Hundreds of judgments are handed down every day, but only a few stand out, such as the Keshavananda Bharati case, Maneka Gandhi case, or Olga Tellis case, which deal with an individual’s fundamental rights. These are branded as ‘landmark cases’ by virtue of their impact and distinctiveness. Most of these important cases portray a distinct constitutional perspective in order to qualify as landmark decisions.
In other words, a landmark verdict or judgment is one that opens up new avenues in our constitutional thinking while also adding additional expanded dimensions to what are thought to be established constitutional concepts. As a result, many such far-sighted and prolific judgments continue to serve as precedents and have implicated their impacts even across the globe.
10 Landmark Judgments That Changed India
A few out of these landmark judgments, which have evolved with expansive interpretation over the progress of time by the finest of judicial minds have been discussed subsequently.
1. Judgment On The Basic Structure Doctrine – Kesavananda Bharati V. State Of Kerala (1973)
Facts of the Case
Keshvananda Bharti was the head of the Edneer Mutt, a religious group in Kerala’s Kasaragod district. He possessed a few plots of property that he held in his name. In 1969, Kerala’s state government passed the Land Reforms Amendment Act, according to which the government could take away a portion of the sect’s land, which was owned by Keshvananda Bharti.
He petitioned the Supreme Court in 1970, citing Articles 25 (Right to practice and promote religion), 26 (Right to manage religious affairs), 14 (Right to equality), 19(1)(f) (freedom to acquire property), and 31 (Right to administer religious matters) of the Indian Constitution.
The Kerala Government passed another statute, the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1971, while the petition was still being considered by the court.
Main Issues of the case
- Is the 24th Amendment to the Constitution (Amendment) Act of 1971 constitutionally valid?
- Is the 25th Amendment to the Constitution (Amendment) Act of 1972 constitutionally valid?
- The degree to which Parliament can use its constitutional amendment powers.
- What constitutes the “Basic Structure”?
- The Supreme Court decided by a 7:6 majority that the Golakhnath case verdict was incorrect and that the government can amend fundamental rights under Art. 13(2) and Art. 368(3), as well as the constitution under Art. 368, but without affecting the basic structure and essence of the Constitution.
- Sections 2(a) and 2(b), as well as the first half of section 3 of the 25th Amendment, were affirmed by the Court as legitimate. Likewise, the validity of the 24th and the 29th amendment was also acknowledged.
- Regarding the 25th amendment, the majority of judges ruled that Article 31 C of the constitution (which was inserted by the 25th Amendment) is unconstitutional. While Justice Reddy stated that the sections of Article 31 C are legitimate, Justice Khanna, on the other hand, ruled that the first portion of Article 31 C was legitimate, but the second part was invalid.
- Justice Hans Raj Khanna propounded the ‘basic structure doctrine’ and held that the Constitution of India contains some essential elements that cannot be changed or eliminated by legislative changes. He went on to say that even though the doctrine is not defined anywhere, it is reflected in some of the essential constituents of Democracy such as Sovereignty, liberty, secularism, judicial review, separation of powers, and the like. He stated that this doctrine only applies to constitutional changes that have the potential to undermine or modify the original constitution’s basic philosophical ideas. Thus, the Supreme Court can declare any statute that breaches the fundamental structural concept to be null and void.
In brief, the 13-judge bench defined the notion of Basic Structure and ruled that the Constitution’s Basic Structure cannot be changed.
2. Judgment On The Right Of Personal Liberty – Maneka Gandhi V. Union Of India(1978)
Facts of the Case
The petitioner, Maneka Gandhi, was a journalist whose passport was issued on June 1, 1976, under the Passport Act of 1967. The petitioner received a letter from the Regional Passport Officer in New Delhi on July 2nd, 1977, ordering her to surrender her passport. When questioned as to why her passport was revoked, the Ministry of External Affairs refused to provide any explanations, citing the “public interest”.
As a result, the petitioner filed a writ petition under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, alleging that the seizure of her passport violated her fundamental rights, specifically Art. 14 (Right to Equality), Art. 19 (Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression), and Art. 21 (Right to Life and Liberty).
