Nehru’s Apology To Justice Bose: How A ‘Fledgling Democracy Passed A Major Test’BloombergQuintOpinion
In June 1959, while the Supreme Court was still closed for its summer vacation, an incident took place which could have implicated the Prime Minister of India in a case of contempt of court. At a press conference in New Delhi, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said that a retired judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Vivian Bose, was “lacking in intelligence”. Had it not been for a swift and graceful apology by Nehru to Bose, a constitutional crisis could have ensued.
The incident arose against the backdrop of the Mundhra scandal of the late 1950s. Haridas Mundhra was a businessman. In 1957, the Life Insurance Corporation of India invested a sum of approximately Rs 1.26 crore in Mundhra entities. This was the single largest transaction ever entered into by LIC. The shares were not purchased on the open market, at market value, but in a private transaction. The price paid for the shares was higher than the market value.
Chief Justice MC Chagla of the Bombay High Court was appointed as sole commissioner to investigate the scam. After his report, Finance Minister TT Krishnamachari resigned.
TT Krishnamachari (second from right), then Union Finance Minister, presiding over the States' Finance Ministers Conference in New Delhi, on Nov. 18, 1957. (Photograph: Photo Division, Government of India)
Thereafter, the government appointed a Board of Enquiry in May 1958, headed by Justice Vivian Bose, to investigate the charges against some other officers. Though he had retired from the Supreme Court in June 1956, Bose was, at the time, serving as an ad-hoc judge of the Supreme Court. Bose submitted his report in September 1958, and found that the investment had been made by LIC in return for generous donations made by Mundhra to the Uttar Pradesh Congress Party of Rs 1.50 lakh, and to the central Congress Party of Rs 1 lakh.
Nehru was displeased. At a press conference held in New Delhi on June 10 1959, journalists asked him about the scandal. Nehru informed them that the Bose Commission’s findings were a “fantastic proposition”. One newspaper reported Nehru as having said: “If you believe that for this 2 ½ lakhs from Mundhra, the deal has been put through, the person who suggests it is lacking in intelligence, even if he is a High Court Judge.” Many newspapers, like Bombay’s tabloid Blitz, prominently reported the story.
At the time, the Supreme Court itself was in its summer vacation. However, the Calcutta High Court was in session. In the issue of the Calcutta Weekly Notes law report which came out soon thereafter, strong exception was taken to the “tenor and nature” of Nehru’s remarks. That month, the Calcutta Bar passed a strong resolution condemning Nehru’s remarks.
On June 19, the Honorary Secretary to the Bar Library Club, Calcutta, SR Das Gupta, wrote a letter to Nehru in which he enclosed a copy of the resolution. Nehru, who was staying at the Raj Bhavan in Trivandrum, Kerala, at the time, received the letter on June 23 and acted swiftly thereafter. In a letter drafted the same day, Nehru wrote to Das Gupta, and apologised. A few days later, on June 26, Nehru wrote a letter to Vivian Bose himself. In it, Nehru apologised to Bose for his comments, and wrote:
“I should like to express personally to you my deep regret at the remarks I made in this connection at the press conference I addressed in Delhi earlier this month. I realise fully that those remarks were improper and I should not have allowed myself to utter them. I was taken rather unawares by the questions put to me and I was thinking of many other things at that time also….I trust you will be good enough to accept my apology for this impropriety which I have committed.”
On that very day, June 26, Nehru wrote to the Chief Justice of India, SR Das, and also apologised to him. Nehru’s swift response had its desired effect. On June 29, Das Gupta wrote to Nehru, and said that Nehru’s letter was “deeply appreciate(d)”. On the same day, Bose wrote to Nehru, thanked him for his letter, and “also for the generous terms in which you referred to me when writing to the Calcutta Bar Library Club.” Bose forgave Nehru and wrote:
“I want you to know that I did not take your remarks seriously and that I was not in the least worried or upset. I know how much you have on your mind and fully understand that one says things in a moment of temporary irritation when one is tired which one does not really mean. All I regret is that I should have been the cause of so much public controversy.”
Justice Vivian Bose, Supreme Court Judge. (Image: Supreme Court Website/Bloomberg)
Several decades ago, while sitting as a judge of the Nagpur High Court, Justice Vivian Bose had delivered a classic judgment on apologies in contempt cases. In it, he had set out the tests for when an apology could be considered genuine. “An apology is not a weapon of defence forged to purge the guilty of their offences”, he had written, adding, “the apology should be tendered unreservedly and unconditionally before the arguments begin and before the person tendering the apology discovers that he has a weak case”. Nehru’s apology certainly met this test.
George H Gadbois, Jr., a noted historian of the judges of the Supreme Court, called this episode an example of “vintage ethics”. Gadbois had interviewed Bose in the 1980s in connection with his book project on the judges of the Supreme Court of India. In the process, he had obtained copies of these letters from Bose’s grand-niece. In his notes in the file he maintained on Bose, Gadbois opined that India, a “fledgling democracy” had “successfully passed a major test”.
While conducting interviews with retired judges of the Supreme Court, “old judges” had informed Gadbois that “the judiciary was stronger as a result of the way Nehru handled (the incident).” Gadbois found it notable that there appeared to be no rancor or animosity from Nehru towards Das, Bose, or even Chagla. Chief Justice Das retired on Oct. 1, 1959, and a farewell dinner was held for him, at which Nehru was present. Bose was appointed by the government to another high-profile commission very soon after this incident. Chagla too was appointed ambassador to the U.S. later on. “These were before [the] days”, wrote Gadbois, “when judges were punished for displeasing the (government)”.
Abhinav Chandrachud is an advocate at the Bombay High Court. This incident has been described in greater detail in his book “Republic of Rhetoric: Free Speech and the Constitution of India” (Penguin 2017).
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.