Last month, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in Board of Control for Cricket vs Cricket Association of Bihar. The Court accepted most of the recommendations of the Lodha Committee, which it had established through its previous order in the same case, in January 2015, and directed their implementation. These recommendations included extensive restructuring of the BCCI (e.g., age limits, conflicts of interest, and so on). Unsurprisingly, this has proven controversial. Markandey Katju, the BCCI’s ‘legal advisor’, has strongly criticised the judgment for violating the separation of powers, and also for contravening the Tamil Nadu Societies’ Registration Act (under which the BCCI is registered) by judicially altering the terms of association of a private society.
There are, however, two separate questions here. The first is whether the BCCI’s structure and functioning is subject to judicial review at all, and if so, on what basis and under which principles. The second is whether the kind of systematic overhaul recommended by the Lodha Committee ought to be implemented by the judiciary, or by Parliament (Katju’s separation of powers argument). The two questions are tangled up, because it is only after providing a principled basis (if any exists) justifying judicial intervention into the workings of a (technically) private society such as the BCCI, can we then ask whether the manner in which the Lodha Committee did it was justified or not. For this, we need to go back to the Supreme Court’s January 2015 order.
The facts that led up to the passing of that order are rather complex, but very briefly, allegations of match-fixing had dogged the Indian Premier League (IPL). In response, the BCCI constituted a probe panel. The Cricket Association of Bihar filed a writ petition against this in the High Court of Bombay, and also filed another writ praying for the removal of the BCCI President as well as the cancellation of the franchise of two IPL teams. And in yet another proceeding, the Association challenged Rule 6.2.4. of the BCCI Regulations, which allowed administrators to have commercial interests in the IPL. After the Bombay High Court passed various orders on these proceedings, the matter reached the Supreme Court. On 8th October 2013, ‘with the consent of the parties’, the Supreme Court constituted a ‘probe committee’ to look into the allegations of match-fixing. The Probe Committee returned damning findings against both players and officials. On 16th May 2014, the Supreme Court then constituted an investigation team to help the Probe Committee conduct an enquiry into the specific accusations. Its report was placed before the Court towards the end of 2014. The Supreme Court then framed seven questions, including whether allegations of match-fixing stood proven, the quantum and nature of punishment, the legality of Rule 6.2.4., and consequential orders.
Before the Court could do any of that, however, it had to work out the exact relationship between the judiciary and the BCCI, an ostensibly private body. Consequently, the first question that the Supreme Court framed was:
“Whether the Board of Cricket Control of India is ‘State’ within the meaning of Article 12 and if it is not, whether it is amenable to the writ jurisdiction of the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution of India?”
The Court’s discussion of this question is contained in paragraphs 20 – 30 of the judgment. Previously on this blog, we have discussed the history of the Supreme Court’s Article 12 jurisprudence. Very briefly, for a few decades, the Court fluctuated between a ‘functional test’ (i.e., looking to the functions a body is performing in order to determine whether it could be equated to ‘State’ under Article 12, and therefore subject to fundamental rights claims), and a ‘legal’ test (i.e., whether the legal form of the body can be equated with that of the State). In Pradeep Kumar Biswas, and then in Zee Telefilms, the Court finally – and decisively – adopted the legal test, holding that a body fell within Article 12 only if it was “functionally, financially or administratively” under the control of the State.
However, while the Supreme Court ultimately decided upon a narrow interpretation of Article 12, in a parallel set of cases, it began to develop a jurisprudence around ‘private bodies dealing with public functions’. The genesis of this was Justice Mohan’s concurring opinion in Unnikrishnan, where he held that educational institutions discharged a public duty, which require them to “act fairly“. This approach saw its culmination in the Zee Telefilms Case – which, as a matter of fact, was about the Article 12 status of the BCCI (!). After holding that the BCCI was not State under Article 12, on an application of the control test, the Court then went on to observe that ““it cannot be denied that the Board does discharge some duties like the selection of an Indian cricket team, controlling the activities of the players and others involved in the game of cricket. These activities can be said to be akin to public duties or State functions and if there is any violation of any constitutional or statutory obligation or rights of other citizens, the aggrieved party may not have a relief by way of a petition under Article 32. But that does not mean that the violator of such right would go scot-free merely because it or he is not a State. Under the Indian jurisprudence there is always a just remedy for violation of a right of a citizen. Though the remedy under Article 32 is not available, an aggrieved party can always seek a remedy under the ordinary course of law or by way of a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution which is much wider than Article 32.”
A private body discharging public functions, therefore, could be subject to the writ jurisdiction of the High Courts under Article 226, for the vindication of the rights of citizens (for a discussion of what exactly this might mean, see the comments to this post).
Let us come back to the BCCI judgment. From paragraph 20 to 29, Thakur CJI recounted the judicial history of Article 12, with its culmination in Zee Telefilms. In paragraph 30, he explained why, in his view, the BCCI was performing a ‘public function’. The reasons can be broadly summarised as follows:
- The BCCI had complete control over the game of cricket in India (including control over the careers of players)
- The BCCI’s activities were of considerable financial scope (infrastructure, expenditure on coaches, pension schemes, selling broadcast and telecast rights)
- The BCCI was exercising these functions with the “tacit concurrence” of the government, which had chosen not pass any law diluting the BCCI’s monopoly.
For this reasons, Thakur CJI held that the BCCI would be subject to “the standards generally applicable to judicial review of State action.” Later in the judgment, he noted that the setting up of the Probe Committee “was issued in exercise of appellate powers vested in this Court in proceedings under Article 226 of the Constitution” – thus linking the Court’s actions to the public function test, via Article 226.
