(This post first appeared on the Law and Other Things Blog)
On March 12, 1968, Justice Amar Nath Grover had completed a month of being on the Indian Supreme Court. His appointment was one of the last acts of K.N. Wanchoo as Chief Justice, who was himself replaced by M.C. Hidayatullah on February 25, 1968. In a tradition continued till today, the newest judge sits together with the Chief Justice and another judge, to ease her in. In this case that other judge was Justice Vaidialingam (on the court since 1966). The bustling hallways of the Supreme Court had seen great controversy in the past few years with an escalating ‘battle’ between the Court and Parliament over the scope of the latter’s power to amend the constitution itself.
But none of this was in the air on Wednesday, March 13 1968, and the justices were not announcing any decision of comparable importance as Golak Nath. When Man Mohan Das entered the Chief’s Court at around 2:30 PM, the Chief Justice was sitting in the middle, flanked by Justice Grover on his left and Justice Vaidialingam on his right, and was delivering an opinion in a criminal appeal filed by the State of Gujarat (it was State v Chinubhai, a prohibition case). Engrossed in their business, nobody paid attention to Das, in regular clothes and not lawyer’s robe, who entered the courtroom and strode purposefully towards the bench. It must have taken a few seconds for him to cover those twenty odd yards that separate the entry doors from the bench where the judges sit. Before anyone knew it, Man Mohan Das was standing atop the dais and facing the judges. He had a knife in hand, and had now moved from the dais to the judges’ table.
Since the Supreme Court’s security back then did not involve thorough checks and keeping all our biographic data, precious little is known about Man Mohan Das (or Mono Mohan Das, depending on the news report you read). The news reports and the sparse material suggest this much was deduced by the police. Das was probably born in Murshidabad, West Bengal; he was also probably not poor, having been to England to see a doctor regarding issues about mental ‘fitness’, and having otherwise travelled across several parts of India as well. Das reportedly bore some ‘grudges’ against the West Bengal Government, but he was no political activist.
For some reason though, he certainly harbored a peculiar dislike towards courts. Das had shattered a tubelight in a courtroom of the Bombay High Court while it was in session, and for this he was sent to prison for a year in July, 1967. Evidently, he escaped, and travelled to Delhi. He was probably working at a tea stall on one of Delhi’s two prominent railway stations before this incident. Nothing showed Das had any personal connection to either of the three judges, or Chinubhai (who won his appeal, incidentally). And yet, on March 13, 1968, he climbed the famous steps of the Indian Supreme Court, entered the court, climbed the dais despite the court staff being there and brandished a Rampuri knife before the Chief Justice of India.
We all know that nobody died in that courtroom on March 13, 1968. That was largely due to Chief Justice Hidayatullah. Appointed to the bench nearly a decade before and as the youngest ever Supreme Court justice, the Chief Justice had gained respect in his time on the Court. In his work on the Supreme Court, Professor Gadbois Jr. comments that Hidayatullah did not get any favors from the Indira Gandhi government after retirement because of his “reputation as a judge to stand up to the government”. He was fearless, never more so than when he faced Man Mohan Das standing before him on the dais.
The Chief Justice first hurled an inkstand at Das and, in the time he gained, he quickly used the ungainly seat-cushion of his chair as a shield to successfully ward off the blow that came. Das then tried knifing Justice Vaidialingam but missed. As Das was about to strike Justice Grover, the Chief grabbed the assailant’s arm and prevented him from striking a clean blow. In the ensuing scuffle, Justice Grover got a gash on his scalp while Das fell from his table to the ground, where he was finally overpowered by the throng of lawyers and staff members that had probably been transfixed in horror watching the scene before them. Justice Grover was rushed to Willingdon Hospital (since renamed as Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital) near Delhi’s central post office by Justice Vaidialingam and the Chief Justice, “his clothes stained with blood and ink.” Remarkably, court proceedings were not halted for the day – after a brief interruption of about forty minutes, the judges returned to their duties.
The incident was heavily reported at the time and called for an urgent mentioning in parliament, giving the meagre opposition some fodder to attack the government. The Home Minister made a statement the next day and attempted to defend the vociferous attack made against his government on the supposedly dismal state of security services for the Supreme Court. In the middle of this heated debate, various members took a moment to record the ‘deep sense of appreciation’ towards the Chief Justice. Not only for his courage, but also for his reportedly refusing to make any comments to the media to ensure “the assailant should have a proper and fair trial.”
What happened to that assailant, Man Mohan Das? He was arrested and taken into custody, probably kept in the guard room where one member (A.D. Mani) reported to having seen him wearing ‘rags’. Das was produced before a Magistrate the next day and remanded to police custody. He would continue to remain in police custody for another two weeks after which his name disappears from records. Why did he do this? Was he really mentally ‘unfit’ as the police seemed to have assumed? Were they merely operating on stereotypes? Was he beaten whilst in custody? Was he ever given that fair trial that the Chief Justice desired for him? We may never know, because barring scattered references in parliament, news reports, and some judges’ biographies, there is seemingly no mention of this shocking event in the history of the Indian Supreme Court.
1. George Gadbois Jr., Judges of the Supreme Court of India, pp. 85, 88, 128, 136 (2011).
2. O. Chinnappa Reddy, Humpty Dumpty with Alice in the Wonderland of Law, p. 23 (2011).
3. Government of India, Rajya Sabha Debates, pp. 4593-94, 4636-44 (Mar. 13, 1968); pp. 4714-23 (Mar. 14, 1968).
4. ‘Das Remanded Again’, The Times of India, p. 7 (Mar. 26, 1968).
5. ‘Das Remanded to Police Custody’, The Times of India, p. 6 (Mar. 24, 1968).
6. ‘Motive for Das’s Crime Not Established’, The Times of India, p. 7 (Mar. 16, 1968).
7. ‘Das is Remanded to Custody’, The Times of India, p. 1 (Mar. 15, 1968).
8. ‘Judge Stabbed in Supreme Court: Assailant Stated to be Bombay Ex-Convict: Heroic Rescue by Chief Justice’, The Times of India, pp. 1, 9 (Mar. 14, 1968).