Federal polities or federal countries are ones which have different levels of State agencies (such as the legislature, executive and judiciary). By levels, what has to be understood is that there are different levels and authorities of governance at the federal/national, State and/or local levels.
India is a federal (sometimes quasi-federal) country having governance/State authorities at the federal/national, State, and local levels. It is often the case that such federal units (such as federal/union and different States) have disputes and conflicts amongst each other. Resolution of such federal disputes (disputes arising amongst federal units) requires an independent and impartial arbiter.1 In the Indian polity and constitutional set-up such a role of arbiter is exclusively entrusted on the Supreme Court of India (Supreme Court) under Article 131 of the Constitution of India2 (the Constitution).
However, the Supreme Court of India itself has placed certain limitations on its exclusive jurisdiction, role, and duty as the Federal Court to the extent of handicapping itself in the effective dispensation of justice in federal disputes. In State of M.P. v. Union of India3 the Supreme Court has held that under its Article 131 jurisdiction as the Federal Court, there can be no challenge to the constitutional validity of a law and has implicitly ousted the power of the Supreme Court to entertain challenges to the constitutional validity of a law under this jurisdiction.
In this writing, the author will argue and demonstrate that these self-imposed limitations of the Supreme Court run contrary to the larger public interest, constitutional provisions, federal dispute resolution mechanism envisaged thereunder and handicaps the Supreme Court in the dispensing of its duty/role of a Federal Court. In doing so, the writing discusses the jurisprudence relating to Article 131 and argues that a challenge to the constitutional validity of a law must be countenanced thereunder.
Ruling of the Supreme Court in State of M.P. v. Union of India
In this case, the State of Madhya Pradesh had filed an original suit in the Supreme Court against Union of India and State of Chhattisgarh calling for the records relating to certain Notifications and Orders and challenging the constitutional validity of these laws and certain other reliefs.4 However, while deciding this case, the Court was dealing with an application for amendment of plaint in the suit moved by State of Madhya Pradesh for adding a prayer for declaring Sections 58(3) and (4) of the Madhya Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 20005 as unconstitutional.6
The State of Chhattisgarh objected to the said application on the ground “that no recourse whatsoever can be permitted to challenge the validity of a Central law under the exclusive jurisdiction of this Court under Article 131 of the Constitution of India”.7
The Supreme Court with regard to sustaining a challenge to the constitutionality of a law under Article 131 held that: normally no recourse to challenging the constitutional validity of a law under Article 131 of the Constitution can be permitted as ordinarily, the appropriate forum is the extraordinary writ jurisdictions under Articles 328 and 2269 of the Constitution and not the exclusive original jurisdiction under Article 131.10
The Supreme Court further observed, the addition and omission of Article 131-A which provided for exclusive jurisdiction to the Supreme Court to assess the constitutional validity of a Central law and held that the reason for Article 131-A being omitted was because it curtailed the power of judicial review of the Supreme Court and the High Court as writ courts under Articles 32 and 226.11 The Court concluded from this reasoning that therefore, since the Central laws can be challenged in the Supreme Court and the High Courts under their respective Articles 32 and 226 writ jurisdictions, thus, such a challenge cannot be normally allowed under Article 131.12 However, despite the same, the Supreme Court allowed the amendment of the plaint.13
The reason for the substantial importance and relevance of the discussion relating to this ruling of the Supreme Court in State of M.P. v. Union of India14 is that: this position of law is being used by various defendant States(s)/Union under Article 131 suits, as an objection (including as a preliminary objection) to the maintainability of the suits where the constitutionality of a law is challenged by the plaintiff(s).15 This argument is causing delay in the adjudication of such federal disputes leading to inordinate suspension of justice.
Discussion and analysis
Article 131 of the Constitution confers on the Supreme Court exclusive original jurisdiction in any dispute amongst the States or the Government of India and State(s) (in any combination) where the dispute involves any question (whether of law or fact) on which the existence or extent of a legal right depends.16
(i) “to the exclusion of any other court”;
(ii) “any dispute”;
(iii) “if and insofar as the dispute involves any question (whether of law or fact) on which the existence or extent of a legal right depends”; and
(iv) “subject to the provisions of this Constitution”.
