State Of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali (AIR 1952 SC 75)

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Bench

  1. Justice Patanjali Shastri
  2. Justice Saiyid Fazal Ali
  3. Justice M.C. Mahajan
  4. Justice B.K. Mukherjee
  5. Justice S.R. Das
  6. Justice N. Chandrashekhar Aiyer
  7. Justice Vivian Bose

Parties

Petitioner- The State of West Bengal

Respondent- Anwar Ali Sarkar Habib Mohamed

Introduction

“Law is not law if it violates the principles of eternal justice.”

Lydia Maria Child

Article 14 of the Constitution of India guarantees the right to equality for every citizen. It is a very important article embodied in our Constitution. This article prohibits unreasonable discrimination and provides the concept of reasonable classification. This concept of ‘equality’ is also incorporated in the Preamble of the Constitution. In India, equality is important but with certain classifications to bring the individuals to an equal level. The concept of reasonable classification means that collectively grouped people or things make a distinct class, while the others are exceptional. This classification is done based on intelligible differentia. Article 13 of the Indian Constitution forbids class legislation, but it does not prohibit reasonable classification but such classification should not be arbitrary or evasive. This was upheld in the case Saurabh Chaudhari v. Union of India[1].

Article 14 does not apply the concept of reasonable classification when unequal and equal are treated differently. 

Background of the Case

Special courts were introduced in the State of West Bengal under Section 3 of the West Bengal Special Courts Ordinance, 1949(‘Act’). This Ordinance was replaced by the West Bengal Special Courts Act, 1950. These special courts are administered to provide a speedier trial of offences which is mentioned in our preamble. Section 3 of the said ordinance empowers the State Government to constitute special courts and Section 5 allows these courts to try such offenses or classes of offenses as the State Government may direct.

In this case[2], the Special Court tried Mr Anwar Ali and the other 49 accused under a notification dated January 26, 1950, under Section 5 of the said Act. They were alleged of raiding a factory, known as Jessop Factory at Dum Dum as an armed gang and were further convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. 

The respondents filed a writ petition of certiorari under Article 226 of the Constitution of India, quashing the conviction and sentence on the ground that the Special Court did not have the jurisdiction to try the case. Also, the grounds of conviction were unconstitutional and void under Article 13 (2) of the Constitution as it denied them equal protection of laws as per Article 14.  

The High Court quashed the conviction of the respondents and other accused persons. The High Court, on applying the test of reasonable classification held that though there was a need for a speedier trial to form the basis of reasonable classification and said that the provision of Section 5 (1) is violative of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, so far it vests absolute and arbitrary power in the State Government to refer a case to the special court for trial. The High Court further added that the powers of the said section could be exercised as not to involve discrimination, but they could also be exercised in a manner involving discrimination. Thus, the High Court held that Section 5 (1) was unconstitutional as the classification made on the expediency of speedier trial is not a well-defined classification. 

Further, aggrieved by the decision of the High Court, the State of West Bengal filed an appeal before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. 

Facts of the Case

The instant case is an appeal filed in the Apex Court from the judgement of the High Court of Calcutta, where the High Court quashed the decision of the respondents, that is, Anwar Ali and the other 49 accused by the Special Court established under Section 3 of the West Bengal Special Courts, 1950, earlier West Bengal Special Courts Ordinance, 1949.

Issues of the Case

Whether Section 5 (1) of the West Bengal Special Courts Act 1950 violates the constitutional prohibition under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution? If yes, then up to what extent?

Arguments on behalf of the Petitioner

The petitioners, that is, the State of West Bengal contented the following points:

  1. That there was a denial of equality before the law because if the object of the legislation had a public purpose, as in the instant case, where the speedy trial of certain offenses was provided, discrimination resulting as a by-product would not offend the provision of Article 14, relying on the fact that if inequality in treatment was not intentional to prejudice any person or group of persons but in the general interest.
  2. That there was a classification in the impugned Act in case the principle classification has to be applied as a necessary test. The Act empowers speedier trials of certain offenses and certain offenses may require a more expeditious trial, and this classification is quite reasonable. The Act empowers the State Government to direct the offenses which require a speedier trial. This power of the State is a mere regulation and is not discriminatory legislation. So, the Section is in consonant with the objective of the Act as mentioned in the preamble and does not prohibit Article 14 of the Constitution. 
  3. That Article 14 protects inequality of substantive law and does not provide any protection against procedural law.
  4. That the differences that have been made in the criminal trial procedure under the West Bengal Special Courts Act, 1950 are minor in nature and there are no grounds on which the discrimination could be alleged. 

