CJI D.Y. Chandrachud: The untold story

For Chandrachud, law has been as much a refuge as a means of dispensing justice

24-Chandrachud CJI D.Y. Chandrachud | Josekutty Panackal

Can law be in someone’s blood?

If so, it must run in the veins of the Chandrachud clan. Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud’s grandfather and uncle were lawyers. His father was the 16th and longest-serving chief justice of the country, and both his sons are lawyers. Abhinav is in Mumbai and Chintan in London. When I point this out to him, he laughs. “Oh yes, that’s right,” he says. “This is the fourth generation of lawyers in our family.” Then he grows more serious as he explains why he mostly keeps to himself and his family. “I completely dedicated myself to the profession of law, and that left very little time for anything else,” he says.

When you work for others, you realise that the problems you face are not as big.

To be sure, law has done much for him, right from the time he studied it at Delhi University. He did his LLM at Harvard, where he received the Joseph H. Beale prize, which is awarded to the student who tops the Conflict of Laws course. After receiving a doctorate in juridical sciences from Harvard, he practised at the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court. He was designated senior advocate in 1998 at the age of 38, a designation rarely given to lawyers below 40. He was appointed a judge of the Bombay High Court in 2000, as Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court in 2013 and as a Supreme Court judge in 2016. He became the 50th Chief Justice of India on November 9, 2022, for a two-year tenure ending in November 2024.

But law has not just been a means of professional advancement for him. When people asked him when he would rise higher as a judge, he would ask himself, ‘Why did I take this job?’ “I did not take it to attain a particular position,” he says. “I took it for the love of what that job entails, which is really public service.”

Law was his greatest solace when he lost his first wife, Rashmi, to cancer. “I had to hold on to my profession as a judge,” he says. “That was all I had. If someone were to take away my job in those days, there was nothing else for me to fall back upon.” He says that working for others was one way of forgetting his own problems. “When you work for others, you realise that the problems you face are not as big,” he says.

27-Chandrachud-and-father-Y-V-Chandrachud Like father, like son: Chandrachud with his father, Y.V. Chandrachud.

We are early for our appointment at his home on 14 Tughlak Road, Delhi. He arrives from court a few minutes after we do and shows us into the tastefully done drawing room. “When I heard you were waiting, I left court early,” he says. There is much to be charmed about Chandrachud―the way he leans forward and gives you his full attention when you ask a question. The way he insists you taste the array of snacks that appear one after the other. “It is homemade,” he says with a smile. The way he seems unsure at the end of our conversation about whether he answered all the questions adequately. “I hope you got all you wanted,” he says.

If one were to define the essence of his charm in one word, it would be humility. Sometimes it is difficult to believe that we are speaking to the highest judicial officer in the country. This was one of the judges who had decriminalised homosexuality in a landmark judgment in 2018, thus changing the lives and relationships of thousands of Indians. This was one of the judges who, in the same year, had allowed women of all ages to visit and worship at Sabarimala, where age-old tradition had restricted their entry to the temple. This was one of the judges who had ruled in 2017 that the right to privacy was a fundamental right under the Constitution, thus impacting the authority of the government and global platforms like Facebook and Instagram to collect personal data.

Whether it is working for equality, finding solace in spirituality, or overcoming a personal tragedy, the overarching theme in Chandrachud’s life has been a love for law. “He has no vices except for his obsession with work,” senior advocate Ajit Bhasme, who grew up with him in Mumbai, once said about him. Law has always been his lodestar. As Alan Paton put it in Chandrachud’s favourite book, Cry, the Beloved Country, “Because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.”