When Dr. B.R. Ambedkar introduced the draft Constitution in the Constituent Assembly in 1948, he underlined the deliberate attempt of its makers to describe India as a Union of States and not a federation. “The federation is a Union because it is indestructible,” Dr. Ambedkar said.
He said that the Constitution was empowered to change its form and shape into unitary or federal as needed: “…the draft Constitution can be both unitary as well as federal according to the requirements of time and circumstances. In normal times, it is framed to work as a federal system. But in times of war, it is so designed as to make it work as though it was a unitary system,” he reasoned.
The final version provided demarcation of powers between the Centre and States in terms of legislative, administrative and financial functions, while the Seventh Schedule further divided the legislative functions into Union, State and Concurrent lists.
The framers of the Constitution envisioned differences between the Centre and States owing to this quasi-federal structure and dual polity. And so they added the original and exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court for the resolution of such issues. Article 131 entrusts exclusive jurisdiction to the SC to hear and determine a dispute originating between States, or between States and the Union. Most recently, the Kerala government filed a suit in the SC to challenge the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 under Article 131.
The final form of the provision was not subjected to extensive debate in the Constituent Assembly. The majority of members assented to the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in settling Centre-State disputes— with the sole exception of Brajeshwar Prasad, who favoured the unitary system of government. He argued that “provincial governments are subordinate governments”, and that the decision of the Government of India should be final in case of a conflict between two States, or the Government of India and a State. The Constituent Assembly, however, did not accept his contention, and the draft was adopted in its final form.
What is Article 131? Why is it necessary?
The Indian Supreme Court is regarded as powerful due to its wide powers of judicial review. It has three kinds of jurisdictions — original, appellate and advisory. While the President has the power to seek an opinion from the top court under advisory jurisdiction, the court can hear appeals from lower courts under appellate jurisdiction. Original jurisdiction, meanwhile, is the power of a court to hear and adjudicate disputes from the beginning.
A citizen can approach the High Court or the Supreme Court under Article 226 and Article 32, respectively, in case there is a violation of fundamental rights. A State can, meanwhile, invoke Article 131 to approach the Supreme Court in case it feels that its legal rights are under threat or have been violated by another State or the Central government.
Under Article 131, the dispute may be:
- between the Government of India and one or more States, or
- between the Government of India and any State or States on one side and one or more other States on the other, or
- between two or more States.
Where is the original jurisdiction of the SC not applicable?
Under Article 131, original jurisprudence doesn’t extend to a dispute arising out of a treaty, agreement, covenant, or engagement which continues to be in operation and excludes such jurisdiction. Also, the inclusion of the phrase “subject to the provisions of this Constitution” implies that the exclusive original jurisdiction of the SC is not applicable to cases where another body has jurisdiction under other provisions of the Constitution or that of the SC is excluded, notes professor Dr. K. Sivananda Kumar. Examples of this include Articles 262 (inter-State water disputes), 280 (matters referred to Finance Commission) and 290 (adjustment of certain expenses and pensions between the Union and the States).
When can Article 131 be invoked?
For a case to fall under the ambit of Article 131, the dispute must involve a question of law or fact on which the ‘existence or extent of a legal right depends’. The Article, however, doesn’t explicitly define what constitutes a legal right, or whose legal right is in question.
In State Of Rajasthan vs Union Of India (1977), the SC explained the scope of legal rights: “…in a generic sense, the word “right” is used to mean an immunity from the legal power of another immunity is exemption from the power of another in the same way as liberty is exemption from the right of another.”
“The legal right of the States consists in their immunity, in the sense of freedom from the power of the Union Government. They are entitled, under Article 131, to assert that right either by contending in the absolute that the Centre has no power to dissolve the Legislative Assemblies or with the qualification that such a power cannot be exercised on the ground stated,” Justice Y.V. Chandrachud said.
In the same judgement, Justice P. N. Bhagwati highlighted two important limitations to the Article. First, a private party can’t invoke Article 131 to raise a dispute in the SC. Second, the dispute “must be one, relating to a legal right and not a dispute on political plane not based on legal right. A legal right which is the subject of dispute need not arise in the context of the Constitution and the federalism it sets up,” he said.
How has the SC previously dealt with cases under Article 131?
Over the years, multiple cases have been filed where States have challenged the Centre in the Supreme Court. However, an analysis of such cases shows that mixed or heterogeneous observations have been made by the SC, which has further added to the ambiguity surrounding Article 131.
