The history of the Supreme Court of India is directly and inextricably linked to that of the Constitution. The latter came into effect on January 26, 1950. The apex court, which derives its independence and remit from the Constitution, came into being two days later, on January 28, 1950. It completes its seventieth year of existence today.
In these 70 years, the court has delivered several important judgments. Here’s a subjective listing of a few:
AK Gopalan v State of Madras (May 19, 1950) : This was the first case which gave the court the opportunity to explore the right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. The court ruled against communist leader Gopalan, who was detained in a Madras prison, holding that Article 21 contemplates only procedural fairness. Hence, life and liberty can be taken away by a law which has been passed by Parliament and the court cannot look into whether the law itself is fair or not.
Champakam Dorairajan v State of Madras (April 9, 1951) : The court held that a government order prescribing reservation in engineering and medical colleges in the state of madras was violative of Article 29 of the Constitution. Article 29 states that no citizen shall be denied admission into any educational institution maintained by the state or receiving aid out of state funds on grounds only of religion, race, caste, language or any of them. The fall out of this judgment was the first amendment to the Constitution. By way of this amendment, a new clause (Clause 4) was inserted in Article 15. This change protected laws made by government providing reservations to SC and ST communities in educational institutions.
Golaknath v. State of Punjab (February 27, 1967) : The court held that a constitutional amendment made by Parliament in exercise of its powers under Article 368 is a “law” within the definition of Article 13(2) of the Constitution. This effectively meant that parliament cannot amend the Constitution to take away or abridge Part III of the Constitution which lays down fundamental rights.
Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (April 24, 1973): This is arguably the most famous judgment delivered by the Supreme Court . A bench of the Supreme Court comprising all the 13 sitting judges by a wafer thin majority of 7-6 overruled its judgment in Golaknath and held that a constitutional amendment is not “law” within the meaning of Article 13(2). This meant that the parliament could amend any part of the Constitution including Part III which lays down fundamental rights.However, this power came with the rider that it should not impinge upon the “Basic Structure of the Constitution”. What would constitute Basic Structure was left open-ended for the court to interpret.
ADM Jabalpur v. SS Shukla (April 28, 1976): This is widely considered as black day in the history of Indian democracy as a Constitution Bench of the highest court of the land, by a majority of 4:1, upheld the detention of citizens and political leaders belonging to opposition parties. The court was considering a presidential proclamation which was issued during emergency. The presidential order said that during the emergency, the right of a person to move any court for enforcement of the rights conferred by article 14, article 21 and article 22 of the Constitution shall remain suspended. The court upheld the same and held that while a proclamation of emergency is in operation, the right to move High Courts under Article 226 for a writ of Habeas Corpus challenging illegal detention by state will stand suspended.Justice HR Khanna dissented holding that Article 21 cannot be the sole repository of all rights. He ruled that sanctity of life and liberty existed even before the Constitution. Justice HR Khanna’s dissenting judgment in which he appealed to “the brooding spirit of law” and “the intelligence of the future” earned him legendary status but he lost the post of CJI to justice MH Beg who superseded him.