Mahommedali Currim Chagla (30 September 1900 – 9 February 1981) was a renowned Indian jurist, diplomat, and Cabinet Minister who served as Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court from 1948 to 1958.
Born on 30 September 1900 in Bombay to a well-off Shia Muslim merchant family, Chagla suffered a lonely childhood owing to his mother’s death in 1905. He was educated at St. Xavier’s High School and College in Bombay, after which he went on to study at Lincoln College, Oxford, from 1919 until 1922. He then was admitted to the Bar of the Bombay High Court, where he worked with such illuminaries as Sir Jamshedji Kanga and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who would one day become the founder of Pakistan.
Chagla idolized Jinnah and held membership in the Muslim League, but severed all ties to Jinnah after he began to work for the cause of a separate Muslim state. He, along with others, then founded the Muslim Nationalist Party in Bombay, a party which was ignored and pushed aside in the independence struggle. He was appointed as Professor of law to Government Law College, Bombay in 1927, where he worked with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He was appointed as a judge to Bombay High Court in 1941, becoming Chief Justice in 1948 and serving in that capacity to 1958.
In 1946, Chagla was part of the first Indian delegation to the UN. From 4 October to 10 December 1956, Chagla served as Acting Governor of the then state of Bombay, later broken up into the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. Following his tenure as Chief Justice, he served as the one-man commission that examined the Finance Minister of India, T. T. Krishnamachari, over the controversial Haridas Mundhra LIC insurance scandal, which forced Krishnamachari’s resignation as Finance Minister. Krishnamachari was quite close to Nehru, who became intensely angry at Chagla for his revelations of TTK’s part in the affair, though he later forgave Chagla. From September 1957 to 1959, Chagla served as ad hoc judge to the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
After retirement he served as Indian ambassador to the USA from 1958 to 1961. Chagla then served as Indian High Commissioner in the UK from April 1962 to September 1963. Immediately on his return, he was asked to be a Cabinet Minister, which he accepted, and he served as Education Minister from 1963 to 1966, then served as the Minister for External Affairs of India from November 1966 to September 1967, after which he left government service. He then spent the remaining years of his life actively, continuing to practice law into his seventies.
As Minister of Education under Jawaharlal Nehru, Chagla was distraught by the quality of education in government schools:
Our Constitution fathers did not intend that we just set up hovels, put students there, give untrained teachers, give them bad textbooks, no playgrounds, and say, we have complied with Article 45 and primary education is expanding… They meant that real education should be given to our children between the ages of 6 and 14 .
In 1930, Chagla married Mehrunissa Dharsi Jivraj, and the couple had one daughter, Husnara, born in 1932, and two sons, Jehangir and Iqbal, born in 1934 and 1939, respectively. Mehrunissa Dharsi Jivraj died in November 1961.
In 1973, Chagla published his autobiography, Roses in December, with the help of his son Iqbal. He vehemently protested against the Indian Emergency. He died on 9 February 1981, at the age of 81 of heart failure. He had been unwell for several years, and had suffered four heart attacks. True to his active and energetic nature, he had not let his health slow him down. On the day of his death, he went as usual to his club in Bombay and had a good time with his friends. He then slipped away to the dressing room and there,peacefully died. According to his wish, he was cremated instead of having a traditional Muslim burial. The Bombay High Court was closed to show respect for him, and several speeches were made in his memory, including one by former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
In 1985, a statue of Chagla was unveiled and placed within the High Court itself, appropriately outside the Chief Justice’s Court where once he served. The inscription on the statue plinth reads:
“A great judge, a great citizen, and, above all, a great human being.”
Though born a Muslim, Chagla was more of an agnostic.
The surname “Chagla” was not his original surname. In Chagla’s autobiography, he recounted that in his youth, he was known as “Merchant” as both his father and grandfather were merchants. Hating the name due to its associations with money, he went to his grandfather one day and asked him as to what he should call himself. His grandfather promptly replied “Chagla” as his father, Chagla’s great-grandfather, had had Chagla as his pet name, which in the Kutchi language means “favourite”. Chagla promptly adopted the new surname.