Sixty seven years ago, this very day, the Supreme Court of India started functioning from the Chamber of Princes in the Parliament House, the seat of the erstwhile Federal Court. Inaugurated two days after India’s Constitution was adopted and the nation became a sovereign, democratic republic, the Supreme Court shifted to its present building at Tilak Marg in 1958.
Besides being the highest Constitutional court which can be moved directly under Article 32 by any citizen of the country in the event of violation of fundamental rights, the Supreme Court is also the highest appellate court of the country.
As things stand today, its role is not limited to deciding cases while interpreting the Constitution, inter-state disputes or important questions of law; it is also the final forum for many statutory appeals and individual disputes on facts. Commencing with eight judges, the sanctioned strength of the Court has steadily increased and currently stands at 31.
In its current avatar, the Supreme Court is facing serious space constraints; the building and the court rooms are woefully inadequate to accommodate lawyers, litigants and visitors. In the past decade, the Court has also been subject to intense media scrutiny with the conduct of the judges inside and outside the courts, and its judgments, especially in commercially and politically sensitive matters, being tracked religiously by the electronic and print media.
Upholding the supremacy of the Constitution time and again, the Court’s landmark interpretations have been a subject of case study even in mature democracies. Having been dubbed as anti-socialist in its initial days for repeatedly striking down welfare laws on the ground of curtailing the right to property, the Court later on veered towards upholding human rights, especially at the cost of compromising the doctrine of separation of powers.
Developing and evolving public interest jurisprudence to ensure that justice is meted out to a largely illiterate population with little or no means to move the Court, the Supreme Court has also played a vital role in the evolution and interpretation of Constitution in keeping with the needs of the time.
Transgressions into the Executive domain became more pronounced after the emergency, when the Court was keen to reassert its independence. This finally led to the Collegium system of appointment of judges in 1993 – a first of its kind in a functional democracy.
At the same time, allegations of subservience, corruption and recently, of sexual harassment have rocked the Bench which could, at most times, not offer any satisfactory explanation. The Court is also being weighed down by the pressure of mounting arrears and there seems to be no concrete effort to tackle the same.
Be that as it may, it is unarguable that in India, the third pillar of democracy is often symbolised by that single domed structure and the pronouncements that come from it.
Indeed, the history of the Supreme Court of India is the history of the infant democracy that India is – a history chequered with mistakes and glories, a history of achievements and abyss, a history of trial and error, a history of fame and shame.
Below is a timeline of the significant events that dot that brief history.
January 26, 1950: Constitution of India comes into force, marks the establishment of the Supreme Court of India.
Justice Harilal Jekisundas Kania assumes office as the first Chief Justice of India.
January 28, 1950: Supreme Court of India is officially inaugurated, starts functioning from the Chamber of Princes in the Parliament House.
May 19, 1950: AK Gopalan v. State of Madras – One of the first instances in which the Court gets an opportunity to interpret Article 21. Holds that if personal liberty is taken away by the State in accordance with the procedure established by law, then challenge to it will fail.
July 27, 1950: Champakam Dorairajan v. State of Madras – Court holds that providing for reservations in educational institutions is in violation of Article 15(1). One of the catalysts to the first amendment to the Constitution.
November 6, 1951: Justice Kania retires.
1956: Number of judges increased to 11.
1958: Supreme Court moves to its present building.
1960: Strength of the Court is raised to 14.
February 3, 1964: Justice SM Sikri is appointed as Supreme Court judge; becomes the first Supreme Court judge to be elevated directly from the Bar. Since then, there have been only five direct elevations, namely Justices SC Roy, Kuldip Singh, Santosh Hegde, Rohinton Nariman, UU Lalit and L Nageswara Rao.
October 30, 1964: Sajjan Singh v. State of Rajasthan – Court rules that the word “Law” in Article 13(2) does not take in Constitutional amendment Acts under Article 368. When Article 368 confers on Parliament the right to amend the Constitution, the power in question can be exercised over all the provisions of the Constitution.
November 24, 1961: KM Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra – The case which received great media attention, particularly in Mumbai, marks the end of jury trials in India. Considered as one of the first instances of media trial where public opinion and media coverage allegedly made a significant impact on the jury members who, thereby, acquitted Indian Navy officer KM Nanavati for killing his wife’s paramour.
February 27, 1967: Golaknath v. State of Punjab – Supreme Court overrules Sajjan Singh, holds that amendment under Article 368 is “law” within the definition of Article 13(2); Rules that Legislature does not have the power to amend Part III of the Constitution to take away or abridge fundamental rights. Applies doctrine of stare decisis to protect such amendments made till then.
1971: Parliament amends Article 13 by the 24th Amendment Act to circumvent the ruling in Golaknath. Inserts Article 13(4) expressly providing that Constitutional amendments are excluded from the ambit of Article 13.
January 22, 1971: Justice SM Sikri takes charge as the Chief Justice of India thereby becoming the first CJI to be elevated directly from the Bar.
