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Landmark Judgments that changed India’s Polity

Published: 25th Aug, 2022



  • To differentiate between “great”and “landmark”, it is necessary, to begin with, some very fine distinctions. A great judgment is one that restores the constitutional values of a polity from the waywardness into which it may have fallen, while a landmark judgment is one which opens up new directions in our constitutional thinking and, in the process, adds new dimensions to what is regarded as established constitutional principles. If “great” restore the centrality of constitutional values, “landmark” revitalises them.
  • The Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution and, by its creative and innovative interpretation, has been the protector of our constitutional rights and fundamental freedom.
  • These judgements are to be appreciated not only as precedents but also as having laid down the law on issues of paramount importance—a law that is binding on all courts and authorities in the country.


1. Gopalan v. State of Madras (1950): Procedure Established by Law

Relevance: In the case, the Supreme Court interpreted the Fundamental Rights under Part III of the Indian Constitution A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras (1950).

  • In this case, it held that the protection under Article 21 is available only against arbitrary executive action and not from arbitrary legislative action.
  • This means that the State can deprive the right to life and personal liberty of a person based on a law.

2. Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978): Procedure Established by Law: Fair, Just and Reasonable

Relevance: Expanding the meaning of the ‘right to life under the Constitution of India

  • In a subsequent decision, the Supreme Court stated that Article 21 would read as: ‘No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to fair, just and reasonable procedure established by valid law.

3. Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2015): Section 66A of the IT Act

Relevance: In a landmark ruling, India’s Supreme court had nullified Section 66A, terming it vague and unconstitutional. This judgement is significant as it safeguards the fundamental right of freedom of speech.


4. Shankari Prasad v. Union of India (1951)

Relevance: This case dealt with the amenability of Fundamental Rights (the First Amendment’s validity was challenged).

5. Golaknath v. State of Punjab (1967):

Relevance: In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Parliament cannot take away or abridge any of the Fundamental Rights.


6. Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973):

Relevance: Propagating the ‘basic structure doctrine as a safeguard against the usurpation of the Constitution.

  • It was unique for the reason that it brought a shift in the balance of democratic power. Earlier judgements had taken a stand that Parliament could amend even the fundamental rights through a proper legislative process.
  • But the present case held that Parliament cannot amend or alter the fundamental structure a ‘Basic Structure’ of the constitution.
  • Besides, Kesavananda Case was significant in that the Supreme Court ascribed to itself the function of preserving the integrity of the Indian Constitution.
  • The ‘basic structure doctrine formulated by the court represented the pinnacle of judicial creativity and set a benchmark for other constitutional courts around the world.
  • The doctrine ruled that even a constitutional amendment could be invalidated if it impaired the essential features—the basic structure—of the Constitution.

Evolution of the Basic structure doctrine

  • Since the adoption of the Indian Constitution, debates have started regarding the power of the Parliament to amend key provisions of the Constitution.
  • In the early years of Independence, the Supreme Court conceded absolute power to Parliament in amending the Constitution, as was seen in the verdicts in the Shankari Prasad case (1951) and Sajjan Singh case (1965).
    • This means Parliament had the power to amend any part of the constitution including Fundamental rights.
  • However, in the Golaknath case (1967), the Supreme Court held that Parliament could not amend Fundamental Rights, and this power would be only with a Constituent Assembly.
    • The Court held that an amendment under Article 368 is "law" within the meaning of Article 13 of the Constitution and therefore if an amendment "takes away or abridges" a Fundamental Right conferred by Part III, it is void.
  • To get over the judgments of the Supreme Court in the Golaknath case (1967), RC Cooper case (1970), and Madhavrao Scindia case (1970), the then government headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had enacted major amendments to the Constitution (the 24th, 25th , 26th and 29th).
  • All four amendments brought by the government were challenged in the Kesavananda Bharati case.

Ind7.ira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain case (1975)

Relevance: The doctrine of the basic structure of the constitution was reaffirmed and applied by the Supreme Court in the Indira Nehru Gandhi case (1975).

8. Minerva Mills v. Union of India (1980)

Relevance: The Supreme Court reiterated that Parliament can amend any part of the Constitution but it cannot change the “Basic Structure” of the Constitution.

9. I.R Coelho and State of Tamil Nadu 2007

Relevance: Also known as the Ninth Schedule Case, this unanimous judgement delivered by a 9-judge bench led by Chief Justice Sabharwal upheld the validity of the Doctrine of Basic Structure propounded in the Kesavananda Bharti case.

