Case Analysis: State of Karnataka v. Union of India

State of Karnataka


Union of India

CITATIONAIR 1978 SC 68, (1977) 4 SCC 608
CourtSupreme Court of India
PetitionerState of Karnataka  
RespondentUnion of India
BenchM. Hameedullah Beg(CJ), Y.V. Chandrachud, P.N. Bhagwati, N.L. Untwalia, P.N. Shingal, Jaswant Singh, P.S. Kailasam.
Popularly Known AsConstitution of India 1950, Commission of Inquiry Act 1952
Section/ ArticleArticle 131, Section 3  


Under the Constitution of India, the Supreme Court is the guardian of the Constitution and Fundamental Rights. Thus, for any kind of violation of our Fundamental Rights, the aggrieved can directly approach the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution. But in matters concerning disputes between States or between the Centre and the State, Article 131 of the Constitution provides the Supreme court with the jurisdiction to resolve the matter. Thus, while Article 32 confers upon the Court original jurisdiction, Article 131 confers original and exclusive jurisdiction.

Disputes under Article 131 of the Constitution can be taken up by the Court only when there arises a question of law or fact. It is also based on the extent of legal right involved.[1] However, the questions arises as to what constitutes a legal right and who can be parties in a suit under Article 131. The Supreme Court in State of Karnataka v. UOI, filled the ambiguity and outlined the scope of Article 131 and also laid down the foundation for addressing centre-state disputes.


A memo accusing the Chief Minister of Karnataka of corruption, nepotism and favouritism was submitted by certain opposition members of the State Assembly. The same was denied as being frivolous and politically motivated by the Chief Minister. A Commission was constituted by the State Government headed by retired judge of High Court on May 18, 1977.

In furtherance of the memo, the Union Government appointed a one-man commission headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 on May 23, 1977. The Commission was to inquire into the allegations levelled against the Chief Minister. Challenging the authority of Government to appoint such a Commission and the legality of the said Commission, the State Government of Karnataka filed a suit under Art.131 of the Constitution.


  1. Whether the suit under Art.131 is maintainable?
  2. Whether the notification issued by the Central Government is ultra vires the power of the government under S.3 of the Commission of Inquiry Act 1952?
  3. If the same is within the ambit of S.3 and whether S.3 is unconstitutional?

Related Provisions

Article 131 of the Constitution

Article 131 addresses the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in matters involving the extent or existence of a legal right. Such jurisdiction shall be exercised over disputes between, the Central Government and one or more states or the government and state against other states or in disputes between states. 

Section 3 of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952

Section 3 deals with the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry for inquiring into matters of public importance within a fixed time period, if found necessary by the Government. Such appointment shall be made by a resolution passed by each House of Parliament or the Legislature of a State and notification in the Gazette thereon.


On behalf of the Petitioner:

  • The Central Government lacks the jurisdiction and authority to constitute the Commission while exercising powers under the Commission of Inquiry Act. Further, the appointment under S.3 is ultra vires the provisions of Part XI of the Constitution as it is a matter of List II of the Seventh Schedule.
  • The act of appointing the Commission is detrimental and destructive to the federal structure of the Constitution and the distribution of powers between the Centre and State.
  • The appointment of Commission by the Central Government is a subversion from the principle of collective responsibility by which the Council is responsible to the Legislature. Also, it is the privilege of the Assembly to appoint such a commission under Article 194(3).
  • Further, since no action can be taken by the Central Government on the report thereby submitted against the State, the Commission serves no useful purpose.

Contention on behalf of the Government/Defendant:

  • The Government raised preliminary objection challenging the maintainability of the suit as no legal right of the State has been violated by appointment of the Commission.
  • The Government contended that it is competent to constitute a Commission for inquiring into definite matter of public importance.
  • Lastly, that the notification of the Central Government does not cover matters mentioned in the State’s notification.


