This article is written by Mrinal Mukul, a student at O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana. This paper talks about Article 131 of the Indian Constitution in context of the Supreme Court and its power to listen to the matters between two states or between the centre and the states.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.

Introduction

According to Article 131 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has exclusive and original jurisdiction in matters of law between states or between states and the Union. The courts protect the fundamental rights of all citizens, and any violation of these rights may be brought immediately to the High Court of that particular state under Article 226 of the Constitution or to the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution. However, if, for some reason, a question of state matter arises on certain specific grounds, the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is asserted by Article 131. Constitution-makers see Article 131 as crucial because of India’s quasi-federal government. The possibility of conflict between states or between the centre and the state is high, and the constitutional authors believe that the decision-making power in such cases should be clearly stated. As the highest judicial body, the Supreme Court is vested with original and exclusive jurisdiction.

Article 131 has many roles in implementing cooperative federalism. The very first reason is that it helps in resolving disputes between the federal states and disputes between the centre and states. Such a view strongly suggests that the Constitution-makers have given great importance to the federal structure. It is also a way of maintaining the federal nature of the Indian polity, which will be discussed in this paper.

What is Article 131 

The Judicial, legislative, and executive are the three pillars of Indian democracy. A balance, as opposed to conflict, is necessary to achieve the ultimate public interest and the smooth functioning of constitutional institutions. The powers of parliament are limited within the four walls of the Constitution, yet ensure a balance between the different pillars without encroaching on each other’s area. Furthermore, judicial review includes the power of the judiciary to review any legislation and judicial actions, embody the rule of law, and uphold the principle of separation of powers at the grassroot level.

Article 131 of the Indian Constitution gives the Supreme Court primary jurisdiction over all interstate or center and state disputes. Article 131 gives the Supreme Court the power to deal with such cases directly, rather than through lower courts or reviewing lower court decisions. Under the provision, the Supreme Court has the power to hear cases at first-hand, as against appellate jurisdiction, where the Supreme Court has to review decisions of lower court. According to Article 131 of the Indian Constitution, the laws of Parliament are considered valid unless the court decides otherwise. Interstate conflicts are common in India’s quasi-federal constitutional system. The drafters of the Constitution foresaw such differences and resolved them by enacting Article 131, which gave the Supreme Court the sole initial authority.

Under Article 131, there is a high probability of disagreement between states or between centre and states, and the drafters of the Constitution believed that the decision-making power should be clearly expressed in such cases. The Supreme Court has original and exclusive jurisdiction because it is the highest judicial body. It’s exclusive original jurisdiction extends to cases related to the Government of India and the states of India.  

Nature and Scope of Article 131

India is a federation and the Supreme Court is the Federal Court of India, where the powers are divided between the centre and state governments. The Supreme Court of India is the ultimate authority to ensure that both the federal and state governments support constitutional separation of powers. Therefore, Article 131 of the Indian Constitution gives the Supreme Court primary and exclusive jurisdiction to adjudicate disputes between the Union and the states or between the states. The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution must be acceptable to all. It interprets and upholds the Constitution. If the case involves fundamental rights of law for the interpretation of the Constitution, upheld by the High Court or at the discretion of the Supreme Court, an appeal should be made to the Supreme Court for interpretation of the points of law it raises.

The nature of Article 131 is governed by constitutional provisions and is limited to disputes referred to in the Article itself. But it can be seen that the jurisdiction is very wide, provided the dispute is a justiciable one. The Article does not specify the type of dispute but is subjective to judicial interpretation and the facts of the case as to whether it meets the requirements of Article 131. It was the intention of the framers of the Constitution that such disputes should not be subject to several judicial hierarchies but should be brought to the Supreme Court once and for all.

In accordance with the provisions of the   Constitution, the Supreme Court to the exclusion of all other courts, has original jurisdiction in disputes: 

  1. Between the Government of India and one or more states; or
  2. Between the Government of India and one or more states on the one hand and one or more other states on the other; or
  3. Between two or more states if the dispute concerns an issue (law or fact) on which the existence or scope of a legal right depends.

In essence, Article 131 clearly expresses that our Supreme Court is the guardian of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Article 14, which provides that any violation of the fundamental rights, then one can directly appeal to the Supreme Court enshrined in Article 32 of the Constitution (which is also a fundamental right). But when a dispute happens between the states or between the state and the central government, then the jurisdiction to solve such matters lies on the Supreme Court under Article 131.  

