YEAR END SPECIAL: Landmark Supreme Court verdicts in 2017


The year 2017 has been remarkable, with the Supreme Court of India passing landmark decisions having far-reaching impact on the development of the constitutional philosophy of individuality, autonomy, dignity and liberty of every citizen of the country. Discussed below are few such verdicts.

Acid attack victims

Ravada Sasikala v State of Andhra Pradesh

This case pertained to the painful plight of acid attack victims. The accused was convicted of acid attack on the victim for not accepting his marriage proposal. The court disapproved the High Court’s reduction of sentence, taking the view that “a crime of this nature does not deserve any kind of clemency as it is individually as well as collectively intolerable”. Holding acid attacks to be “a horrendous assault on the physical autonomy of an individual”, the court emphasised upon the importance of financial assistance to the victims for immediate medical attention. The need of interim compensation to the victim was to be considered paramount. Thus, in addition to the financial liability of the accused, the state was also required to provide compensation under the Victim Compensation Scheme as provided in Section 357A of the Code of Criminal Procedure. In the instant case, the state was directed to pay a sum of Rs 3 lakh as compensation to the victim, who was to be paid a sum of Rs 1 lakh by the accused.

Needless to say, this compensation regime will go a long way in rehabilitation of the acid attack victims.

Triple talaq

Shayara Bano v Union of India

In this historic judgment, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of triple talaq or talaq-e-biddat as a form of divorce in Muslim Personal law. By a majority of 3:2, the court held the practice to be unconstitutional on the touchstone of fundamental right to equality under Article 14 since “this form of Talaq is manifestly arbitrary in the sense that the marital tie can be broken capriciously and whimsically by a Muslim man without any attempt at reconciliation so as to save it”. The court declined to accept such practice as the basic tenet of Islamic religion. The argument of long use of the practice was also rejected by the court on the ground that “merely because a practice has continued for long, that by itself cannot make it valid if it has been expressly declared to be impermissible.”

Two judges, in their dissenting judgment, were not inclined to interfere in the matter of personal law. The dissenting judgment, however, imposed an injunction upon the practice of talaq-e-biddat for a period of six months during which the Union of India is primarily to consider, keeping aside political factors, an appropriate legislation, particularly with reference to ‘talaq-e-biddat’.

Right to privacy

Justice KS Puttaswamy v Union of India

This landmark judgment devised the privacy jurisprudence of the country, holding that “the right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution.” Explaining the meaning and scope of privacy, the court held that it includes at its core the preservation of personal intimacies, the sanctity of family life, marriage, procreation, the home and sexual orientation. The court further explained that there is a legitimate expectation of privacy even in public space and that the right is available against state as well as non-state actors. The court firmly rejected the argument of the government to the effect that privacy is an elitist construct and that right to privacy must be forsaken in the interest of welfare entitlements provided by the state.

Further, the judgment expressly overruled several earlier decisions which had denounced privacy as a fundamental right, most significant being the infamous decision of ADM Jabalpur that had held that fundamental rights, including right to life and liberty, could be suspended during emergency.

Rape of minor wife

Independent Thought v Union of India

In a writ petition filed by a society working in the area of child rights, the court struck down the Exception 2 of Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as per which sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, did not amount to rape. Mindful of the plight of the girls aged 15 years and below, who had been carrying the burden of an archaic law, the court held that sex by a man with a minor wife amounts to rape. On the question whether such view amounted to creation of a new offence, the court observed that “this Court is not creating any new offence but only removing what was unconstitutional and offensive.” The inconsistencies between IPC and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 were harmonised to read down the ‘unnecessary and artificial distinction’ created by the legislature ‘between a married girl child and an unmarried girl child’ which had ‘no reasonable nexus with any objective sought to be achieved.’ Declaring the ‘arbitrary discrimination’ to be contrary to the constitutional philosophy, the court also found the provision to be responsible for numerous social evils such as trafficking of girl child.

Proof of citizenship

Rupajan Begum v Union of India

In a substantial relief to the migrants in Assam, the court held that the certificates issued by Gram Panchayat as a proof of citizenship can be used to establish a linkage between the holder of such certificate and the person from whom legacy is being claimed after verifying its authenticity. The court was deciding upon appeal filed by a group of people who were affected by the order of the Gauhati High Court holding panchayat certificates to be invalid. This decision comes as a huge respite to those whose citizenship had been cancelled and were ordered to be sent to detention camps.

There were numerous other significant decisions delivered by the Supreme Court in the year 2017, notably those relating to rights of widows at Vrindavan and custodial deaths, which have added to human rights jurisprudence under the Constitution.

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