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University of Madras v. Shantha Bai (1953)

This article is written by Sakshi Kuthari. It discusses all the details one should learn about the definition of the term ‘other authorities’ under Article 12. The impact of the decision in University of Madras v. Shantha Bai (1953) plays a significant role in the interpretation of Article 12, as it led to a string of subsequent judgments that established certain tests to determine whether an entity qualifies to be an agency or instrumentality of the government.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


The interpretation of the term ‘other authorities’ in Article 12 of the Constitution of India has long been a subject of debate, especially with judicial opinions evolving over time. There has been a significant shift in the interpretation of this Article after the major economic reforms of 1992, popularly known as the LPG, or Liberalisation, Privatisation, and Globalisation model. Today, instead of solely functioning as a service provider, the State now performs multiple functions because of the existing philosophy of social welfare. It acts not only as a provider but also as a facilitator and regulator of the economy. Many functions that were previously carried out by the State are now performed by private entities. With a few exceptions, fundamental rights are enforceable against the State as defined under Article 12 of the Constitution. Thus, the concept of the ‘State’ under Article 12 serves as the threshold for claiming fundamental rights. However, with private entities now assuming certain functions traditionally belonging to the State, the protection of fundamental rights has also fallen within the purview of these private actors. 

Governmental functions are carried out through both the already existing traditional governmental departments and officials as well as autonomous bodies existing outside the departmental structure, such as companies and corporations. While governmental actions through departments or officials undoubtedly fall within the definition of ‘State’ under Article 12, doubts have been raised regarding the status of autonomous bodies. Whether such bodies could be regarded as ‘authorities’ under Article 12 and thus subject to fundamental rights has been a matter of debate. 

In University of Madras v. Shantha Bai (1953), the question of whether the University of Madras fell within the scope of the expression ‘other authorities’ was discussed. Alongside this, the issue of whether the denial of admission to Shantha Bai due to discrimination (against women) in a State-funded institution, like the University of Madras, constituted a violation of her right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution was examined. 

Details of University of Madras v. Shantha Bai (1953)

Case name: University of Madras v. Shantha Bai

Case no.: L.P.A No. 4 of 1952

Type of case: Civil Case

Name of the court: Madras High Court

Bench: Chief Justice Rajamannar, Justice Venkatarama

Date of the judgement: May 1, 1953 

Equivalent citations: AIR 1954 MAD, 1953 IIMLJ, 1966 MADLW 665

Name of the parties: Shantha Bai (Petitioner) and University of Madras (Respondent)

Laws involved in the case: Articles 12, 15, and 29 of the Indian Constitution, 1950  & Sections 5(1) &16(12) of the Madras University Act, 1923 

Facts of University of Madras v. Shantha Bai (1953)

Before going into the facts of this case, it is essential to discuss the events and circumstances that led to the petition in the first place.

There was an increase in the number of female students seeking admission to colleges that rendered the already existing women’s colleges at that time insufficient to accommodate this increase. As a result, colleges that used to admit only men also began to admit women; co-education became common. At this junction, the Syndicate decided to lay down certain rules to regulate the admission of female students to such co-ed colleges. They fixed the total number of female students to be admitted based on amenities provided by the colleges and made it so that no female students could be given admission to co-ed colleges without prior sanction of the Syndicate.

In 1945, a Commission was appointed in accordance with the provisions of Section 16(12) of the Madras University Act, 1923, to report on the state of higher education and its progress in the state of Madras. The Commission reviewed the status of women’s education and documented its findings. While acknowledging the then-recent growth and progress of women’s education, the Commission highlighted that despite the establishment of more women’s colleges, the State of Madras faced challenges in accommodating the increasing number of women applicants seeking collegiate education across various fields. Additionally, the Commission referred to the rules set by the Syndicate in 1943, stating in their report that most colleges had only nominally complied with the conditions imposed by the University, such as providing common rooms, recreational facilities, etc.

The Commission found that the conducive environment necessary for the proper development of women students was lacking in those colleges. Moreover, the imposition of restraints for maintaining discipline among students further disadvantaged them. Citing these reasons, the Commission unanimously recommended that men’s colleges refrain from admitting women to the intermediate classes. It was believed that women might face challenges adjusting to the transition from school to college due to their age and the differing conditions of life and instruction. Such adjustments could only be facilitated by establishing more women’s colleges with hostel accommodations.

In 1949, a new college named Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College was established in the town of Udupi, affiliated with the University of Madras. When granting affiliation to the college, the Syndicate permitted the admission of only 10 girls in the junior intermediate class as a temporary measure for that year. It also directed that, in the future, no female students should be admitted without the prior sanction of the Syndicate. Against this backdrop, petitioner Shantha Bai applied for admission to the intermediate course at this college on July 24, 1951. However, the college Principal rejected her application, citing the policy of not admitting female students. Consequently, she filed a petition, seeking a writ of mandamus against the Principal for not admitting her to the intermediate course. 

