The first Sikh Supreme Court judge and the story behind his elevation
The story behind the elevation of Justice Ranjit Singh Sarkaria as Supreme Court judge is very interesting. India being a secular country, there has been a practice of appointing judges on the basis of religion.
Prior to the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Judge’s case, the system of the appointment of judges in the Supreme Court was mainly handled by the Central Government. The government used to try that there should be one or the other Muslim judge in the Supreme Court. In such a situation, the leaders of other religions also tried to appoint judges of their religion.
In 1973, for the appointment of a Sikh judge in the Supreme Court, the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Giani Zail Singh and Lok Sabha Speaker G. S. Dhillon worked hard. Both met Union Law Ministers H.R. Gokhale and the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi.
Giani Zail Singh and G.S. Dhillon requested Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi to give a chance to Sikhs in the Supreme Court. Both Gokhale and Indira Gandhi agreed on the suggestion. After this, Gokhale went on a journey to Chandigarh in search of a Sikh judge. Gokhale organized a lunch with all the judges of the High Court.
The Chief Ministers of Punjab and Haryana hosted a dinner in honor of Law Minister Gokhale, which was also attended by High Court judges. There were various rumors about who would be appointed to the Supreme Court.
Shortly after Gokhale's visit to Chandigarh, Giani Zail Singh contacted Justice Ranjit Singh Sarkaria, a Sikh judge of the Punjab-Haryana High Court. Both met in a guest house. Jail Singh requested Justice Sarkaria to become a judge of the Supreme Court.
Sarkaria declined Zail Singh's offer citing personal reasons. Actually, Justice Sarkaria was not very ambitious. He preferred to go to Patiala on weekends to work in his farm. Justice P.C. Pandit, one of Sarkaria's colleagues in the High Court, urged Sarkaria to accept Jail Singh's offer.
After this Sarkaria spoke to his wife. She also believed that Sarkaria should accept the offer. Now Justice Sarkaria tried to contact Jail Singh. But by then he had left for Delhi. However, after some difficulty, talks were held with Jail Singh. He told Zail Singh that his mind had changed. On the other hand, Jail Singh told that he had come to meet the Prime Minister to inform that the Government had rejected the proposal.
After talking to Jail Singh, Gokhale told the then CJI A.K.N. Ray and informed about Sarkaria's decision. Thus, on September 17, 1973, Justice Sarkaria was appointed to the Supreme Court. He retired on January 15, 1981. He was the first Sikh judge of the Supreme Court of India.
After Justice Sarkaria, Justice Kuldip Singh and then Justice H.S. Bedi and S.S. Nijjhar were also elevated to the Supreme Court. J.S. Kehar was the first Sikh Chief justice of India.
Mr. Justice Ranjit Singh Sarkaria was born on 16th January, 1916, and educated at B.N. Khalsa Polytechnic, Patiala and Government Mahendra College, Patiala; Government College, Lahore (Graduated in 1936); University Law College, Lahore (1937-1939). He practised at Patiala as Pleader and thereafter as Advocate of the Patiala High Court from 1940 to 1943. He was then appointed as Sub Judge-cum-Magistrate in Patiala Judicial Service from 21.4.1943 to 1.9.1948 an then in Pepsu Judicial Service from 2.9.1948 to 21.8.1951. He was in the two member Committee set up by Pepsu Government to translate the Constitution of India into Punjabi. He was then appointed as District/Additional District & Sessions Judge in Superior Judicial Service from 22.8.1951 to 31.10.1956 in Pepsu and from 1.11.1956 to 18.6.1962 in Punjab; on deputation as Registrar, Punjab High Court from 19.6.1962 to 12.6.1967; in Selection/Super-selection grade of Punjab Superior Judicial Service from 11.9.1963 to 12.6.1967. He was then appointed as Additional Judge of Punjab and Haryana High Court from 13.6.1967 to 26.9.1967 and puisne Judge from 27.9.1967 to 15.9.1973; Appointed Judge of the Supreme Court of India with effect from 17th September, 1973; Retired on 15th January, 1981.
Nominated Senator and Syndic of Punjabi University, Patiala since 1971. He was a member of the Committee set up by Punjab University to advice on the preparation of a comprehensive Punjabi Dictionary with work is in progress in the University. He also has few publication in his name such as (1) English-Hindi-Punjabi Dictionary of Legal and Administrative Terms (1950); (2) Ik Lapp Hussan Di- "Handful of Beauty"- a rendering of famous English poems into Punjabi Verse (1969); (3) Shakespeare's 'King Lear' translated into Punjabi, Published by Punjabi University (1973).