The Supreme Court (‘SC’) judgment in R.C. Poudyal v. Union of India (‘R.C. Poudyal’) finally settled the question of the constitutional legitimacy of reservation of 12 seats in the then newly constituted Sikkim Legislative Assembly, on the grounds that such reservation was in violation of Articles 15(1) and 325 of the Constitution, inter alia other contentions made. This… Read More »

The Supreme Court (‘SC’) judgment in R.C. Poudyal v. Union of India (‘R.C. Poudyal’) finally settled the question of the constitutional legitimacy of reservation of 12 seats in the then newly constituted Sikkim Legislative Assembly, on the grounds that such reservation was in violation of Articles 15(1) and 325 of the Constitution, inter alia other contentions made. This case settled concerns related to such representations, with a 3-2 split such that the majority judgment upheld...

The Supreme Court (‘SC’) judgment in R.C. Poudyal v. Union of India (‘R.C. Poudyal’) finally settled the question of the constitutional legitimacy of reservation of 12 seats in the then newly constituted Sikkim Legislative Assembly, on the grounds that such reservation was in violation of Articles 15(1) and 325 of the Constitution, inter alia other contentions made.

This case settled concerns related to such representations, with a 3-2 split such that the majority judgment upheld the constitutional validity of the impugned reservations, and related provisions being challenged.

The present article, “Case Analysis: R.C. Poudyal v. Union of India (1993)” shall analyse the case with reference to contentions raised by both sides, major questions before the court and judgment so rendered.

I. Introduction

The questions in the case of R.C. Poudyal came up after the admission of the state of Sikkim as a full-fledged state within the Indian Union in 1975. The 36th Amendment Act, 1975 welcomed Sikkim into India and Article 371-F was inserted into the Constitution, which provided for special conditions for admission of Sikkim as a new state.

Sub-section (f) of Article 371-F empowered the Parliament to provide for reservation of seats in the Sikkim Legislative Assembly for protecting the rights of various demographics of the state of Sikkim, such as the Sikkimese of Nepali origins, and the Bhutia-Lepchas, original inhabitants of Sikkimese, among others.

The petitioners, in this case, were Sikkimese persons of Nepali origin and they argued that this reservation was in violation of the Constitution’s fundamental principles of democracy and republicanism, and the concept of one person-one vote.[1]

Finally, the majority of three judges in the five-judge bench, in this case, held that the impugned reservations were not violative of the Constitutional framework, or its basic features, as laid down in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala.[2] Sharma J., Former Chief Justice and Agarwal J. had separate opinions with partial dissents in this case, where the former prominently argued that the Constitutional framework prohibited religious reservations or separate electoral rolls, rendering the impugned reservations as ultra vires.

The first part shall discuss the historical background of the case before the SC. The second part will examine the arguments from both sides. The third part will analyse the majority judgment and dissents of the bench as rendered by the SC.

II. Historical Background

The state of Sikkim was a separate nation, under the rule of the monarch known as the Chogyal. 333 years prior to 1975, Sikkim was ruled by the Chogyals after which it transitioned into a democratic state under the Union of India.[3] After India’s independence from the British in 1947, the relationship between the newly-formed Indian Union and the princely state had to be restructured. This led to the first of many agreements between Sikkim and the Union of India.

After a 1950 treaty between India and Sikkim, the following clause of said treaty defined the relationship between the two states: “Sikkim shall continue to be a Protectorate of India and, subject to the provisions of this Treaty, shall enjoy autonomy in regard to its internal affairs.”[4]

While Sikkim became a full-fledged state of India in 1975, the process of admitting Sikkim as a state started in 1973, from a tripartite agreement duly executed among the Union of India (represented by the then Foreign Secretary), the Chogyal of Sikkim and other important leaders of Sikkim.[5] The setting up of free and fair elections based on universal adult suffrage, and overseen by the Election Commission of India, an establishment of a Legislative Assembly with elections to the same every four years- were all contemplated in this agreement.

Para 5 of this 1973 agreement also stated that the system of elections would be based on the adequate representation of various sections of the population and that rights and interests of the Sikkimese Bhutia Lepcha origin and of the Sikkimese Nepali would be protected. Thus, this agreement effected by a Royal Proclamation was known as the Representation of Sikkim Subjects Act, 1974.[6] The Act directed the formation of a Legislative Assembly of a total of 32 elected members, with 31 members to be elected from territorial constituencies and 1 to be elected from the Buddhist Sanghas.