This petition was heard by Justice Subba Rao. There were two respondents in this case: first, the University of Madras, and second, the Principal of the college. 

The petitioner, Shantha Bai, argued that the directions of the Syndicate were clearly contrary to Section 5(1) of the Madras University Act, 1923, which stated that admission to any degree or course cannot be denied solely based on grounds of sex, race, class, creed, or political views. The petitioner further argued that the directions were also in violation of Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution, as they constituted discrimination against the petitioner on the ground of sex and were therefore void. 

On the other hand, the second respondent, against whom the petitioner had claimed the relief, contended that the directions were based on practical convenience and were not discriminatory or unjust. They also argued that the directions did not violate Section 5(1) of the Madras University Act or Article 15(1) of the Constitution. They argued that the matter fell within the ambit of Article 29 of the Constitution and did not infringe upon any fundamental rights of the petitioner, thus the petition should be dismissed.

Justice Subba Rao interpreted Section 5(1) of the Madras University Act, 1923, differently and ruled that the section pertained to “admission to any degree or course of study,” referring to specific courses such as law, medicine, engineering, and related subjects, not admission to colleges as a whole. He also stated that Article 29 of the Constitution did not exclude the application of Article 15(1). The directions issued by the University were found to violate Article 15 as they discriminated against Shantha Bai on the grounds of sex and were therefore held to be void. He issued a mandamus to the Principal to consider the petitioner’s application without any discrimination on the grounds of sex. 

The first respondent disagreed with the Hon’ble Judge’s decision and chose to file this appeal before the Madras High Court.

Issues raised

The University of Madras raised the following issues in their petition:

  1. Whether the University of Madras can be considered a ‘State’ under Article 12 and whether it falls within the ambit of  Article 15(1) of the Constitution of India;
  2. Whether the right to get admission into an educational institution comes within the ambit of Article 15(1) or Article 29, and whether Article 29 prohibits any restriction based on sex;
  3. Whether the University’s directives are discriminatory on the grounds of sex and thus unconstitutional under Article 15(1).

Issue-wise judgment in University of Madras v. Shantha Bai (1953)

Issue 1

The Madras High Court perused the relevant provisions, including Article 15(1) of the Constitution, which explicitly prohibits the State from discriminating against any citizen of India solely on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, or any of these factors. 

The term “State” as used in various Articles of Part III of the Constitution is defined in Article 12. It includes “the Government of India and Parliament of India; the Government and Legislature of each State; and all local or other authorities within the territory of India or under the control of the Government of India”. The Court emphasised that in order to determine whether the University of Madras falls within the ambit of “local or other authority” under Article 12, these terms must be interpreted ejusdem generis with the government. This would specifically mean authorities that can exercise governmental authority and wouldn’t include any natural or juristic persons.

The Madras High Court observed that the University of Madras is a corporate body established under the Madras Act VII of 1923. Its primary role is to provide education and it is not involved in performing any governmental functions. Although, under Section 44 of the said Act, the University receives funding from the Government, it also generates funds through fees, endowments, and other similar means. It is a “State-aided institution” and not “State-maintained”. 

It was held that educational institutions would fall within the ambit of Article 15(1) only if they are maintained by the State. Therefore, the regulations of the University of Madras, which is only aided by the State, do not fall within the ambit of Article 15(1) 

Issue 2

The Hon’ble Madras High Court discussed the difference in the language used in Article 15(1) and Article 29(2) of the Indian Constitution. The Court observed that while Article 15(1) is a general principle, Article 29(2) is concerned with a particular issue, i.e., admission to educational institutions, and thus, each offers protection against different grounds of discrimination. 

Article 15(1) prohibits discrimination based on “place of birth,” a protection that is not available under Article 29(2). This difference and omission of certain grounds, including “place of birth” and “sex,” among others, is deliberate to allow educational institutions to decide for themselves based on the conditions and circumstances of their respective regions. Such exclusion won’t contravene the provisions of Article 15.

The Court further observed that Article 15(3) allows the State to establish women-only educational institutions and the exclusion of men from these institutions doesn’t contravene Article 15(1). It was held that when it comes to admission to educational institutions, the matter is governed by Article 29 and not Article 15. Moreover, a combined reading of Articles 15(3) and 29(3) made it clear that male students cannot claim a right to admission to women’s colleges, and similarly, admission of women to an educational institution remains at the discretion of such institution’s authorities.

