Famous instances when the Indian Government was sued!

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Have you ever thought why it takes so long for most court cases in India to reach a verdict? Surprisingly, a clear majority of civil cases in the higher judiciaries of India are lawsuits where the government is the defendant (or respondent)! Have you known that there are many court cases where we had the Indian government getting sued?

Yes, you read that right! The government (of any state or the Union of India) can be sued according to Article 300 of the Constitution which states:

The Government of India may sue or be sued by the name of the Union of India and the Government of a State may sue or be sued by the name of the State any may, subject to any provision which may be made by Act of Parliament or of the Legislature of such State enacted by virtue of powers conferred by this Constitution, sue or be sued in relation to their respective affairs in the like cases as the Dominion of India and the corresponding provinces or the corresponding Indian States might have sued or been sued if this Constitution had not been enacted.

If at the commencement of this Constitution –

  1. i) any legal proceedings are pending to which the Dominion of India is party, the Union of India shall be deemed to be substituted for the Dominion in those proceedings; and
  2. ii) Any legal proceedings are pending to which a Province or an Indian State is a party, the corresponding State shall be deemed to be substituted for the province or the Indian State in those proceedings.

To sue (in this context) does not mean to initiate legal proceedings against the government to put it in jail. It simply means to claim damages for damages caused or that may be caused later.

To prove damages, a statutory duty of the government with a proof of resultant damage needs to be proven in court. However, it is not always possible to sue the country’s government due to the heading “sovereign immune” in the Article 361 of the Constitution of India which means a state is immune from lawsuits so that it’s ‘sovereign functions’ are not hampered.

The government of India can be sued by filing a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) inter alia (among other things.), in the name of the “Union of India” or “State”, in the following cases:

  • A breach of a contractual obligation by the government.
  • The executive action has been arbitrary, mala fide, unreasonable, etc.
  • The governmental action has been prejudicial to “public interest”: financial losses to the exchequer, self-serving actions, partiality, etc.
  • Fundamental rights have been infringed
  • In an action of tort: negligence, nuisance, trespass, etc.

Here are some very famous instances where the government was sued:

Keshavananda Bharati Vs. the State of Kerala (1973): One of the most famous court cases in India where the Supreme Court had to define the doctrine of “the Basic Structure of the Constitution”. It is also known as ‘the case that saved Indian democracy’. When Indira Gandhi suddenly nationalized 14 major banks and abolished the Privy Purses, the main question that arose was ‘Does Parliament have unlimited and total power to amend the Constitution?’ This is when Keshavananda Bharati took the ruling government to court.

The SC, after hearing and citing 100s of cases stated in a 703-page judgment that the Parliament could amend any part of the Indian Constitution so long as it did not alter or amend “the basic structure or essential features of the Constitution.” and that the Supreme Court reserves ‘right of review’ and it’s supremacy over all constitutional matters.

Minerva Mills Vs. Union of India (1980): In 1976, Indira Gandhi had suddenly increased the powers of the parliament which eventually diminished the role of the judiciary. For e.g. Article 31C – ‘Any law made by the legislature to bring Directive Principles of State Policy into effect shall not be void if found in contravention to Fundamental Rights’ and Article 368 – any amendment under art 368 shall not be questioned in a court of law‘.

In this case, the SC put an end to this supremacy debate among Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy and at present two Directive Principles which are given under Articles 39(b) and 39(c) can prevail over the two Fundamental Rights under Articles 14 and 19 respectively.

Association for Democratic Reform vs. Union of India (2002): In this case, the SC held that any and all candidates contesting an election need to declare all their assets and liabilities, education qualification and all instances of criminal conviction (if any) or pending criminal cases (if any) against them.

This was done to help the country’s citizens make better-informed choices during elections before choosing any candidate/s as their representative in the government.

People’s Union for Civil Liberties vs. Union of India (2013): In this case, the NOTA (None of the above) option was included in EVMs and ballot papers for selecting ‘no rightful candidate’ in an election if no single candidate is deemed suitable by a voter for the election post.

The SC opined that not allowing a voter to vote (negatively) defeats the very freedom of expression underlined under Article 19(1) (a) and the right to liberty under Article 21.

Suresh Kumar Kaushal and another vs. Naz Foundation and others (2013): Under section 377 of IPC, SC upheld the validity of a rule which criminalizes sexual intercourse (against the order of nature) which indirectly criminalizes homosexuality.

The SC overturned an earlier ruling of the Delhi High Court which had declared Section 377 ‘unconstitutional and void’.

The case is still sub-judice in court.

National Legal Service Authority vs. Union of India (2014): In this landmark decision, the SC accorded the official status of ‘third gender’ to the transgender individuals in India. This affirmed that the fundamental rights apply on them too and also that they themselves reserve the right towards self-identification of their gender as ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘third-gender’.

The court also declared that the transgender be treated as socially and economically backward classes who can avail reservation in admissions to governmental educational institutions and jobs.

Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India (2015): In this case, the Supreme Court removed Section 66A of the IT Act (Information Technology Act, 2000) which provided power to the government to arrest anyone posting ‘offensive’ content on websites.

For online free speech in India, this was a landmark judgment. This reaffirms the power of the freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India or Article 19(2).

These are some of the most famous examples of our Indian government getting sued or being taken to court over matters of public interest. Please comment below to highlight more such cases you may know of.









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