Once constituted, the Sikkim Assembly so elected and constituted passed the Government of Sikkim Act, 1974. Section 7 of the Government of Sikkim Act, 1974 enforced the terms of paragraph 5 of the 1973 tripartite agreement mentioned earlier, relating to electoral practices and mode of election. The 35th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1974 inserted Article 2A in the Constitution, making Sikkim an Associate State of the Union of India.

Subsequently, the Chogyal monarchy was abolished after a referendum in Sikkim, and the 36th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1975 established Sikkim as a full-fledged state in the Union of India. This amendment also inserted Article 371-F in the Constitution: Clause (f) of this Article empowered the Parliament to make provisions for reservation of seats in the Sikkim Legislative Assembly for the purpose of protecting the interests of the various sections of the demographical population of Sikkim.

Empowered to make laws relating to reservation of seats, the Parliament went on to enact the Election Laws (Extension to Sikkim) Act, 1976 which extended with certain savings, the provisions of the Representation of the People Act, 1950 and Representation of the People Act, 1951. Further, by a Presidential Order under Article 342, the Bhutia-Lepchas of Sikkim were declared as Scheduled Tribes and were therefore entitled to seats reserved in the Sikkim Legislative Assembly (‘the Assembly’) in compliance with Article 332.

Consequently, the reservations in the Assembly were modified such that 12 out of 32 seats were reserved for Bhutia-Lepchas of Sikkim; and 1 seat for the Buddhist Sanghas with their inter-se mode of election, with a separate electoral roll in which only recognised Sanghas belonging to Buddhist monasteries were included. The remaining seats were divided among Scheduled Castes (2 seats) and General Category (17 seats).

It was the reservation of seats for Bhutia-Lepchas and a separate electoral roll for Buddhist Sanghas that was the main contention of the petitioners in this case. As mentioned above, the petitioners were Sikkimese persons of Nepali origin and were of the view that the reservations were in violation of the Constitution’s fundamental principles.

III. Issues

  1. Is the Court empowered to judicially review the terms under which a new state is admitted into the Union of India?
  2. What is the ambit of the phrase ‘on such terms and conditions as it deems fit’ in Article 2 of the Constitution?
  3. Whether the reservation of 12 seats in favour of the Bhutia-Lepcha community by the impugned provisions as enacted by the Parliament were in violation of the basic structure?

IV. Arguments

Petitioners

  1. Article 15(1) and 325 claims

The petitioners argued that the reservation of 1 seat for the Buddhist Sanghas or Buddhist Lamaic Religious Monasteries, was entirely grounded in religious reasons and was in violation of Articles 15(1) and 325 of the Constitution. They also argued that the impugned sections were not aligned with secular principles and that the concept of reservation based on religion with a separate electorate was ultra vires of the basic structure of the Constitution.

  1. Democracy and Republicanism

The petitioners submitted that the provisions in clause (f) of Article 371-F directing the reservation of seats for Bhutias-Lepchas violated fundamental principles of democracy and republicanism under the Indian Constitution. Moreover, the reservation of seats for Sikkimese persons of Bhutia-Lepcha origin without making an equivalent reservation for Sikkimese of Nepali origin violated the fundamental right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution.

  1. One man, one-vote

The declaration of the Bhutia -Lepchas as Scheduled Tribes as well as the extent of reservation of seats was submitted to be disproportionate and violative of Article 332 (3) of the Constitution. Moreover, this violation was also not aligned with the principle of one man, one vote provided in Article 170(2) of the Constitution.

Respondents

  1. Monasteries serve a dual purpose as social and religious organizations

It was contended by the respondents that while the Buddhist monasteries are religious institutions, however, they also serve a social function on account of their social services and service to the Sikkimese population, especially the Bhutia-Lepcha demographic of the population.

In view of this dual function served, the Buddhist monasteries ought not to be treated as merely religious institutions for the purposes of reservation, but as part of the larger civil society in Sikkim. The creation of separate electorates cannot be objected to because the Constitution does provide for the nomination of seats to be made in State Legislative assemblies.

  1. Constitutional validity of Article 371F(f)

The respondents maintained the position that the 36th Constitutional Amendment, 1975 Article which brought into being 371F(f), as also the relevant amended provisions of the Representation of the People Acts- were all legally valid. This is because perfect arithmetical equality of value of votes is not a requirement for a democratic constitution.

Furthermore, in arguendo, if the impugned provisions indeed made were beyond the constitutionally permissible limits, any discrimination caused, if at all, was justifiable on the basis of the political and historical considerations unique to Sikkim’s political institutions.

V. Analysis

Final Holding

As per Issues 1 and 2, it was held that the Court was empowered to judicially review the terms under which a new state is admitted especially when the terms are such that the constitutional principles and basic structure may be transgressed by the same.

