S.R. Bommai vs Union of India (1994)
Writ Petition (Civil) 3645 of 1989
Date of judgment: 11-03-1994
Article 356 of the Indian Constitution is one of the most important Articles when it comes to determining issues of centre-state relations.
According to Article 356, the central government can take control of any state government by the President’s proclamation if the state government fails to work according to the provisions of the Indian Constitution, such as in circumstances where the state apparatus fails. As a result, issues relating to this Article are frequently contentious (likely to cause argument).
In the case of S.R. Bommai vs Union of India, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that would serve as a model for future disputes between the centre and the states.
In this law note, you will learn about the facts, issues, arguments, and judgment of S.R. Bommai vs Union of India.
Facts of the S.R. Bommai Case
The largest governing party in Karnataka’s state legislature, Janta Dal, was led by S.R. Bommai, the petitioner in this case. With the addition of thirteen members, the party was doing well, but that’s when K.R. Molakey and other legislators felt paralyzed in the party, prompting them to write a letter to the Governor requesting that they withdraw their support. This letter was then handed to the President by Governor Pekentanti Venkatasubbaiah, stating the conflict between the parties and the large quarrel among the legislators. The Governor then proposed the President’s rule under Article 356, citing the lack of decorum of the government not to be ruled by a minister, including the council of ministers.
Two days later, seven of the nineteen legislators wrote a letter to the Governor confirming their support for the chief (S.R. Bommai). Despite receiving those letters, the Governor refused to enable Bommai to prove his party’s majority in the assembly, further denying a floor test to the government.
In April of 1989, the President declared the merits specified by the Governor, which were confirmed by the Parliament under Article 356(3). Bommai had originally challenged the constitutionality of the proclamation in the High Court; the court then dismissed his writ petition, which further prompted him to seek relief from the Supreme Court.
Issues Raised in the S.R. Bommai Case
There were four major issues raised in this case:
- Whether judicial review and Article 13 of the Indian Constitution lie in the scope of the presidential proclamation stated under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution.
- The extent of presidential powers stated under Article 356(1) and the scope of judicial review in respect of the case.
- What does the phrase “A situation has arisen in which the government of the state cannot be carried on as per the provisions of this Constitution” mean, as stated under Article 356(1)?
- Whether is it possible to question the presidential proclamation after it has been approved by both Houses of Parliament, and what impact does the acceptance or rejection of these Houses have on the proclamation within two months of the date of proclamation?
Arguments in the S.R. Bommai Case
The following were the arguments advanced by both petitioners and respondents:
Arguments Given by the Petitioner
- Bommai was denied the opportunity to prove his majority.
- The command of the President’s rule was a mala fide political act. The mere fact that there were widespread unrest and cases of torching and looting are no grounds for forcing presidential control; hence it was illegitimate.
- The union administration had refused to disclose a certain amount of material and information they had obtained, based on which the presidential rule was imposed. The union administration has the duty to confess the information on which the decision was taken, as the proclamations do not state much regarding such material. This is supported by Article 74(2), as argued because the union of India is not and cannot discharge its duties.
Arguments Given by the Respondent
- In terms of the form and scope of legal analysis, administrative law and constitutional law are quite different. The legal field of administration states the court’s legal power is to be exercised in the legal spectrum of public administrations; limiting excess and misuse of power, and abnormal use of force while curbing legal analysis to the extent where it stands unconstitutional. When it comes to judicial decisions, it has limited scope. It includes executive actions or legislation passed that infringe on a system of separation of powers between the authorities, legislative, judiciary and state institutions. Generally, disputes are defined through the preconditions that the law has set and, if they’re absent in relation to the exercise of power by constitutional authorities, whether the courts are able to examine if such conditions have been met. Also, when powers are committed to a constitutional authority for a certain purpose, and the relevant authority utilizes the powers to achieve an impermeable purpose under the guise of attaining the stated objective, such use of power cannot be questioned.
- On behalf of the Indian union, it was argued that only under Article 74(1) of the Indian Constitution, in the opinion of the cabinet, the President may declare a proclamation under Article 356 and also conduct an inquiry to check whether the advice given by the President to the ministers is prohibited. The legal analysis of the reasons which led to the publication of the declaration is also prohibited by Article 356(2).
Judgment of the S.R. Bommai Case
This landmark decision finally placed limitations on the centre’s ability to impose the President’s rule on the state. The court ruled that the President’s ability to remove a state government is not absolute.
The ruling further stated that the President can only impose his rule once both Houses of Parliament have authorised it, and until both Houses of Parliament have approved it, the President can only suspend the legislative assembly. If both the Houses of Parliament do not ratify it, it lapses after two months, the state government’s dismissal is revived, and the legislative assembly, which had been inactive until then, is likewise reactivated. The imposition of Article 356 is also susceptible to judicial review, according to the Supreme Court.
The court’s judgment has proven to be the most effective in addressing the problem of executive abuse of power.
Comprehending the ideas behind the Constitution’s framers with the support of the Constituent Assembly and their deliberations, the court has rejected the contention that the state government falls under the central government in all its wisdom.
The court stated that federalism and secularism are crucial components of the basic structure of the Constitution and the nation. The court also overturned the ruling by the state of Rajasthan (in State of Rajasthan vs Union of India (1977)), as the decision ruled that the President’s decision should not be susceptible to judicial review but that the central government alone would state its validity. Through this, the court recognized and addressed the political parties’ move to disrupt the pluralistic form of democracy; hence, the judiciary operated and will continue to operate as a watchdog to ensure there is no misuse of power.
Although the court provided principles for establishing the President’s rule in states, there is still room for union cabinet discretion along with the President.
The Bommai case decision put an end to the long process of the central government dismissing the state government without cause. Before this ruling, several political parties took advantage of the constitutional framework to gain political mileage and settle scores with their opponents. This case significantly curtailed a long-standing practice.
The ruling further noted that the government’s test on the floor of the assembly should not be done in ambiguous words and should not be subject to the Governor’s opinion.
Despite the fact that there was no concern for constitutional change, in this case, the basic doctrinal notion was applied.
The Supreme Court ruled that the central government might use the power granted by Article 356 of the Indian Constitution to sue the state government if any of the state government’s policies are contrary to the Constitution’s basic framework.
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