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Case Analysis: Rao Shiva Bahadur Singh v/s The State Of Vindhya Pradesh (1955 AIR 446)

This lawsuit takes place at a period when India's Constitution had just been enacted. Many cases concerning the interpretation of constitutional principles were being filed in courts at this time. Fundamental rights and the guarantee to protect them were promised to the people of the country.

The question of whether the fundamental right, of life and liberty, promised to the citizens by Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1950 could be infringed because of the incompetency in the composition of the bench. In the case of Rao Shiva Bahadur Singh v. State of Vindhya Pradesh, this issue was dealt quite well by the Hon'ble Apex Court.

Since this is the first case to address the issue related to the composition of the bench, it serves as a landmark precedent.

Background Information
Court: Supreme Court of India.
Date of Judgment: 05/04/1955.
Petitioner: Rao Shiva Bahadur Singh
Respondent: The State of Vindhya Pradesh and Another
Composition of the Bench:
  • Chief Justice Bijan Kr. Mukherjee
  • Justice Sudhi Ranjan Das
  • Justice Vivian Bose
  • Justice Bhuvneshwar P. Sinha
  • Justice Sayed Jaffer Imam

Brief facts
  • � Rao Shiva Bahadur Singh (the petitioner) was the Minister of Industries in the Government of Vindhya Pradesh in the years 1948 and 1949.
  • � On April 11, 1949, the petitioner was arrested in Delhi for accepting illicit benefits in exchange for favouring the Panna Diamond Mining Syndicate in a conflict over the lease of the Panna Diamond Mines.
  • � In December 1949, the petitioner was brought before the Court of Special Judge at Rewa, along with one Mohan Lal, the secretary at the Ministry of Industries at that time.
  • � On 26th July 1950, both the accused were acquitted by the special judge.
  • � The State filed an appeal before the Judicial Commissioner of Vindhya Pradesh over the acquittal.
  • � On 10th march 1951, the judicial commissioner convicted both the accused and sentenced them to separate terms of imprisonment under different sections in addition with fines.
  • � On 12th march 1951, on the application of both the accused, the judicial Commissioner issued a certificate of fitness on four points of law raised in the case, and a petition of appeal was filed before the Supreme Court under article 134 of the Constitution of India.
  • � In April 1953, this petition was placed before the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court.
  • � In this petition, firstly, the validity of the conviction and punishment by the judicial commissioner was challenged before the Constitutional Bench. On 22nd May 1953, the Bench of the Supreme Court rejected both the objections.
  • � On the 20th October 1953, After the constitutional points were disposed of, the appeal was placed before the division bench and it ordered the appeal to be heard on the merits.
  • � On March 5, 1954, this division bench upheld Mohan Lal's appeal and declared him innocent. However, it rejected the petitioner's appeal regarding his conviction under sections 161, 465, and 466 of the Indian Penal Code, and overturned his conviction on the charge under section 120-B. The sentence of imprisonment for three years was maintained but the fine was set aside.
  • � On 18th March 1954, a review petition was filed for the judgments of both constitution and division bench.
  • � The problem with the review petition was that a single review petition was filed for two different judgments, and even the time to file the review petition for one of the judgments lapsed.
  • � On 5th April 1954, the review application was scheduled for hearing before the same Division Bench and on the same day the bench dismissed the petition.
  • � On April 12, 1954, a new petition was submitted on behalf of the petitioner, requesting that the review of the Constitution Bench's ruling from the 22nd of May 1953 be brought before the Constitution Bench for a final decision.
  • � On 17th May, the constitution bench declined the petition.
  • � The petitioner then filed an application of the writ of habeas corpus on the allegation that the petitioner has been and is being deprived of his liberty otherwise than in accordance with procedure established by law.
Hence, the present case.

Legal Issues for Determination
  1. Whether the judgement given by the Judicial Commissioner of Vindhya Pradesh was violative of article 21?
  2. Whether under article 145(3) and article 228 of the Indian constitution does the constitutional bench have the power to sever the case on the basis of 'substantial question of law' and other part?
Arguments forwarded by the Advocates
Arguments advanced by the Petitioner:
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  1. The Court of the Judicial Commissioner of Vindhya Pradesh was not the proper forum for hearing the appeal against the judgment of the Special Judge and hence the decision of Judicial Commissioner setting aside of acquittal of the petitioner and convicting him under various sections of Indian Penal Code becomes void and will not have any effect.
  2. The petitioner's counsel is of the opinion that the question whether a particular case involves a 'substantial question of law' as to the interpretation of the Constitution is to be examined at the time when the case first comes before this Court.

