Hans Raj Khanna (3 July 1912 – 25 February 2008) was a judge of the Supreme Court of India from 1971 to 1977. Two of his judgements form the basis of modern constitutional law in India, even decades after they were delivered. He is noted for his judgement in the highly publicized Habeas Corpus case during the Indian Emergency, in which four other judges, barring him, agreed with the governmental view that even fundamental rights like the right to life stood abrogated during the period of National Emergency. Khanna's dissenting opinion, claiming that the Constitution did not intend to permit right to life and liberty to be subject to executive decree, is widely regarded as a landmark in Indian democracy and has been lauded by scholars.
Khanna had previously authored the Basic structure doctrine of the Constitution of India in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, which curtailed Parliament's amending power, restricting its scope of amendment in areas which were part of the Constitution's "basic structure".
On 3 January 1977, after delivering the Habeas Corpus judgement, he was superseded for the post of Chief Justice by Indira Gandhi, despite being the senior-most judge in the Supreme Court and as a result of this, he resigned from the court. His honest actions as the supreme court judge during emergency were admired in India as well as abroad.
Khanna was born in Amritsar, Punjab in 1912, the son of lawyer and freedom fighter Sarb Dyal Khanna. The family hailed from a trading tradition, but Hans's father had become a leading lawyer and later, the mayor of Amritsar. Hans's mother died at a young age, and the household was run by his grandmother. He did his schooling at DAV High School, Amritsar.
After completing his schooling from D.A.V. High School, Amritsar (1918–1928), He studied at the Hindu College, Amritsar and Khalsa College, Amritsar, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts, before joining the Law College, Lahore (1932–1934). After graduating, he practised law in Amritsar, dealing mainly with civil cases and soon gathered a large practice which he maintained till 1952.
In January 1952 he was nominated by Sir Eric Weston, Chief Justice of Punjab, as District and Sessions Judge. This was "an uncommon appointment.... it had long been the practice to appoint only from the civil service". He served in the district courts at Ferozepur, and then Ambala.
He moved as District and Sessions Judge, Delhi until he was appointed Judge of Punjab High Court in 1962. On the formation of the Delhi High Court, he joined the bench as one of its first judges. He conducted the inquiry into corruption charges against Biju Patnaik and other Ministers in Orissa. While some of the charges were found true, Biju himself was absolved. He served as Chief Justice of Delhi High Court from 1969 till September 1971 when he was appointed Judge of the Supreme Court.
While the Habeas Corpus case is Justice Khanna's most celebrated ruling, almost as well known is his judgment in the landmark case of Kesavananda Bharati. In 1973, the Supreme Court constituted its largest ever bench of 13 judges to decide whether Parliament had the unfettered right to amend the Constitution or not. On 24 April 1973, seven out of 13 judges held that Parliament's power to amend the Constitution was limited. Six other judges in the case were of the view that Parliament's power was unrestricted. Justice Khanna's judgement held that, although the Constitution is amenable to amendments, changes that ultra vires, tinker with its basic structure cannot be made by Parliament, that is – certain parts of the constitution were "basic" and could not be amended. However, he also said the right to amendment was fundamental – as he explained, "if no provision were made for amendment of the Constitution, the people would have recourse to extra-constitutional methods like revolution".
The emergency was declared when Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court invalidated the election of Indira Gandhi to the Lok Sabha in June 1975, upholding charges of electoral fraud, in the case filed by Raj Narain.
In an atmosphere where a large number of people had been detained without trial under the repressive Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), several high courts had given relief to the detainees by accepting their right to habeas corpus as stated in Article 21 of the Indian constitution. This issue was at the heart of the case of the Additional District Magistrate of Jabalpur v. Shiv Kant Shukla, popularly known as the Habeas Corpus case, which came up for hearing in front of the Supreme Court in December 1975. Given the important nature of the case, a bench comprising the five seniormost judges was convened to hear the case.
During the arguments, Justice Khanna at one point asked the Attorney General Niren De: "Life is also mentioned in Article 21 and would Government argument extend to it also?". He answered, "Even if life was taken away illegally, courts are helpless".
The bench opined in April 1976, with the majority deciding against habeas corpus, permitting unrestricted powers of detention during emergency. Justices A. N. Ray, P. N. Bhagwati, Y. V. Chandrachud, and M.H. Beg, stated in the majority decision:
Justice Beg even went on to observe: "We understand that the care and concern bestowed by the state authorities upon the welfare of detenues who are well housed, well fed and well treated, is almost maternal."
However, Justice Khanna resisted the pressure to concur with this majority view . He wrote in his dissenting opinion:
In the end, he quoted Justice Charles Evans Hughes:
Before delivering this opinion, Justice Khanna mentioned to his sister: I have prepared my judgment, which is going to cost me the Chief Justice-ship of India.
True to his apprehensions, his junior, M. H. Beg, was appointed Chief Justice in January 1977. This was against legal tradition and was widely protested by bar associations and the legal community. Justice Khanna resigned on the same day. After his resignation Bar Associations all over India, in protest, abstained from the courts and took out black-coat processions, though to no avail. However, his was the last supersession in the history of the Supreme Court, and eventually the judiciary even wrested the power of judicial appointments from the executive in a landmark ruling in the Advocates-on-Record case in 1993 (also known as the Second Judges Case)
The New York Times, wrote at the time:
If India ever finds its way back to the freedom and democracy that were proud hallmarks of its first eighteen years as an independent nation, someone will surely erect a monument to Justice H R Khanna of the Supreme Court. It was Justice Khanna who spoke out fearlessly and eloquently for freedom this week in dissenting from the Court's decision upholding the right of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Government to imprison political opponents at will and without court hearings... The submission of an independent judiciary to absolutist government is virtually the last step in the destruction of a democratic society; and the Indian Supreme Court's decision appears close to utter surrender.