Article 131 uses the phrase “to the exclusion of any other court” while dealing with federal dispute (disputes between federal entities) resolution mechanism. The meaning and effect of this is that the jurisdiction of other courts is ousted in federal disputes and that a federal dispute is exclusively maintainable/entertainable before the Supreme Court under its Article 131 jurisdiction.18 The jurisdiction of any other Court is expressly excluded in such disputes and any action in a federal dispute will not be maintainable before any other Court (subject to certain specific constitutional provisions such as Article 26219).20 Therefore, to say, that the Supreme Court under Article 131 does not have the jurisdiction to entertain a challenge to the constitutional validity of a law would amount to nullifying the right of federal entities to challenge the constitutional validity of any law as no other Court (including the High Courts) has the jurisdiction to entertain federal disputes. Therefore, since the jurisdiction of other Courts is excluded, and exclusive jurisdiction is with the Supreme Court, it cannot be said that the only forum and action available in federal disputes would exclude from its scope enforcement of the constitutional rights and provisions (including violations to the fundamental rights).
Moreover, in the Indian polity, it is the Constitution which is supreme, and all laws and State action must conform themselves to the Constitution.21 The power of the legislature has constitutional limitations on it.22 If a law or State action transgresses constitutional limitations, then it is the duty of the constitutional court (Supreme Court in federal disputes) to declare the transgression as void and null.23
Another, important phrase used in Article 131 is “any dispute”. The word “any” makes it clear that in relation to a federal dispute “any” dispute can be raised, entertained, and dealt with by the Supreme Court herein. The phrase “any dispute” is abundantly clear and would include all issues/aspects/contentions relating to a federal dispute. Any other interpretation, especially one holding that the Supreme Court is restricted from entertaining challenges to constitutional validity under Article 131 jurisdiction would be contrary to the clear and literal words of Article 131. It would amount to the Court legislating/amending the Constitution by adding words that do not exist, whereas it is a settled position that the Courts while interpreting the Constitution cannot by imputation add words which change the meaning of the Constitution where there is no ambiguity upon a plain reading of the provision.24 Moreover, it is also a settled principle that the Constitution as a document must not be interpreted in a narrow or pedantic sense and must be liberally construed in a manner which enables the citizens to enjoy the rights guaranteed by it in the fullest measure.25 In this regard, in State of Karnataka v. Union of India26 the Supreme Court tracing Article 131 to Section 204 of the Government of India Act, 193527 (the 1935 Act) held that Article 131 is remnant of the federalism under the 1935 Act and must therefore be widely and generously interpreted to advance the intended remedy and disputes (such as constitutional interpretation disputes).
Another relevant phrase forming a part of Article 131 is “if and insofar as the dispute involves any question (whether of law or fact) on which the existence or extent of a legal right depends”. Certainly, the words “legal right” cannot mean to omit constitutional rights. Rather, the constitutional provisions always operate as a fetter on the powers of the legislature28 and such legislative action and, the constitutionality of it, is amenable to judicial review.29 The Supreme Court has held that under Article 131 it is sufficient in order that its provisions may apply that the plaintiff questions the legal or constitutional right asserted by the defendant, be it the Government of India or any other State.30 It was further held that a State has a vital interest in the definition of powers of the Federal Government and thus, a constitutional or federal dispute in such regard is within the Article 131 ambit.31 Therefore, interpreting this phrase in light of its judicial exposition, it becomes abundantly clear that Article 131 does not oust challenges to the constitutionality of a State action whether legislative or executive.
In State of Maharashtra v. Union of India32, a pending litigation, the State of Karnataka and the Union of India have in an Article 131 dispute placed reliance on the phrase “subject to the provisions of this Constitution”. By relying on this, they have argued that under Article 131 jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, challenge to the constitutional validity of a Central/State legislation cannot be made/entertained. It must be seen that this contention/argument misconstrues this phrase as well as the provisions of the Constitution to be read with this provision (Article 131 read with Articles 32 and 226). This phrase is intended for provisions such as Article 262 which expressly and specifically provides for the adjudicatory mechanism for river water disputes between federal entities so that there is no doubt as to jurisdiction or multiplicity of proceedings.33 The writ jurisdictions of Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution are to be invoked by the citizens/people whose fundamental rights have been violated, and a State or Union of India cannot ordinarily maintain an action thereunder. It is of significance to note that in an original suit the challenge to constitutionality of a law would be assessed and adjudicated differently from a writ jurisdiction adjudication. The difference lies in the discovery and establishment of facts, and therefore, where facts showing violation of constitutional rights and obligations are disputed/required to be established, writ jurisdiction of the courts would not be an efficacious alternative remedy. Furthermore, if it is held that a suit for reliefs must be in a different proceeding under Article 131 and a constitutional validity challenge should be in a different proceeding under Article 32 where both the proceedings relate to the same cause of action then it would be an unnecessary multiplicity of proceedings as well as wastage of precious judicial and public time, resources, and money.34
It is also of vital importance to remember that constitutional provisions must be given a purposive interpretation to give effect to its intention.35 Upon dissecting Article 131, the object and purpose that emerges is:
(i) federal disputes must be adjudicated by the highest court of the land to have a speedy, expeditious and hassle-free resolution;36
(ii) it is a necessary concomitant of a federal or a quasi-federal polity;37
(iii) need of an independent-neutral arbiter to resolve federal disputes amongst federal entities to avoid influence38 and bias.