The defendant forged a document indicating that the petitioner was obliged to be present during the hearings before a Commission of Inquiry.
Main Issues of the Case
- What is the scope of such Fundamental Rights as granted to individuals by the Indian Constitution?
- Whether or not the ‘Right to Travel Abroad’ is protected by Article 21.
- What is the relationship between the rights provided by India’s Constitution Articles 14, 19, and 21?
- Defining the extent of the word “procedure established by law.”
- Is Section 10(3)(c) of the Passport Act of 1967 a violation of Fundamental Rights, and if so, is such legislation a real Law?
This momentous decision was handed down on January 25, 1978, and it forever altered the Indian Constitution. This decision significantly broadened the reach of Article 21, thereby making India a welfare state, as promised in the Preamble. The seven-judge panel reached a unanimous conclusion, except for a few issues where some justices agreed.
The court’s key conclusions were as follows:
- The court, in this historic decision, held that, while the wording “procedure established by law” rather than “due process of law” is used in Article 21, the procedure must be devoid of arbitrariness and irrationality.
- The court overturned the Gopalan case, holding that the provisions of Articles 14, 19, and 21 have a unique connection and that every statute must pass the standards set out in those articles.
- The court decided that the term “personal liberty” should not be interpreted in a restrictive and rigid meaning. According to the court, personal liberty must be defined in a broad and liberal meaning. As a result, Article 21 has been given a broad meaning.
- The right to travel abroad, as established in Satwant Singh, is within the scope of Article 21.
- Neither Article 21 nor Article 19(1)(a) or 19(1)(b) of the are violated by Section 10(3)(c) (g) of Passport Act of 1967. The court went on to say that the 1967 measure was not in violation of Article 14. Because the aforementioned clause allows for an opportunity to be heard.
- Sections 10(3)(c) and 10(5) are administrative orders, according to the court, and thus subject to dispute on the grounds of mala fide, unreasonableness, denial of natural justice, and ultra vires.
- The court further advised the government to disclose reasons in every case and to only utilize the prerogative of Section 10(5) of the 1967 statute on rare occasions.
3. Judgment On The Right To Livelihood – Olga Tellis V. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985)
Facts of the Case
In 1981, A.R. Antulay, Maharashtra’s then Chief Minister, announced that street and sidewalk dwellers of Mumbai would be forcibly evicted and deported to their respective areas of origin or a location outside the city of Mumbai.
The petitioners asserted their right to livelihood as part of their right to life under Article 32 of the Constitution, which is guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. The petitioners, including Olga Tellis, argued that the eviction order was irrational and unjust since it did not provide any alternative housing facilities for the street residents.
Furthermore, petitioners argued that Sections 312, 313, and 314 of the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act are unconstitutional because they violate Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Indian Constitution.
Main Issues of the Case
- Whether Article 21 of the Constitution encompasses the right to life and a livelihood.
- Whether sections 312, 313, and 314 of the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act are constitutional.
- Question of Fundamental Rights Waiver or Estoppels Against Fundamental Rights
- Whether or not people who live on the sidewalk are considered trespassers under the IPC.
The court opined that the Right to life also encompasses the right to livelihood, and any deprivation of livelihood or means of subsistence is unconstitutional. It reflected the humanistic outlook of the judges and the court’s activist role.
The court made the following ruling in this case:
- No one has the right to encroach upon public trails, sidewalks, or any other public space.
- In the facts of this case, section 314 of the Bombay Municipality Act is not irrational.
- Slums that have been in place for at least 20 years shall not be demolished unless the property is needed for public use, and in such cases, other locations must be allocated.
- Resettlement should be given priority.
4. Judgment On The Absolute Liability Principle – M.C. Mehta V. Union Of India (1987)
Facts of the Case
M.C Mehta, a social activist lawyer, filed a writ suit seeking closure of Shriram Industries, which was engaged in hazardous chemical manufacture and was located in a heavily populated neighborhood of Kirti Nagar.
