Long before Salman Khan and Sheena Bora made everyone stand up and take notice of the workings of the Indian legal system, the courts of law in the country had been playing a vital role in delivering justice and helping the common man uphold his rights and gain access to equity. These are a few landmark judgments of Indian courts which changed the course of law, and often politics, in India.
Considering some cases like the Shakti Mills rape case and The KM Nanavati case are well known, we have tried to keep to the lesser known or rather, lesser spoken about of the lot.
1. Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala (1973)
This case is widely considered to be the single most important verdict handed down by a court in the history of modern India. The constitution of India confers upon all citizens certain fundamental rights under article 19, for example, the right to free speech, the right to freedom of religion, etc. Successive governments, particularly the Indira Gandhi government had made attempts to dilute these rights through constitutional amendments. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the parliament cannot take away totally or substantially the fundamental rights from the citizens of India, in what is today known as the basic structure doctrine. So the next time you rant about freedom of speech on Facebook, be sure to offer a silent thank you to Kesavananda Bharati and Nani Palkhiwala (his advocate).
2. Varadrajan vs State of Madras (1965)
In this case, a minor girl, of her own accord and with full consent, eloped with her boyfriend against the wishes of her family. Her father lodged a complaint of kidnapping with the police, and the accused was duly arrested, tried, and convicted. On appeal, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction. The question before their lordships was whether a minor girl, who voluntarily left her legal guardians without their consent could be said to be a victim of kidnapping. The court, while replying in the negative, held that in such cases, a charge of kidnapping cannot be made out unless the accused used force to take away the victim or lured or enticed her under false pretences. This judgement has had far reaching implications on the law relating to kidnappings in India, and has been successful in controlling the lodging of false cases in cases where a girl eloped with or married a boy against the wishes of her family.
3. ADM Jabalpur vs Shiv Kant Shukla aka the Habeas Corpus case (1976)
The Indira Gandhi government declared emergency in 1975, and thereafter started arresting any dissenters and detaining them indefinitely and without producing them before a court to determine if their detention was legal. The government argued that during an emergency, all of the citizens’ fundamental rights stand suspended, and therefore they have no legal recourse against illegal detention. In a shocking capitulation, the Supreme Court in a 4-1 ratio, sided with the government and allowed it virtually a free hand to terrorize its own citizens. The only redeeming factor was the powerful dissent of justice HR Khanna which went down in the annals of legal history as one of the greatest pro democracy stands ever (this dissent later cost him the job of Chief Justice). Though the verdict now stands overturned, it is today known as the darkest day in the history of Indian democracy.
4. Maruti Shripati Dubal vs State of Maharashtra (1987)
Suicide is the only offence in Indian law, an attempt at which is (or rather, was) a crime but the successful commission of which is not. In this particular case, the accused was a constable with the Mumbai police who was injured during the course of his duties, which left him of unsound mind. He was promised a licensed vegetable vending stall in the main market district of the city as compensation, but that was held up in red tape by the bureaucracy. As a result, in a fit of rage, he tried to set himself on fire outside the office of the BMC. He survived and was booked and convicted for attempt to commit suicide. On appeal, the Bombay high court held that a person attempt to commit suicide is already disturbed and to punish him even further for this would be barbaric, and in doing so, it struck down section 309 of the IPC which deals with attempted suicide. Though this judgement was to be overturned later, it was the first step towards the complete decriminalization of attempted suicide by the government in 2015.
5. Vishakha vs the State of Rajasthan (1997)
This case was a landmark verdict in the field of women’s rights in India. In its verdict in the Vishakha case, the Supreme Court defined and laid down guidelines to deal with sexual harassment faced by women in the workplace. The major takeaway from this case was the ruling of the court that sexual harassment need NOT involve physical contact. Any act that creates a hostile work environment – be it by virtue of cracking lewd jokes, verbal abuse, circulating lewd rumors etc. counts as sexual harassment. On the basis of the Vishakha guidelines of 1997, the legislature passed the The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 which lays down the law in the field of sexual harassment at the workplace.
6. Murli Deora vs Union of India (1999)
This case was a PIL filed by former union minister Murli Deora. In its verdict in the case, the Supreme Court banned the smoking of cigarettes at all public places in India and proposed the levying of a fine for the same. Sadly, this judgment is rarely, if ever enforced in India. So the next time you see someone in public who happens to bother you, scare them off by citing this verdict.
7. MC Mehta vs Union of India (1986)
This case was a PIL filed in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy to affix responsibility in case of such an event occurring again. In its verdict, the Supreme Court brought the principle of absolute liability to India, which is an extension of the landmark British judgment in Rylands v Fletcher under common tort law. The gist of this principle is that if any person is engaged in any activity which could be potentially hazardous in nature, and if such activity causes damage to life and property, that person will be responsible for paying compensation to those affected, and towards paying other allied costs also, irrespective of whether the accident caused was due to his fault, or through negligence or through sheer accident. This verdict goes a long way towards ensuring equity for the victims of industrial disasters.
8. Shreya Singhal vs Union of India (2015)
Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 dealt with defamation on the Internet. It was supposed to control uncensored and abusive online speech and check cyber-bullying. However, successive governments abused this section and used it to further political agendas and to clamp down on political dissent. It was used, among other things, to arrest two Vasai girls who protested the shutdown of Mumbai following the death of a politician. In this case, a PIL filed by a 22-year-old Delhi law student, the Supreme Court struck down this section as unconstitutional, and against the freedom of speech under article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. This verdict was a major step in protecting the freedom of speech online, and was hailed by one and all as progressive.
The law charts our lives in many ways, some which we don’t even realize. And sometimes, new precedents are set in the courts themselves. These are just a few of them, we are scratching the surface. Do you think all these decisions supported justice? Let us know.