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Verdicts & Views: Exploring Landmark Legal Cases

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   02-May-2024 | Maitri Singh

‘Constitution is not a mere lawyers’ document… its spirit is always the spirit of Age’

-Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

Many ‘great judgments’ are delivered daily, yet only a handful shape India’s constitutional perspective, therefore becoming ‘landmark cases’. Professor Peter Ronald deSouza's perspective beautifully captures the essence of "great" and "landmark" judgments in the realm of law and constitutionalism. While a "great" judgment plays an important role in restoring a polity's constitutional values when they have deviated from the right path, a "landmark" judgment not only opens up new avenues in constitutional thinking but also adds fresh dimensions to what are traditionally seen as established constitutional principles.

In essence, while "great" judgments reinstate the centrality of constitutional values, "landmark" judgments expand upon them. In this regard, the Supreme Court, as the final arbiter of constitutional matters, has played an important role in safeguarding our constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms through its innovative and insightful interpretations post independence.

Judgment on the Basic Structure Doctrine – Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala (1973)


  • In the case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973), Kesavananda Bharati, the head of the Edneer Mutt in Kerala’s Kasaragod district, owned land that was subject to potential acquisition under Kerala’s Land Reforms Amendment Act 1963. He challenged this law, citing Articles 25 (Right to practice and promote religion), 14 (Right to equality), 19(1)(f) (freedom to acquire property), 26 (Right to manage religious affairs), and 31 (Right to administer religious matters) of the Indian Constitution.
  • The main issues addressed by the Supreme Court were the constitutionality of the 24th Amendment (held the power of Parliament to amend any part of the constitution including Fundamental Rights) and 25th Amendment (Curtailed the fundamental right to property) to the Constitution, the extent of Parliament's power to amend the Constitution, and the concept of the "Basic Structure" of the Constitution.


  • The Supreme Court, in a 7:6 majority decision stated that Gokhlanath case verdict was incorrect, held that while Parliament has the authority to amend fundamental rights and the Constitution, however it cannot do so in a manner that alters the basic structure or essence of the Constitution. Specific provisions of the amendments were upheld as valid, while others were struck down. The basic structure, however, can be decided from case to case.
  • Justice Hans Raj Khanna introduced the concept of the "basic structure doctrine", stating that certain essential features of the Constitution, such as sovereignty, liberty, secularism, judicial review, and separation of powers, cannot be altered through amendments. This doctrine allows the Supreme Court to invalidate any law that undermines these fundamental structural principles.

Judgment On Personal Liberty – Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978)


  • In this case, Maneka Gandhi, a journalist, received a letter from a regional passport officer to surrender her passport. The government citing ‘public interest’ excused itself from offering explanation. She argued that this violated her fundamental rights under the Indian Constitution, such as the Right to Equality, Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, and Right to Life and Liberty.
  • This case revisited the views expressed in the A.K. Gopalan case after about 28 years, the main issues revolved around whether the right to travel abroad is a component of the right to personal liberty under Article 21 and whether the Passport Act provides a suitable 'procedure' as mandated by Article 21 of the Constitution.


  • The court emphasized that despite the wording "procedure established by law" in Article 21 instead of "due process of law," the procedure must be free from arbitrariness and irrationality. It overturned the A.K. Gopalan case, highlighting the interconnectedness of Articles 14, 19, and 21. It mandated that every statute must adhere to the standards set in these articles.
  • The court interpreted "personal liberty" in a broad and liberal manner, and stated that personal liberty should not be considered in a rigid or restrictive manner. It also affirmed that the right to travel abroad falls within the ambit of Article 21.
  • The court ruled that Sections 10(3)(c) and 10(5) of the Passport Act are subject to judicial review on grounds such as mala fide intentions, unreasonableness, denial of natural justice, and ultra vires and advised the government to disclose reasons in every case and to use the prerogative of Section 10(5) of the Passport Act sparingly.
  • Before this verdict, courts could not question laws even if they seemed arbitrary or oppressive, as long as they were ‘legally enacted’. However, through this case, the Supreme Court empowered itself with substantive review under Article 21, shifting from a mere supervisor to a guardian of the Constitution.

Judgment on Sexual Harassment of Women At Workplace- Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan case (1997)


  • This case stemmed from the brutal gang rape of Bhanwari Devi in 1992 as an act of vengeance for her efforts to prevent child marriage. In this incident Bhanwari Devi not only faced a boycott, but also lost her job. Main issues concerning the case was, employer's responsibility and obligation in cases of sexual harassment at work, as well as the requirement for formal guidelines to address workplace sexual harassment. Due to this case, the Supreme Court acknowledged that while international treaties such as Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) were in place, they did translate domestically.


