11th Chief Justice of India
Assumed Office25th Feb, 1968
Retired On16th Dec, 1970
Acting President of IndiaOctober 6th, 1982 - October 31st, 1982
6th Vice President of IndiaAugust 31st, 1979 - August 30th, 1984
Acting President of IndiaJuly 20th, 1969 - August 24th, 1969
President, Indian Society of International Law1969 - 1970
President, Indian Law Institute1969 - 1970
President, International Law Association1968 - 1970
President, Inns of Court Society1968
Appointed Judge at Supreme CourtDecember 1st, 1958
Chief Justice, High Court of Madhya PradeshNovember 1st, 1956 - November 29th, 1958
Member, Faculty of Law, Court Vikram University, Saugar University, and Aligarh Muslim University1954 to 1958
Chief Justice, Nagpur High CourtDecember 3rd, 1954 - 1956
Dean of the Faculty of Law, Nagpur University1949-53
Puisne Judge, Nagpur High Court1946 - 1954
Permanent Judge, Central Provinces and BerarSeptember 13th, 1946
Additional Judge, High Court of Central Provinces and BerarJune 24th, 1946
Conferred O.B.E. by King George VI1946
Member, Nagpur Bar Council1943-46
Advocate General, Central Provinces and BerarAugust 2nd, 1943 - 1946
Government Pleader, Nagpur High CourtDecember 12th, 1942 - August, 1943
Lecturer in Jurisprudence and Mahomedan law, University College of Law, Nagpur1935 - 1943
Executive and Academic Councils, Nagpur University1934 - 1953
Advocate, Nagpur High Court1930 - 1946
Barrister-at-Law, Lincoln’s Inn1930
Born in Betul (Madhya Pradesh) on December 17th, 1905, Justice Mohammad Hidayatullah was the 11th Chief Justice of India. A man of many firsts in India’s legal history, Hidayatullah J bears the unique distinction of being the only Indian citizen in independent India to have held the positions of Chief Justice of India, Vice President of India, and acting President of India.
The son of prominent Urdu poet, government officer, and politician Khan Bahadur Hafiz Mohammad Wilayatullah, Hidayatullah J grew up in an affluent, educated family. A Phillips scholar, he pursued a B.A. in English, History, and Persian from Nagpur’s Morris College, for which he was awarded the Malak gold medal for academic excellence upon graduating in 1926.
At the behest of his father, between 1927 to 1930, he went on to pursue a B.A. in English, English Literature, and Law, as well as an M.A, from Trinity College at Cambridge University. A gold medalist at Cambridge, he was later called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1930 at the age of 25.
Upon returning to India, between 1930 to 1946, Hidayatullah practised as an Advocate at the erstwhile Nagpur High Court. In December of 1942 he was appointed as Government Pleader at the Court, a position he held until August of 1943. From August 2nd, 1943 to 1946, he was the Advocate General for the High Court of Central Provinces and Berar—at 37 years of age, he was the youngest Advocate General of a State during his time.
Between 1943 to 1946, Hidayatullah J was a member of the Nagpur Bar Council. 1946 would turn out to be a particularly eventful year for Hidayatullah J: on June 24th he was appointed Additional Judge at High Court of Central Provinces and Berar, and by September 13th, he was appointed as a permanent Judge of the Court. 1946 also saw Hidayatullah J conferred as Officer of the Order of the British Empire by King George VI.
On December 3rd, 1954, Hidayatullah J was appointed Chief Justice at the Nagpur High Court—making him the youngest Chief Justice of a High Court during his time. Between November 1st, 1956 and November 29th, 1958, he held the office of Chief Justice of the High Court of Madhya Pradesh. On December 1st, 1958, aged 52, he was elevated to a Justice at the Supreme Court—making him the youngest Justice to be elevated in the Court’s history at the time.
On February 25th, 1968, as he was appointed as the 11th Chief Justice of India, he also became India’s first Muslim CJI. He retired from the CJI’s office on December 16th, 1970, off the heels of delivering the landmark majority judgment in Madhav Rao Scindia v Union of India.
