Case Analysis – State of West Bengal v. Union of India

Petitioner: State of West Bengal

v.

Respondent: Union of India

Citation1963 AIR 1241 1964 SCR (1) 371
CourtThe Supreme Court of India
Case NumberSuit No. 1 of 1961
BenchBhuvaneshwar P. Sinha (CJ.), Syed Jafar Imam, K. Subbarao, J.C. Shah, N. RajagopalaAyyangar, J.R. Mudholkar  
Act ReferredAcquisition and Development Act, 1947, Constitution of India
ArticlesArticle 32, 131, 226, Sections 4 and 7 of the Acquisition and Development Act

Introduction:

The Article 131 under Chapter IV (Union Judiciary) of the Indian Constitution talks about the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. It goes as follows:

Article 131, 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-

(a) Between the Government of India and one or more States; or

(b) Between the Government of India and any State or States on one side and one or more other States on the other; or

(c) 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, engagement, sanad 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.][i]

According to Article 32 of the Constitution of India, the Supreme Court is the guardian or the protector of fundamental rights ofthe citizens. In case their fundamental rights are violated, they can directly approach the Supreme Court to seek remedy. Also, the Supreme Court is the highest interpreter of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has been interpreting these fundamental rights from time to time so that it could protect the Indian citizens from any sort of an unconstitutional legislation that breeches these rights. Any matter concerning the enforcement of Fundamental Rights of the citizens, comes under the Original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

Apart from this, the Supreme Court also acts as a tribunal to settle the disputes arising between thecenter and the states and also between different states. Supreme Court has original Jurisdiction in matters related with the disputes between:

  • The Government of India and one or more states
  • The Government of India and State(s) on one side and State(s) in other side
  • State(s) and State(s)

The disputesmust necessarily involve a question whether of fact or of law on which, depends the existence of a legal right which the court is called upon to determine.The Constitution-makers considered Article 131 as an important Article because of the quasi-federal structure of the government. Under this system, there is a possibility of cashes arising between the states and the center. The Supreme Court, being the apex judicial authority has therefore, been given the original and exclusive jurisdiction to look into such matters.

Petitions and suits filed under Article 131 of the Indian Constitution are much less as compared to suits filed claiming other constitutional remedies for such disputes are usually settled either by negotiating and entering into agreements or by the advice of the Union. Even though, this provision is rarely used, two suits, relating to Article 131 against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Investigation Agency Act (NIA) have been filed recently by the Kerala and the Chhattisgarh governments, respectively.[ii]

State of West Bengal v. Union of India

In the case of State of West Bengal v. Union of India[iii], the state (West Bengal) had applied for a declaration that the Parliament is not competent enough to make laws that authorize acquiring land and also does not rights in or over land, which are vested in a state and that the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957 enacted by the Parliament was ultra vires. Chief Justice Sinha delivered a majority judgement on the given matter. He threw significant light on the fact that our Constitution does not recognize the sovereignty of the states and the sovereignty rests with the Union of India. Therefore, the states are not in a position to challenge the legislative competence of the Union. The Supreme Court, in this case, stated that the power of the Union to legislate with regards to property is vested in the states.

The Constitution, which a division of the legislative and the executive powers between the Union and the states is not found on such a postulate and the concept of superiority of the Union over states in various aspects have already been examined and it negates it. The minority judgement by Justice Subba Rao stated that the Constitution of India enshrines the federal principles and sovereign powers have been distributed between the coordinate constitutional entities, the Union and the States. The concept implies that Union cannot interfere in the governmental functions of the states and vice versa. In order to prevent such interference, the apex court has the constitutional powers and correlative duty to do so and it is in this manner that the Supreme Court maintains balance of federation in the nation. At the same time, it is submitted that it is uncertain in the minority judgment as to how the disputes of political considerations can be kept in abeyance if such wide jurisdiction is conferred on the Supreme Court, secondly, it would include in its jurisdiction the express constitutional prohibitions also.

Facts:

The case was a suit filed by the State of West Bengal against the Union of India for a declaration stating that the Parliament was not competent enough to make laws authorizing the Union to acquire land and to have rights over any such land, which rests with the state.

The Parliament had passed Acquisition and Development Act, 1947 which gave the Center, the power to acquire land and rights on the land, which were vested in the hands of the state. This was the first instance when Article 131 was called on by a State against the Union Government and Sections 4 and 7 of the Acquisition and Development Act were challenged for being ultra vires. The State of West Bengal contended that as the Constitution is federal, the state sustains its sovereignty and the Parliament does not have the authority to pass a law and acquire the state-owned coal fields.

The main issues that arose before the Court were:

  1. Whether the Parliament has the authority to acquire land and other properties vested and owned by the State by enacting a law? 
  2. Whether the states in India are a sovereign authority or not?
  3. Whether the Act or any provisions of the Act are ultra vires the legislative competence of the Parliament.
  4. Whether the plaintiff is entitled to any relief or not?

No issues were raised regarding the Act being violative of the fundamental rights, thus there has not been any discussion on it.

Observations and Judgement:

Chief Justice Sinha observed that the distribution of powers between the Centre and the States is based on the relationship between the Centre and the States under the Government of India Act, 1935.[iv] He also stated that it is the supreme authority of the courts to interpret action violative of the Indian Constitution and to declare any such action that do so, as invalid. The apex court held that, there was no separate Constitution that governs the states and the Indian Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It is subject to be alterations by the Union Parliament alone and states do not hold any power in doing the same. The Acquisition and Development Act, 1957 was not held ultra vires the scope of authority of the Parliament but was held to be valid. As per, Entry 42 of List III of the Seventh Schedule, the Constitution of India, the Parliament is competent to make laws for the acquisition if any State’s property.

The Indian Constitution is unitary in spirit and federal in nature, therefore, we can say that it is not completely federal in character. There is a firm distribution of powers between the Union and the States. Thus, it would not be correct to say that all sovereignty is vested in the States. Parliament cannot be held incompetent to acquire by legislation, any property owned by the States solely on the basis of theory of absolute sovereignty of the State. This was the majority opinion on the case. Also, no compensation was given to the State of West Bengal and the suit was dismissed with costs.

Conclusion:

Article 131 of the Constitution is a special provision that gives, the Supreme Court, the exclusive and original jurisdiction in case of legal disputes arising between various states or between states and the Union. The court safeguards the fundamental rights guaranteed to all the citizens of India and any violation of such rights can be directly taken up the High Court of the State under Article 226 or by the Supreme Court under Article 32 via writs given by the Constitution. However, the State Government cannot file a suit for violation of fundamental rights, unlike citizens.Thus, when there is a clash of opinions between the State and the Centre, with reference to the interpretation of the Constitution, and the State believes that its legal rights have been infringed, the issue can be taken up by the Supreme Court as per Article 131.Even though, in the earlier judgments have held that the constitutionality of a law can be examined under Article 131, the judgment in the case ofState of Madhya Pradesh v. Union of India[v]in 2011 ruled otherwise.

Federalism is strongly dependent on some qualities and characteristics. The Union has control over the states even though the states can regulate laws within themselves. And so we can say, India is Unitary in spirit and Federal in nature.


[i] Constitution of India, 1950

[ii]https://blog.ipleaders.in/cases-when-article-131-of-the-constitution-was-invoked/

[iii]A.I.R. 1963 S.C. 1241.

[iv]file:///C:/Users/lenovo/Downloads/259-181-1250-1-10-20190712%20(1).pdf

[v]State of M.P. v. Union of India, (2011) 12 SCC 268

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