  • The court provided India's first authoritative definition of sexual harassment, encompassing various unwelcome behaviors like physical advances, requests for sexual favors, remarks, etc. It clarified that sexual harassment violates fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Indian Constitution. This move was crucial in bridging the statutory vacuum on sexual harassment laws, showcasing the court's creative approach to judicial legislation.
  • The Supreme Court mandated both government and private institutions, to establish an Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) led by women to address complaints concerning sexual harassment.
  • The guidelines set forth mandated employers to establish mechanisms for prevention and redressal of sexual harassment incidents, including sensitizing employees about their rights, and ensuring appropriate actions against offenders. As a result, the Vishakha Guidelines (1997) ended up laying the groundwork for the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013.

Judgment on Right to Privacy a Fundamental Right under Article 21 –Justice K.S. PuttaswamyVs. Union of India (2017)


  • Retired High Court Justice K.S. Puttaswamy challenged the validity of the Aadhaar scheme in relation to the fundamental right to privacy guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The main issue was whether the Indian Constitution recognizes the ‘right to privacy as a basic right’ and whether or not the Aadhaar scheme violates this right.


  • On August 24, 2017, a nine-judge panel of the Supreme Court of India delivered a significant verdict affirmed that the right to privacy is indeed a fundamental right as it emerges from the guarantee of life and personal liberty, guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution and reiterated that in part III of the Indian Constitution, privacy is an inherent component.
  • While defending the Adhaar Legislation, the court emphasized that the collection of demographic and biometric data under the scheme does not violate the right to privacy, as this data collection is limited and aimed solely at identification purposes.
  • However, the court stressed the need for a delicate balance between individual privacy and legitimate state interests, asserting that basic rights cannot be infringed upon by legislation and that all laws must comply with constitutional principles. The court also outlined the triple tests that any invasion of privacy must pass, including a legitimate aim, proportionality principle, and compliance with the law. This landmark judgment clarified the scope and limitations of the right to privacy in India's constitutional framework.

Jugdment on Decriminalising Homosextuality—Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India (2018)

Case: In 2016, Navtej Singh Johar, a dancer, filed a Writ Petition in the Supreme Court seeking recognition of the rights to sexuality, sexual autonomy, and choice of a sexual partner as integral components of the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The petition challenged Section 377 on grounds that it violated constitutional rights such as privacy, freedom of expression, equality, human dignity, and protection from discrimination, guaranteed under Articles 14, 15, 19, and 21 of the Constitution.


  • The Supreme Court of India acknowledged that Section 377 was the byproduct of the Victorian legacy and morals, however it is time we give way to constitutional morality. The court made a landmark decision by decriminalizing homosexuality, particularly by striking down parts of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
  • This section had criminalized 'carnal intercourse against the order of nature.' The court unanimously ruled that Section 377 was unconstitutional to the extent that it criminalized consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex. In doing so, the Court overruled its own decision taken in the Suresh Koushal v. Naz Foundation case that had affirmed the constitutionality of Section 377.
  • The court's decision was influenced by the judgment in the K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India case, which emphasized that denying the LGBT community its right to privacy based on their minority status would infringe upon their fundamental rights. The court recognized sexual orientation as an inherent part of self-identity and upheld that denying this would violate the right to life. This ruling marked a significant step forward in affirming the rights and dignity of the LGBTQ+ community in India.

Judgment on Threshold in Reservations and Exclusion of ‘Creamy Layer’--Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (1992)


  • The Indra Sawhney case focused on interpreting Article 16(4) of the Indian Constitution regarding reservations in public employment for backward classes. The case examined whether this provision was an exception to Article 16(1) and how backwardness should be defined, considering caste or economic criteria. The case also addressed the scope of reservations, including promotions, and the limit of a 50% quota without a comprehensive representation assessment. It also explored the legislative versus executive route for reservation provisions and the extent of judicial review.


  • The court emphasized that identifying 'backward classes' under Article 16(4) should be based solely on caste criteria, not on economic status. This decision upheld the constitutional validity of providing 27% reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) but with certain conditions attached.
  • Additionally, the verdict limited reservations to initial appointments rather than promotions, a stance later challenged by the government through the introduction of Article 16(4A) to empower states to provide reservations in promotions for SC/ST employees if representation is deemed inadequate.
  • The case also introduced significant principles such as the 50% threshold for reservations, restrictions on reservations in specific posts, and the exclusion of the 'creamy layer' among backward classes from reservation benefits.


In conclusion, the above mentioned landmark judgments in India shaped the country's legal landscape significantly and have consistently upheld constitutional values. Cases such as Kesavananda Bharati, Maneka Gandhi, Olga Tellis, Vishaka, Navtej Singh Johar, Shah Bano Begum, and Indra Sawhney have not only expanded the interpretation of fundamental rights but also set significant precedents for social justice, equality, and individual freedoms. These judgments show commitment of the Indian judiciary in ensuring fairness, and promoting progressive ideals in a diverse and dynamic society.