Former Supreme Court judge P.B. Sawant passes away at 90

He was one of the chief organisers of the 2017 ‘Elgaar Parishad’.

Former Supreme Court judge P.B. Sawant passed away at his Pune residence after a brief illness on February 15, aged 90.

According to sources, the retired judge, who had been active in public affairs since his retirement from the Supreme Court in 1995, had been ailing for a month. His last rites will be performed on February 16, said sources close to him.

Justice Sawant was in the news in recent years for being one of the chief organisers, along with retired Bombay High Court judge B.G. Kolse-Patil, of the original and controversial ‘Elgaar Parishad’ held in December 2017.

Speaking to The Hindu, Justice Kolse-Patil, a close friend of Justice Sawant, said that the former Supreme Court Judge was a towering personality whose intense dedication to social justice was legendary.

“He [Justice Sawant] was exemplar of how one human being ought to behave towards another. In his long career, his court decisions not only aimed at ensuring political and social justice for the victims but economic justice as well. His energy towards social causes was unflagging, and he remained active and tireless to the very end. His strict sense of justice and conduct of public affairs was inspirational and an example to all of us,” said Justice Kolse-Patil, in a glowing tribute to the late judge.

Justice Sawant started practising in the Bombay High Court in 1973 and was appointed justice in the Supreme Court in 1989 before retiring in 1995.

In 2002, he, along with retired Bombay High Court Judge Hosbet Suresh, served on an Indian People’s Tribunal headed by justice V.R. Krishna Iyer to investigate the 2002 Gujarat riots.

The report submitted by the tribunal had included the testimony of the late Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Minister from Gujarat Haren Pandya, who had testified about an alleged meeting convened by Prime Minister (then Chief Minister) Narendra Modi on the evening following the burning of the train at Godhra in February 2002, in which 50 kar sevaks were killed.

According to the report and Mr. Pandya’s testimony, officials at this meeting were allegedly instructed not to restrain the rage of radical Hindutva activists following the train burning incident.

In 2003, Justice Sawant had chaired a commission formed to investigate corruption charges against four Ministers in the then Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government in Maharashtra. The report submitted in February 2005 had indicted NCP leaders Nawab Malik, Padamsinh Patil and Jalgaon strongman Suresh Jain but exonerated Vijaykumar Gavit. It had resulted in the resignation of Mr. Jain and Mr. Malik (currently the Minority Development Minister in the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi government).

On December 31, 2017, more than 250 progressive social outfits — including several Left-leaning and Ambedkarite groups across Maharashtra — as well as people such as Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangha chief Prakash Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Umar Khalid among others had participated in the ‘Elgaar Parishad’ that was held in Pune’s Shaniwar Wada and organised by Justice Sawant and Justice Kolse-Patil.

In the aftermath of the Bhima-Koregaon riots which broke out the next day (January 1, 2018), the Pune city police, in its controversial probe, had stated that the ‘Elgaar Parishad’ had triggered the Bhima-Koregaon clashes — a theory vehemently denied by several other activists and as well as by Justice Sawant and Justice Kolse-Patil.

Since then, there have been two investigations into the affair. While the Pune rural police have lodged an FIR against right wing Hindutva leaders Sambhaji Bhide ‘Guruji’ and Milind Ekbote, naming them as the orchestrators of the violence, the Pune city police and Central agencies such as the NIA have conducted crackdowns across the country and arrested a number of noted lawyers, writers, intellectuals and activists, including advocate Surendra Gadling, professor Shoma Sen, Gautam Navlakha, poet P. Varavara Rao, Father Stan Swamy and Sudha Bharadwaj, for their alleged links with proscribed Maoist outfits and for their roles in the 2017 “Elgaar Parishad” and the subsequent Bhima-Koregaon clashes.

Justice Sawant, who said that the Parishad had been organised to fight against communal forces, had maintained that the arrests were the government’s “method of choking dissent”.

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