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What disputes are allowed under Article 131

A precondition for bringing an action under Article 131 is that there is a dispute between the parties, and such disputes must involve a question of law or fact that transcends any statutory or constitutional rights. Such disputes should not involve political conflicts unless legal rights are involved. At first glance, Article 131 seems clear, but when we analyse the cases related to it, legal dilemmas arise. However, it is necessary to remember that the Supreme Court will have exclusive jurisdiction, excluding all other courts, and such dispute must be between either the Central Government and one or more states or states or between two or more federal states. Lastly, these kinds of disputes must involve the question of law on which the existence or scope of a legal right depends.

Legal rights of the state: The Supreme Court is the guardian of individual liberties and fundamental rights. Furthermore, Article 131 of the Indian Constitution provides that whenever a state feels that it’s legal rights have been violated, it can take the matter to the Supreme Court. It thus prevents an infringement of the legal right of the state government. 

Can a state challenge Central Law 

Our Indian Constitution states that whenever a state feels that its legal right is under threat or has been violated for some reason, it can take the dispute to the Supreme Court of India. In many instances, states have filed such cases under Article 131 of the Indian Constitution against the neighbouring states due to some boundary disputes or because of other reasons. However, there are some incidents when such cases are filed against the Centre too.  

Furthermore, it is important to remember that a state government can challenge central laws, but it has certain terms and conditions. If the central government alters the federal structure of the Constitution, then it can be challenged, but the ultimate interpreter is the High Court and the Supreme Court of India. They have the authority to declare any central or state law unconstitutional.

It is understood that India is a Union of States, which means both central and state governments will work in unison for the country’s overall development. This also demonstrates that neither the central government is the master nor the state government is the servant. Both governments are expected to work in a complementary manner with each other. Thus, the laws made by the centre cannot be above the sovereignty of the state government. All this means that the central government cannot enforce the law unilaterally, which is why consultation with the concerned state government becomes important. Mostly in all instances, the state government will be taken on board before deciding on any matter. As we all know, the state government works closely with the people’s aspirations and the people are also better known by the state administration, which means the state government’s decisions become very important in the law-making process.

If, in certain situations, the central government brings a law without consultation with the state government and such laws are apparently against the will of the people of the state, then, it is the right of the state government to challenge such laws. Such a challenge can only be done in the Supreme Court.

Similarly, if any legislation is brought unilaterally without due consultation with the state government or the opposite parties, then, such legislation may meet with criticism from the public at large.

Is it usual for states to oppose laws made by the centre

It is not usual for states to oppose the laws made by the centre, but under the leadership of a powerful centre with an overwhelming majority in parliament, fault lines in India’s federal structure are often exposed. State governments have criticized several laws since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014. The most recent one is Farm Laws. Several states and farmers went to the Supreme Court challenging the laws. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that any dispute between the Union of India and the states can be legally adjudicated under Article 131. Hence, it can be concluded that by infringing the original jurisdiction of the state, the union has tried to change the basic structure of the Indian Constitution, namely the federal structure. The petition was supported under Article 131 because the central government violated the constitutional provisions. These issues have been the focus due to contrary views between the centre and state ruled by opposition parties.

Most commonly, such disputes arise when the center encroaches upon the powers of a state by enacting legislation on matters that fall on the state’s list or when the center enacts other laws that affect the state’s statutory or constitutional rights. The most recent example of the centre and state dispute is the Disaster Management Act of 2005, which was implemented due to COVID-19 pandemic. The Act has drawn discontent among states because central guidelines are binding on them, even though public health is a state department. The drive to pass central laws that interfere with state rights stems from the ambiguity of Article 131, which gives Parliament the freedom to change or pass laws without fear of consequences. The purpose of Article 131 of the Indian Constitution is to preserve the spirit of cooperative federalism. Under this provision, the Supreme Court has initial jurisdiction over disputes between states or between the centre and state.

In addition, the Seventh Schedule of our Indian Constitution is sub-divided into three lists: the Union List, the State List, and the Concurrent List, which provide comprehensive information on the legislative powers of parliament and about the state. Despite such stark differences, the dispute between the centre and the state remains an ongoing issue. The latest example of such a dispute is the Centre’s decision to expand the BSF’s jurisdiction over the territories and powers of the three border states of Punjab, West Bengal, and Assam.

Landmark judgments regarding Article 131 

State of West Bengal v. Union of India (1963) 

In the case of State of West Bengal v. Union of India (1963), the parliament passed the Acquisition and Development Act, 1957, which gave the Central Government the power to acquire land vested with the state government. This was the first case when Article 131 was invoked by the state government against the central government. The Supreme Court stated in this case that our Indian Constitution is not entirely federal, and no compensation was given to the West Bengal government. However, it did not discuss the maintainability of a suit under Article 131. 

As noted, it did not venture into the constitutional validity of Article 131. Still, its decision to hear state challenge against the center under the Article shows that the Constitution allows states the right to challenge parliamentary laws. 

