Article 131 of the Constitution
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This article is written by Mehar Verma, a student from Jindal Global Law School and in this article, the author talks about what is Article 131 of the Constitution and the landmark cases where this Article was invoked.

Introduction 

Article 131 of the Constitution provides exclusive and original jurisdiction to the Supreme Court of India when a question of law or fact is raised and the dispute is between:

  1. The Government of India and one or more states, or
  2. The Government of India and any state or states on one side and one or more states on the other sides, or
  3. Two or more states.

In matters where the disputes arise due to a treaty signed, an agreement, engagement or other similar instruments which were entered into before the commencement of the Constitution, the Supreme Court does not have exclusive jurisdiction and such documents are interpreted by the executive. In the State of Haryana v State of Punjab, the court held that the agreement entered into by the two states regarding the construction of water canals does not come under the ambit of Article 131.

Article 131 was considered important by the constitution-makers because of the quasi-federal structure of Governance in India. Under such a structure, the chances of having a dispute between the states or between the Centre and State are likely to occur and the Constitution makers thought that decision making power under such circumstances should be well defined. The Supreme Court being the Apex judicial institution was thus given the original and exclusive jurisdiction. 

Suits or petition filed under Article 131 of the Constitution is much less as compared to suits filed claiming other constitutional remedies as such disputes are often settled through negotiation and agreement or are settled by the advice given the Union. Even though this is a rarely used provision, this month two suits were filed by the Kerala and Chhattisgarh Government invoking Article 131, against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and the NIA Act respectively. In this article, 5 major instances when Article 131 was invoked against the laws or legislation passed by the Centre are discussed.

State of West Bengal v Union of India

In the case of State of West Bengal v Union of India, the Parliament had passed Acquisition and Development Act, 1947 which gave the Central Government the power to acquire land and rights which were vested with the state. This was the first instance when Article 131 was invoked by a State against the Union Government and Section 4 and 7 of the Act were challenged as being an ultra vires. The State of West Bengal contended that as the Constitution is federal, the state is sovereignty and the Parliament does not have the power to pass a law and acquire the state-owned coal fields. The Supreme Court held that the Indian Constitution is not federal entirely, and limitations are imposed on the state in many aspects, even though there is a separation of powers. Thereby, no compensation was given to the State of West Bengal and the suit was dismissed with costs.

It is important to consider that the main issues that arose before the Court were:

  1. Whether Parliament has the authority to acquire land and other properties vested and owned by the State by enacting a law, and 
  2. Whether the states in India are a sovereign authority or not. 

No issues were raised regarding the Act being violative of the fundamental rights, thus there is no discussion on this point. Secondly, the judgment does not discuss the maintainability of the suit challenging central legislation under Article 131 of the Constitution, as no objection was raised in this regard.

State of Karnataka v Union of India

In this case, the Karnataka Government challenged Section 3 of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952 which authorized the Central Government to constitute a judicial inquiry against the Ministers on the State including the Chief Minister. The State contended on the grounds of federalism and the scheme of the Constitution. It was argued that under Article 164(2) of the Constitution, the State Cabinet was collectively responsible for the State Legislative Assembly and not to the Centre. The Supreme Court did not approve the contentions made by the state and held that the distinction between the State and the State Government was immaterial in this context, thus the validity of the Act in question was upheld.

Even though the suit was dismissed, the maintainability of the suit was upheld by 4:3 majority. While holding the suit maintainable, the then Chief Justice of India, MH Beg stated that “When differences arise between the representatives of the state and those the whole people of India on a question of interpretation of the Constitution, which affects the welfare of the people, and, particularly that of the people of the State concerned, Article 131 can be invoked”. On the other hand, Justice PN Bhagwati held that Article 131 can be invoked even when there is no infringement of any legal right of the State and traditional concepts like the cause of action which apply to civil suits, do not necessarily apply under Article 131. The scope and jurisdiction guaranteed to the Supreme Court under Article 131 is extremely wide and gives original jurisdiction to the Court in any disputes unless the Constitution expressly excludes such jurisdiction under certain circumstances.

State of Madhya Pradesh v Union of India

Section 58(3) and 58(4) of the MP Reorganization Act, 2000 allowed the Central Government to apportion the assets and liabilities of Electricity Boards of MP without any proper guidelines. The Act was thereby challenged by the Madhya Pradesh Government as being void and unconstitutional on the grounds of being violative of Article 14 of the Constitution. 

