On February 15, 91-year-old Justice PB Sawant breathed his last, leaving behind friends, family and a sea of people whose lives he had touched over the course of not just his career as a lawyer and a judge, but also post retirement.
Born on June 30, 1930, he obtained an LLB from Mumbai University and started practicing in the Bombay High Court, often representing labourers and farmers. He was inspired by Dr. BR Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule, and strived to empower the most oppressed and marginalised sections. In fact, he was also president of the Mahatma Phule Samta Pratishthan for several years.
He went on to practice in the Supreme Court of India. He was appointed a Judge of the Bombay HC in 1973 and a justice of the Supreme Court in 1989. Justice Sawant retired in 1995, but that was only the beginning of his second innings as a man committed to justice and equality.
In 2002, Justice Sawant joined retired justice Hosbet Suresh on an Indian People’s Tribunal headed by Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer to investigate the 2002 Gujarat riots. Their report included the testimony of the now slain Gujarat BJP Minister Haren Pandya who said he had attended a meeting convened by then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on the evening of the Godhra train burning incident, where Modi had directed all attendees to allow Hindus to vent their rage.
Justice Sawant also chaired a commission created in September 2003 to look into allegations of corruption against four Maharashtra ministers: Nawab Malik, Padmasinh Patil, Suresh Jain and Vijaykumar Gavit. He submitted his report in February 2005 indicting all but Gavit who was exonerated.
Justice Sawant also authored three books: Mass Media in Contemporary Society (1998), Advertising Law and Ethics (2002) and A Grammar of Democracy (2013).
A proponent of press freedom, he also served as chairman of the Press Council of India. But his commitment to free press did not mean he would allow channels airing defamatory content against him to go scot free. Justice Sawant sued Times Now for Rs 100 crores in September 2008 for wrongly using his image in a story, thereby defaming him.
On December 31, 2017, Justice Sawant, along with retired Bombay HC Judge BG Kolse-Patil, convened the Elgaar Parishad at the Shaniwar Wada in Pune. It is at this gathering that many activists made speeches against casteism. The activists, their associates as well as several others who were neither present, nor in any way connected with the Elegar Parishad event were later implicated in the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy, where the National Investigation Agency says that it was their fiery speeches that precipitated the violence at Bhima Koregaon the following day on January 1, 2018.
Both, Justice Sawant and Justice Kolse-Patil openly said that it was they who were the main organisers and sole funders of the Elgar Parishad. But a vindictive regime instead went on to target other activists.
“‘Elgaar’ means loud invitation or loud declaration, and our main theme was to save the Constitution and the nation,” Sawant had told CJP secretary and human rights defender in an interview in 2018. “The right-wing forces do not accept our present Constitution. They believe neither in democracy, nor socialism nor secularism,” he had said.
Sawant and Kolse-Patil had strategically selected December 31 as the day for the Parishad, because lakhs of Dalit citizens from across the country were set to gather at Bhima Koregaon near Pune the next day, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of an 1818 battle in which a British army with a continent of Mahars defeated the much stronger forces of the Peshwas, a regime noted for their casteist policies.
In fact, in September 2018, in an exclusive video interview to Teesta Setalvad, (Retd) Justice PB Sawant discussed why no action had been taken against Sambhaji Bhide in the Bhima Koregaon case. He also explained how the two sets of raids on activists and dissenting voices are a part of a wider RSS agenda to replace the Constitution with the Manusmriti and further their supremacist agenda.
The interview may be viewed here:
Justice Sawant is survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.