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Ajay Hasia vs. Khalid Mujib (1981): Unraveling the Instrumentality or Agency of the State

The case of Ajay Hasia vs. Khalid Mujib Sehravardhi brought to the fore the nuances of what constitutes a “State” under Article 12 of the Indian Constitution. The decision in this case significantly shaped the understanding of the ‘State’ in the context of Fundamental Rights.

Background of the Case: The dispute centered on the admissions process to an engineering college, the Regional Engineering College, Srinagar. The petitioners alleged that the admission procedure violated Articles 14 (Right to Equality) and 15 (Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth) of the Indian Constitution. A pivotal question was whether the college could be considered an instrumentality or agency of the State and thereby be subject to the Fundamental Rights mentioned in the Constitution.

Key Takeaways from the Judgement:

  1. Criteria for State Instrumentality: The Supreme Court provided a set of factors to determine if an entity can be considered an “instrumentality or agency of the State.” These factors include:
    • Financial resources of the entity.
    • Functional character of the institution.
    • Deep and pervasive state control.
    • A department of government being transferred to a corporation.
    • If the entity performs public functions.
  2. Applicability of Fundamental Rights: The Court held that if an institution is an instrumentality or agency of the State, it will be bound by the same constitutional and public law obligations as the government. Thus, Fundamental Rights can be enforced against them.
  3. Constitutional and Statutory Infrastructure: The Court emphasized that the constitutional and statutory infrastructure is not the sole determinant. Even if an entity is created by a statute and incorporated, it might still be an instrumentality of the State, especially if other factors point in that direction.

Critical Analysis:

  • Flexible Approach: The judgment is notable for adopting a flexible approach. Instead of a rigid framework, the Court provided a set of factors, any combination of which might determine the entity’s character as a State agency.
  • Expanding the Reach of Fundamental Rights: By outlining criteria for what constitutes an instrumentality of the State, the Court broadened the scope of entities against which citizens could enforce their Fundamental Rights. This is significant in an era where many traditional state functions are being outsourced or handed over to semi-governmental entities.
  • Ambiguities Remain: While the judgment provided clarity on many fronts, ambiguities remain. The criteria are broad, and in many situations, it might be challenging to definitively categorize an entity.

Conclusion: Ajay Hasia vs. Khalid Mujib Sehravardhi is a landmark judgment that expanded the constitutional understanding of what constitutes the ‘State’ under Article 12. By doing so, it strengthened the protective umbrella of Fundamental Rights, ensuring that even quasi-governmental bodies uphold these crucial constitutional guarantees.

Shivendra Pratap Singh

Advocate

High Court Lucknow

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