New Delhi: The Supreme Court has seen the best of times and the worst of times in this past decade. If it has paved the way to love freely, secure citizens’ privacy and brought the hammer down on arguably the most-talked about Ayodhya land dispute, it also saw an unprecedented rebellion against the Chief Justice of India (CJI) by four senior judges.
The Supreme Court’s landmark judgments will not only remain embedded in history but also influence several future cases and profoundly impact Indian society.
ThePrint takes a look at 10 key verdicts delivered by the top court in the past decade that has had a bearing on the country and its citizens across all states.
Right to NOTA
The Supreme Court, in 2013, ruled the right to register a ‘none of the above’ vote in elections to enable voters to exercise their right to reject without violation of the secrecy of their decision.
The ruling came about in the People’s Union of Civil Liberties vs Union of India case that had challenged the validity of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.
The rules maintained that those who did not exercise their rights would be recorded (by a presiding officer) as having not voted. The petitioners, however, claimed that this was a violation of the right to secret balloting, which is protected by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and expression.
National Register of Citizens in Assam
In December 2013, the Supreme Court had ordered that the process to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify ‘illegal immigrants’ in Assam should start.
The NRC first reached the Supreme Court in 2009 when a petition was filed by the Assam Public Works (APW) to update the register. The plea came up for hearing in 2013 and the top court ordered a deadline of 31 December 2015 to publish the register.
While hearing this plea, the Supreme Court also referred to the 2005 Sarbananda Sonowal vs the Union of India case. Sonowal, a former student leader and current chief minister of Assam, had challenged the validity of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983. The IMDT Act stated that the burden of proving one’s citizenship rested on the “accuser and the police” and not the ‘illegal’ immigrant.
Invoking Article 355 of the Constitution, the top court had then observed that the IMDT Act “created the biggest hurdle and is the main impediment or barrier in the identification and deportation of illegal migrants” and struck it down.
Right to Privacy upheld
In August 2017, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled that Indians enjoy a fundamental right to privacy — that it is intrinsic to life and liberty — which comes under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The bench comprised then CJI Jagdish Khehar and Justices J. Chelameswar, S.A. Bobde, R.K. Agrawal, Rohinton Nariman, A.M. Sapre, D.Y. Chandrachud, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and S. Abdul Nazeer.
In a 547-page unanimous judgment, the top court overruled verdicts given in the M.P. Sharma case in 1958 and the Kharak Singh case in 1961, both of which said the right to privacy is not protected under the Indian Constitution.
Striking down triple talaq
In 2017, the Supreme Court struck down the controversial Islamic practice of instant divorce, calling it “arbitrary and unconstitutional”.
In a split verdict, three of the five all-male bench of judges in the case said the practice of saying “talaq” or divorce three times in one go — sometimes via email or social media platforms — violated women’s right to equality. They also said the practice was not integral to Islam.
Khehar and Nazeer had, however, dissented, saying instant divorce should be suspended and the government bring a law to regulate the practice within six months.
Following this verdict, the government also introduced a legislation to criminalise triple talaq, making it a punishable offence with up to three years in jail.
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of Aadhaar in September 2018. In a majority 4-1 judgment, a constitution bench, headed by then CJI Dipak Misra affirmed the constitutionality of the 12-digit unique identity number and said it involved “parting with minimal information”.
The bench also said Aadhaar would fulfil the “larger public interest” of the marginalised and the poor who can use it to obtain government benefits and subsidies.
The 1,448-page verdict was hailed as a landmark judgment for doing away with ambiguity over several aspects of Aadhaar and unleashing its potential for good governance and effective distribution of social welfare services.
The court also added provisions such as making the use of metabase — a database for storing metadata — non-permissible by the issuing authority.
Allowing women to enter Sabarimala temple
In September 2018, the Supreme Court permitted entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 into the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala temple in Kerala.
It was a 4:1 judgment, with Justice Indu Malhotra dissenting. In his judgment, Misra said devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a separate religious tradition. Chandrachud and Nariman had concurred with Misra.
Misra also said patriarchy of religion cannot be permitted to trump over faith. Excluding menstruating women is not an essential part of religion, he had added.
He further said restrictions of not allowing women inside the temple’s sanctum sanctorum is a clear violation of Article 25(1) — the right to one’s religion.
A seven-bench judge is now slated to hear in January 2020 the numerous petitions challenging the Sabarimala verdict.
Sex with minor wife is rape
2017 was the year when a two-judge bench of the top court ruled that sexual intercourse by a man with his wife who is below 18 years of age was rape.
The verdict stated that a girl under 18 cannot be treated as a commodity, having no say over her body, or as someone who has no right to deny sexual intercourse to her husband.
The court read down Exception 2 to Section 375 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which allowed the husband of a girl child — between 15 and 18 years of age — blanket liberty and freedom to have non-consensual sexual intercourse with her.
Decriminalising gay sex
Ushering in a new dawn of gender equality, a Supreme Court bench in September 2018 scrapped a part of Section 377 of the IPC which criminalises ‘unnatural sex’ between consenting adults.
The judgment brought the curtains down on a decade-long legal battle involving the Delhi High Court that had first struck down Section 377 in 2009 as unconstitutional only to have the law restored by the top court in 2013.
A five-judge constitution bench, headed by then CJI Misra and comprising Justices Rohinton Fali Nariman, A.M. Khanwilkar, D.Y. Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, had reserved its verdict on 17 July 2018 after hearing various stakeholders, including LGBTQIA+ rights activists for more than four days.
In April 2014, the Supreme Court had also recognised transgender as the ‘third gender’. The court, in its judgment, had observed that “absence of law recognising hijras as third gender could not be continued as a ground to discriminate them in availing equal opportunities in education and employment”.
Bringing the hammer down on one of the most-talked about cases in Indian history, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by then CJI Ranjan Gogoi, had in November held that the entire disputed land of 2.77 acres in Ayodhya must be handed over for the construction of a Ram temple.
The court also ordered an alternate plot of five acres to the Sunni Waqf Board for the construction of a mosque. This direction was passed invoking powers under Article 142 of the Constitution.
The top court observed that destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 was a violation of the law. The act of placing idols beneath the central dome of the mosque in 1949 was an act of “desecration”, it said.
In December, the top court also dismissed a string of review petitions filed against the verdict.
RTI applicable to office of CJI
In a historic verdict, the Supreme Court in November 2019, held that office of the CJI is a public authority under the Right to Information Act.
A constitution bench comprising then CJI Gogoi, Justices Ramana, Chandrachud, Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna upheld the 2010 judgment of the Delhi HC, which had maintained that the RTI Act was applicable to the CJI’s office.
The top court, however, underlined the importance of maintaining confidentiality in some aspects of judicial administration and has qualified the right to information on the grounds of public interest.
Justice Chandrachud agreed with the substance of the majority verdict but also stated that the basis for the selection and appointment of judges to the higher judiciary must be defined and placed in the public realm.
Rebellion within the court
While the apex court passed several milestone judgments in the past 10 years, it also faced an unprecedented act of rebellion by four senior judges early last year. Justices Gogoi, Chelameshwar, Kurian Joseph and Madan B. Lokur (all retired now) had raised allegations about ways in which the top court was functioning under then CJI Misra.
They had accused Misra of improper bench allocations and administrative impropriety.