Arguments on behalf of the Respondent

The respondent, that is, Anwar Ali, contented the following points:

  1. That the appeal should be dismissed because the whole of Section 5 of the said Act or the part of it which authorizes the State Government to direct particular ‘cases’ to be tried by these Special Courts are violative of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees equality before the law. Even if the provisions of Section 5 of the Act are invalid, then also the whole procedure before the Special Court must necessarily have been without jurisdiction as held by the High Court. 
  2. That there is no indication in clause (1) of Section 5 of the said Act, regarding restriction or qualification of the power conferred by it on the State Government. The power given to the State Government cannot be controlled and cut down in aid of the Preamble as it cannot abridge or enlarge the meaning of the language used in the section. 
  3. That the uncontrolled and unguided power given to the State under Section 5 may be exercised arbitrarily or with evil intent and an unequal hand, to bring about unenviable discrimination between two people, even though both of them are situated in exactly similar circumstances. 

Judgment of the Case

A seven-judge bench declared the judgement on January 11, 1952. The Court began delivering the judgement by decoding Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. The Court explained the scope of Right to Equality under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution by referring to the case of Chiranjit Lal v. The Union of India[3] and The State of Bombay v. F.N. Balsara[4]

The Court laid two conditions to pass the test of reasonable classification:

  1. The classification must be based on an intelligible differentia that distinguishes the grouped ones from the left out.
  2. The intelligible differentia must have a rational relation to the object that is to be achieved by the Act. 

The Court further said that guarantee of equal protection of laws means protection of equal laws. It forbids class legislation but does not forbid reasonable distinction[5]. The Court added that the test of reasonable classification must be reasonable and not arbitrary, and there must be a nexus between the basis of classification and the object of the Act. 

The Apex Court said that according to the language of Section 5 (1) of the impugned Act, the State Government is open to direct all the theft-related offenses in dwelling houses under Section 380 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 should be tried by Special Court as per the procedure laid down in the said Act. However, this excluded all the offenses of theft by a servant under Section 381, which is to be dealt with by ordinary Courts. In this context, the Court held that there is no reasonable difference or a rational nexus between the difference of excluding the theft by servants and the objective of the Act or a proper reason as to why theft by a stranger in a dwelling house should require a speedy trial, and theft by a servant be excluded. Thus, the Court held this arbitrary. 

On the issue of the interpretation of the word ‘cases’, the Apex Court held that the State Government is authorized, on its discretion, to hand over an ordinary case of simple hurt to Special Court for speedy trial but the cases of dacoity with murder shall be tried in the ordinary courts. 

On the issue of the constitutionality of Section 5 (1) of the said Act, the Supreme Court held that the whole of the West Bengal Special Courts Act, 1950 is violative of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. The Court added that the men accused of heinous crimes must be given the privilege of defense which others charged with similar charges can claim. 

Thus, the Hon’ble Supreme Court upheld the judgement of the High Court that Section 5 (1) of the said Act empowers the State Government to direct ‘cases’ to be tried by Special Courts violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India. The Apex Court concluded by stating that the decision of the High Court of quashing the conviction of the respondents was correct, and finally, the Court dismissed the appeals. 

Provisions and Concepts referred

  1. Section 3 of the West Bengal Special Courts Act, 1950
  2. Section 5 of the West Bengal Special Courts Act, 1950
  3. Article 14 of the Constitution of India, 1950
  4. Reasonable Classification under Right to Equality

Analysis of the Judgment

The case of State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali was decided in favour of the respondents, that is, Anwar Ali Sarkar and the other 49 accused. The Court ruled out the impugned Act as violative of Article 14 of the Constitution by stating that it gave arbitrary powers to the State Government. However, the Apex Court failed to provide a reasonable classification between ‘cases’, ‘classes of cases’, ‘offenses’, and ‘classes of offenses’. 

The State Government had re-enacted the West Bengal Special Courts Act in 1950 but without making the necessary modifications in the earlier Act as it ignored the concept of arbitrary power. The Hon’ble Court observed various aspects over the scope of Article 14 of the Constitution and had greatly observed every part of it. 

Thus, the declaration of judgement in favour of the respondents was correct on part of the Hon’ble Court, however, it failed to explain certain considerable questions. 

Conclusion

“Equality may be a fiction but nonetheless one must accept it as a governing principle.”

B.R. Ambedkar

The right to Equality is a very important part of our Constitution which strengthens the people residing in India. This concept has evolved and developed over time with the help of case laws. Article 14 lays down the necessity of reasonable classification for a society to progress. Although certain laws are not properly enforced in our country and remain disputed, the three organs of the State are working hard to bring tranquility to these rights. Thus, the future generation is under an obligation to secure these rights provided by our Constitution and ensure that no person is deprived of such rights. 


[1] AIR 2004 SC 2212.

[2] AIR 1952 SC 75.

[3] 1951 AIR 41.

[4] 1951 AIR 318.

[5] Constitutional Law of the United States, by H.E. Willis.

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