S.R. Bommai v. Union Of India (1994 AIR 1918)

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

Bench

  1. Justice S.R. Pandian
  2. Justice A.M. Ahmadi
  3. Justice Kuldip Singh
  4. Justice J.S. Verma
  5. Justice P.B. Sawant
  6. Justice K. Ramaswamy
  7. Justice S.C. Agrawal
  8. Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy
  9. Justice Yogeshwar Dayal

Parties

Petitioner– Shri Somappa Rayappa Bommai

Respondent– Union of India

Introduction

“The machinery of government is always subordinate to the will of those who administer that machinery. Therefore, the most important element is the method of choosing leaders.”

Frank Herbert

As we all know, the Constitution is a crucial part of our legal system. It governs the Parliament, the judiciary, the people, and almost everything that can be covered under the law. But, is the Constitution all about fundamental rights? Do you know the scope of our Constitution? How far does it protect us? 

This case of S.R. Bommai is a landmark judgement defining the powers of the Centre highlighting Article 356. This Article deals with emergency provisions where President Rule can be imposed in a State. This case has effectively dealt with the Centre-State relationship. This is based on many recommendations on the smooth functioning of these relationships without any conflicts, made by various Committees. These committees included Administrative Reforms Commission, 1969; Rajmannar Committee, 1969; Sarkaria Commission, 1987

Background of the Case

In 1989, the Janata Dal Government was headed by Shri S.R. Bommai, with an office in Karnataka. This was the largest party in Karnataka, with the merger of the Janata Party and Lok Dal. Suddenly, a large number started abandoning the party and this arose a question on the majority support for the Government in the house. 

On April 20, 1989, the Chief Minister suggested the Governor call for a gathering session so that the strength of the government can be checked in the House. But, the Governor did not consider the suggestion. The Governor, without exploring the possibilities for an alternative Government, reported to the President that S.R. Bommai had lost the majority support in the House, so an action must be taken under Article 356 (1) of the Constitution as there was no other party to oversee the governance. 

In April 1989, in furtherance of the report by the Governor, a proclamation was issued by the then President. Thereafter, on April 26, 1989, S.R. Bommai challenged this proclamation before the Karnataka High Court through a writ petition on various grounds. 

The Karnataka High Court ruled out that the proclamation under Article 356 (1) is not entirely outside the scope of judicial scrutiny. The Court further stated that to issue a proclamation under Article 356 (1), the President must be genuinely satisfied based on the relevant facts and circumstances. The scope of judicial scrutiny is restricted to a test determining whether the disclosed reasons bear any rational nexus to the proposed action or the proclamation issued.  The courts have to examine if the proclamation was made for a mala fide reason or any irrelevant grounds. If any of such grounds are satisfied, then the satisfaction of the President would not be genuine under Article 356 (1) of the Constitution. 

However, the Court concluded by dismissing the petition, holding that the facts presented by the Governor were in bona fide intention, and added that the floor test was neither a prerequisite nor an obligation to send the report to the President. Thus, S.R. Bommai filed an appeal in the Supreme Court against this decision of the Karnataka High Court.

There were a series of events that took place in the continuation of this case. On October 11, 1991, the President proclaimed Article 356 (1) to dissolve the Mexican Government. Further, on August 7, 1988, the President proclaimed based on the Governor’s report and dismissed the government of Nagaland. This validity was challenged in the Gauhati High Court. After the demolition of Babri masjid, as a result of the violence erupted, the Central Government fired the BJP government of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh. On December 15, 1992, the President proclaimed Article 356 abolishing the legislative assemblies by Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan. 

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The legitimacy of such declarations was challenged in the relevant High Courts. All these petitions contained the same legal questions and were heard by the High Courts. 

Facts of the Case

This case of S.R. Bommai v. Union of India[1] is an appeal filed by Shri Bommai in the Supreme Court. Besides this case, the Central Government called upon the Supreme Court to decide the validity of five other proclamation cases in Meghalaya, Nagaland, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan. 

Issues of the Case

The principal issue involved in this case is whether the President has unfettered powers to issue Proclamation under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution? This issue is based on the examination of the following issues:

  • Whether the proclamation with compliant to judicial review?
  • If yes, then what is the scope of judicial review in this respect?
  • What is the meaning of the expression “a situation has arisen in which the government of the state cannot be carried on under the provisions of this constitution” in Article 356 (1)?

Another issue was whether the President’s Rule imposed in the six states is constitutionally valid or not?

Provisions and Reports Involved

  1. Article 356 of the Constitution of India, 1950. 
  2. Article 356 (1) of the Constitution of India, 1950.
  3. Article 74 of the Constitution of India, 1950. 
  4. Article 74 (2) of the Constitution of India, 1950. 
  5. The Sarkaria Commission Report, 1987.