  • This judgement held that if a law is included in the 9th Schedule of the Indian Constitution, it can still be examined and confronted in court.

10. Berubari Union Case (1960):

Relevance: In this case, the issue was resolved about whether the Preamble is part of the Constitution or not.


11. Mumbai Kamgar Sabha, Bombay, 1976

Relevance: This case is considered to be the foundation of public interest litigation in India.

  • Public interest Litigation (PIL) means litigation filed in a court of law, for the protection of “Public Interest”, such as Pollution, Terrorism, Road safety, Constructional hazards etc. Any matter where the interest of the public at large is affected can be redressed by filing a Public Interest Litigation in a court of law.
  • Some other landmark cases in the evolution of PIL are:
    • Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration & Others, 1978
    • Hussainara Khatoon vs. State of Bihar (1979)
    • Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India (1984)


12. Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v. Union of India (2011) Right to Die With Dignity

Relevance: In this case, the victim of rape continued to be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for a period of 36 years. This case triggered the debate on the need to change euthanasia laws.

  • Supreme court in 2011 recognised passive euthanasia in this case by which it had permitted withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment from patients not in a position to make an informed decision.
  • Subsequent to this, in a landmark judgment (2018), the Supreme Court recognised passive euthanasia and “living will”.
  • National Legal Services Authority and Union of India (2014):

Relevance: This case resulted in the recognition of transgender persons as a third gender. The SC also instructed the government to treat them as minorities and expand the reservations in education, jobs, education, etc.

13. Justice K.S. Puttaswamy vs. Union of India (2017) Right to Privacy A Fundamental Right Under Article 21

Relevance: SC ruled that Fundamental Right to Privacy is intrinsic to life and liberty and thus, comes under Article 21 of the Indian constitution.

14. Navtej Singh Johar vs. Union of India (2018): Decriminalising Homosexuality

Relevance: A five-judge SC bench gave a historic, unanimous decision on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalising homosexuality.


15. Mohammed Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum (1985): A Milestone in the Journey of Gender Justice

Relevance: Questioning the sanctity of personal religious laws and bringing the debate on a Uniform Civil Code to the forefront of the national discourse.

16. Vishaka vs. the State of Rajasthan, (1997): Preventing Sexual Harassment at Workplace

Relevance: The decision of the Supreme Court in Vishakha v State of Rajasthan was a landmark one as it laid down elaborate guidelines to deal with the menace of sexual harassment against women at workplaces.

17. Shayara Bano vs Union Of India And Ors. Vs. Union of India (2017): Triple Talaq Unconstitutional

Relevance: The SC outlawed the backward practice of instant ‘triple talaq’, which permitted Muslim men to unilaterally end their marriages by uttering the word “talaq” three times without making any provision for maintenance or alimony.

18. Indian Young Lawyers Association vs. The State of Kerala (2018): Entry of Females into Sabrimala Temple

Relevance: A 4:1 majority held that the custom is unconstitutional of prohibiting the entry of women in their ‘menstruating years’ (between the ages of 10 to 50), on the grounds that it is a place of worship.

19. Joseph Shine vs. Union of India (2019): 497 IPC Unconstitutional

Relevance: The apex Court struck down Section 497 of IPC which criminalised adultery holding that it is violative of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution.

20. Nirbhaya Case (2014)

Relevance: Introduction of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 and definition of rape under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, Indian Penal Code, 1860 and Code of Criminal Procedures, 1973.

Nirbhaya case changed Indian rape laws:

  • SC also gave a new definition of rape under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, Indian Penal Code, 1860 and Code of Criminal Procedures, 1973.
  • The government set up the “Nirbhaya fund’ with 1000 crores, to support women's safety projects such as CCTV @public places, GPS-Emergency buttons in public vehicles, toll-free numbers and defence classes.
  • It amended as well as inserted new sections in the IPC with regard to various sexual offences. New offences like acid attacks, sexual harassment, voyeurism, and stalking have been incorporated into the IPC.
  • It expands the definition of rape to include oral sex as well as the insertion of an object or any other body part into a woman’s vagina, urethra or anus.
  • The new amendment defines ‘consent’, to mean an unequivocal agreement to engage in a particular sexual act; clarifying further, that the absence of resistance will not imply consent.
  • Earlier the offence of rape (sexual assault) was gender-neutral, while now this offence is women-centric. Only a man is assumed to be capable of committing such offence and that too against a woman only. The aspect of gender neutrality was required in the following aspects:
  • When a man or transgender person is raped.
  • In a few instances, even women have carried out sexual assaults against other women.