State of Rajasthan & Others vs Union of India (1977)
In 1977, the Janata Party secured a majority in the Lok Sabha elections. When the new government took office, the Congress was in power in Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. On April 18, 1977, the Union Home Minister wrote to the CMs of these States and asked them to advise the Governors to dissolve the State Assemblies and seek a fresh mandate. In an interview, the then Minister of Law, Justice and Company Affairs Shanti Bhushan said there was a serious doubt if the party enjoyed the people’s confidence in these nine States.
Six States — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and Orissa filed suits in the SC to declare the letter of the Home Minister “illegal, ultra vires of the Constitution”. They also requested the SC for an interim injunction restraining the Centre from resorting to Article 356, which allows President’s rule to be invoked if a State government is ‘against the provisions of the Constitution’.
The SC held that “mere wrangles” between governments do not fall within the ambit of Article 131. “It is only when a legal, not a mere political, issue arises touching upon the existence or extent of a legal right that Article 131 is attracted,” the Court said. The Court also noted that legal right here refers to that of a State and not the government in power.
State of Karnataka vs Union of India & Another (1977)
In 1977, the Karnataka government approached the SC, challenging a section of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952 which authorised the Centre to order a judicial inquiry into allegations of corruption, favouritism and nepotism against the Chief Minister and other ministers. The suit was held maintainable. The then Chief Justice MH Beg said Article 131 can be invoked when a State(s) or the Union differ on a question of interpretation of the Constitution which affects the scope or exercise of government powers.
Justice Bhagwati, meanwhile, held that ‘legal right’ does not just mean that of the State, but includes any legal right of State government. “The State government is the agent through which the State exercises its executive power.... It would be wholly unrealistic to suggest that since the State Government is distinct from the State, any action or capacity or lack of it in the State Government would not affect the State and the State would not be interested in it,” the judgment read.
State of Madhya Pradesh v Union of India & Another (2011)
Section 58(3) and 58(4) of the MP Reorganisation Act, 2000 allowed the Centre to apportion the assets and liabilities of State electricity boards without proper guidelines. In 2004, Madhya Pradesh filed a suit before the SC under Article 131, challenging the Act on the grounds that it was violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.
The two-member bench held that Article 131 was not appropriate to challenge the constitutionality of a central legislation. Central laws could be only challenged as writ petitions under Articles 32 and 262 and not under the original jurisdiction of the Court under Article 131, the SC said.
State of Jharkhand vs State of Bihar and Another (2014)
Relying on the above judgment, the defendant argued that the original suit was not maintainable under Article 131, referring to the constitutionality of a clause of the Bihar Reorganisation Act, 2000. In response, the two-member bench said the SC was unable to accept the view that the constitutionality of a law cannot be raised in a suit under Article 131.
The judgment stated that the original jurisdiction of the SC extends to any dispute between the Government of India and States, whether of law or fact, as long as it concerns a legal right. The matter was referred to a larger bench for final determination since the Madhya Pradesh case judgment was also delivered by a two-member bench.
Kerala’s anti-CAA suit
In 2019, Kerala became the first State to challenge the constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in the Supreme Court, urging the court to declare it violative of the Constitution and against the principle of secularism. The proposed legislation, which sparked protests across the country, was aimed at the fast-tracking of citizenship based on religion.
Kerala argued in the original suit that it was compelled by Article 256 to implement CAA. It also stated that the rules were arbitrary, unreasonable, and violative of fundamental rights, resulting in a dispute between Kerala and the Centre. The dispute involved both law and fact and concerned the legal rights of the State, Kerala argued. It also referred to the judgment in the State of Jharkhand v State of Bihar, saying the question of constitutionality may be considered by the court under Article 131. The case is pending.
The Hindu In Focus podcast | Kerala’s suit against CAA and the question of States’ opposition to Central laws
Chhattisgarh’s suit against NIA Act
A few days after Kerala, the Chhattisgarh Government invoked Article 131 to challenge the National Investigating Act, 2008 in the Supreme Court. In its suit, Chhattisgarh sought a declaration that the 2008 Act was unconstitutional on the grounds that the NIA Act was beyond the “legislative competence of the Parliament” and against the “federal spirit” of the Constitution. It added that the Centre can’t be given police powers since the police is a State subject while arguing that the provisions of the Act go against state sovereignty. Like Kerala, Chhattisgarh has also referred to the Supreme Court judgment in State of Jharkhand vs State of Bihar and Another to justify the suit’s maintainability. The case is pending.