    That if a matter qualifies for a question of law, it must be dealt by the constitutional bench of the Apex Court.
  3. Under Article 145(3) of the Constitution of India, 1950 if the case is taken up by a constitutional bench and the entire case matter should be disposed of by that bench.
  4. The petitioner counsel contended that when the matter is first placed before the Division Bench of the Court and the matter is found to involve a Constitutional issue, the Constitutional issue must be resolved by the Constitutional Bench and in line of the opinion of that constitutional bench, the divisional bench may dispose the rest of the matter concerned.
  5. In contrary to the above given condition, if the matter is first is placed before the Constitutional Bench, then the Apex Court does not have the power and authority to split up 'the case' and sever the matters in the issue as per its convenience and therefore must be completely dealt up by the Constitutional Bench.
  6. The High Court under the powers conferred to it under Article 228 of the Constitution of India has the power to split up a case involving substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution of India but the constitution bench of the Apex Court in this case did not have the power to do so.
  7. The counsel further argued in the case referred to the rule of 'indivisibility of a case', wherein he contends that other than in certain types of proceedings as explicitly authorized by the statute, like that of reference made to CPC, the general rule of indivisibility of case is what governs the proceeding of a case in the court of any jurisdiction.
  8. For the references made by the learned counsel in the court, it is said that these provisions are exceptions to the general rule of indivisibility of a case.

Arguments advanced by the Respondent:
  1. Under article 145(3) of Constitution of India it clearly states that the cases coming within the purview of this clause may be split up so as to admit of the questions of constitutional importance being determined by a Constitutional Bench of at least five Judges.
  2. The learned counsel submitted that no such rule of 'indivisibility of case' exists per se.
  3. The counsel contended that even if some sort of principle of this kind existed, still the general rule of indivisibility of a case cannot be applied here and splitting up of cases has to be allowed because the special provisions of the Constitution or other statutes provide for such splitting up in those cases.

Reasoning of the Court
Ratio Decidendi:
  1. Where the Court hearing an appeal under any of the provisions of this Chapter other than article 132 consists of less than five Judges and in the course of the hearing of the appeal the Court is satisfied that the appeal involves a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of this Constitution the determination of which is necessary for the disposal of the appeal, such Court shall refer the question for opinion to a Court constituted as required by this clause i.e. to a Constitutional Bench, and shall on receipt of the opinion dispose of the appeal in conformity with such opinion".
  2. The underlying principle of the Constitution is clear and all that it insists upon is that all constitutional questions should be heard and decided by a Bench of not less than five Judges. As long as this requirement is fulfilled there can be no constitutional objection to the rest of the case being disposed of by a Division Bench of less than five Judges, so as to save the time of the Constitution Bench of five or more, Judges.
  3. The court is not aware of any such general rule of indivisibility. There is nothing in principle which requires that a case, must always be decided in its entirety by one Judge or one set of Judges even though such a case may conveniently be dealt with in two or more stages. The splitting up of cases is not generally repugnant to law and in particular to the Constitution, leads us to the conclusion that in construing clause (3) of article 145 no quality of indivisibility need be attributed to the words "the case" used therein.
  4. If a Court is entitled to decide a case in stages, as the Privy Council has already held, there is no reason why article 145(3) should be so construed as to deprive this Court of that inherent power. This court assumes that the court has inherent power to decide on divisibility of cases to constitutional bench and the other benches in respect to constitutional questions the other subsidiary questions.

Obiter Dicta:
Majority Opinion
CJ Bijan Kr. Mukherjee, J. Vivian Bose, J. Bhuvneshwar P. Sinha, J. Sayed Jaffer Imam
  1. So long as the minimum number of Judges which the Constitution and the rules framed by this Court prescribe are present to hear and decide the questions raised from stage to stage, they represent the Court for the purpose of giving decisions on its behalf and the parties get all that they are entitled to under the law.
  2. It will involve no violation of any principle of natural justice or of any legal principle if we construe clause (3) of article 145 as requiring only that the minimum number of five Judges must sit for the purpose of deciding any case in so far and as long as it involves a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of this Constitution.
  3. Indeed, the practice has grown up in this Court for a Constitution Bench to dispose of all constitutional questions and to leave the other subsidiary questions for disposal by a Division Bench of less than five Judges in conformity with the opinion of the Constitution Bench. We find nothing in the body of clause (3) of article 145 which compels us to depart from the famous maxim cursus curiae est lex curiae (The practice of the court is the law of the court) which was laid down by Lord Coke in Burrowes v. High Commission Court (1).
  4. The case may involve a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution, but it may cease to do so at a later stage. In that situation, it cannot be insisted that the time of a Bench of five or more Judges should be spent on the determination of a case which has ceased to involve any constitutional question.

Dissenting Opinion
By Justice Vivian Sinha:
The point of contention is the construction of Article 145(3) as interpreted and described by the other judges of the bench. A case may involve both a question of law as to the interpretation of Constitution and other issues. The primary question was whether clause (3) here means the whole case or a part of the case.

The Constitution while laying down clause (3) of Article 145 meant the case as the 'whole matter' in controversy which involves both the question of law of constitution as well as other issues. A distinction has been made in 'case' and 'question' and also among the clause main body as well as the proviso to the clause.

