Week of July 13, 2020

National treasure, 2G internet in Kashmir, 50 paise coins, and more

Apex Court Weekly is a weekly round-up of judgments, petitions, orders and notices as they develop at the Indian Supreme Court. We will also occasionally cover High Courts. We will cover some stories that gather national attention and some that should. This update is written by Rahul Srivastava, J.D. candidate at Cornell Law School, and supported by the Cornell India Law Center. Pranjal Jain assisted with the research.

HOUSEKEEPING

Return to the Courtroom

As parties continue to urge the Court to hear their case in person, the Court agreed to reconsider the matter on August 24. 

Check your phone: You may have been served

Recognizing the difficulty with conducting litigation during lockdown, The Court allowed notices, summons and document exchanges through electronic messaging services such as WhatsApp. In a separate judgment, the Court relaxed evidentiary standards for electronic devices. The Court held that certifications required under the Evidence Act for using electronic devices as evidence are unnecessary.

Different bench sizes

Unlike some other supreme courts, The Court never hears cases en banc, that is, cases where all Justices hear the same case together. Many cases are decided by two or three Justices. Cases that require constitutional interpretation can be decided by five Justices. Facing constitutional issues in a criminal appeal case, a three-Justice bench deferred those questions to a larger constitutional bench. 

CAN’T MISS THIS

National Treasure: Apex Court edition

Even Nick Cage could have never imagined a treasure like the one that lies below the Padmanabhanaswamy Temple ("the Temple") in Kerala. Five of the treasure's six vaults were opened in 2011.[2] The treasure's estimated value is more than $20 billion.[3] We think it's priceless. 

Some of the treasure's valuables include[4]:

  •   Bags (some weighing nearly 800 kg. or 1760 lb.) full of gold coins from the Napoleonic, Roman, British and medieval eras

  • A 4 X 3 ft solid gold idol of Lord Vishnu studded with diamonds and precious stones

  •  A 28-foot gold throne

  • A gold ceremonious attire weighing nearly 30 kg (66 pounds).

Keep in mind that one vault, inconspicuously marked "Vault B", remains deliberately unopened. Read these articles (12) to get an insight into the legend of the mysterious Vault B, which sounds a bit like a real-life Chamber of Secrets. 

All this is surely making you wonder: Who does this centuries-old treasure belong to? The Court answered part of that question on Monday (July 14). 

The central question before the Court was whether the Kerala government or the former Travancore royal family, or specifically, the "Ruler of Travancore",[5] would manage the temple and its treasures in their capacity as "shebaits". Shebaits are trustees of a religious idol or deity.[6] The shebait manages the property for the idol.[7] Here, the property under question was the Temple. 

The Court granted shebait rights to the erstwhile royal family.[8]

Historically, the Rulers of Travancore exclusively managed the Temple[9] and did so continuously until 1949.[10] After Independence, the Maharajas of Travancore and Cochin signed a covenant creating the United State of Travancore and Cochin (modern day Kerala).[11] While the covenant said no person or successor could be recognized as Ruler of Travancore,[12] the Court found that the Ruler's shebait authority was not vested under his official capacity as the Ruler.[13] This effectively allowed the Temple's shebait rights to pass through customary laws of succession,[14]and gave the Temple's shebait rights to the Ruler's descendants.[15]

The Court noted that the Temple's beneficiaries were still the worshippers, and that the family simply remained the property's managers.[16] The Court ordered the creation of an advisory committee to transparently manage the Temple's administration.[17] The final pages of the opinion include multiple directions that mandate fair administration, including a provision disallowing the royal family from receiving any renumeration as Trustees.[18]

In case this is all boring and you're still thinking about Vault B: The Court declined to order opening the vault.[19]

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PETITIONS

Vikas Dubey again 

Last week we covered a petition ominously predicting Vikas Dubey's death. This week, a police officer accused of aiding Vikas Dubey has filed a petition fearing for his own life (and his wife's) at the hands of Uttar Pradesh police.

Regulating COVID healthcare costs

petition asked the Court to regulate inflated healthcare costs associated with COVID treatments. Sympathizing with those concerns, the Court said that excessive costs cannot deter patient treatment in private hospitals. 

Kashmir

Multiple petitions (12, and 3) are pending before the Court over civil liberties restrictions in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The petitions contend that restricted internet speeds in the territory are unconstitutional and have held back online education. The second petition also argues that the territory's actions violate a constitutional right recognized by the Court: The Right to Internet.[20]

On May 11, the Court directed Jammu and Kashmir to form a special committee that would evaluate the necessity of continuing internet restrictions. The third petition notes that while the country operates on 4G speeds, Jammu and Kashmir's internet speed is limited to 2G.[21] It alleges that Jammu and Kashmir extended the restriction without forming the committee. The petition was on the Court's docket this week. 

STORIES WE’RE READING

A playbook on police custody

In case you're wondering how suspected or actual criminals continue to die in "encounters" with the police, this article outlines legal guidelines in place, including the Court's previous interventions, to protect "encounters" from recurring. Both the Court and the National Human Rights Commission created the guidelines, which include having independent investigations into every custodial death. However, political support for the “encounters” prevents truly independent investigations. 

The unlikeliest Constitution

Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, son of former Chief Justice YV Chandrachud, remarked that the Indian Constitution envisioned a radical transformation of a society based on caste and patriarchy. The article highlights some of his remarks, which focus on the Constitution's vision and continued relevance. 

The Court’s most prolific Justice

Perhaps because Justices don’t stay too long at the Court, Justice Banumathi (one of only three female Justices) has made good use of her time. In her six years on the bench, she wrote more opinions than any of her colleagues. This article measures her impact in numbers and on Indian jurisprudence.

A protest is worth 200 coins

Last week, we covered the petition against the Court’s Registry alleging preferential treatment of influential lawyers. Offended by the accusations, the Court imposed a ₹100 fine on the petitioner. Now, lawyers are banding together to collect 50 paise (₹0.5) coins to pay the fine as a form of protest. We didn’t even know these coins were still in circulation!

Last week's ACW


[1] Page 81 of Judgment

[2]https://www.indiatvnews.com/fyi/padmanabhaswamy-temple-treasure-vaults-chambers-gold-silver-travancore-royal-family-kerala-634028

[3]https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-temple/indian-royal-dynasty-keep-control-of-one-of-worlds-richest-temples-idUSKCN24E1W3

[4]https://theprint.in/theprint-essential/all-about-padmanabhaswamy-temple-its-treasures-and-the-royal-family-that-will-control-it/460345/

[5] Royal family members today are descendants of those who once enjoyed semi-autonomous power during British rule. While they do not have titles or government recognition, they often retain inherited wealth and the resulting political influence.

[6] Page 133 of Judgment

[7] Page 142 of Judgment

[8] Pages 196-97 of Judgment

[9] Page 112 of Judgment

[10] Page 143 of Judgment

[11] Page 144 of Judgment

[12] Page 184 of Judgment

[13]Id.

 [14] Page 185 of Judgment

[15] Pages 196-97 of Judgment

[16] Page 199 of Judgment

[17] Page 212 of Judgment

[18] Page 217 of Judgment

[19] Page 216 of Judgment

[20] Point f of synopsis

[21] Page C of synopsis