After an extensive discussion of the match-fixing itself (which need not concern us here), the Court moved on to the validity of Rule 6.2.4., which allowed administrators to have commercial interests in the IPL and other T20 tournaments. Note that, technically, Rule 6.2.4. was an internal regulation of a private society, something that the Court had repeatedly held was (more or less) beyond judicial scrutiny (see, e.g., Zoroastrian Cooperative and other cases). In paragraph 69, this was Thakur CJI’s response:
“We have, while dealing with question No.1 above, held that BCCI is amenable to writ jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution as it discharges “Public Functions”. The natural corollary flowing from that finding is that all actions which BCCI takes while discharging such public functions are open to scrutiny by the Courts in exercise of their powers under Article 226 of the Constitution. It also implies that such actions shall when under scrutiny be judged by the standards and on principles that govern similar actions when taken by the State or its instrumentalities. The approach which a Court exercising powers of judicial review of administrative action adopts will remain the same irrespective of whether the action under review is taken by the State or its instrumentality or by any non statutory non government organisation like the BCCI in the case at hand. It follows that Rule 6.2.4 will be subject to the same tests and standards as would apply to any similar provision emanating from a statute or the general executive power of the State.”
There is, however, a crucial elision in the two underlined portions. In the first, the Court made the (uncontroversial) claim that when adjudicating upon the performance of a public function, it would exercise its jurisdiction following principles of judicial review of administrative action (that is, the Wednesbury standards, or one of its variants, most of which are marked, to different degrees, by judicial deference). However, at the end of the paragraph, the Court equated judicial review of Rule 6.2.4. to that of a statute, or executive action. This, however, is an entirely different standard altogether. When considering a challenge to a statute or to an executive act, the Court, far from employing standards governing judicial review of administrative action, tests the statute for compliance with legislative competence, and with Part III. In other words, if Rule 6.2.4. is akin to a statute, then Part III would apply to it directly, in the same manner as if the BCCI was State under Article 12 – which, as we have already seen, it is not.
The waters were further muddied in paragraph 73, when Thakur CJI noted that “in the light of the Articles of Association, we find no infirmity in the amendment to Rule 6.2.4 in so far as the legislative competence (if we may use that expression) of the authority that brought about the amendment is concerned.” Surely, this usage is not innocuous!
Subsequently, considering Rule 6.2.4. on its merits, the Court invalidated it on two grounds: first, that in allowing a man to be a judge in his own cause, it violated principles of natural justice, noting specifically that “the significance of the principles of natural justice visa-vis Article 14 of the Constitution is no longer res integra. The principles have been held to be a part and parcel of the guarantee contained in Article 14.” Secondly, it struck the Rule down on grounds of public policy, holding that it defeated the “high ideals of fairness and objectivity in the discharge of public functions.”
Bracketing out the second argument for the moment, if we read paragraph 69 alongside the Court’s examination of Rule 6.2.4., then I would suggest that it is at least strongly arguable that the Court held that private bodies performing public functions are directly subject to Part III of the Constitution. It treated the BCCI’s internal regulations as a statute, and then applied Article 14 to it. This would seem to mark a return of the functional test through the back door, with the rider that since private bodies performing public functions are (technically) not ‘State’, you cannot go straight to the Supreme Court under Article 32, but must first go to the High Court under Article 226.
Such a position (I would submit) requires a close and careful definition of what, precisely, constitutes a ‘public function’. It is here that the Court’s analysis is not entirely satisfactory. The three reasons – complete control over cricket, large-scale financial stakes, and State concurrence – are indicative of public functions, but they are surely not determinative. Without any examination of what it is about cricket that makes a monopoly over it public in nature, or that gives financial transactions a public character, the analysis is incomplete; and the State concurrence point could be applied to any other field of work as well, where there is no existing statute.
In a recent article, Suhrith Parthasarathy provides an important justification. He writes that “in India, where cricket plays such a pervasive role, the sport would therefore have to necessarily be seen as a primary cultural good, one which, to borrow from another American, the philosopher John Rawls, is critical to the fulfilment of a person’s conception of a good life.” As Rawls (and many other scholars) have noted, human beings need access to a basic set of goods to be able to lead a dignified and full life. At a basic level these include access to food, shelter, and so on, but at a more abstract level, they also include intangible goods such as cultural and social membership. Communal participation in events such as popular sports constitute an important manner in which people establish meaning in their lives. Consequently, bodies that act as gatekeepers of access to cultural goods must be deemed to be performing public functions.
The access-to-basic-goods approach, I would suggest, ought to be the blueprint upon which the Supreme Court builds its private-bodies-public-functions approach. Arguably, we claim and enforce fundamental rights against the State primarily because of the power that it exercises over us, a power that gives it the ability to control access to the most basic human goods (such as life). Similarly, when non-State bodies wield and exercise such power (including power over cultural goods), then the too must be subjected to similar standards. Note that the kind of standards to which it would be subjected to would have to have a relevant link to the question of access (for instance, if a private body controlled the entire water supply of a community, we would impose standards of Article 15 non-discrimination upon it as far as distribution of water went; but would we also directly, and in the absence of a statute, impose the same standards upon its hiring policies?)
All this, of course, is independent of what the Supreme Court actually did, finally, which was to impose a whole new structure upon the BCCI through the Lodha Committee Report. I do not claim here that the access/public functions argument justifies such intervention (in fact, I do not think that it does). It is one thing to say that the BCCI is subject to public law or Part III standards, and quite another for an external authority to so fundamentally transform it. The debate on this second aspect will continue; on the first, however, the BCCI judgment provides us with an important platform upon which to further think through issues of public functions and public standards; and – arguably – it sets a precedent for applying Part III of the Constitution directly to private bodies performing public functions.