Issue 3

The Hon’ble Madras High Court was of the view that there was an increase in the number of women seeking college education while the number of women’s colleges was not sufficient. The Court acknowledged the need for co-educational institutes but also emphasised that, in the absence of regulations, such institutions could lead to more evil than good. The Court further observed that there were no regulations that prohibited the admission of women, and rather, these regulations were against colleges to ensure that they have the requisite facilities before they can admit female students. For instance, admission to a science course could be denied on the grounds that the college did not have a science lab. Therefore, it was held that the regulations were not discriminatory.

Laws discussed in University of Madras v. Shantha Bai (1953)

Article 12 of the Indian Constitution

Part III of the Constitution of India guarantees fundamental rights to all individuals without any discrimination. And one may note that these rights are guaranteed against the “State”, thus highlighting the importance of defining it. Article 12 does this job of defining the term “State” for the purposes of Part III of the Constitution.

According to Article 12, the term “State” includes the following:

  1. Government and Parliament of India, i.e., both executive and legislature of the Union government;
  2. Government and legislature of States, i.e., both executive and legislature of the respective state governments;
  3. All local authorities; and
  4. All other authorities.

This definition of “State” is conceptually broad, as it includes not only the government and its various branches but also its agencies. Thanks to this definition, the actions of these agencies can also be challenged in court if they are in contravention of their fundamental rights.

While it has been easy to decipher what the government is and what the legislature is, issues have arisen with respect to the interpretation of the term “local or other authorities”. This question has been presented before the Supreme Court of India time and again, and the Apex Court has laid down the rules of interpretation in this regard.

The present case, University of Madras v. Shantha Bai, also dealt with the question of whether the University of Madras would fall within the ambit of “local or other authorities”. It was held by the Madras High Court that the University did not fall within the meaning of “State” under Article 12, a decision that was later upheld by the Apex Court. However, it was subsequently overruled by the Supreme Court in Rajasthan State Electricity Board v. Mohan Lal (1967).  

Article 15(1) and 15(3) of the Indian Constitution

Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution specifically prohibits the state from discriminating against any Indian citizen on the grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, or any of them. Two words in this Article require special mention. The first one being “discrimination,” and the other being “only.”. While the former means that no adverse distinctions must be made, the latter means that the discrimination cannot be made specifically based on the above-mentioned grounds. Discrimination on other grounds is not prohibited.

Article 15(1) serves as an extension of Article 14, expressing a specific application of the general principle of equality enshrined under Article 14. Just as the principle of classification applies to Article 14, it also applies to Article 15(1). The combined effect of Articles 14 and 15 is not to prevent the State from passing unequal laws, but rather, if it does so, the inequality must be based on some reasonable grounds. Furthermore, Article 15(1) makes it so that religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth alone cannot be considered reasonable grounds for discrimination.

Article 15(3), on the other hand, offers an exception to this general rule of non-discrimination provided under Article 15(1). It provides that the state can make any special laws or regulations for women and children. Similarly, the state can also make any special laws or regulations for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens.

Article 29(2) of the Indian Constitution

Article 29 was put in place by the framers of our Constitution to protect the interests of minority groups. The above-discussed case did not concern any minority group but admission to an educational institution, which is provided for in Article 29(2) of the Indian Constitution.

This Article provides that a citizen cannot be denied admission into any educational institution that is maintained by the State or is receiving aid out of state funds on the grounds only of religion, race, caste, or language. This provision guarantees the educational right of any citizen, irrespective of their community, whether minority or not. This was also held by the Supreme Court that this Article does not specifically belong to minority groups.

Relevant judgments

Smt. Ujjamm Bai v. State of Uttar Pradesh (1962)

In Smt. Ujjam Bai v. State of Uttar Pradesh (1962), the Hon’ble Supreme Court rejected the narrow interpretation of ‘other authorities’ as decided in the case of University of Madras v. Shantha Bai. The Court held that even a quasi-judicial body, acting within its jurisdiction under a valid law, should not infringe on a fundamental right merely by misinterpreting a law. Additionally, the Court ruled that the ejusdem generis rule could not be applied while interpreting this expression. The Court further clarified that the entities covered under Article 12 include the Government of India, the states, the Legislature of the Union and the states, and local authorities. It emphasised that there is no common genus between these bodies, nor can they be placed in one single category on any judicious basis.

Rajasthan State Electricity Board v. Mohan Lal (1967)

In this case, the Hon’ble Supreme Court ruled that if a state electricity board is established by statute and has commercial functions to discharge, it would qualify as ‘other authority’ under Article 12. The Court stressed that the commercial nature of some of the powers granted to the concerned authority is not decisive because the government is empowered under Article 298  to carry out trade or commerce. Therefore, the fact that the Electricity Board, established under the Electricity  (Supply) Act, 1948, is bound to be involved in certain commercial activities does not mean that the Board should not be subject to the definition of ‘State’ under Article 12.

