Article 1 of the Indian Constitution states that "India that is Bharat shall be the Union of States'', but the states do not have the right to secede from the Union or declare their independence. Our forefathers have framed the Constitution so that it is neither unitary nor federal. In the words of Professor K. C. Wheare, India is quasi-federal. Considering the nature of the Constitution and the country's diversity, disputes between the Centre and states or between different states are bound to happen. Realising the need to have amicable relations between the Centre and the state governments, the Constitution gives exclusive jurisdiction to the Supreme Court to hear cases that relate to such disputes.
With the rise of the multi-party system, many regional political parties have come to power in their respective states. As a result, parties have begun to consider the interest of their states over the interest of the country. Hence, there are sometimes ideological conflicts between the centre and state governments. Consequently, there is an increase in the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction to mediate the dispute. The need arises to analyse the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction as enumerated under Article 131 of the Constitution in such a background.
Article 131 of the Constitution confers exclusive jurisdiction to the Supreme Court in the following disputes:
between the Government of India and one or more states
between the Government of India and any State or States on one side and one or one state on the other sides
between two or more states
Exclusive Jurisdiction and the History of Article 131
The term Exclusive and Original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court has been used to denote the power of the Supreme Court to hear the cases filed before it at the first instance. There is no need for the parties to approach the court subordinate to the Supreme Court. It means that the parties have the right to appeal directly to the Supreme Court. In India, the power of the Supreme Court to exercise exclusive jurisdiction is confined only to the matters that relate to the state and the Centre. Similarly, no court other than the Supreme Court shall have the power to hear the cases under the ambit of the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction. An individual does not possess the right to approach the Supreme Court directly to enforce his or her legal rights. Though Article 32 confers a right that one shall have the right to approach the Supreme Court directly to enforce their fundamental rights against the state. The Supreme Court, though some of its judgments have said that the individual whose right has been violated should first approach the High Court under Article 226. If the individual is unsatisfied with the decision of the High Court, he shall have the right to appeal to the Apex Court. The Supreme Court has adopted this stand due to the flood of cases filed before it.
Interpretation of Article 131 of the Constitution
The first question regarding the interpretation is the meaning of the word "state." The position has been clarified in numerous cases. In the State of Bihar v. Union of India, the court dealt with whether Hindustan Steel Ltd comes under the meaning of state under Article 131. The court held the answer was negative. The court declared that the bodies such as Hindustan Steel Ltd do not come under Article 131. The meaning of state as defined under Article 12 is only for fundamental rights enshrined under Part III, not for Article 131.
The second question regarding the interpretation of the Article is regarding the scope of "legal rights" under Article 131. The term's meaning was clarified in the State of Rajasthan v. Union of India; it was held that the legal right must not necessarily be the constitutional right in essence. In order to claim a petition under Article 131, the petitioners must question the constitutional or legal right exercised by the defendants, be it the Central Government or the State Government.
The third and the most crucial question in the applicability of Article 131 is whether it is "subject to the constitution's provisions." It is imperative to list the provisions of the Constitution according to which the exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is barred. Article 262 empowers the Parliament to bar the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court or any other court in matters that relate to the dispute between the states on the Inter-state river or river valley.
Article 131 also stipulates that the Supreme Court will not have the power to entertain disputes under this Article, which pertains to any treaty, covenant, or agreement inked by the Government of India.
Landmark Cases related to Article 131
Since the inception of the Indian Constitution, several disputes have arisen between the central and state governments and between various state governments. In the State of Rajasthan v. Union of India, the Honourable Supreme Court clarified that the dispute must be based on the legal or constitutional question but should not be based on a political dispute. India has a multi-party system, and the regional parties rule many states. Therefore, a dispute between the Centre and state is bound to happen.
State of Bihar v. Union of India (1970)
The Bihar Government filed a case against the Union. The state government filed the dispute on behalf of the railways recognised as a state under Article 12. The second defendant in the case was Hindustan Steel Ltd, a government-controlled company. The dispute arose on the fact that the plaintiff, i.e. Railways and Bihar Government, claimed that due to the negligence or deliberate actions of the servants of the defendants, the required quantity of steel and iron ordered by the plaintiff could not be delivered to the state on time, resulting in the shortage of iron and steel in the state, thereby stalling the construction for the Gandak Project.
The Honourable Apex Court held that Article 131 excludes the idea of having a private citizen, corporation or firm as one of the parties in the case. The court said that the framers of the Constitution intended to have only the constituents of the Union as parties in any case involving the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Article 131. Finally, the court held that the word "state" used in Article 131 does not have the same meaning as the meaning assigned to the word "state" under Article 12.
State of Orissa v. State of Andhra Pradesh (2006)
The Orissa Government approached the Supreme Court against the state of Andhra Pradesh on the issue related to a territorial dispute. The Orissa Government claimed that some villages must be declared part of Orissa. The Orissa Government placed reliance on the notification issued by the Governor-General in 1943. The Supreme Court refused to interfere and said that the dispute was outside the purview of the jurisdiction conferred on the Supreme Court under Article 131 of the Constitution. The court's ratio was that Article 131(1) says that the court's original jurisdiction was subject to the provisions of the Constitution and for the disputes that arose out of any treaty, agreement instrument, or other similar agreement. The court interpreted the word "or" used in the Article. The court held that the word "or" should be read disjunctively. The court gave the broader interpretation of the word "arising under" it held that the phrase "arising under" would include matters connected with an instrument of the kind mentioned in Article 131. Finally, the apex court dismissed the petition because the court did not have power as Article 3 of the Constitution explicitly states that the Parliament has the supreme authority to determine the area of a state. Since the court's power is subject to the provision of the Constitution, the court cannot entertain the petition under Article 131.
Under the democratic republic of India, the honourable Supreme Court derives its power of exclusive jurisdiction from Article 131 of the Constitution. Article 131 empowers the court with original jurisdiction over the disputes related to the states' sovereign or legal rights or the central government. In the State of Bihar v. Union of India, the honourable court has clarified that the word "state" used in Article 131 does not have the same meaning as defined under Article 12. The word "state" in Article 131 relates only to the states that are the constituents of the Union of India.
In the State of Rajasthan v. Union of India, the apex court elaborated the meaning of the term "the existence of a legal right" based on which the petition can be filed before the Supreme Court under Article 131 of the Constitution. Here, it means any constitutional or legal right that the state or central government enjoy. The challenge of the extension of the BSF jurisdiction in the state of Punjab by the central government is maintainable before the Apex court under Article 131. The extension of the BSF jurisdiction interferes with the sovereign power of the state government to govern its territorial jurisdiction and the constitutional right to enjoy absolute freedom from the central government in matters that relate to the governance of the state.
While analysing Article 131, the author concluded that the purpose of retaining Article 131 is to resolve the conflict between the states and the union government in the future. By resolving the conflict, India's unity and integrity can be preserved. At the same time, it gives the state governments a fair chance to present their stand regarding the conflict before the independent authority to determine their stand.