April 24, 1973: Keshavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala – The landmark judgment in which a Bench of the Supreme Court comprising all the 13 sitting judges lays down by a majority of 7-6 that the Parliament has the power to amend any part of the Constitution including Part III which lays down fundamental rights provided such amendment does not impinge upon the “Basic Structure of the Constitution”. Overrules Golaknath and lays down that Constitutional amendment is not “law” within the meaning of Article 13.
April 26, 1973: Justice AN Ray supersedes three senior judges, Justice KS Hegde, Justice AN Grover and Justice JM Shelat to be appointed as the CJI. Dubbed as a payback by the Executive for the Keshavananda judgment. Subsequently, Justices Hegde, Grover and Shelat resign in protest.
May 3, 1973: SCBA observes ‘Bar Solidarity Day’ in protest against appointment of Justice Ray as CJI, calls upon all Bar Associations in India to abstain from court work.
July 17, 1973: Justice VR Krishna Iyer assumes office as Supreme Court judge.
November 23, 1973: EP Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu – A judgment which has received mixed response. Justice PN Bhagwati expostulates the “reasonable classification test” as the test for equality under Article 14. Instead, he propounds the “new doctrine” in which he says that Article 14 “strikes against arbitrariness in State actions” and the concept of equality is “a dynamic concept with many aspects and dimensions and it cannot be imprisoned within traditional and doctrinaire limits.”
April 28, 1976: Shame of emergency: ADM Jabalpur v. SS Shukla – Considered as one of the darkest days of Indian democracy as a Constitution Bench of the highest court of the land, by a majority of 4:1, rules that, while a proclamation of emergency is in operation, the right to move High Courts under Article 226 for Habeas Corpus challenging illegal detention by State will stand suspended.
Justice HR Khanna’s dissenting judgment in which he appeals to “the brooding spirit of law” and “the intelligence of the future” earns him legendary status but loses him the post of CJI.
Closely following the developments at Sansad and Tilak Marg, New York Times describes the Indian Supreme Court’s capitulation as “virtually the last step in the destruction of a democratic society” and a decision “which appears close to utter surrender”.
January 29, 1977: Justice MH Beg supersedes Justice HR Khanna as the Chief Justice of India, the second such instance of the senior most judge being superseded for the post of CJI. Justice Khanna resigns.
1978: The strength of the Court is raised again, this time to 18.
January 25, 1978: Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India – Court holds that as per Article 21, “procedure established by law” must be “fair, just and reasonable, not fanciful, oppressive or arbitrary”; overrules AK Gopalan.
September 15, 1979: Tukaram v. State of Maharashtra – Famously known as the Mathura rape case, the Supreme Court reverses the order of conviction passed by the Bombay High Court and acquits the accused on the ground that the victim had consented to sexual intercourse. Judgment creates uproar after jurists including Professor Upendra Baxi write to the Supreme Court judges; leads to a slew of amendments in penal provisions pertaining to rape.
November 26, 1979: First Law Day celebrated by the Supreme Court Bar under the leadership of Dr. LM Singhvi to commemorate the adoption of the Indian Constitution; the tradition continues to date.
May 9, 1980: Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab – Supreme Court upholds Constitutionality of death penalty.
July 31, 1980: Minerva Mills v. Union of India – Court gives key interpretations to the “Basic Structure Doctrine”. Holds that Parliament’s power to make Constitutional amendments is limited and it cannot be used to enfeeble fundamental rights. The Court also interprets the “Directive Principles of State Policy” and holds that social welfare laws cannot be made in abrogation of Part III rights.
November 14, 1980: Justice VR Krishna Iyer retires as Supreme Court judge.
December 30, 1981: SP Gupta v. President of India & Ors. (First judges case) – Court holds that among the opinion of the three Constitutional functionaries, the opinion of the Chief Justice of India does not enjoy primacy over those of the other two in the matter of appointment of judges.
April 23, 1985: Mohammed Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano – Court holds that divorced Muslim women are entitled to maintenance under Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
July 10, 1985: Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation – A classic case of expansion of the scope of Article 21 with the Court ruling that slum and pavement dwellers can be evicted from public places where they reside only after the State provides them alternative shelter.
1986: Court’s strength is raised to 26.
December 20, 1986: MC Mehta v. Union of India – Popularly known as the ‘Oleum gas leak case’, Supreme Court discards the ‘Strict Liability’ test enunciated in the English case of Rylands v. Fletcher for deciding the liability of an enterprise engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity; Lays down the principle of ‘Absolute Liability’.
October 6, 1989: Justice Fathima Beevi takes charge as Supreme Court judge, becomes the first woman judge of the Supreme Court.
November 16, 1992: Indra Sawhney v. Union of India – Landmark judgment pertaining to reservation for backward classes.
Court accepts the recommendations of the Mandal Commission; excludes “creamy layer” from the purview of reservation benefits.
October 6, 1993: Supreme Court Advocate on Record Association & Anr. v. Union of India (Second Judges case) – Birth of Collegium system as the Supreme Court lays down that the opinion of the Chief Justice of India will have primacy over the opinion of the Executive with regard to appointment of judges. The Court also prescribes that the CJI before making his recommendation shall consult the two senior most judges of the Supreme Court and the senior most judge of the State from where the appointee hails.
