[Case Brief] N. Masthan Sahib v. Chief Commissioner of Pondicherry, 1961

(This post is written by Lalitha Nandula from Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar) 

N. Masthan Sahib v. Chief Commissioner of Pondicherry was decided on 8th December 1961. It was decided by a five-judge bench of the Honourable Supreme Court. The appellant in the present case is N. Masthan Sahib while the respondent is Chief Commissioner of Pondicherry.

Brief Facts and Procedural History:

  • The Appellants, who are citizens of India, are engaged in the business of road transport. As per a notification in the official Gazette of India of Pondicherry, applications were invited by the State Transport Commission of Pondicherry for the grant of carriage permits that included the routes which were a part of former French establishments.
  • The Appellants and the second respondent made applications for the grant along with 19 people. But before the state transport authority considered these applications, the Government of India published a notification in the Official Gazette of Pondicherry extending the provisions of Indian Motor Vehicles Act, 1939 to Pondicherry. The Government could exercise this power under section 4 of the Foreign Jurisdiction Act, 1947.
  • The Chief Commissioner of Pondicherry under Section 44 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1939 constituted a state transport authority in Pondicherry. A notice was issued by which it required persons who applied for stage Carriage permits to furnish particulars which were relevant for the grant of Stage Carriage permit to be considered under Motor Vehicles Act, 1939.
  • The appellant and the inter-alia respondent furnished the required particulars. The particulars were checked and the second appellant was granted the permit. But the claims of the respondent and the others were rejected. The Chief Commissioner was supposed to constitute an appellate authority which was not constituted. But accordingly, the Chief Commissioner allowed appeals of the respondent and set aside the order of the State Transport authority. He directed the permit to be issued in the respondent’s favor.
  • Therefore, two civil appeals and two writ petitions have been filed by the respective appellants seeking the same relief of setting aside the orders passed by the Chief Commissioner of Pondicherry as it tends to violate the Fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

Questions before the Supreme Court:

  • Whether Pondicherry was a part of the territory of India?
  • If not, what was the extent of the jurisdiction exercised by the Union Government and the French Government over the territory?

Ratio of the Court:

(Majority Opinion by Justice N. Rajagopala Ayyangar)

The judges of the majority decision analyzed each issue and came to the conclusion that Pondicherry is not comprised within the territory of India as specified under clause (3) of Article 1 of the Constitution. Article 1(3) says that the territory of India shall comprise of

  1. The territories of the States;
  2. The Union territories specified in the First Schedule;
  3. Such other territories as may be acquired.

By an agreement signed between Government of France and Government of India, the government of India took over the administration of the French establishments in India which included the territory of Pondicherry. A treaty of cession was signed but not ratified according to the French law. Therefore, Government of India had been administering the territory of Pondicherry under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act, 1947 which is based on the fact that it is outside India and not a part of the territory of India.

On the second issue, it had been stated that the government of India exercised full jurisdiction over Pondicherry in the executive, legislative and judicial matters according to the Foreign Jurisdiction Act, 1947. Also, jurisdiction of Government of India over Pondicherry extends to making all arrangements for its civil administration as well as defense administration. The Government of France had not exercised any executive, legislative or judicial authority since the advent of the agreement. The French Government does not possess any de-facto jurisdiction over Pondicherry which would reduce the extent of the jurisdiction exercised by the Government of India.

(Minority Opinion by Justice AK Sarkar)

The judges of the minority decision concluded that since India had full jurisdiction over Pondicherry and France had none, it must be held that India acquired sovereignty, therefore Pondicherry is a part of the Indian Territory by acquisition. Also, it is the duty of the court to take judicial notice of the extent of the territory of India (Section 57 of the Evidence Act). So, if a certain territory is claimed to be a part of and within India and that fact is evident, the courts have to take judicial notice of it and there should be no occasion to refer to the Government for any information.

Decision Held:

By a majority of three judges, it was held that Pondicherry was not comprised within the territory of India as specified under Article 1(3) of the Constitution of India. The Government did not exercise any jurisdiction over it. Hence, the writ was not maintainable.


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