While the petition was pending, a leak of oleum gas from one of its units occurred on the 4th and 6th of December 1985, resulting in the death of an advocate and affecting the health of others. This occurrence brought to mind the Bhopal gas tragedy.
M.C Mehta filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) under Articles 21 and 32 of the Constitution, requesting that the Shriram Caustic Chlorine and Sulphuric Acid Plant, which was located in a densely populated region of Delhi, be closed and relocated.
The Inspector of Factories and the Commissioner (Factories) issued separate orders on December 8 and 24, 1985, respectively, to shut down the factories. This occurrence occurred only a few months before the Environment (Protection) Act went into effect, and therefore constitutes a driving factor for enacting such legislation.
The Supreme Court of India issued six reported orders in the Shriram Food and Fertilizer Industry case, four of which were issued before the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 was passed and the date on which it took effect.
- Is it permissible for such hazardous enterprises to operate in such areas?
- Is there any way to regulate them if they are permitted to work in such areas?
- The extent of the liability and the amount of compensation to be paid must be established.
In this case, the following was held:
- The concept of absolute liability or strict liability in tort was established.
- Because the fertilizer facility was so close to human settlement, the court ruled that a dangerous business could not be operated in such proximity to people, and the factory was moved. The deep pocket theory was also established.
- This decision also signaled the start of an era of significant legislative development in India. The 1948 Factory Act was amended to include a completely new chapter, including verbatim portions from the Judgment.
- The Public Liability Insurance Act was enacted, as well as a policy for pollution control was laid down.
- In addition, the Environment Protection Act and the Policy for Pollution Control Abatement were both enacted.
5. Judgment On Sexual Harassment Of Women At Workplace – Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan (1997)
Facts of the Case
Bhanwari Devi worked as a social worker in a program run by the Rajasthan state government to combat the scourge of child marriage. She did her best to prevent child marriage of a female infant in one of Ramakant Gujjar’s homes during the protest. Despite significant opposition, the marriage was effective in its conclusion.
The aforementioned marriage was prevented by the sub-divisional officer (SDO) and the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP). The marriage was, nevertheless, performed, and no police action was taken as a result. The locals later discovered that the police visits were caused by Bhanwari Devi’s acts. As a result, Bhanwari Devi and her family were subjected to a boycott. In the midst of all of this, Bhanwari lost her job.
Ramakant Gujjar and his five men gang-raped her in front of her husband in 1992 to exact vengeance. The police department attempted to dissuade her from pursuing the case on various grounds, but she persisted and filed a complaint against the accused. She was, however, exposed to extreme treatment by female police attendants, to the point that her lehenga was demanded from her to get proof, and she was left with nothing except her husband’s blood-stained dhoti.
The accused was acquitted by the trial court, but she never lost up hope, and witnessing her resolve, all-female social workers rallied to her side. Under the name ‘Vishakha’, they all filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court was asked to draft rules for avoiding workplace sexual harassment.
Main Issues of the Case
- Is there any obligation on the part of the employer in situations of sexual harassment at work by one of its workers or by one of its employees?
- The need for formal guidelines to deal with workplace sexual harassment incidents.
In Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan case, the Supreme Court made it compulsory for institutions across the nation to maintain an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), consisting of 10 or more employees led by a female, and issued Vishakha Guidelines (1997), which served as the foundation for the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013.
Broadly, the following was underlined:
- Sexual harassment of women is a gross violation of their fundamental rights, including under articles 14, 19, and 21.
- A robust mechanism was established for the redressal of complaints. For this purpose, a complaints committee was directed to be set up and NGOs were involved.
6. Judgment On On Passive Euthanasia – Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v. Union of India (2011)
Facts of the Case
Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug worked as a nurse at Parel’s King Edward Memorial Hospital. One day, a hospital sweeper attacked her, wrapping a dog chain around her neck and yanking her back with it. Her brain was permanently damaged as a result of this tragedy, and she went into a vegetative condition (PVS).
Pinki Virani, an activist, and journalist filed a plea before the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the constitution, claiming that she had no chance of reviving and improving, and so should be allowed to die passively. This was not permitted. She remained in this position for 42 years, until she died in 2015.