It was held that the Acquisition and Development Act, 1957 was not held ultra vires, the scope of authority of the Parliament but was held to be valid. According to Entry 42 of List III of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of India, the Parliament has the power to legislate on the acquisition of property by the state.

State of Karnataka v. Union of India and Another (1977) 

In the case of  State of Karnataka v. Union of India and Another (1977), the main argument of the state government was that, under The Commissions of Inquiry Act,1952 the central government does not have the power to appoint commissions of inquiry to deal with the affairs of the state legislature and executive. The Commission of Inquiry examines the conduct of the Chief Minister of State with other ministers, so it is about the relationship between the centre and the state. But the federal government said that the Supreme Court would not have the power to consider the matter as it has jurisdiction under Article 131 of the Constitution. 

The relevant point for the present purpose is the fact that by a majority judgment, the proceeding was held to be valid, and the court specifically stated that in this context, the supposed distinction between the State (an abstract entity) and the State Government (its concrete representative), was immaterial.

State of Madhya Pradesh v. Union of India and Another (2011) 

In the case of  State of Madhya Pradesh v. Union of India and Another (2011), the court held that central laws could be challenged in the State High Courts and Supreme Courts under Article 32 and 226 of the Constitution and held that the constitutional validity of central laws generally could not be challenged under Article 131. 

However, a few years later, in another case, it contradicted the previously mentioned ruling by stating that the use of Article 131 as a supplement to Article 32 to deal with disputes between States and the Centre. Furthermore, the court made it clear that it could not accept that the constitutional validity of the central law could be challenged under Article 131. Since the court did not have the necessary power to set aside the preliminary decision, it left the matter to a larger divisional decision. This inconclusive situation has not been resolved, though both judgments serve as precedents for future reference. This further exacerbates disputes between the center and the state, as parliaments can make laws that violate the latter’s powers.

State of Jharkhand v. The State of Bihar and Ors. (2014) 

Later, in the case of State of Jharkhand v. The State of Bihar and Ors. (2014), if a dispute is of a federal nature, then it can be heard under Article 131. The Supreme Court has dealt with Interlocutory Application (hereinafter,I.A.) No. 5 filed by Jharkhand. In the lawsuit, Jharkhand sought to explain that the proportion of the number of workers in each successor state for the allocation of pension liabilities was based on the ultra vires in Clause 4 of the Eighth Schedule to the Bihar Reorganization Act, 2000 Constitution. Article 14, alternatively, read down the aforesaid words contained in Clause 4 of the Eighth Schedule of the Bihar Reorganization Act 2000 as “Population Proportion.”

The Supreme Court upheld Article 131 as an appropriate tool for reviewing the constitutionality of central laws. The court ruled that a condition for invoking the court’s jurisdiction under Article 131 was that the action should concern the existence or scope of legal rights, not political rights.

Thus, in recent times, the states may move to the Supreme Court under Article 131 if any legal or constitutional rights get infringed. However, it is essential to remember that the states cannot question the legality of central laws based on an ideological or political basis.

Conclusion 

Two key takeaways that need to be remembered from this article: The disputing parties can only be the state or the central government itself. Since the definition of “state” in Article 131 is different or broad from the definition of “state” in Article 12 of the Constitution, any corporation or private entity that is considered a state will not be considered a state under Article 131 of the Constitution.

When hearing a lawsuit, the court should seriously consider the original intention of the drafters of Article 131 when the Constitution was drafted. Even if fundamental rights and secularism are allegedly threatened, these considerations must not prevent the court from deciding the true purpose of Article 131. The maintenance of the federal structure is an equally important constitutional matter, and courts should bear this in mind in case of its scope and importance.

Furthermore, the purpose behind Article 131 of the Indian Constitution is to uphold the spirit of cooperative federalism between the organs of the government. Under this Article, the Supreme Court has the original jurisdiction to adjudicate upon the matters of dispute between the states or between the centre and state. In today’s scenario, such an Article plays a crucial role because it deals with the balance of power and, simultaneously, the role of the judiciary where the question involves interpretation of the Constitution. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

Who all can approach the Supreme Court under Article 131?

Answer. Article 131 provides the forum for both central and state governments to fight on legal issues against each other and not merely on political issues.

Can the Supreme Court declare a law unconstitutional under Article 131?

Answer. While previous judgments found that the constitutionality of the law could be tested under Article 131, the 2011 judgment in Madhya Pradesh v. Union of India found the opposite

Can a centre also sue a state under Article 131 of the Indian Constitution?

Answer. The centre can issue directives to states to enforce laws passed by parliament. If states do not comply, the centre can ask the court to obtain permanent injunctions against states to force them to comply with the law.

References


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