In a year of milestones, the Supreme Court delivered a melange of seminal verdicts in 2023 including those that upheld the Centre’s decisions to scrap Article 370, which bestowed special status on Jammu and Kashmir, demonetisation of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 currency notes, and refused to accord legal recognition to same-sex marriages.
Under Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud, the top court created a record by disposing of an unprecedented 52,191 cases between January 1 and December 15, 2023. It had disposed of nearly 40,000 cases the previous year.
Though the Modi government received an emphatic endorsement from the Supreme Court for its decisions nullifying Article 370 and binning Rs 1000 and Rs 500 notes, it was at the receiving end of apex court order that held the Delhi government had legislative and executive control over services in the national capital except for public order, police and land.
A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court (SC) unanimously ruled that the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners shall be made by the President on the advice of a committee consisting of the prime minister, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Chief Justice of India.
However, these led to the framing of a new law on the appointment of CEC and ECs and amendments to the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) Act by the Centre. Now the CJI will not be part of the committee for selecting members of the poll panel as was envisaged in the March 2 judgement of the Supreme Court. Through the new GNCTD Act the Centre also wrested control over services from the Delhi government.
The top court is now again seized of the Delhi government’s fresh plea against the amended GNCTD Act.
Notwithstanding the continuing tug of war between the Supreme Court and the Centre over appointment and transfer of judges in constitutional courts on the recommendation of the collegium, the apex court worked with full strength of 34 judges for the major part of the year and all the 14 recommendations for judgeship of the apex court were approved with alacrity.
The decades-old hope of the queer community for legal validation of their marriages and consequential rights like adoption, enrolment as parents in schools, opening of bank accounts and succession got dashed as a five-judge constitution bench came out with a fractured verdict leaving major issues to the discretion of Parliament.
The Centre also drew flak from the Supreme Court for granting repeated extensions to Sanjay Kumar Mishra as the Enforcement Directorate (ED) chief and held it “illegal”.
The Centre won the legal battle over scrapping of Article 370, with a five-judge constitution bench unanimously upholding its decision to abrogate its provisions. The apex court, however, ordered restoration of statehood for the present-day Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir “at the earliest” and holding the state assembly elections by September 30, 2024.
In a setback to the central government, its curative plea seeking an additional Rs 7,844 crore from the Union Carbide Corporation’s successor firms to extend higher compensation to the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy that left over 3,000 people dead and caused massive environmental damage was junked.
In one of the cases involving the Adani Group, the apex court reserved its verdict on a PIL on the Adani-Hindenburg row on allegations of stock price manipulation.
The discretionary powers of state governors and legislative assembly speakers in granting assent to bills and deciding disqualification petitions against MLAs, especially in opposition-ruled Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Kerala and Telangana, came under scrutiny by the apex court.
On the police strife between the rival Shiv Sena factions in Maharashtra, the court ruled it cannot reinstate the MVA government headed by Uddhav Thackeray since the Shiv Sena leader chose to resign without taking a floor test in the wake of a rebellion in his party, paving the way for continuation of Eknath Shinde as the chief minister.
Later in the year, it extended the deadline for Maharashtra assembly Speaker Rahul Narwekar to decide cross-petitions by rival Sena factions seeking disqualification of each other’s MLAs from December 31 to January 10, 2024.
The apex court talked tough over the governors of Punjab and Tamil Nadu delaying assent to bills passed by the state legislatures, cautioning the Raj Bhawan occupant in Chandigarh against “playing with fire” and observing his counterpart in Chennai, accused of “sitting over” 12 bills, was a “matter of concern”.
The apex court, while taking note of hate speeches at political rallies and religious programmes, said it was looking to put in place a machinery to deal with these.
The year saw marathon hearing of important cases, including on reconsideration of the Supreme Court’s 1998 judgement which said lawmakers enjoy immunity from prosecution for taking bribe to make a speech or cast a vote, besides on pleas challenging the remission granted to 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang-rape case and murder of seven of her family members during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Judgements in these cases are expected in 2024. The apex court will also deliver its verdict on petitions challenging electoral bonds scheme for political funding next year.
Matters related to air pollution during winter in Delhi-National Capital Region also kept the apex court busy. It made hard-hitting remarks and passed directives for curbing the menace.
In a first initiative of its kind, the Supreme Court launched a handbook containing a glossary of ‘gender unjust terms’ and suggested alternative words and phrases which may be used in legal lexicon.
According to the handbook, words like eve-teasing, prostitute, and housewife will be out of the legal jargon and be replaced with terms like street sexual harassment, sex worker and homemaker.
In a bid to make itself litigant friendly, the Supreme Court undertook measures including launch of portal ‘SuSwagatam’ to enable lawyers and litigants to register themselves online and get e-passes to enter courtrooms. It also onboarded the National Judicial Data Grid, a repository of data on pendency and disposal of cases.
The SC also stepped in to assuage the concerns of those hit by ethnic violence in Manipur and passed a raft of directives, including for setting up a panel of three former women high court judges to ensure that people are protected, rehabilitated and compensated.
Batting for media freedom, it said criticism of government policies cannot be termed “anti-establishment” and quashed the Centre’s telecast ban on Malayalam news channel, MediaOne’.
On pleas questioning the seizure of electronic devices like mobile phones and laptops of individuals, especially media professionals, by investigating agencies, it asked the Centre to come out with guidelines.
Dealing with cases of anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the apex court delivered important verdicts including the one which held that mere membership of a banned organisation was an offence liable to be punished with imprisonment under the provisions of this law.
In another verdict, it held that mere holding of certain literature through which violent acts may be propagated would not attract the provisions of UAPA.
The apex court also dealt with several matters related to animals, including the death of eight cheetahs, translocated from Africa, in the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.
A five-judge constitution bench upheld the validity of amendment acts of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka which allowed bull-taming sport ‘Jallikattu’, bullock-cart races and buffalo racing sport ‘Kambala’, saying they are “valid legislations”.