Monthly Review: January 2021
January witnessed a number of landmark decisions by the Court including a dismissal of the challenge against the Central Vista Project.
In January, the Supreme Court witnessed cases on many important political and constitutional issues. These included multiple hearings and orders on the challenge to the farm laws and a judgment on the challenge to the Central Vista project. Review petitions on the Aadhar judgment were dismissed. Challenges were also filed against some state anti-conversion laws and the lack of uniformity in family laws. Some of these cases also sought to tread new legal territory, triggering public debate.
Farm Laws Stayed, and Committee Formed
Various petitioners challenged the constitutionality of three ‘farm laws’ passed in September 2020: the Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance & Farm Services Act, 2020, Farmers Produce Trade & Commerce (Promotion & Facilitation) Act, 2020 and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. Another group filed a petition arguing in support of them.
On January 12th, the Court stayed the three Acts of Parliament, in a potentially novel interim relief measure. It appointed a 4-member committee to help negotiate between protesting farmers and the Government. The composition of this committee was soon challenged on the grounds of bias. On January 20th, the Court issued a notice on this matter.
These laws have led to widespread protests. So, a third petition was filed by residents of Delhi NCR claiming the protests violate their fundamental rights. The Government’s separate request to stop the Republic Day protests, however, were withdrawn on the Court’s advice.
State Anti-Conversion Laws Challenged
Two state anti-conversion laws have been challenged before the Supreme Court: the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020 and the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018. These laws criminalise religious conversion for marriage. They also require a declaration to be given for conversion in advance.
Two NGOs, Citizens for Justice and Peace and People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and a group of citizens including Delhi advocate Vishal Thakre have each filed a petition challenging their constitutionality. They argue that the laws curtail the freedom of choice and religion and the right to privacy, undermining secularism and fraternity. The case will test the scope of the right to marry. A three-judge bench led by Bobde CJI has issued a notice, denying an interim stay.
Aadhar Review Petitions Dismissed 4:1
The Aadhar Act 2016 authorises unique identification numbers being given to each resident, which can be used for various government schemes. It was passed as a money bill. In 2018, the Supreme Court held that the Speaker’s certification of a bill as a ‘money bill’ could be reviewed by the Court. However, the Aadhar Act 2016 itself was correctly certified as it had the ‘elements’ of a money bill.
In November 2019, the Supreme Court in Rojer Mathew v. South Indian Bank doubted the 2018 decision. It said that the Court had not laid out the scope of a money bill before deciding whether the Aadhar Act was one. The issue of when a bill can be a money bill was referred to a larger bench.
Seven petitioners filed review petitions, on the ground that the 2018 Aadhar judgment was erroneous. In January, a five-judge bench dismissed them 4:1. The majority said that a ‘change in the law or subsequent decision/judgment of a coordinate or larger Bench’ was not a ground for review. Chandrachud J. in his dissent argued the petitions should not be dismissed until the larger bench issued its judgment.
Petition Seeks Uniform Divorce, Maintenance and Alimony Laws
Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, a lawyer and politician, has initiated two public interest litigations. They seek uniform grounds of divorce and uniform grounds of maintenance and alimony respectively. These laws currently come under personal laws which are different for Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Christians.
The petitioner argues the inconsistency in these laws violates the right to life and dignity, the right to equality and discriminates based on sex and religion. And urges for gender and religion-neutral set of laws through a Uniform Civil Code (UCC). In Lily Thomas and Shah Bano, the Court had underlined the need for UCC.
The Court should direct the legislature to remove these inconsistencies. Alternatively, the Court should declare these family law provisions unconstitutional and frame uniform grounds. The three-judge bench led by Bobde CJI issued a notice with ‘great caution’.
Supreme Court Dismisses Challenge Against the Central Vista Project
On January 5th, a 2:1 majority of the Supreme Court cleared the Central Vista redevelopment project. The petitioners had challenged the project on various grounds such as lapses in regulatory clearances and circumventing scrutiny in financial and environmental compliance. Interestingly, they also argued that the Government had failed to adequately consult the public.
The majority noted its limited jurisdiction over executive policy and dismissed the petition. Khanna J, in dissent, concluded that the environmental and heritage clearance was not complied with. He also noted that the Government did not adequately consult the public. Look at our curated must-reads for more.