As per issue 3, it was held by a 3-2 majority that Article 371-F(f) was not ultra vires the Constitution, and not violative of the basic structure doctrine. The principle of one-man, one-vote was held to be a directive principle and not a mandate in a country that follows the first-past, the post system in terms of electoral decisions.[7]

Majority opinion (M.N. Venkatachaliah, J.S. Verma and KJ. Reddy, JJ.)

Historical considerations and compulsions do justify inequality and special treatment”[8]

The majority was largely in agreement with the dissenting opinions that the court was empowered to judicially review the power of the Parliament to admit states under Article 2 when the basic structure and other constitutional provisions were liable to be impacted by such admission.

As per issue 3, the majority held that Article 371-F(f) did not violate any basic feature of the Constitution including the democratic principles. This is because the electoral laws were designed to accommodate the growth of political institutions in Sikkim, and ease the transition of the State from a monarchy to a democratic state part of a Union of states. In the words of the majority:

“…These adjustments and accommodations reflect political expediency for the maintenance of social equilibrium. Indeed, the impugned provisions, in their very nature, contemplate and provide for a transitional phase in the political evolution of Sikkim and are thereby essentially transitional in character. The impugned provisions have been found in the wisdom of Parliament necessary in the admission of a new State into the Union….”[9]

The question of one-man, one-vote was envisages a parity in the value of the voters in a democracy which is difficult to achieve. Coupled with the emphasis on reservation of seats for different demographics in a fledgling democratic state, it could not be said that the reservation of seats for the Sanghas with separate electoral roll or the 12 seats for the Bhutia-Lepchas was violative of Constitutional norms. Thus, it was held that the impugned provisions were not violative of Articles 14, 15(1) or 325.

Partial dissents

According to Agarwal J., while the power of the Union to admit states as mentioned in Article 2 is very wide and may be guided by complex political considerations, it is not immune to judicial scrutiny. Thus, as per issue 1, any law made under Article 2 and as such, the issues raised as to reservations by the petitioners was judiciable.

Sikkim is not at par with other states in its form of inclusion into the Union but this does not imply that a totally alien system to the Constitutional parameters. Thus, Article 371-F cannot be in violation of the basic structure and must be harmoniously construed: meaning that Article 371-F(f) and Article 2 must be so construed to be consistent with Constitutional principles.

In the view of Sharma CJ., the Parliament while making a law under Article 2 cannot create terms that are inconsistent with the constitutional scheme, given that the power conferred on Parliament is circumscribed by the limitation of the basic features of the Constitution.

Therefore, it was held by Sharma Former CJ., that Article 371-F was subject to judicial review. The argument that the non-obstante clause has an overriding effect to the provisions covered earlier, and this would shield Article 371-F from the judicial review was rejected by him.

He stated that the scope of a non-obstante clause cannot extend beyond the scope of the Parliament’s legislative power under Article 2 or amending power under Article 368. Thus, he concluded that it could not be said that Article 371-F carries any political element.

However, Sharma Former CJ., also argued that Section 25A of the Representation of the People Act, 1950 are ultra vires the Constitution as Buddhist Monasteries are openly religious institutions for whom a separate electoral roll is provided for as per the impugned provisions. He concludes that reservation on grounds of religion is strictly prohibited and is also a basic feature. Referring to Constitutional Assembly Debates, it was stated that the concept of a separate electorate is not aligned with the basic philosophy of the Constitution.

VI. Conclusion

Thus we see that the R.C. Poudyal case dealt with the issues relating to constitutional validity of the reservation of seats in the Sikkimese Legislative Assembly. The present article has discussed the historical-legal background of the judgment, arguments from both sides, issues and final judgment.


[1] N. Robinson, Was it Chief Justice Sharma in R.C. Poudyal v. Union of India?, Law and Other Things, (18/01/2009), available here

[2] AIR 1973 SC 146.

[3] O. Marathe, Explained: Sikkim, from Chogyal Rule to Indian State, The Indian Express, (21/09/2019), available here

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] A. Chavan, How Sikkim Became a Part of India, Live History India, (16/05/2021), available here

[7] I. Parulkar, Case Commentary on R.C. Poudyal v. Union of India​​, Vol. IV, Issue No. 1, 2021, available here

[8] AIR 1993 SC 1804.

[9] Supra, at note 8.


  1. Constitutional Law; Notes, Case Laws And Study Material
Updated On 2022-02-07T07:38:09+05:30
Devanjali Banerjee

Devanjali Banerjee

West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences

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