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Article 131 of the Indian Constitution: Nature, Scope and Judicial Trend

The Supreme Court has exclusive and original jurisdiction over legal issues originating between states or between states and the union, according to Article 131 of the Constitution. The court protects all citizens' fundamental rights, and any breach of those rights can be brought immediately to the State High Court by Article 226 or the Apex Court under Article 32 of the Constitution. But when State related matter arises on specified grounds, original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is invoked through A. 131.

Because of India's quasi-federal governing system, the constitution-makers deemed Article 131 to be crucial. The odds of a conflict arising between the states or between the Centre and the State are high under such a system, and the Constitution authors believed that decision-making authority in such circumstances should be clearly stated. As the highest judicial entity, the Supreme Court was assigned original and exclusive jurisdiction.

The bare reading of Article 131 states that - 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:
  1. between the Government of India and one or more States; or
  2. between the Government of India and any State or States on one side and one or more other States on the other; or
  3. 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
     
Nature And Scope Of Article 131
The nature of Article 131 is subject to provisions of the Constitution and is limited to the disputes involving legal rights as mentioned in the Article itself. But, one can see that the jurisdiction is extremely wide, provided the dispute is a justiciable one. It does not describe the types of disputes in the provision but is subjective to the judicial interpretation and facts of the case whether or not the constituents of Article 131 are fulfilled.

The intention of the Constitution makers is that such disputes should not be subjected to several tiers of the judicial hierarchy, but should come, for once and for all, before the highest court of the land.

A simple understanding of Article 131 gives that:
  • exclusive jurisdiction vests in the Supreme Court of India to the exclusion of any other court,
  • there must exist a 'dispute',
  • said dispute must be between either the Government of India i.e. the Central Government and one or more constituent State or States or between two or more of such constituent States of the Union of India,
  • the dispute must involve a question of law or a question of fact upon which the extent or the very existence of a legal right is predicated.

Private Individuals and Corporations
The Supreme Court in its original jurisdiction cannot entertain any suits brought by private individuals against the GOI. The dispute involving original jurisdiction must have a question of fact or law on which legal right depends. That means no interference in political nature cases as well. (United Provinces v. Governor General in Council AIR, 1939). Article 131 of the Constitution does not apply, if the other party is a public sector corporation.

State of Bihar had filed a suit against the Central Government on behalf of the Railways wanting some kind of compensation. The Supreme Court said that this case was not maintainable as the question of legal rights of a private consignor was risen thus it was outside the jurisdiction mentioned under Article 131 (State of Bihar v. UOI AIR 1970)

Two main constituents of Article 131 i.e. 'dispute' and 'legal right' must therefore is important.

In the case of State of Rajasthan v UOI it was said that the Supreme Court has got the power to give any kind of relief if it is necessary to enforce the legal right of any State on dispute if such legal right has been established by the Government of the State. The Supreme Court, vide its law settling judgments in State of Rajasthan v. UOI as well as State of Jharkhand v. 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 genuine legal right must have been asserted by way of the suit concerned
  • any issue merely touching upon political concerns would be outrightly rejected by the Supreme Court.
  • Thus it shall concern with the rights, obligations, duties, powers, immunities and liberties only insofar as the parties to the suit are concerned.

The Supreme Court does not have exclusive jurisdiction over issues arising from treaties, agreements, engagements, or other similar instruments entered into before the Constitution's inception, and such papers are construed by the government. The court concluded in the case of State of Haryana v. State of Punjab (2002) that the agreement between the two states regarding the building of water canals did not fall within Article 131.

The original jurisdiction of the SC does not extend to following matters:
  1. In dispute arising out of treaty, agreement, covenant etc.
  2. Inter-state water dispute.
  3. Matters referred to Finance Commission under Article 280.
  4. The adjustment of certain expenses under Article 290.
  5. The validity of central laws can be challenged through Article 32 and no recorse is normally permitted under Article 131 (State of MP v. UOI AIR 2012).

Kinds of Disputes that can be invoked under Article 131
Suits or petitions filed under Article 131 of the Constitution is much less as compared to suits filed because of the other constitutional remedies as such disputes are often settled through negotiation and agreement or are settled by the advice given the Union.

Even though this is a rarely used provision, recently two suits were filed by the Kerala and Chhattisgarh Government invoking Article 131, against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and the NIA Act respectively.

