The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the Centre and state governments cannot have an "indefinite or overriding right" to continue occupying citizens' properties after acquiring them on any pretext and permitting such an act would be "no less than condoning lawlessness".
The verdict was delivered in the matter in which the apex court directed the Centre to return within three months over four acres land in Byppanahalli, Bangalore, to the legal heirs of one B M Krishnamurthy nearly 57 years of their acquisition.
A bench of Justices Indira Banerjee and S Ravindra Bhat said that though the right to properties was not a fundamental right under the Constitution, but the states and the Centre cannot be allowed to have indefinite right over the acquired properties of the citizens.
"It is, therefore, no longer open to the state: in any of its forms (executive, state agencies, or legislature) to claim that the law – or the constitution can be ignored, or complied at its convenience. The decisions of this court, and the history of the right to property show that though its pre-eminence as a fundamental right has been undermined, nevertheless, the essence of the rule of law protects it," the bench said.
The top court also asked the Centre to pay Rs 75,000 as cost to the legal heirs of Krishnamurthy and the fine would be besides the arbitration award to be paid to them for the period, they were deprived the ownership over their acquired plots.
Referring to recent judgements, the verdict, penned by Justice Bhat said the right to property is a "valuable right ensuring guaranteed freedoms and economic liberty".
"To permit the state: whether the Union or any state government to assert that it has an indefinite or overriding right to continue occupying one's property (bereft of lawful sanction)– whatever be the pretext, is no less than condoning lawlessness. The courts' role is to act as the guarantor and jealous protector of the people's liberties: be they assured through the freedoms, and the right to equality and religion or cultural rights under Part III, or the right against deprivation, in any form, through any process other than law.
"Any condonation by the court is a validation of such unlawful executive behavior which it then can justify its conduct on the anvil of some loftier purpose, at any future time- aptly described as a 'loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.'," it said.
The apex court, in its judgement, dealt with the long legal history of the land which was initially acquired in 1963 by the Centre.
The appeal was filed by B K Ravichandra and others against the Karnataka High Court's decision rejecting their claim to direct the Centre to vacate their lands.
The judgement said that the Centre asserted that it had acquired at least some parts of the suit lands and this was examined by the High Court on two occasions, and in arbitration proceedings under the Requisitioning Act.
"Each time, the factual findings went against the Union. The Union's occupation ceased to be lawful, with the lapse of the Requisitioning Act, in 1987. Yet, it has implacably refused to hand back possession, each time asserting that it has some manner of rights over it.
"The High Court, while noticing that the Union's claim had no merits (in both its appeal, which was dismissed, as well as in the impugned judgment, disposing of the writ petition), nevertheless refused to issue any direction for the release of the suit lands," the verdict said.
The high court gave the rationale that the adjoining areas had been acquired and were used by the Union for defense purposes and it "granted indefinite time to the Union to take steps to acquire the suit lands", it said.
"The Union has not chosen to do so these last 12 years. These facts paint a stark, even sordid picture," it said while allowing the appeals of the legal heirs of the land owner.
Setting aside the high court's verdict, the apex court said that 33 years (based upon cessation of the Union's legal possession) is a long enough time, even in India, to be kept away from one's property and directed the Centre to hand back possession of the suit lands to the appellants, within three months.