Nani Palkhivala's book, which come out soon after the emergency was revoked, carried a full-fledged chapter on him titled, "Salute to Justice Khanna". At one point in the chapter he says of Justice Khanna, "his statue must be installed in every street and corner of the country for the yeoman service rendered by him for the cause of justice".
In December 1978, his full-size portrait was unveiled in his former court, courtroom number 2 of the Supreme Court. To this day, nobody else has had the singular honour of having their portrait put up in the Supreme Court during their lifetime In fact, when the Supreme Court Bar Association asked for contributions from its members to collect Rs 10,000 for the portrait, within half-an-hour Rs 30,000 was on the table and the members of the bar had to be forcibly stopped.
Upon the suspension of the emergency, the Janata Party which was preparing for the impending elections urged him to contest them but he refused preferring instead to carry on chamber practice. He was highly active with it, taking international arbitrations into his early nineties.
After Indira Gandhi lost the elections of 1977, the ruling Janata Party wanted him to head the Commission of Inquiry against the illegal imposition of the emergency and the various atrocities committed during it but Khanna refused, as he felt he would appear biased toward Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi.
He was then offered the Chairmanship of the Finance Commission, a position he also refused. He did however accept the office of Chairman of the Law Commission, a post he held without any pay. He resigned from its chairmanship in 1979 when he was inducted into the cabinet as Union Law Minister by Charan Singh. However, he resigned within 3 days. As it so happened, the entire government fell within six months.
In 1982 Khanna was nominated for President of India, as a combined opposition candidate supported by as many as nine opposition parties. However, the Congress Party had a huge majority numerically and he lost to Giani Zail Singh.
From 1985 until 2000, he was the national president of the Bharat Vikas Parishad, after which he became patron to the organisation. He was a long time board member of, and for many years the chairman of the Press Trust of India.
In 1998, the Justice HR Khanna committee was constituted by the railway ministry with the mandate of "reviewing the implementation of previous accident inquiry committees, of examining the adequacy of existing practices for safe running of trains and to suggest safety measures." Under his chairmanship, the Railway Safety Review Committee made 278 recommendations, out of which 239 were accepted by the railways.
In 2001 he chaired the advisory panel to the Government of India on strengthening the institutions of parliamentary democracy.
A prolific writer, he also lectured regularly and many of his lectures were later published in book form. Among the books he has authored, are "Judicial Review or Confrontation" (1977), Constitution and civil liberties (1978, based on the B. R. Ambedkar memorial lectures), Making of India's Constitution (1981, based on the Sulakshani Devi Mahajan lectures), "Judiciary in India and Judicial Process (1985, based on the Tagore Law Lectures), Liberty, Democracy and Ethics, Society and the Law, which mainly deal with Indian law and the constitution. He also wrote an autobiography, Neither Roses nor Thorns, (Lucknow, 1985).
In the conclusion of his Making of India's constitution, he writes:
If the Indian constitution is our heritage bequeathed to us by our founding fathers, no less are we, the people of India, the trustees and custodians of the values which pulsate within its provisions! A constitution is not a parchment of paper, it is a way of life and has to be lived up to. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and in the final analysis, its only keepers are the people. Imbecility of men, history teaches us, always invites the impudence of power."
He published his autobiography, Neither Roses Nor Thorns in 2003. Justice Khanna died in his sleep on 25 February 2008.
The government of India honoured him with the Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian award, in 1999.
He has been awarded honorary Doctor of Law degrees by numerous universities, including Faculty of Law, University of Delhi, National Law School of India University, Government Law College, Mumbai, University of Calcutta and his alma mater Panjab University.
On the occasion of his 90th birthday, the Supreme Court Bar Association presented him with a plaque conferring upon him the title of "Living Legend of Law".
Two sets of lectures are held in Justice Khanna's honour.
A series of lectures was organised by Justice Khanna's family for some years after his death but was subsequently discontinued. They were presided over by Soli Sorabjee, who was a very close friend of Justice Khanna's.
The first lecture was delivered by Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, on the topic "The Constitutional World of Justice Khanna". In 2010, the speaker was K.K. Venugopal. The third instalment in 2011 was delivered by Justice Santosh Hegde. In 2012, the last in this succession of lectures, the H.R. Khanna Centennial Memorial Lecture was held – the speakers of which were Justice J.S. Verma and B G Verghese.
The KIIT Law School also holds a H.R. Khanna Memorial Lecture. The first one was delivered by Gopal Subramaniam, in 2011 on the topic "Legal and Political Processes in Modern Indian Democracy". It was presided over by Justice Ranganath Misra. The same lecture for the year 2012 was delivered by Justice Dipak Misra
International Journal of Law & Management Studies holds an Essay Competition in honour of Justice Khanna called the IJLMS Justice H.R. Khanna Memorial Essay Competition in the month of May annually. The First Edition of this competition was held in association with IPMarkets, Hyderabad.