The judgment in P. Venugopal v. Union of India delivered on Thursday is obviously interesting because it causes political embarrassment to the government by striking down an ill-advised piece of legislation. But it is also an interesting decision because it displays judicial craft in carefully avoiding ascribing motives to the Parliament (given the facts of the case, it was hard not to do so) while striking down the legislative provision. The Court carefully characterised it as a classification issue under Article 14, instead of giving in to the temptation of using arbitrariness standards which are generally reserved for Executive action. (Admittedly, I have not read the case very carefully, so please point out of you think I am praising the Court needlessly.)
Only the proviso of the following section of the AIIMS (Amendment) Act 2007 was under challenge:
(11A) – The Director shall hold office for a term of five years from the date on which he enters upon his office or until he attains the age of sixty-five years, whichever is earlier.
Provided that any person holding office as a Director immediately before the commencement of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (Amendment) Act, 2007, shall in so far as his appointment is inconsistent with the provisions of this sub-section, cease to hold office on such commencement as such Director and shall be entitled to claim compensation not exceeding three months’ pay and allowances for the premature termination of his office or of any contract of service……
The Court clarified that ‘the impugned proviso does not lay down any policy or principle at all, but deals only with the case of the writ petitioner and seeks to affect him in isolation.’ The point was that the provision did not only affect a single individual at the present, but that even in the future no one else would ever be affected by it. The provision was fixed in time aimed at just one individual. The Court found an unacceptable classification between the current and future Directors of AIIMS.
To quote the operative part of the judgment – ‘ the principle of law stipulated by this Court that curtailment of the term of five years can only be made for justifiable reasons and compliance with principles of natural justice for premature termination of the term of a Director of AIIMS – squarely applied also to the case of the writ petitioner as well and will also apply to any future Director of AIIMS. Thus there was never any permissibility for any artificial and impermissible classification between the writ petitioner on the one hand and any future Director of AIIMS on the other when it relates to the premature termination of the term of office of the Director. Such an impermissible over classification through a one man legislation clearly falls foul of Article 14 of the Constitution being an apparent case of “naked discrimination” in our democratic civilized society governed by Rule of Law and renders the impugned proviso as void, ab initio and unconstitutional.’