Home Law What is Article 131? What role can Supreme Court play in it?

What is Article 131? What role can Supreme Court play in it?

An analyses of Article 131 and light on the frivolous nature of the Centre-state disputes...

Why is Article 131 necessary?

The Supreme Court has three kinds of jurisdictions: original, appellate, and advisory. Under its extraordinary original jurisdiction, the Supreme Court has exclusive power to adjudicate upon disputes involving elections of President and the Vice President, those involving states and the Centre, and cases involving the violation of fundamental rights.For a dispute to qualify as a dispute under Article 131, it has to necessarily be between states and the Centre and must involve a question of law or fact on which the existence of a legal right of the state or the Centre depends. In a 1978 judgment, State of Karnataka v Union of India, Justice P N Bhagwati had said that for the Supreme Court to accept a suit under Article 131, the state need not show that its legal right is violated, but only that the dispute involves a legal question. Article 131 cannot be used to settle political differences between state and central governments headed by different parties.

Article 131 confers exclusive jurisdiction on the Supreme Court in disputes involving States, or the Centre on the one hand and one or more States on the other. This means no other court can entertain such a dispute. It is well-known that both High Courts and the Supreme Court have the power to adjudicate cases against the State and Central governments. In particular, the validity of any executive or legislative action is normally challenged by writ petitions — under Article 226 of the Constitution in respect of High Courts, and, in respect to fundamental rights violations, under Article 32 in the Supreme Court.

NRC and CAA: An instance of state challenging central laws

The state of Kerala in January 2020 filed a suit before the Apex Court asking for a declaration that the CAA, 2019, is violative of the Constitution, and against the principle of secularism that is a basic feature of the Constitution.

Feasability of the suit

The Supreme Court, vide its judgments in the State of Rajasthan v. Union of India, and State of Jharkhand v. the State of Bihar, have authoritatively established that ‘dispute’ must involve the assertion and/or vindication of a legal right of the Government of India and/or that of a constituent State of the Union. A caveat in that regard is that a genuine legal right must have been asserted by way of the suit concerned and any issue merely touching upon political concerns would be outrightly rejected by the Supreme Court.

It becomes fundamental to take into consideration that an invocation of Article 131 must concern itself with the rights, obligations, duties, and liberties only in so far as the parties to the suit are concerned. The Supreme Court further established, vide the above-cited judgments, that an original suit under Article 131 must not and cannot be likened to a civil suit in terms of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (CPC) and therefore in the matter at hand the plaintiff States doesn’t have to assert the ‘legal right’ unto themselves.

Article 131 has been manifested to not be encumbered with any such narrow expositions and a suit thereof would be maintainable so far as it brings into question any dispute centered around the legal or constitutional right asserted by the defendant Government of India, not in consonance with such rights and powers asserted by the plaintiff States. However, this is precisely where the plaintiff States’ suit falters for nowhere in the respective plaints, have the States of Kerala as also Rajasthan challenged or brought into question the constitutional power of the Government of India to enact the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. Vide the respective plaints it has been submitted that by Article 256, the constituent States of the Union shall be constitutionally obligated and duty-bound to implement the provisions of the Amendment Act, 2019 unless the Supreme Court deems it unconstitutional.

It is no one’s case that the validity of Central legislation cannot be challenged by the Government of a State under Article 131. However, the same has to be tempered by the way of the Constitution Bench judgment in the State of Rajasthan whereby two conditions were laid out as already exhibited hereinabove. For invoking Article 131 therefore, there has to be a dispute between the legal/constitutional right or authority or power asserted by the defendant vis-à-vis the plaintiff. The constitutional power of the Central Government to enact the Amendment Act, 2019 as per List I (Union List) of the VIIth Schedule having nowhere been challenged, the pre-requisite conditionality’s under Article 131 are not satisfied.

The Supreme Court, vide its judgment in the State of Jharkhand furthered the above-cited position of law and concluded that there isn’t any bar to a test of the constitutional validity of a statute under the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. However, the same has to concern a disputed question of law/fact that impinges, erodes, diminishes, or even outrightly strips the legal right asserted by a ‘party to the proceedings’.

The reader must be apprised of the fact that the question on the invocation of jurisdiction under Article 131 insofar as it concerns a challenge to the constitutional validity of a statute has been referred to a larger Bench of the Supreme Court in light of the apparent conflict between the two judgments in State of Madhya Pradesh v. Union of India and the above-cited State of Jharkhand v. the State of Bihar. Regardless, the same doesn’t alter or dilute the ambit and scope of Article 131 as laid out by the State of Rajasthan judgment.

The ambit of Article 131

Article 131 is in many respects an anathema to the Government’s oft-quoted catchphrase ‘cooperative federalism’. The Constitution Framers were well aware that disputes between the Union and the constituent States is an inevitability for any federal polity and therefore provisioned for either the Government of India or a State Government to by-pass the judicial hierarchy and directly approach the Supreme Court under its original and exclusive jurisdiction. However, the remit of Article 131 is tempered on certain counts and the same assumes great significance vis-à-vis the issue at hand.

Under Article 131 can the Centre sue a state?

The Centre has other powers to ensure that its laws are implemented. The Centre can issue directions to a state to implement the laws made by Parliament. If states do not comply with the directions, the Centre can move the court seeking a permanent injunction against the states to force them to comply with the law. Non-compliance with court orders can result in contempt of court, and the court usually hauls up the chief secretaries of the states responsible for implementing laws.

How usual it is for states to challenge laws enacted by Parliament?

Under the Constitution, laws made by Parliament are presumed to be constitutional until a court holds otherwise. However, in India’s quasi-federal constitutional structure, inter-governmental disputes are not uncommon.

The framers of the Constitution expected such differences and added the exclusive original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court for their resolution. The quasi-federal structure envisaged in 1950 has consolidated into defined powers of the states.

Under a powerful Centre with a clear majority in Parliament, fault lines in India’s federal structure are frequently exposed. Since 2014, when the Narendra Modi government came to power, debates around the 15th Finance Commission, the Goods and Services Tax, the linguistic divide on the National Education Policy, land acquisition, and the proposed All India Judicial Services have all emerged as flashpoints between the strong Centre and states ruled by the Opposition.

The Supreme Court’s bandwidth of power to declare a legislation unconstitutional under Article 131

The 2012 dispute between Bihar and Jharkhand dealing with the issue of liability of Bihar to pay a pension to employees of Jharkhand for the period of their employment in the former, undivided Bihar state will help answer the abovementioned question.

Although earlier judgments had held that the constitutionality of a law can be examined under Article 131, a 2011 judgment in the case of State of Madhya Pradesh v. Union of India ruled otherwise. Since the 2011 case was also by a two-judge Bench and was later, the court could not overrule the case. However, the judges did not agree with the ruling.

Also read : Trump alleges fraud in US Presidential election , says he will go to Supreme Court

“We regret our inability to agree with the conclusion recorded in the case of State of Madhya Pradesh v. Union of India and Anr. (supra), that in an original suit under Article 131, the constitutionality of an enactment cannot be examined. Since the above decision is rendered by a coordinate Bench of two judges, judicial discipline demands that we should not only refer the matter for the examination of the said question by a larger Bench of this Court but are also obliged to record broadly the reasons which compel us to disagree with the above-mentioned decision,” the court ruled in 2015, referring the case to a larger Bench. The decision of the larger Bench in State of Bihar v. Jharkhand would have a bearing on Kerala’s challenge to the CAA


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