22.R. Bommai v. Union of India (1994): Power Under Art.356-Imposition of President's Rule in States.

Relevance: In this case, the Supreme Court laid down that the Constitution is federal and characterised federalism as its ‘basic feature’.

23. NOTA "None of the Above” judgement (2013): Reforms Right Not to Vote- NOTA Case

Relevance: This judgement introduced the NOTA (None-Of-The-Above) option for Indian voters.

24.Lily Thomas v. Union of India (2013): Election Reforms

Relevance: Struck down as unconstitutional Section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA)-1951 that allowed convicted lawmakers three months for filing appeals to the higher court and to get a stay on the conviction and sentence.


25. First Judges Case - ‘in consultation’ – Interpretation

S P Gupta Vs. Union of India and Ors. AIR 1982 SC 149 (First Judges Case 1981):

  • In this case, the Supreme Court was called upon to examine as to what does the word “consultation” in Article 124(2) and in Article 217(1) of the Constitution actually imply?
  • The apex court held by a majority of 4-3 that in the appointment of a judge of the Supreme Court or the High Court, the word “consultation” in Article 124(2) and in Article 217(1) of the Constitution does not mean “concurrence” however the “consultation” with the CJI must be full and effective.
  • The apex court rejected the idea that the CJI’s opinion should have primacy. and held that In the event of a disagreement, the “ultimate power” would rest with the Union Government and not the CJI.

Second Judges Case Birth of Collegium System

26. Supreme Court Advocates on Record Association Vs. Union of India (1993) 4 SCC 441

Relevance: This verdict gave birth to the concept of the Collegium System.

Third Judges Case Strengthening of Collegium

27. In Re Special Reference Case AIR 1999 SC 1

Relevance: This case arose out of a reference made by the President of India under Article 143 of the Constitution for the advisory opinion of the Supreme Court.

28.Fourth Judges Case

  • Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association v. Union of India, [(2016) [‘NJAC Case’]
  • The Constitution (Ninety-Ninth Amendment) Act, 2014 and the NJAC Act, 2014 sought to replace the Collegium system with the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC), a body comprising of the CJI, two senior judges, the Law Minister and “two eminent personalities” appointed by the Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition and CJI.
  • The constitutional validity of the Ninety-Ninth Constitutional amendment and NJAC Act, 2014, was challenged before the apex Court.
  • A constitution bench of five Judges with a majority of 4:1 struck down the Ninety-Ninth Constitutional Amendment Act and the NJAC Act as unconstitutional holding that the constitution of the Commission will amount to an infringement of judicial independence and a violation of the separation of powers.


29 .MC Mehta v. Union of India (1986) (Taj Mahal Case)

Relevance: Taj Mahal is considered one of India’s most epic Mughal structures. The Taj Trapezium zone, which is of 10,400 sq. km., is built to protect it from pollution. Mehta visited Taj in 1984 and noticed the white marble of the Taj turning yellow. To bring this matter into the limelight, he filed a petition in the Supreme Court.

30. MC Mehta v. Union of India (1986) (The Oleum Gas Leak Case)

Relevance: The judgement is considered as one of the major rulings in the field of environmental law in our country. The judgement took up various new situations and ways of interpreting of the laws and Fundamental Rights.

31. MC Mehta v. Union of India (1986) (Ganga Pollution Case)

Relevance: The writ appeal highlighted the abuse of the Ganga River by the dangerous industries located on its banks. Justice ES Venkataramiah gave a famous judgement in M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India commanding the closure of a number of poisoning tanneries near Kanpur.


32. Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (1992): 50% Threshold in Reservations and Exclusion of ‘Creamy Layer’.

Relevance: Delivering the decision relating to the constitutionality of reservations under the Constitution of India.

Summing Up

The judiciary has always been interpreting the Constitution in line with its revolutionary and transformative potential. When histories of nations are written and critiqued, there are judicial decisions at the forefront of liberty. The inevitable truth is that law is not static and immutable but ever-increasingly dynamic and grows with the ongoing passage of time. Yet others have to be consigned to the archives, reflective of what was, but should never have been.

As the custodian of the Constitution, the court has to fight tyranny. The judgment has struck a powerful blow for limiting government. This is what makes it a landmark judgment. Occasionally these landmark judgements also diminish the arrogance of government, resurrect the principle of limited government, and reinstate the ‘genuine’ rule of law.



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