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Key takeaways

  • Justice Shah Muhammad Sulaiman was the first Indian Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court.
  • Justice Romesh Chandra Mitter was the first Indian acting judge for the Calcutta High Court.
  • Justice Nanabhai Haridas was the first Indian to serve as a permanent judge at the Bombay High Court.
  • Justice HJ Kania was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India. He also served as President until 1951.
  • M C Chagla was initially recommended by Justice HJ Kania to be the first Chief Justice of India. He declined the offer, choosing to stay at the Bombay High Court itself.


The judges, in pre-independence India, were the symbol of imperial power. Their roles and functions were so distant from the people of India, who were subject to rules imposed by the British. During such times, these jurists with their excellent credentials paved the way which eventually led to reforms in the Indian judicial system. They stood high as pathbreakers in a time when the courts of the country were mostly taken over by the colonisers. Here are a few of them we should remember on our 75th year of Independence.

Sulaiman Shah Muhammad

JusticeShah Muhammad Sulaimanwas the first Indian Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court.He finished his additional study overseas by being awarded the Provincial Government Scholarship. After returning to India, he started his legal career in Jaunpur. But he moved his profession to Allahabad in 1912.

In 1920, he was appointed as an acting judge of the Allahabad High Court, a position he held for over four months. Before resuming his legal career, he served as a temporary judge for brief periods in 1921 and 1922. But he was appointed a permanent judge of the Allahabad High Court in April 1923.

He was also known as an educationalist who served as the founding president of various educational institutions, was a longtime member of the Allahabad and Aligarh Muslim University Courts and Executive Councils, and also served as President of the United Councils of Allahabad and Aligarh Muslim University. In 1924, at Badaon, he was elected president of the United Provinces Educational Conference.

He presided over the All-India Muhammadan Educational Conference in 1928, which was held in Ajmer. In his speech, he called for a radical and forward-thinking shift in the educational system by emphasising its practical, technical, and vocational components.

In 1929, he filled in for Sir Grimwood Mears as Chief Justice while he was away. Justice Sulaiman was named Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court when Justice Mears retired. In accordance with the Federal Court's constitution, Justice Sulaiman was appointed to the position of judge in May 1937.

In addition to his distinguished legal career, he is known to have been an avid scientist who even disputed Einstein's theory of relativity. He held several positions, including vice chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University for two terms.

Justice Romesh Chandra Mitter

Justice Romesh Chandra Mitter served as the first Indian acting judge for the Calcutta High Court. He was appointed as a judge of the High Court at the early age of 34. He was appointed as the interim Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court in the year 1886,as the first Indian to hold that position, when Chief Justice Sir Richard Darth took a leave of absence. He held this position for two months. He simultaneously served as a judge and as a member of the Viceroy's Legislative Council. He was honored with the British knighthood in June 1890.

The reason behind his retirement is an anecdote every lawyer should hear of. Once he forgot that he had an appointment at the court, where a junior judge, the parties, and their attorneys were waiting for him. When he recalled it, he immediately made a run for the Court, though a few hours had already passed. After several apologies, and completion of his work, he returned home.

Such a mistake was highly unlikely of him, which made him believe that he should not be continuing his service as the Judge. On the approval of the Chief Justice, he resigned from his position on January 1st, 1890.

Nanabhai Haridas

Justice NanabhaiHaridas was the first Indian to serve as a permanent judge at the Bombay High Court. Justice Haridas served nine terms as an interim judge between the years 1873 and 1884.

During the breaks he found between his service as a temporary judge, he practiced as a Government Pleader and also taught Law. In 1884 he got appointed as a permanent judge of the High Court.

Justice Haridas was appointed a permanent judge, in 1884. He held the office till his death in 1889. He was well-versed in Hindu law, and several of his rulings rank among the first explanations of significant Hindu legal concepts.

TRA Thumboo Chetty

Trichinopoly RayaluArakiaswamyThumbooChettywas born in April 1837. He worked briefly in the legislative division where he met John Dawson Mayne who was an excellent barrister. He was inspired to take up law, which he passed with the first prize in proficiency.

He was recommended to be appointed as District Munsiff of Purghi in 1866. He held the post for nearly nine months, during which time he is said to have distinguished himself as an impartial and popular judge. He then joined the Mysore Civil Service.

In 1879, he was recommended for appointment as District and Sessions Judge, the first Indian to be so appointed. In due course, he was appointed as one of three judges of the Chief Court of Mysore which was constituted in 1884. In 1890, he was made the Chief Justice of the Court, which was the highest court of appeal in Mysore. He had also held the position of acting Diwan of Mysore.