August 13, 1997: Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan – Court frames guidelines to tackle sexual harassment at workplace. Classic example of Judiciary intervening to legislate, thanks to absence of law.
October 28, 1998: In re Special Reference 1 of 1998 – Popularly known as the ‘Third judges case’, the Court on a reference by the then President of India, KR Narayanan, lays down that the Collegium should consist of the Chief Justice of India and four senior most puisne judges, thus raising the strength of the Collegium from 3 to 5.
June 8, 2000: Supreme Court gets first judge from the Dalit community. Justice KG Balakrishnan is sworn in.
October 31, 2002: TMA Pai Foundation v. State of Karnataka – Court overrules decision in Unni Krishnan’s case, insofar as it framed the scheme relating to the grant of admission and the fixing of the fee; elucidates the fundamental rights available to private educational institutions and relaxes State control over such private unaided institutions.
August 12, 2005: PA Inamdar v. State of Maharashtra – Court clarifies that the reservation policies of State will not be applicable to private unaided colleges whether belonging to minority or non-minority.
January 11, 2007: IR Coelho v. State of Tamil Nadu & Ors. – Court holds that any law inserted in the Ninth Schedule on or after April 24, 1973 (date on which Keshavananda was pronounced) can be subject to judicial review and will be struck down if it violates the basic structure doctrine. The ruling effectively nullifies the object of Article 31B.
January 14, 2007: Justice KG Balakrishnan becomes India’s first CJI from the Dalit community.
2008: Court’s strength is raised to 31, its current strength.
April 2011: Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms writes to Prime Minister and President to initiate steps for removal of former CJI Justice KG Balakrishnan from the post of Chairman of NHRC amidst allegations of corruption and amassing disproportionate assets and benami properties.
January 20, 2012: Vodafone International Holdings v. Union of India & Anr. – The landmark tax dispute in which the Court ruled that Indian revenue authorities do not have jurisdiction to impose tax on an offshore transaction between two non-residents companies by virtue of the fact that the transaction leads to one of the companies acquiring a controlling stake in a resident (Indian) company.
Government amends tax laws with retrospective effect to tax the transaction.
February 2, 2012: Supreme Court cancels 2G spectrum licenses allotted to various Telecom companies.
July 18, 2013: Supreme Court scraps NEET for admission to medical and dental colleges; leaked judgment in the case causes furore.
August 2013: PIL filed in Supreme Court by NGO Common Cause seeking inquiry into allegations of corruption and acquisition of disproportionate assets against Justice KG Balakrishnan; it is still pending.
November 29, 2013: Retired Supreme Court judge Justice AK Ganguly gets embroiled in sexual harassment of a law intern.
December 11, 2013: Suresh Kumar Koushal & Anr. v. Naz Foundation & Ors. – Supreme Court upholds the Constitutionality of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalising gay sex; reverses Delhi High Court judgment which had struck down its Constitutional validity.
January 2014: After Justice Ganguly, Justice Swatanter Kumar gets embroiled in sexual harassment controversy.
April 15, 2014: National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India – Transgender persons recognised as third gender with equal entitlement to all Constitutional and legal rights as any other person.
June 25, 2014: Senior Advocate and former Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium withdraws consent to be appointed as Supreme Court judge after the Central government returns his name for reconsideration; Subramanium writes to CJI RM Lodha saying he is being targeted for his “independence and integrity”. Justice Lodha subsequently expresses disappointment over Subramanium’s withdrawal of consent and reiterates that independence of judiciary will not be compromised.
August 25, 2014: Manohar Lal Sharma v. Principal Secretary & Ors. – Supreme Court declares all coal block allocations, made since 1993 through the government dispensation route and Screening Committee, illegal.
December 31, 2014: President signs the National Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, 2014 leading to a keenly watched litigation before the Supreme Court.
February 12, 2015: Senior Advocate and then the President of Supreme Court Bar Association, Dushyant Dave writes two strongly worded letters to the Chief Justice of India opposing the proposed elevation of Bombay High Court Chief Justice Mohit Shah to the Supreme Court. Shah J would eventually retire as a High Court judge.
March 24, 2015: In one of the most widely discussed judgments of recent times, the Supreme Court strikes down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 as unconstitutional.
July 30, 2015: In an unprecedented move, the Court opens its doors at 2.30 am in the morning to hear the plea filed by Yakub Memon to stay his execution. Court eventually rejects the plea.
October 16, 2015: Court holds that National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC), and the Constitutional amendments involved, is in violation of the Constitution of India; Collegium system stays.
November 5, 2015: In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court invites suggestions and inputs from the public on improving the Collegium system of judicial appointments.
May 13, 2016: Court upholds the constitutional validity of provisions relating to criminal defamation.
August 12, 2016: In a rare outburst, Supreme Court warns the Central government that it will consider withdrawing judicial work from two judges – Justice Valmiki Mehta of the Delhi High Court and Justice MR Shah of the Gujarat High Court if the transfer of these judges are not given effect to.
Supreme Court passes landmark judgment upholding the validity of entry tax in a 7:2 majority judgment.
Murali Krishnan is Associate Editor at Bar & Bench. He tweets at legaljournalist.