- Is it acceptable to remove life-sustaining systems and methods from a person who is in a persistent vegetative state (PVS)?
- Should a patient’s preferences be honored if he or she has previously said that he or she does not want life-sustaining measures in the event of futile treatment or a PVS?
- Is it possible for a person’s family or next of kin to submit a request to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining systems if the individual has not made such a request before?
The Supreme Court, in consultation with doctors, concluded that her brain was not dead, and she was able to breathe and feel emotions, while being in a PVS. It was held to be unjustifiable to take her life against her wishes.
Simultaneously, it legalized passive euthanasia or mercy killing and recognized the right to die. However, this was allowed with certain conditions to prevent its misuse. A specified procedure was laid down, which required:
- the approval of High Court following the due procedure;
- the consideration of the opinion of three reputed and competent doctors;
- approval by a bench of two judges; and
- a notice to close relatives of the patient.
7. Judgment On Disqualification Of Convicted Representatives – Lily Thomas v. Union of India (2013)
Facts of the Case
In 2005, Adv. Lily Thomas filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court to challenge Section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act, which protects convicted politicians from any kind of disqualification from contesting elections due to pending appeals against their conviction in the appellate courts.
Even though the petitioners’ case was initially denied, after nine years of trying, a Supreme Court bench composed of Justices AK Patnaik and SJ Mukhopadhaya issued a decision in July 2013.
- The first question presented in the case was whether Parliament had the authority to implement Section 8(4) of the Act.
- Second, whether Section 8(4) of the Act violated the provisions of Indian Constitution and ran contrary to the meaning and goals of the authors of the Constitution by allowing members of a certain class to continue to maintain membership while being convicted of a crime.
The ruling said that if any elected or non-elected MPs or MLAs are convicted in a criminal matter by a trial court, they would be disqualified with immediate effect, and the saving provision under section 8(4) will not apply. This impacted approximately 5000 elected members.
The court held that:
- Section 8(4) violates the Constitution.
- “The Parliament had no power to enact sub-section (4) of Section 8 of the Act and accordingly sub-section (4) of Section 8 of the Act is ultra vires the Constitution.”
- The grounds for disqualification of a candidate and a representative (member) are the same.
- If any sitting MP or MLA or MLC is convicted under sub-sections 1, 2, or 3 of section 8, he or she shall be disqualified with immediate effect.
8. Judgment On The Right To Self-identification Of The Third Gender – NALSA v. Union of India (2014)
Facts of the Case
The transgender population in India encompasses a broader spectrum of gender non-conformity. Hermaphrodites, pre-operative and post-operative transsexuals, and transvestites are all contained within this spectrum.
A non-governmental group representing the Kinnar transgender community submitted the petition in 2012, which demanded a formal declaration of their gender identity, rather than the one allocated at birth, and alleged that non-recognition of their gender identity violated Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.
The government’s representative, the Additional Solicitor General, acknowledged that the situation was a significant societal concern. He informed the Court that the government has previously created an Expert Committee to examine different issues confronting the transgender population.
Main Issues of this case
- Whether a person born as a man with a mainly feminine inclination (or vice versa) has the right to be recognized as a female of his or her choice, particularly when such a person undergoes an operative procedure to alter his or her sex as a female.
- Do transgender people, who are neither men nor females, have the right to be labeled as a “third gender”?
- Whether non-recognition of various gender identities violates Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution?
To defend and protect the rights of transgender people guaranteed by India’s constitution, it was ruled that:
- Apart from binary gender, Hijras and Eunuchs must be considered as “third gender”.
- Transgender people have a right to choose their own gender identity.
- They must be treated as socially and educationally backward classes and must be given reservations in admission to public educational institutions and jobs.
- They must have access to the welfare schemes of the government.
- Centers to address their psychological and health problems must be provided.
