjab Police Commission (1961-1962), was a director of a textile company, a member of a refugee commission, and a trustee of several trusts and a hospital. He also did some legal work and advice.
His most renowned work was the Mahajan Commission Report (1966), which he wrote as a one-man commission to settle the boundary disputes after the states were reorganised on linguistic grounds. He rejected Maharashtra’s claim to Belgaum City, which stayed in Karnataka. This decision is still contested today. He died in 1967 at the age of seventy-seven.