Even the Sapru Committee had advocated for strengthening and widening of the jurisdiction of the Federal Court to protect the Constitution, whereas, the Special Committee had recommended Supreme Court as the best forum for federal disputes.39 In a federal country, it is the Constitution which is supreme40 and the Constitution must therefore be protected and enforced.
If a constitutional challenge to the validity of a law is maintainable in an ordinary civil suit,41 it seems absolutely absurd to accept that in an original suit before the Supreme Court in a federal dispute would omit from its scope assessing a challenge to the constitutional validity of a law. Moreover, it has been held by the Supreme Court that Article 131 original suit jurisdiction cannot be equated to or restricted by principles of ordinary civil suit jurisdictions and therefore, Article 131 jurisdiction is even larger.42
In State of Jharkhand v. State of Bihar43, the Supreme Court has already doubted the correctness of the ruling in State of M.P. v. Union of India44. The Supreme Court went a step further and referred the decision to a larger Bench for assessing its correctness.45 In doing so, the Supreme Court in State of Jharkhand held that the Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction in federal disputes under Article 13146 and that Article 131 jurisdiction is larger in scope and ambit to ordinary civil suits.47 It was held that Article 131 does not describe the proceedings thereunder, rather Article 131 uses the word “dispute” which is of wide amplitude.48 Moreover Article 131 is a self-contained code and the only limitations on it are provided thereunder.49
In Union of India v. State of Rajasthan50 it has been held that under Article 131, disputes relating to constitutional relationship of the federal entities and the powers, rights, duties, immunities, liabilities, disabilities, etc. flowing therefrom, are maintainable.
The duty and power of judicial review vests in the constitutional courts. Even though in the context of Article 131, the power of judicial review has not been expressly spelled out in any case before, yet such power of judicial review certainly extends to the exclusive Federal Court jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Article 131.
It is impossible to fathom that the Supreme Court in its Article 131 jurisdiction will not entertain challenges based on constitutional provisions or rights. Such a position becomes even tougher to accept given the fact that the Supreme Court has the exclusive and sole jurisdiction to entertain federal disputes. Multiplicity of proceedings (under writ jurisdiction and Article 131 jurisdiction) would only lead to a wastage of public and judicial time, money, and resources. Even upon a reading of Article 131, the various relevant phrases used therein, and their analysis shows that Article 131 jurisdiction of the Supreme Court cannot be handicapped in such a manner. A reading of the authoritative Constitution Bench decisions cited above providing constitutional disputes to be adjudicated under Article 131 jurisdiction also indicates completely to the contrary. Additionally, the settled canons of constitutional interpretation and constitutional principles would also show that ousting “constitutional challenge to a law” from its Article 131 jurisdiction would be unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court of India is the sentinel on the qui vive.51 It is the entrusted constitutional and Federal Court meant to arbiter federal disputes and decide constitutional issues. In this context, the ruling of the Supreme Court in State of M.P. v. Union of India52 cannot be countenanced as it is against various constitutional provisions and principles. It would be highly beneficial if the Supreme Court sooner rather than later holds the decision per incuriam and overrules it so that no other federal dispute litigation has to be delayed on the ground of constitutional validity challenge not being entertainable under Article 131 jurisdiction.
† Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Associate, Chambers of Mr C.S. Vaidyanathan, Senior Advocate. Author can be reached at email@example.com.
15. State of Maharashtra v. Union of India, Original Civil Suit No. 4 of 2004 (pending).
24. S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, 1981 Supp SCC 87, paras 199, 200, 215 and 225; M. Pentiah v. Muddala Veeramallappa, AIR 1961 SC 1107, para 27.
25. Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. v. Union of India, AIR 1962 SC 305, para 28; S.R. Chaudhuri v. State of Punjab, (2001) 7 SCC 126, para 33.
32. Original Civil Suit No. 4 of 2004 (pending).