9. Judgment On Freedom Of Speech And Expression Over The Internet – Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2015)
Facts of the Case
The Mumbai police arrested two females, Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan in the year 2012. The arrest was made for expressing their unhappiness with a bandh declared by Shiv Sena supporters in Maharashtra in response to the death of Shiv Sena president Bal Thackery. The petitioners were accused of publishing their remarks on Facebook, resulting in significant public outrage. Employing Public Interest, the petitioners filed a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution, alleging that section 66A of the IT Act 2000 infringes on their right to freedom of speech and expression.
- Whether the IT Act’s Sections 66-A, 69-A, and 79 are constitutionally valid?
- Is Section 66A of the IT Act a violation of the basic right to freedom of expression and speech?
- The Court found that section 66A of the IT Act is derogatory to Article 19(1)(a) and that it is an arbitrary regulation that violates nationals’ right to free speech and expression on the internet.
- The Court went on to say that the limitations to freedom of speech and expression outlined in Article 19(2), such as public order, defamation, incitement to commit an offense, decency, and morality, cannot justify Section 66A.
- Moreover, the phrases employed in Section 66A were likewise imprecise, unclear, and open-ended, according to the Court. Terms like ‘annoying, ‘inconvenience,’ and grossly offensive,’ as used in the provision, do not refer to a particular offense, leaving both law enforcement and the general public unclear of what is and is not authorized.
- While 66A was struck down, the constitutional legality of sections 69A and 79 was affirmed because the regulations created under them dealt with intermediary liability and were drafted with many protections.
10. Judgment On The Right To Privacy As A Fundamental Right – Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union of India (2017)
Facts of the Case
Retired High Court Justice In 2012, Judge K.S. Puttaswamy filed a case in the Supreme Court against the Union of India, questioning the validity of the Adhaar scheme in relation to ‘the right to privacy’. Following previous court judgments, the matter was submitted to the Constitution Bench to assess whether the right to privacy was recognized as an independent basic right under the Indian constitution.
- Does the Indian Constitution recognize a right to privacy as a basic right?
- Whether the ‘Adhaar scheme’ violates privacy.
- On August 24, 2017, a nine-judge panel of the Supreme Court of India issued a major decision maintaining the fundamental right to privacy guaranteed by Article 21 of India’s constitution. In other words, it held that privacy was an inherent component of part III of the Constitution.
- It defended the Adhaar Legislation by claiming that the gathering of demographic and biometric data does not infringe on the basic right to privacy because the information collected is restricted and solely for the purpose of identification.
- The Supreme Court further noted that the state must strike a careful balance between individuals’ privacy and legitimate goals, at all costs, because basic rights cannot be granted or taken away by legislation, and all laws and acts must adhere to the Constitution.
- The Court also said that the right to privacy is not absolute as it is subject to “procedure established by law”, and that any invasion of privacy by a state or non-state actor must pass the triple tests, which includes the following:
- Legitimate Aim
- The proportionality principle
- Compliance with the law
On a closer look at some of the landmark judgments, we find that many women have significantly dominated the justice system as protagonists. It does reflect the extent of their subjugation in society, but nevertheless, underlines the emergence of jurisprudence which has the power to address their plights. It can be affirmed that these influential judgements have strengthened people’s faith in the just nature of the judiciary by upholding the democratic ethos and constitutional values.
References (for further reading)
- Zia Mody, 10 Judgements That Changed India (Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2013).
- Justice Asok K. Ganguly, Landmark Judgments that changed India (Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2015).
 (1973) 4 SCC 225
 1978 AIR 597
 Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India: Case Analysis & Overview, available at: https://lawcorner.in/maneka-gandhi-vs-union-of-india-case-analysis-overview/ (last visited on August 12, 2021).
 1986 AIR 180
 1987 SCR (1) 819
 Landmark Judgments, available at: https://mcmef.org/landmark-judgments/ (last visited on August 12, 2021).
 AIR 1997 SC 3011
 AIR 2011 SC 1290
 AIR 2000 SC 1650
 WP (Civil) No 400 of 2012
National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India, available at: https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/national-legal-services-authority-v-union-of-india/ (last visited on August 12, 2021).
 AIR 2015 SC 1523
 AIR 2017 SC 4161
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