Is Article 131 Being Observed in Letter and Spirit?

Bihar’s lawsuit against Jharkhand, termed by the Supreme Court as a "trivial non-dispute", stands in stark contrast to Delhi's suit against the Centre under the same article, in which it seeks a change of status from union territory to state.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Madan B. Lokur and R.K. Agrawal, on August 5, rebuked the states of Bihar and Jharkhand for not having settled a “trivial non-dispute” across the table for the past 12 years.

The bench observed:

“This is a trivial non-dispute between the two states. We are of the opinion that it is a matter that can be amicably sorted out across the table provided both the parties sit with an open mind. Additional Solicitor General P.S. Patwalia, states that he will take the  initiative and call the chief secretaries of the states of Bihar and Jharkhand and sort out the matter amicably in the interest of both the states. List the matter after six weeks”.

The dispute between Bihar and Jharkhand goes back to 2004 and pertains to the partition of undivided Bihar’s office and guest house in Delhi – Bihar Bhavan and Bihar Niwas.

Following the bifurcation of the state into Bihar and Jharkhand in 2000, Bihar claimed both Bihar Bhavan and Bihar Niwas on the grounds that it needed more space by virtue of being the bigger state.

The Jharkhand government was allotted land in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar to build a guest house and office. But, for inexplicable reasons, it continued to stake claim to one of the two properties in Delhi that are owned by the Bihar government.

The Central government had also advised Bihar to allocate one of the two to Jharkhand.

Bihar Bhavan mainly houses the offices of the state in Delhi, including the office space for its standing counsel. If it is given to Jharkhand, Bihar asks, where will the counsel go?

The case, despite being termed a ‘trivial non-dispute’ by the bench, was listed and heard by different benches of the Supreme Court 37 times already before it was heard by the Lokur-Agrawal bench on August 5.

Bihar’s lawsuit against Jharkhand, which had the distinction of being heard 38 times despite being a “trivial non-dispute”, stands in stark contrast to the suit filed by the Delhi government against the Centre in 2016 under the same Article 131 of the constitution.

Under this article, the Supreme Court has exclusive original jurisdiction:

  • In any dispute between the government of India and one or more states; or
  • Between the government of India and any state or states on one side and one or more other states on the other; or
  • Between two or more states, if and insofar as the dispute involves any question (whether of law or fact) on which the existence or extent of a legal right depends.

On August 5, the Supreme Court bench, comprising of Justices A.K. Sikri and N.V. Ramana, refused to straightaway hear the original suit filed by the Delhi government against the Centre under the article seeking a declaration of changed status from union territory to a state for Delhi.

The bench wanted to delay the hearing because it wanted to hear it along with the Delhi government’s appeal against the Delhi high court’s judgment on August 4 which held that Delhi’s status was that of a union territory.

This is a perfectly reasonable suggestion made by the bench to the Delhi government’s counsel, since the issues in the suit and the likely appeal to be filed are common. As the Delhi government was yet to file its appeal on August 5, the bench had reasons to suggest that the issues in the suit appear to have become infructuous with the Delhi high court’s judgment which held the field as on that date.

The bench, however, also expressed its unhappiness that the Delhi government had resorted to parallel proceedings: it filed the original suit in the Supreme Court when two of its petitions questioning the lieutenant-governor’s powers were being heard by the Delhi high court.

The filing of the original suit in the Supreme Court under Article 131 became necessary for the Delhi government in order to seek a stay of the Delhi high court’s judgment on its chief minister’s turf war with the LG.

Having failed to convince both the high court and the Supreme Court on stay because of its belief that the Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction to hear its dispute under Article 131, the Delhi government now has no other option but to file an appeal against the high court verdict and hope for it to be heard, along with its pending suit.

The Delhi high court rejected the Delhi government’s contention that its dispute with the Central government on the LG’s powers is federal in nature, and therefore would attract the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction under Article 131.

There is no doubt that the Delhi government will challenge this part of the high court’s ruling, but it remains to be seen whether it will succeed in persuading the Supreme Court to treat its dispute with the Centre as federal.

What can certainly be in its favour is how the Supreme Court heard Bihar’s non-dispute with Jharkhand 38 times since 2006 before asking the parties to sort it out across the table on August 5.

Whatever the Supreme Court may finally decide in the Delhi government’s suit against the Centre under Article 131, one thing is certain: considering the gravity of the issues involved, it cannot be dismissed as a ‘trivial non-dispute’ not worthy of consideration under that article.

The Supreme Court has held in a previous case that Article 131 is attracted only when a dispute arises between or amongst the states and the union in the context of constitutional relationship that exists between them and the powers, rights, duties, immunities, liabilities, disabilities and the like flowing therefrom.

While dismissing the Centre’s suit against Rajasthan involving the latter’s claim against the Railway Administration in 1984, the Supreme Court observed, “It could never have been the intention of the framers of the constitution that any ordinary dispute of this nature would have to be decided exclusively by the Supreme Court”.

Expeditious disposal of the disputes, between and among the units of the federation while entrusting the Supreme Court with the original exclusive jurisdiction over such cases under Article 131 was the objective of the framers of the constitution.

But the manner in which Bihar’s trivial non-dispute with Jharkhand was allowed to linger on for 12 years under this provision and the manner in which the Delhi government belatedly realised the potential of the article in resolving its dispute with the Centre after wasting a year litigating it at the Delhi high court raises the question of whether the provision is actually observed in letter and spirit.