Sukhdev Singh v. Bhagat Ram (1975)

In the precedent set in the above-mentioned case, by a majority of 4:1, the Hon’ble Supreme Court, in this case, found out that the Oil and Natural Gas Commission, Life Insurance Corporation, and Industrial Finance  Corporation are all entities falling within the ambit of Article 12 of the Constitution, thereby qualifying as entities within the definition of ‘State’. These three statutory corporations have the power to establish regulations under their respective statutes for the regulation of the conditions of the employees. These regulations have the force of law and are binding upon these entities. The statutes define the terms of employment under which the employees of these statutory bodies are eligible to assert their employment status when their dismissal or removal violates statutory provisions. Such employees have a right to seek redressal under Articles 14 and 16 of the Indian Constitution against these corporations.

Ramana Dayaram Shetty v. International Airport Authority of India (1979)

In this case, Justice P.N. Bhagwati took a broader approach compared to what was proposed by Justice Mathew in the above-mentioned case. The Court held in this case that if a body serves as an agency or instrumentality of the government, it may fall within the definition of “authority,”  whether it may be a statutory corporation, a government company, or even a registered society. Consequently, it was ruled that airport authority, established by an Act of Parliament, fell within the definition of “State” under Article 12. The authority to appoint any board member and the capital required for the airport’s operation were solely possessed by the Central Government. 

However, still the question remained: what are the essential criteria to determine whether an entity is an agency or an instrumentality of the government? The Court laid down the following tests to establish whether an entity qualifies as an agency or instrumentality of the government:

  • Inspection of the financial resources of the State;
  • Evaluation of the extent of deep and extensive State control; and
  • Governmental functions.

Analysis of the case of University of Madras v. Shantha Bai (1953)

The Hon’ble Madras High Court in this case evolved the principle of ‘ejusdem generis’ i.e., of the like nature. It means that only those authorities are covered under the expression ‘other authorities’ which perform governmental or sovereign functions. Further, it cannot include persons, natural or juristic, for example, Unaided universities. The Hon’ble Court held that the University of Madras did not fall within the ambit of Article 12 and does not come under the definition of ‘State.’ It also held that the regulations issued by the University were not subject to the prohibitions provided in Article 15 of the Indian Constitution. It was of the opinion that the admissions done in the colleges were regulated by Article 29(2) and the regulations of the University provided that certain basic facilities for women were must before they were admitted to the college. These regulations, according to the Court, were not held to be discriminatory on the grounds of sex. But the subsequent judgment in Rajasthan State Electricity Board v. Mohan Lal overturned the ruling in Shantha Bai’s case. The Supreme Court in this Rajasthan State Electricity Board case held that the expression ‘other authorities’ is wide enough to include all authorities created by the Indian Constitution or statute on whom the powers are conferred by law. It is not necessary that the statutory authority be engaged in performing governmental or sovereign functions.


The Indian Constitution serves a two-fold purpose from the point of view of fundamental rights. It provides fundamental rights to the citizens of India and imposes a corresponding mandatory duty upon the State to safeguard these rights. Based on the facts of the case and the judgment delivered by the Hon’ble Madras High Court, it was concluded that the University of Madras does not qualify as a State under the definition provided in Article 12 of the Indian Constitution. This led to the implication that the University of Madras was not bound by the restrictions laid down in Article 15(1). The Court also held that admission to the colleges fell within the purview of Article 29(2). The requirement of specific facilities for granting admission to female students was not discriminatory based on sex. As a result, the appeal filed by the first respondent was approved by the Madras High Court.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What does Article 12 of the Constitution mean and include?

Article 12 of the Indian Constitution defines the term “State” which is used in Part III of the Constitution. It provides for the application and enforcement of the Fundamental Rights of the citizens of India. It includes within its definition unless the context provides otherwise the following-

  • The Government and Parliament of India (Legislature & Executive of the Union);
  • The Government and Legislature of each State;
  • All local or other authorities, within the territory of India or under the control of Government of India. 

Is ‘University’ a State under Article 12 of the Indian Constitution?

Yes, a University comes under the definition of State under Article 12 of the Indian Constitution. The Hon’ble Supreme Court was first of the opinion that a University does not fall within the definition of State. But the Hon’ble Supreme Court with time has evolved the concept of agency or instrumentality, by which a University comes under the definition of “other authorities” mentioned in Article 12 of the Indian Constitution.

What is the rule of ejusdem generis?

Ejusdem generis means of the same kind and nature. When a list of specific terms is followed by more general words, the general terms should be understood in a manner that limits their scope to include only items or things of the same kind as those specified by the specific terms. This rule is used whenever there is an ambiguity or unclarity in the interpretation in the language of the provisions of the statute or wherever in a provision there is a possibility of two views.


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