Tenure as Vice President and Acting President of India
While serving as the CJI, between July 20th to August 24th of 1969, Hidayatullah J also briefly held the office of the President of India. On May 3rd, 1969, Zakir Husain, then the President of India, passed away, after which Vice President V.V. Giri assumed the President’s office as acting President. In order to contest for the 1969 Presidential Elections, Mr. Giri resigned from both positions. With both positions vacant, Hidayatullah J was elevated to acting President of India.
Almost a decade after his retirement from the office of the CJI in 1970, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the erstwhile Janata government, Hidayatullah J was appointed as the 6th Vice President of India on August 31st 1979. He was unanimously elected, and served the full term, stepping down on August 30th, 1984. It is hypothesised that he was not formally elevated to President of India, as often is the case for Vice Presidents, as he was perceived to be a critic of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government.
In 1982, when President Zail Singh travelled to the United States for heart surgery, Hidayatullah J once again served as the acting President of India from October 6th, 1982 to October 31st 1982.
Career Outside the Court
Hidayatullah J was a scholar of both the law and languages—including English, Urdu, French, Persian, and Hindi—and published widely across his career. He received more than a dozen honorary degrees over his lifetime.
Hidayatullah J engaged with India’s legal education ecosystem and civil society alongside his judicial career. He was a Lecturer in Jurisprudence and Mahomedan law at the University College of Law, Nagpur (1935-43), and later became the Dean of the Faculty of Law at Nagpur University (1949-53). Between 1954 to 1958, he was a member of the Faculty of Laws at Court Vikram University, Saugar University, and Aligarh Muslim University. While practising at the High Court of Nagpur, he was also a member of the Nagpur Municipal Committee (1931-33) and the Nagpur Improvement Trust (1943-45).
In 1968, Hidayatullah J assumed office as President of the Inns of Court Society. 1968 to 1970 proved to be a busy time for the Justice, as he held the Presidential offices of the International Law Association (1968-70), the Indian Law Institute (1969-70), and the Indian Society of International Law (1969-70).
Judicial Output at the SC
While at the Supreme Court (1958-70), Hidayatullah J authored 461 judgments and sat on 1,220 benches. In 1961, he authored 49 judgments.
Hidayatullah J predominantly adjudicated on matters of criminal law, direct taxation, and Constitutional law.
Notable Judgments at the SC
Golaknath v State of Punjab (1967)
Justice Hidayutullah’s dissent in defending the non-amendability of Fundamental Rights in the Sajjan Singh v State of Rajasthan (1964) case can be said to be the cornerstone of the Golaknath judgment in 1967. Here too, Hidayutullah J vehemently declared that the liberty of an individual was fundamental. To change this fundamental aspect of the individual’s liberty was an usurpation of constituent functions by the Parliament.
Naresh S. Mirajkar v State of Punjab, (1966)
On at least two occasions Hidayutullah J has added short opinions to judgments admitting his mistakes, changing his views accordingly. In Naresh S. Mirajkar v State of Punjab, the Court was deciding a defamation case filed by a businessman against Blitz magazine. Hidayutullah J was the sole dissent of the 9-Judge Bench. He said that while judges as upholders of the Constitution are least likely to err, the possibility of them being in contravention of the Constitution must still be taken into consideration, especially in the context of Fundamental Rights.
Ranjit Udeshi v State of Maharashtra, (1964)
Hidayutullah J, while deciding on whether the controversial novel Lady Chatterlay’s Lover was obscene or not, observed that where obscenity and art were mixed, art must overthrow obscenity into the shadows. However, his defence of the right to freedom of speech and expression was not an unrestricted one. He disallowed any exercise of this right which was inconsistent with public morals and decency in the judgment, leading to the subsequent ban of the book.
Madhav Rao Scindia v Union of India, (1970)
Hidayutullah J gave the concurring opinion in his last case as the CJI, wherein he ruled that the abolition of ‘privy purses’ received by the rulers of Princely States was ultra vires of the Constitution, or beyond its power. He opined that privy purses were property and could not be taken away by a mere executive order. It is of note that while hearings for this case were going on, Hidayatullah J. was being considered for the Lokpal anti-corruption committee, as well as for the World Court (often referred to as the International Court of Justice). He was clear in stating that he would refuse these positions and went on to give his concurring judgment against the government.