The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the release of AG Perarivalan, who has served over 30 years of life term in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The change in the sentencing comes 31 years after the former Prime Minister was killed in a suicide bombing attack by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants on May 21. AG Perarivalan was released days before Gandhi's 21st death anniversary after a bench headed by Justice L Nageswara Rao invoked its extraordinary power under Article 142 to grant relief to Perarivalan.
What is Article 142?
Article 142 of the Constitution deals with the Supreme Court's power to exercise its jurisdiction and pass order for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it. It provides the apex court with a special and extraordinary power and is meant to provide justice to litigants who have suffered traversed illegality or injustice in course of legal proceedings.
As per the Constitution, Article 142(1) states that “The Supreme Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction may pass such decree or make such order as is necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it, and any decree so passed or order so made shall be enforceable throughout the territory of India in such manner as may be prescribed by or under any law made by Parliament and, until provision in that behalf is so made, in such manner as the President may by order prescribe”.
Why was Article 142 included in the Constitution?
While the makers of the Constitution of India ensured separation of powers of the legislative, executive and judiciary, Article 142 was envisaged to allow the Supreme Court the opportunity to provide 'complete justice' to even those who may have been wrongly sentenced or denied justice due to the intricacies or inefficacies of the legal justice system. It was believed that a disadvantaged judiciary could be the cause for many not being able to get justice or achieve their rights. With Article 142, the Supreme Court has been likened to an entity of 'Natural Law' which theoretically prevails over laws of the land. The article was meant to empower the apex court to deliver justice in exceptional cases without being hindered by legal or bureaucratic red tape.
Significant cases where Article 142 was invoked
Babri Masjid Case
The article was used in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute case and was instrumental in the handover of the disputed land to a trust to be formed by the union government. The SC put aside the judgement of the Allahabad High Court and, being the final arbiter, refused to make two divisions of the 2.77 acres of contested land, all of which was handed to the temple trust.
Article 142 had also been invoked to transfer the criminal trials of BJP leaders Murli Manohar Joshi and LK Advani from Rae Bareli to Lucknow in relation the Babri demolition case.
Bhopal Gas Tragedy
The Supreme Court invoked its plenary powers in the Union Carbide vs Union Govt case and intervened to provide compensation to victims of the deadly Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The toxic gas leak, which was caused due to an accident in the Union Carbine Corporation factory in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, killed at least 4,000 and caused generational physical and mental disorders among lakhs of survivors in 1984. ordering the compensation, the court put itself above the Parliament.
Other significant instances
Apart from these significant verdicts, the SC has also used powers vested in it by Article 142 to justify divorce due to the breakdown of marriage in the Munish Kakkar vs Nidhi Kakkar case. With a view to reducing drunk driving, it invoked the Article to order a ban on the sale of alcohol within a distance of 500 metres of national or state highways. In fact, the SC has even used Article 142 to order a probe into the 2013 IPL match-fixing controversy. In the Laxmi Devi vs Satya Narayan case, the SC used Article 142 to order the man who had intercourse with a woman on the pretext of marriage and did not fulfil it to offer her compensation for the crime. However, in doing so, the SC cleared him of rape charges.
Need for rational justification
Critics have claimed that the Article gives courts and judges immense power. But while the Article itself does not have any inherent "safety valve" that can ensure its correct and just usage, it is intended to to be used only in cases that cannot or have not been tackled efficiently with existing legal and policy provisions of the nation. Over the years, the judiciary has relied heavily on the provision as a tool for judicial activism and judicial innovation. According to academics like, Ninad Laud, it has become a new source of substantive power. In the 2021 paper, 'Rationalising 'Complete Justice' Under Section 142, Laud focuses on the two ways the SC uses Article 142 - to grant relief and to fill what it perceives as gaps in the legislative set up of the country. Through the analysis, the paper posits the obligation of courts to provide "rational justification for its directions aimed at doing “complete justice",".