The two-judge bench did not enter the plea as they believed that the suit was not maintainable under Article 131. They held that laws that are being challenged on the grounds of being violative of any of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India, can be challenged before the State High Court as well as the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution, thus there is no recourse available to the State Government to invoke exclusive and original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court provided under Article 131. This was the first case when the Supreme Court had to review a suit filed by the State under Article 131 against infringement of a fundamental right.

State of Jharkhand v Union of India

Provisions of the Bihar Reorganization Act, 2000 which dealt with pensionary liabilities of the former employees of the State were challenged under Article 131 of the Constitution in 2012. The Judgment passed by the Two-Judge Bench in Madhya Pradesh v Union of India was used as precedent by the defendants to challenge the validity of the maintainability of the suit.

The judges, in this case, Justice Chelameswar and Justice Bodbe did not agree with the judgment passed in the Madhya Pradesh v Union of India. They thought that if a question of law was raised by the Centre or State, that challenged the constitutional validity of a statute or legislation then the Supreme Court is competent to examine the same. They took into precedent the West Bengal v Union of India (1963) case and thereby deferred the case in question to a larger bench which is still pending. 

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State of Kerala v Union of India

In the last few months, people across the country have come down on the streets to show their disapproval of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA). The Act aims to provide citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, who entered India before December 31 and are living without documentation. Interestingly, the Act does not talk about Muslims who have been living in the country causing protests across India.

The present scenario of the country led to this 5th suit, where a law passed by the Center is being challenged by the State under Article 131. Under Article 25 of the Constitution, the State of Kerala would be obligated to comply with rules and terms of CAA, thus a dispute arose between the State and Union of India. The suit filed by the State of Kerala not only challenges CAA but also challenges Passport Amendment Rules 2015, and Foreigners (Amendment) Order 2015 as being unconstitutional. The Government of Kerala contended that CAA is violative of Article 14, Article 21 and Article 25 of the Constitution.

Further, they also claimed that as the Act in question makes religion and country of origin the criteria for granting citizenship, thus it is violative of the principle of secularism, it is irrational and discriminatory, and the same should be declared ultra vires, and accordingly be held void. The State in its plea also asked the Centre an explanation as to why are not minorities from other neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar or Bhutan are being given the same benefits and if the objective of the Act is to protect the minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, then why not Muslim minorities of these countries entitled to the benefits that are being awarded to individuals of other communities or religion.

As the dispute raised questions of law and facts in regards to the infringement of fundamental rights, other constitutional rights, as well as legal rights of the State, the maintainability of the suit was not challenged by the defendant, so far. 

A similar suit was filed by the State of Chhattisgarh against the National Agency Amendment Act, 2019. The State claimed that the Act was against the concept of federalism as it gives power to central police agencies over the State police and there are no provisions that require the consent of the State Government for working of such central agencies.

The maintainability of both these suits under Article 131 will most likely be decided by a higher bench as conflicting opinions were given in the case of Madhya Pradesh v Union of India and Jharkhand v Union of India.

Conclusion

Article 131 of the Constitution is a special provision that gives the Supreme Court the exclusive and original jurisdiction in case of legal disputes arising between the states or the state and the union. The court guards the fundamental rights guaranteed to all the citizens of the country and any violation of such rights can be directly taken up the High Court of the State under Article 226 or by the Apex Court under Article 32 of the Constitution. However, unlike individuals, the State Government cannot file a suit for violation of fundamental rights, thus when there is a difference of opinion between the State and the Centre, regarding the interpretation of the Constitution, and the State is of the opinion that their legal rights have been infringed, the same can be taken up by the Supreme Court under Article 131.

Article 131 was first invoked by the State of West Bengal in 1963. The suit was filed challenging the constitutional validity of an Act passed by the Centre which gave the latter the power to acquire the state-owned land. However, in this case, no issue was raised regarding the maintainability of the suit under Article 131 and thus the judgment does discuss this point. 

The second state to challenge a law passed by the Union was the State of Karnataka. Under this case, the petition filed by the State was dismissed but the maintainability of the suit was considered by the Court and by a majority of 4:3, the Court held that Supreme Court had exclusive and original jurisdiction under Article 131 in this matter. The Court concluded that the Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under this provision is wide and covers all disputes unless explicitly stated otherwise in the Constitution.

In Madhya Pradesh v Union of India, a suit was filed by the State claiming infringement of fundamental rights and the Court held that Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction under Article 131, in regards to violation of the fundamental right and thus the suit was not maintainable. A contrasting opinion was given in the case of the State of Jharkhand v Union of India and the question of maintainability of suit was referred to a higher bench.

The present suit filed by the Kerala Government and the Chhattisgarh Government against the constitutional validity of CAA and NIA respectively has not been decided yet.

References


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