Apex court in 1977 rejected Karnataka’s objection to probe by Centre

In appointing a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) under Section 3 1 (b) of the Commissions of Inquiry Act to probe into the allegations of `snoopgate,’ the Centre seems to be on a strong wicket as the Supreme Court had in 1977 rejected an argument raised by the State of Karnataka that such an appointment impinges on the federal structure.

The Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley on Thursday tweeted that the matter would be challenged in the court of law. In this context it would be worthwhile to recall a similar instance in 1976 when the then Central government appointed a CoI to probe into allegations of corruption, favouritism and nepotism against the then Chief Minister and other Ministers.

Karnataka government filed a suit in the Supreme Court questioning the jurisdiction of the Centre to appoint such a commission. The Karnataka government took the stand that the Centre had no jurisdiction or authority to constitute the CoI under the CoI Act; the action of the Centre in appointing the Commission against the Ministers of the State government was destructive of the federal structure of the Constitution and the scheme of distribution of powers between the Centre and the States; under the Cabinet system of government the Council of Ministers was responsible to the Legislature for all its actions and the inquiry ordered by the Central government against the State Ministers, while they were in office would subvert the principle of collective responsibility of Ministers to the Legislature.

Rejecting the argument, a seven-Judge by a majority of 4:3 said “Since the two notifications [by the State and the Centre] authorise inquiries into matters which are substantially different in nature and object, the inquiry of the Central Commission cannot be said to be barred by reason of the State government notification under proviso (b) to section 3 (1 ) of the CoI Act even if, in order to deal with a substantially different subject-matter, central areas of fact or rules governing the transactions may be common. If the objectives are different the examination of common areas of fact and law for different purposes will be permissible.”

No violation of law

The majority ruling held that the obvious intention behind the CoI Act was to enable the machinery of democratic government to function more efficiently and effectively. The court said “it could hardly be construed is an Act meant to thwart democratic methods of the government. In all democratic countries when allegations and rumours circulate causing crisis of confidence in the integrity of public life or about other matters of public importance, it is essential that public confidence should be restored and this can be done only by thoroughly investigating and probing the rumours and allegations. Such an inquiry might reveal either that the evil exists or that there is no force in the rumours. In either case confidence is restored. There is no substance in the argument that a Commission appointed by the Central government to inquire into the same matter for which a Commission had already been set up by the State government is violative of Section 3(1) (b) of the Act.”

The Commission appointed by the Centre will have the powers of a civil court and it can summon and enforce the attendance of any person from any part of India and examine him/her on oath; require the discovery and production of any document; receive evidence on affidavits; requisition any public record or copy thereof from any court of office and issue Commissions for the examination of witnesses or documents and the Gujarat government is bound to cooperate in the inquiry unless it is able to get a stay on the Centre’s probe in a court of law.

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