Centre-state disputes and Article 131

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Context: The Kerala government has moved the apex court to challenge the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) under Article 131 of the Constitution. 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.

Prelims: Indian Polity and Governance – Constitution, Political System, Panchayati Raj, Public Policy, Rights Issues, etc.
Mains: GS II- Functions and responsibilities of the Union and the States, issues and challenges pertaining to the federal structure, devolution of powers and finances up to local levels and challenges therein.

The Constitution of India, being federal in structure, divides all powers (legislative, executive and financial) between the Centre and the states. However, there is no division of judicial power as the Constitution has established an integrated judicial system to enforce both the Central laws as well as state laws.

  • Though the Centre and the states are supreme in their respective fields, the maximum harmony and coordination between them are essential for the effective operation of the federal system.
  • Hence, the Constitution contains elaborate provisions to regulate the various dimensions of the relations between the Centre and the states.
  • One such provision is Article 131 of the constitution which gives the apex court the power of original jurisdiction- the Supreme Court can hear the case firsthand rather than reviewing a lower court's judgment- to mediate disputes between states or between the Centre and states.

What does Article 131 say?

  • The Supreme Court has three kinds of jurisdictions:
    1. Original: In its extraordinary original jurisdiction, the Supreme Court has exclusive power to adjudicate upon disputes involving elections of the President and the Vice President, those that involve states and the Centre, and cases involving the violation of fundamental rights.
    2. Appellate: Under its appellate jurisdiction, the Supreme Court hears appeals from lower courts.
    3. Advisory: The President has the power to seek an opinion from the apex court under Article 143 of the Constitution. 

Article 131 of the Indian Constitution states:

“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: Provided that the said jurisdiction shall not extend to a dispute arising out of any treaty, agreement, covenant, engagements, and or other similar instrument which, having been entered into or executed before the commencement of this Constitution, continues in operation after such commencement, or which provides that the said jurisdiction shall not extend to such a dispute.
  • Article 131, therefore, allows a state to file a suit in the Supreme Court in case of any dispute that it may have with the central government, invoking the court’s “original jurisdiction”.
  • The other petitions filed in the Supreme Court challenging CAA have invoked the court’s “writ jurisdiction” under Article 32 of the Constitution, which allows enforcement of fundamental rights.
  • Filing of the suit, as against a petition, essentially permits more rigorous examination of documents and witnesses by the Supreme Court, giving it a greater scope of an inquiry into the issue.
  • For a dispute to qualify as a dispute under Article 131, it has to necessarily be between states and the Centre and must involve a question of law or fact on which the existence of a legal right of the state or the Centre depends.

Precedent Judgments on Article 131:

  • In a 1978 judgment, State of Karnataka v Union of India, the apex court had said that for the Supreme Court to accept a suit under Article 131, the state need not show that its legal right is violated, but only that the dispute involves a legal question.
    • Article 131 cannot be used to settle political differences between state and central governments headed by different parties.
  • In 2011, in State of Madhya Pradesh vs Union of India, where Madhya Pradesh sought to challenge certain aspects of its reorganization after bifurcation into Chhattisgarh, the Supreme Court did not accept the plea under Article 131 and rather held that the challenge is under Article 32 (infringement of fundamental rights).
  • This was, however, challenged in 2014.
    • In-State of Jharkhand vs State of Bihar, where, in a dispute after the bifurcation, the latter chose to challenge the maintainability of the former's plaint under Article 131- citing 2011 Madhya Pradesh judgment- SC chose to disagree with the earlier (2011 Madhya Pradesh) verdict and deferred the case to a larger bench. 

So how is a suit under Article 131 different from the other petitions challenging the CAA?

  • The other petitions challenging the CAA have been 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 relief that the state (under Article 131) and petitioners under Article 32 have sought in the challenge to the CAA is the same- declaration of the law as being unconstitutional.
  • A 2012 dispute between Bihar and Jharkhand that is currently pending for consideration by a larger Bench of the court will answer this question.
  • The case deals with the issue of liability of Bihar to pay pension to employees of Jharkhand for the period of their employment in the former, undivided Bihar state.
  • The decision of the larger Bench in State of Bihar v. Jharkhand would have a bearing on Kerala’s challenge to the CAA.

Can the Centre also sue a state under Article 131?

  • The Centre has other powers to ensure that its laws are implemented.
  • The Centre can issue directions to a state to implement the laws made by Parliament.
  • If states do not comply with the directions, the Centre can move the court seeking a permanent injunction against the states to force them to comply with the law.
  • Non-compliance with court orders can result in contempt of court, and the court usually hauls up the chief secretaries of the states responsible for implementing laws.

Is it unusual for states to challenge laws made by Parliament?

  • Under the Constitution, laws made by Parliament are presumed to be constitutional until a court holds otherwise.
  • However, in India’s quasi-federal constitutional structure, inter-governmental disputes are not uncommon.
  • The framers of the Constitution expected such differences and added the exclusive original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court for their resolution.
  • The quasi-federal structure envisaged in 1950 has consolidated into defined powers of the states.
  • Under a powerful Centre with a clear majority in Parliament, faultlines in India’s federal structure are frequently exposed.
  • Since 2014, debates around the 15th Finance Commission, the Goods and Services Tax, the linguistic divide on the National Education Policy, land acquisition, and the proposed All India Judicial Services have all emerged as flashpoints between the strong Centre and states ruled by the Opposition.

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