Article 131: Original Jurisdiction Of The Supreme Court-Jus Dicere

Article 131 of the Indian Constitution deals with the Original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the Supreme Court shall, to the exclusion of any other court, have original jurisdiction in any dispute—

(a) between the Government of India and one or more States; or

(b) between the Government of India and any State or States on one side and one or more other States on the other; or

(c) between two or more States, if and in so far as the dispute involves any question (whether of law or fact) on which the existence or extent of a legal right depends:

Provided that the said jurisdiction shall not extend to a dispute arising out of any treaty, agreement, covenant, engagement, or other similar instrument which, having been entered into or executed before the commencement of this Constitution, continues in operation after such commencement, or which provides that the said jurisdiction shall not extend to such a dispute.[1]

The Supreme Court in its original jurisdiction under article 131 cannot entertain any suits brought by private individuals against the Government of India. The disputes relating to the original jurisdiction of the Court must involve a question of law or fact on which the existence of legal rights depends. This means that the court has no jurisdiction in matters of political nature. The term ‘legal right’ means a right recognized by law and capable of being enforced by the power of a State but not necessarily in a court of law.[2]

For the suits brought by private individuals against the Government for violation of fundamental rights, the provisions of article 32 and 226 entitle them to approach Supreme Court and High Court in form of various writs for enforcement of their fundamental rights or public duties.

In the State of Karnataka v. Union of India,[3] the Central Government appointed a Commission of Inquiry against the Chief Minister of Karnataka under Section 3 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 on charges of corruption, nepotism, favoritism, and misuse of the Government’s power. The plaintiff State of Karnataka filed a suit under Article 131 of the Constitution for a declaration that the appointment of Commission of Inquiry was illegal and ultra vires on the grounds (1) that the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, did not authorize the Central Government to constitute such a commission in regards to matters falling exclusively within the sphere of State legislature and executive powers, and (2) that if the provisions of the Act did so empower, they were ultra vires of the provision of the Constitution as well as the federal structure implicit and accepted as an inviolable basic feature of the Constitution. The defendant Union of India raised a preliminary objection that since the inquiry was against the chief Minister and certain other Ministers as individuals and not against the State of Karnataka, the suit under Article was, therefore, not maintainable.

The Supreme Court held that the plaintiff’s suit was maintainable by a majority of 4-3. Following is the summary of judges opinions: “Bhagwati and Gupta JJ. were of the view that the exercise of the power in the case would affect the constitutional right of the State to insist that the federal basis of the political structure set up by the Constitution shall not be violated by an unconstitutional assault under Article 356 (1). As the suit seeks to enforce a legal right of the State arising under the Constitution the suit could not be thrown out as it is outside the scope and ambit of Article 131. Goswami and Untwalia JJ. were of the view that the legal right must be that of the State. When the Home Minister asks the Chief Minister of the Government of the States to advice the Governors to dissolve the Legislative Assemblies and the Chief Ministers decline to accept the advice it is not a dispute between the State on the one hand and the Government of India on the other. It is a real dispute between the Government of the State and the Government of India. It is no doubt a question of life and death for the State Government but not so for them as a legal entity as even after the dissolution of the Assembly the State will continue to have a Government for the time being as provided for in the Consitution. Fazl Ali. J. was of the view that the mere fact that letters were sent to the State Government containing gratuitous advice would not create any dispute if one did not exist before nor would such a course of conduct clothe the State Government with a legal right to call for a determination under Article 131 as the State did not possess a legal right. The State Government who have raised dispute are not covered by the word ‘State’ appearing in Article 131 and therefore the suits were not maintainable on that grounds also. It will be seen that four of the seven Judges were of the view that the suits are maintainable though Bhagwati and Gupta JJ. were of the view that there is a difference between the State and the State Government. Whatever the question that might have risen regarding the dissolution of the Assemblies, in the present case the dispute relates to the functioning of the State in the exercise of the powers conferred under the Constitution and the State’s legal rights are affected. The preliminary objection therefore fails”. [4]

In Union of India v. State of Rajasthan,[5] it has been held that a State’s suit against the Union of India for the recovery of damages under Section 80 of the Railways Act, 1980 is not a ‘dispute’ falling under Article 131 (a) and therefore not maintainable. The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction under Article 131 is not attracted to such ordinary dispute of commercial nature between the State and the Union of India.

Exceptions to Article 131:

  1. The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court shall not extend to a dispute arising out of any treaty, agreement, covenant, engagement, sanad or other similar instrument which, having been entered into or executed before the commencement of this Constitution, continues in operation after such commencement, or which provides that the said jurisdiction shall not extend to such a dispute. (Article 131, proviso)
  2. Under Article 262, Parliament may by law exclude the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court or any other court in disputes with respect to the use, distribution or control of the water of, or in, any inter-state or river valley.

End Notes:

[1] Indian Constitution

[2] J. N. Pandey, Constitutional Law of India, (531), (Central Law Agency, Allahabad, 53rd Edition)

[3] (1978) 11 SCJ 190

[4] Ibid

[5] (1984) 4 SCC 238

By Jus Dicere Team

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