Rudul Sah v. State of Bihar, (1983) 4 SCC 141
Rudul Sah’s case was a public interest litigation (PIL) case filed in the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution (whereby one can directly approach the Supreme Court when fundamental rights have been infringed upon). The petition sought the release of Rudul Sah from illegal detention, and also ancillary relief such as rehabilitation and compensation.
Rudul Sah was arrested in 1953 on charges of murdering his wife. He was acquitted by an Additional Sessions Judge, in 1968, who directed his release from jail, pending further orders. Rudul Sah languished in jail for 14 years after his acquittal, until his plight was highlighted in the media in 1982 and led to the filing of the PIL on his behalf.
By the time the PIL came up for hearing in Court, Rudul Sah had been released. However, he sought ancillary relief including payment for his rehabilitation, future medical expenses incurred, and compensation for his illegal incarceration from the State. The Court directed the State to show cause for the petitioner’s detention in relation to his ancillary claims, and received a much delayed response in defence of the incarceration from a state jailor. The Court viewed the State response as a callous afterthought with no true basis in fact and thus held that the petitioner’s detention was wholly unjustified. Next, the Court examined whether, under its remedial powers it could adjudicate the petitioner’s claims for ancillary relief. The Court reasoned that Article 21’s guarantee of the right to life and personal liberty would be stripped of its significant content if the Court was limited to passing orders releasing individuals illegally detained. The Court held that the “right to compensation is some palliative for the unlawful acts of instrumentalities which act in
the name of public interest and which present for their protection the powers of the State as a shield.” Accordingly, the Court ordered the State to pay 30,000 rupees to the petitioner as an interim measure, in addition to the 5,000 already paid, noting that the judgment did not preclude the petitioner from bringing future lawsuits against the State and its officials for appropriate damages relating to his unlawful detention.
As regards enforcement of the decision, the judgment specified that the amount must be paid within two weeks from the date of the decision. The Government of Bihar agreed to make the payment.
Rudul Sah’s case is a landmark judgment in the jurisprudence of state liability. It is considered particularly important as it led to the emergence of compensatory jurisprudence for the violation of fundamental rights under the Constitution. It is noteworthy in this context that there is no express provision for awarding compensation in the text of the Indian Constitution, and that this judgment was on the basis of the Court’s interpretation of the extent of its remedial powers. This was the first case since the inception of the Supreme Court that awarded monetary compensation to a person for the violation of his fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The grant of such monetary compensation was in addition, and not to the exclusion, to the right of the aggrieved person to bring an action for damages in civil law or in tort. Following this case, the Supreme Court awarded compensation in several cases. In the subsequent early cases in which this remedy was considered, the Court held that compensation would be awarded only in ‘appropriate cases’ which seemed to primarily involve life and liberty rights and were mostly cases relating to illegal detention and unlawful deaths. Nonetheless, in later cases, it became clear that the scope had become significantly wider. Since economic and social rights are often considered by the Supreme Court under the ambit of Article 21 of the Constitution (the right to life which is a fundamental right), compensation as a constitutional remedy may be available for violations of these rights. For example, in the case Paschim Banga Khet Samity v State of West Bengal (1996 SCC(4)37), where the Supreme Court uheld that the right to life included the right to health, compensation was granted by way of redress with explicit reference to the Rudul Sah case.
(Updated May 2015)