Arguments on behalf Of the Petitioners

The learned senior counsel, Sri Soli Sorabjee appeared on behalf of Shri Bommai contended the following points:

  1. That the petitioner was not given an opportunity of being heard, that is, to prove his majority. 
  2. That the power of the President under Article 356 is neither unfettered nor unlimited. Its exercise is limited to a situation when the provisions of the Constitution are exhausted. 
  3. That the power of the President, in this case, was arbitrary as there was no constitutional breakdown. Thus, the President’s Rule was mala fide. 
  4. That it was the duty of the Union Government to present the information before the Court on which the satisfaction was formed. However, the Union Government failed to reveal such information they had received, upon which the President had acted. Moreover, according to Article 74 (2) of the Constitution, the Union of India cannot be discharged of this duty. 

Arguments on behalf of the Respondent

The learned senior counsel, Sri K. Parasaran, contented the following points on behalf of the Union of India:

  1. That there is a difference between the scope of judicial review in constitutional and administrative law. In administrative law, the power of the Court extends to the legal control of public authorities while executing statutory powers, thus, preventing not only the abuse of power but also the irregular exercise of power. In contrast, the power of Courts in constitutional law extends to preventing action which is ultra vires the Constitution. 
  2. That the operative areas of judicial power are open until the distribution of powers between Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary are not infringed. 
  3. That the powers are endowed to a constitutional authority for achieving a particular purpose and if such authority under the pretence of attaining such purpose uses these powers to achieve it, such use of power cannot be questioned. 
  4. That only on the advice of the council of ministers under Article 74 (1) of the Constitution, such proclamation can be made by the President. Any further inquiry in this respect is barred by clause (2) of Article 74. 

Judgment of the Case

The judgement in the case was pronounced by a nine-judge bench on March 11, 1994.

On the first issue of the use of unfettered power of the President under Article 356 to issue the proclamation, the Apex Court held that the power conferred by Article 356 is a conditioned power and not absolute power. The Court said that this power should be used with great caution and approved the recommendation report submitted by the Sarkaria Commission. The Commission submitted that before invoking Article 356 (1), it must be given to the State at first. Every option should be considered to handle the situation and all attempts must be made to solve the problems of the State.  The Court held that the High Court and the Supreme Court have the power to entertain a writ petition challenging the proclamation if the Courts are satisfied that a writ petition raises an arguable question. 

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The expression ‘or otherwise’ indicates the wide range of materials that may be taken into account for the formation of opinion by the President. Such materials could consist of some matter which is not legal evidence, its credibility and authenticity should be incapable of being tested in law courts. 

The Court relied on the concept of Secularism that if any state government acts in a manner, it can be lawfully regarded that a situation has arisen in which the government is not being carried following the constitutional provisions. The Courts held the issues valid on this ground. Moreover, the Madhya Pradesh High Court reversed its decision. 

The brief of Supreme Court judgement is as follows:

  1. The Apex Court held that the power of the Executive head to dismiss a State Government is not absolute. 
  2. The President should exercise the power only after the approval by both Houses of Parliament.
  3. Till the approval of both Houses is pending, the President can only suspend the Legislative Assembly by suspending the relevant provisions of the Constitution.
  4. The Legislative Assembly dissolution is not a matter of course.
  5. Such powers of the President should have resorted to situations where it is necessary for the purpose of proclamation. 

Analysis of the Judgment 

The Supreme Court gave a rational judgement in this case. It looked towards the deepest possibilities and pronounced the judgement that could bring stability in the situation. This judgement settled various issues in our Constitution and its interpretation. The verdict clarified that the test for the majority should be done on the floor of the Assembly and there is no mandate for the Governor’s opinion. Further, the Supreme Court applied the basic structure doctrine and held that the basic structure of the Constitution would be a valid ground for the exercise of power under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution. The judges in this case presumed that the power of the President is not absolute but an accustomed power and such Presidential proclamation is not free from judicial review. Thus, the judgement has helped to put an end to arbitrary expulsions of the State Governments used until then. This judgement is one of the most frequently cited judgement whenever the hung Assemblies returned and the parties muddled to form a government. 

Referred Cases

In this case, the Court relied on some of the following precedents:

  1. State of West Bengal v. Union of India[2]
  2. Union of India v. H.S. Dhillon[3]

Conclusion

The case deals with assessing the lawful procedures and looking into the complete area of constitutional imperatives on Centre and State relations. Looking towards the Centre, the States are the greatest strength within the fields which are assigned to them. The Centre is under a restriction, not to tamper with the powers of the State. In this case, the judiciary had made certain presumptions, so the Court has laid down an example that if there is an urgency, the Court has the right to assume certain points but the assumption should not be vague and must have a valid reasoning. Judicial review also plays a very important role when it seems that the three organs of the Government, that is, the Legislative, executive, and Judiciary are trying to harm the constitutional values or have denied certain rights. Henceforth, through this case, the Hon’ble Supreme Court has exhibited signs of becoming a strong bulwark of constitutional right. 


[1] 1994 AIR 1918.

[2] AIR 1987 Cal 226.

[3] 1972 AIR 1061.

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