On the question of maintainability:

  • The State has sufficient interest to maintain a suit under Article 131 because the claims raised are concerning encroachment upon the exclusive sphere of the State.
  • The matter raises questions regarding the meaning, ambit and applicability of provisions of the Constitution which are of vital interest to the State.
  • The State is said to represent the people of each State and their interests, while the Union Government represents the whole of the people of India. Thus, when a difference arises regarding the interpretation of the Constitution between representatives of State and the nation, maintainability of the suit under Art.131 is too technical an argument to accept.
  • Art.131 can be invoked in matters concerning interpretation of the Constitution, between the State and Centre or between States. The decision thereupon will affect the exercise and scope of governmental powers which are attributes of the State.
  • The State and government are distinct and yet to be treated as a whole. The State acts both though its government and individually through its Ministers. Thus, the official actions of the State cannot be separated from that of the State on whose behalf he acts. Art.131 does not prohibit the State from suing Central government to protect the Ministers or to make its own claim of exclusive power to question the actions of a Minister. Thus, since the suit addresses a question of legal right of the State, it is maintainable under Art.131.

On question of the notification being ultra vires:

  • The State notification seeks to appoint a Commission to inquire whether improper and excessive payments have been made and favouritism has been displayed in official acts. The Central Government notification, on the other hand, aims to specifically inquire if the Chief Minister has practiced favouritism and nepotism. Thus, the two notification differ in terms of object and purpose of inquiry.
  • If the objects aimed to be achieved are different, the examination by two Commission on similar questions of fact and law will be permissible.
  • Further, it cannot be stated that a matter concerning corruption charges against a sitting Minister is not a matter of public importance.
  • Thus, the notification issued by the Central Government is well within the scope of S.3(1) of the Act. The Court also held that contention of the state of the notification being ultra vires of government’s power under S.3 is theoretically unsound and factually unfounded.

On the question of scope and constitutionality of S.3 of Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952:

  • Regarding violation of principle of collective responsibility: The argument that S.3(1) is a subversion of the principle of collective responsibility unless construed narrowly lacks any substance. Irrespective of the findings of the Commission, the Council remains answerable to the Legislative Assembly. Further, in matters concerning allegations of corruption, nepotism and favouritism against a single Minister, he shall personally be answerable. In such instances, the question of collective responsibility does not arise.

The question of collective responsibility arises only for actions performed in lawful discharge of official functions. Thus, S.3 in no way violates the principle of collective responsibility as provided in the Constitution.

  • Regarding violation of doctrine of distribution of powers between the Centre and the State: The power under S.3 of the Act to constitute a Commission for inquiry into corruption, nepotism and favouritism cannot be considered an interference with executive functions of the State. The same does not provide any power of control on the Central Government over the State.

A Commission appointed under the Act is purely a fact finding body having no power to pronounce a binding judgement. It is pertinent in the larger interest of the public that sensitive matters of public importance be enquired into by a high-powered Commission. Any action taken by the Central Government in furtherance of the report submitted by the Commission shall be made in light of the provisions of the Constitution. Until that stage is reached, it cannot be said that the Central Government is exercising control or supervisory jurisdiction over the State’s executive functions.

Thus, the Commission of Inquiry Act and S.3 of the Act in no way infringe upon any of the provisions of the Constitution and cannot be declared unconstitutional.


Through this judgement, the Supreme Court established that:

  • In a suit under Art.131 of the Constitution, the distinction between the State Government and the State, as an abstract entity, is immaterial.
  • Art.131 will be applicable only in matters wherein any legal right of the parties such as liberty, a right, power or immunity is affected. The State need not prove violation of its legal right but the involvement of a legal question is sufficient ground for accepting the matter.
  • The scope of jurisdiction conferred upon the Supreme Court under Art.131 are wide and grants original jurisdiction unless expressly excluded by the Constitution in special circumstances.
  • The Court while judging the constitutional validity of S.3 of the Act, reaffirmed the quasi-federal nature of the Constitution.

Thus, Art.131 can be invoked when a dispute arises between the State and the Central Government on a question involving the interpretation of the Constitution.

The judgement has been cited as precedent by the Kerala Government to prove its grounds for maintainability of petition challenging the Citizenship Amendment Act, enacted by the Central Government.

[1] V.N Shukla, Constitution of India, (514-519), (EBC, Lucknow, 12th edition, 2013)

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