Pramada Charan Banerjee

Justice Pramada Charan Banerjee was the second Indian judge appointed to the Allahabad High Court (who had also been the first Muslim judge to be so appointed during British colonial rule).

In January 1872, Banerjee began his career in the Indian court as a munsif, working in Allahabad, Benares, and Ghazipore. He was appointed a subordinate judge in 1880 and served as the nation's first Indian judge in Agra's Small Causes Courts before moving on to Allahabad. Before taking a permanent position as a puisne judge for the North-Western Provinces at Allahabad High Court in December of 1893, he served for a short time as an extra civil judge in Lucknow. He held that position till August 1923, when Kanhaiya Lal succeeded him. He left that position in March 1924 after retiring from the bench.

Justice Banerjee enrolled as an advocate in 1869. In 1893, he was appointed Additional Judge of the Chief Court of Oudh at Lucknow. Shortly thereafter, he was elevated to the High Court of Allahabad. Justice Banerjee retired from judicial service in August 1923.

Apart from his illustrious career as a judge, Justice Banerjee was also a member of the Faculty of Law at the University of Allahabad, where he also served as Vice-Chancellor. He was appointed as the Knight Bachelor, which is a basic rank given to someone who has been knighted. In 1919, he was also conferred the degree of Doctor of Laws.

Badruddin Tyabji

Badruddin Tyabji was the first Indian attorney to take up practice at the Bombay High Court. He also went on to be the third President of the Indian National Congress of which he was also one of the founding members.

After returning from his studies abroad he went on to become the first Indian barrister in the High Court of Bombay. Before being appointed to the bench, Tyabji worked as a member of the Municipal Corporation, and a senator for the University of Bombay.

He was chosen to serve on the High Court Bench in 1895. He was known for putting equality and real justice ahead of "legal abstractions." He was also known for his efforts toward the upliftment of women. While on a year-long leave, Justice Tyabji suffered a heart attack and passed unexpectedly in London in 1906.

HJ Kania

Justice HJ Kania was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India. He also served as President until 1951. Justice Kania presided over the Bombay High Court before being named the Chief Justice of India.

In 1930, he briefly served as an acting judge at the High Court. He served as an extra judge from 1931 until 1933, after which he received a promotion to associate judge in 1943. He presided over cases as a High Court judge between 1943 to 1946. He also held the position of Acting Chief Justice of the High Court from 1944 to 1945.

He served as a judge of the former Federal Court from June 1946 to August 1947 after his stint on the High Court. In August 1947, he replaced Sir Patrick Spens as Chief Justice of the Federal Court. He passed away at his workplace in November 1951 after a sudden heart attack.

Patanjali Sastri

The second Chief Justice of the Indian Supreme Court was M PatanjaliSastri, who hailed from Madras. He commenced his practice at the Madras High Court in 1914. Following this, considering his reputation in tax laws, he was also appointed a Commissioner of Income Tax in 1922.

He was elevated to the High Court Bench on 15thMarch 1939. In 1947, he was made a judge of the Federal Court, and following the sudden demise of the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Sastri took over the role in 1951. Chief Justice Sastri remained in office until his retirement on 3rdJanuary 1954. He had also been appointed as pro-vice chancellor of Delhi University from 1953 to 1956. He contributed to the nationalisation of India’s airlines by acting as the Head of the Airlines Compensation Commission.

MC Chagla

Mohamed Ali CurrimChagla became the first Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court to have been appointed in independent India. It is said that initially he was recommended by Justice HJ Kania to be the first Chief Justice of India. He declined the offer, choosing to stay at the Bombay High Court itself.

After completing his education overseas, Justice Chagla came back to India in 1922. Justice Chagla joined the Bombay Bar on his return, where he also met Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Following that, he joined the Muslim league but severed relations when Jinnah started to support the two-nation doctrine and a separate Muslim state. Justice Chagla has a legal practice in addition to teaching at the Government Law College in Mumbai.

He was appointed to the High Court as a judge in 1941. Between 1948 and 1958, he served as its Chief Justice. Following his retirement, he served in various diplomatic roles, as External Affairs Minister and Education Minister in the Union Cabinet, as well as an ad-hoc judge of the International Court of Justice.


We cannot forget the contributions of the eminent jurists in shaping the Indian identity during the imperial rule. They proved themselves in front of the colonisers who saw Indians as inferior to themselves. These judges also were among the first to give shape to the Indian legal system as we see it today.

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