State of WB v. UOI AIR 1963
The Parliament had passed Acquisition and Development Act, 1947 which gave the Central Government the power to acquire land and rights which were vested with the state.
This was the first instance when Article 131 was invoked by a State against the Union Government and Section 4 and 7 of the Act were challenged as being an ultra vires. The Supreme Court held that the Indian Constitution is not federal entirely, and no compensation was given to state of West Bengal. It did not discuss the maintainability of suits under Article 131 that challenged central Acts.

State of Karnataka v. Union of India
In this case, the Karnataka Government challenged a section of Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952 which authorized the Central Government to constitute a judicial inquiry against the Ministers on the State including the Chief Minister. It was held that when differences arise between the representatives of the state and those the whole people of India on a question of interpretation of the Constitution, which affects the welfare of the people, and, particularly that of the people of the State concerned, Article 131 can be invoked.

State of Rajasthan v. UOI AIR 1977
A peculiar circumstance emerged in 1977. In the country as a whole, one party was overwhelmingly elected to power in a Parliamentary election. At the same time, another party was in power in nine states. The Central Government believed that the government in these states should seek a new mandate from the public. The Home Minister sent a letter to the Chief Ministers of the States to that effect. The States filed a petition with the Supreme Court, claiming that the letter will be followed by the issuance of a Presidential Proclamation under Article 356 of the Constitution, disputing the legitimacy of such a Proclamation under the circumstances. The Supreme Court determined that it has jurisdiction to hear the case.

State of Jharkhand v State of Bihar ( 2014)
There were certain provisions of the Bihar Reorganization Act, 2000 which dealt with pensionary liabilities of the former employees of the State were challenged under Article 131 of the Constitution in 2012. The Judgment passed by the 2-Judge Bench in Madhya Pradesh v. Union of India was used as precedent by the defendants to challenge the validity of the maintainability of the suit.

State of Kerala v. UOI and State of Chhattisgarh v. UOI (2020)
The Kerala government moved the apex court under Article 131 of the Constitution for challenging the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA), Passport Amdt Rules 2015 and Foreigners Rules 2015 and the Chhattisgarh government filed a suit in the Supreme Court under Article 131, challenging the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act on the ground that it encroaches upon the state's powers to maintain law and order.

The other petitions challenging the CAA were filed under Article 32 of the Constitution, which gives the court the power to issue writs when fundamental rights are violated. A state government cannot move the court under this provision because only people and citizens can claim fundamental rights. Under Article 131, the challenge is made when the rights and power of a state or the Centre are in question.

However, the contention is to declare the law unconstitutional. The Kerala HC dismissed the petition challenging the Passport related petition due to its private nature. CAA, according to the Kerala government, violates Article 14, Article 21, and Article 25 of the Constitution.

They further stated that because the Act in question makes religion and country of origin factors for citizenship, it violates the concept of secularism, is illogical, and discriminatory, and as a result, it should be ruled ultra vires and declared void. The plaintiff States, in particular, have based the 'dsipute involving conflict of law and fact' on the alleged infringement of their citizens' basic rights.

This is incorrect for two reasons:
  • first, the Amendment Act, 2019 does not in any way abridge or take away the rights of Indian citizens; it is merely an enabling provision to expedite the grant of Indian citizenship to certain religious communities; and
  • second, the averment is grossly outside the constitutional scheme of our federal polity.

Concluding Remark
So far, it has been accepted that Article 131 is the Supreme Court of India's original and exclusive jurisdiction when it comes to issues arising between the Union and states or between two states. In India, no High Court has that type of authority. There are two key points to remember: the parties to the dispute can only be a state or the union government itself. Because the definition of State in article 131 is not the same as or as broad as that in article 12 of the Constitution, a corporate or private body that is considered as a State will not be treated as such under article 131 of the Constitution.

In Madhya Pradesh v. UOI, the State filed a lawsuit alleging infringement of basic rights, and the Supreme Court ruled that the Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction under Article 131 in cases involving fundamental rights violations, and therefore the suit was dismissed. In the case of State of Jharkhand v. UOI, a different opinion was rendered, and the subject of the suit's maintainability was submitted to a higher court. Thus, with respect to Article 131 there has been an ongoing divergent opinions in CAA and NIA cases too which are pending before the Court.

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