The matters falling within the purview of the proviso of clause (3) can be split up to decide the question of law by a constitutional bench of not less than 5 judges. The rest of the matter can be left to the disposal of Divisional bench in front of which the matter was originally placed.

The matters falling under main clause as prescribed in clause (3) cannot be split up by the Apex Court as per its whims and fancies and needs to be completely taken up by the Constitutional benchto resolve issue of law (constitutional) as well as other issues in the case.

A reference to Article 228 of the Constitution was made to show that the makers of the Constitution were fully aware of the difference between "case itself' and 'question of law' as A.228 gives discretionary power to High Court to solve the question of law arising in constitution and dispose the rest if matter to lower bench or court.

The reasoning is supported by stating that the Constitution has enacted the proviso as an exception to the general clause which is the main clause (3). The point of importance is that the proviso is specific and restricted to appeals only, and to those that have not came up through procedure given in A. 132 and qualifies the provisions of the proviso.

Furthermore, the reasons and references given by the other judges in their opinion are countered by stating that the Court is in its formative stages and there is no 'established practice' of this court. The reference made of the case was challenged as stages of trial in that case was done by two courts of coordinate jurisdiction which is very different from the present case.

In his opinion therefore the case falls within the ambit of 'main clause' and hence must be taken up completely by the Constitutional Bench. He therefore submitted his judgement by ordering to allow the petition to the extent that it must be heard by Constitutional bench and the order of Divisional bench is that of an incompetent court.

Final Judgement Held: By the order of the Majority of Bench, the petition is dismissed

New Rulings or Principles developed in the case:
  • When a case is properly admitted to this court, all what both the parties are entitled is to get a decision of this court and not to choose or decide a particular bench which should to be constituted.
  • The language of A. 145(3) does not deprive the Hon'ble Supreme Court to split the matters placed before itself as it being an inherent power of the Court.

Critical Comments on the Case
A court of law must infer the spirit of the Constitution from the Constitution's language. Whatever one may think or hope, the Constitution's spirit cannot prevail if that wish is not reflected in the Constitution's language. If it were against the spirit of the Constitution to continue trials under such a misinterpreted provision of Constitution of India, it would equally be against the spirit of the Constitution for other men who will file petition under article 145(3) of Constitution of India.

According to our understanding the line of reasoning given by the dissenting judge in the case seems more appropriate and logical when it comes to the interpretation of article 145(3) and its proviso of the Constitution of India.

This judgement was of the year 1955 and the court was still in its formative stages and it cannot be said to have an "established practice". There are claims to back this reasoning of established practice which says that divisibility or splitting up of the cases has been a common practice in the countries from where we have borrowed the provisions of our constitution. But what needs to be understood is that since the prevalent social, political, economic and legal conditions are different with respect to different countries we cannot apply any common principle in the context of India. It was still a na�ve country struggling to uplift itself so as to develop and it would take a considerable amount of time to claim any practice as a established practices with reference to India.

The present case comes under the purview of clause (3) of article 145 of Constitution of India and not the provision. Hence the petitioner's appeal has not been heard and under the procedure established by law. And that's why there is a violation of article of 21 of the Constitution of India of the petitioner.

In this case the judge who has given the dissenting opinion concluded that the word "the case" means the whole matter in controversy before the court.

He interpreted the article in a way that both clause (3) of article 145 and its proviso of the Constitution of Indian should be read together but limited cases fall under the ambit of the proviso. If a case falls under the clause (3) of article 145 of Constitution of India there needs to be a constitutional bench and they cannot severe the case on the basis of substantial question of law as to the interpretation of constitution law but if it comes under the proviso of this article then the case can be split up between the constitutional bench as far as the constitutional question are concerned and the division bench with regards to other issues involved in the case.

The court ruled that the Supreme Court has all the authority and discretion with it to decide the bench for hearing of the matter, except when a constitutional issue is involved which is needed to be taken up only a constitutional bench of minimum 5 judges. Most importantly, a case like this cannot be constituted on the grounds of some unknown and unrecognized 'Rule of Indivisibility' as asserted in the petition.

Before declaring any judgement invalid or unconstitutional, one must try to understand the meaning provided by the statute that backs the particular judgement. The language of Article 145(3) clearly provides the conditions under which a constitutional bench needs to be constituted for disposal of the matter.

Furthermore, any citizen has the right to get justice by this court but does not have the power to choose the bench of this court before which the matter needs to be placed. The Apex Court therefore reserves the sole discretion of placing the matters before its various benches except in the cases where the statute provides for the same. As a result, the court ruled that the case matter herein lacks merit, and therefore dismissed the petition. Statutes/Laws Referred:
  • Constitution of India.
  • Press and Registration of Books Act (XXV of 1867).
  • Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931.
  • General Clauses Act, 1897.
  • Interpretation Act, 1889 of the Parliament of the UK.

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