The Kesavananda Bharti Case

  • Category
    Polity & Governance
  • Published
    5th May, 2020

India is celebrating 47 years of the decision in Kesavananda Bharti v. State of Kerala, wherein the Supreme Court of India laid down the ‘Basic Structure Doctrine’.

Context

India is celebrating 47 years of the decision in Kesavananda Bharti v. State of Kerala, wherein the Supreme Court of India laid down the ‘Basic Structure Doctrine’.

Background:

  • Exactly 47 years ago, the Supreme Court passed its landmark judgment in Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala, considered among the most significant constitutional cases in India’s judicial history.
  • By a 7-6 verdict, a 13-judge Constitution Bench ruled that the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution is inviolable, and could not be amended by Parliament.
  • The basic structure doctrine has since been regarded as a tenet of Indian constitutional law.
  • The Constitution of a country is the fundamental law of the land. It is based on this document that all other laws are made and enforced.
  • Under some Constitutions, certain parts are immune from amendments, and are given a special status compared to other provisions.
  • Since the Indian Constitution was first adopted, debates have raged as to the extent of power that Parliament should have to amend key provisions.
  • In the early years of Independence, the Supreme Court conceded absolute power to Parliament in amending the Constitution, as was seen in the verdicts in Shankari Prasad (1951) and Sajjan Singh (1965).
  • The reason for this is believed to be that in those initial years, the apex court had reposed faith in the wisdom of the then political leadership, when leading freedom fighters were serving as Members of Parliament.
  • In subsequent years, as the Constitution kept being amended at will to suit the interests of the ruling dispensation, the Supreme Court in Golaknath (1967) held that Parliament’s amending power could not touch Fundamental Rights, and this power would be only with a Constituent Assembly.

Analysis

How it all started?

  • Keshvananda Bharati was the chief of Edneer Mutt which is a religious sect in Kasaragod district of Kerala.
  • He had certain pieces of land in the sect which were owned by him in his name.
  • The state government of Kerala introduced the Land Reforms Amendment Act, 1969. According to the act, the government was entitled to acquire some of the sect’s land of which Keshvananda Bharti was the chief. 
  • On 21st March 1970, Keshvananda Bharti moved to Supreme Court under Section 32 of the Indian Constitution for enforcement of his rights which guaranteed under:
    • Article 25(Right to practice and propagate religion)
    • Article 26 (Right to manage religious affairs)
    • Article 14 (Right to equality)
    • Article 19(1)(f) (freedom to acquire property)
    • Article 31 (Compulsory Acquisition of Property)
  • When the petition was still under consideration by the court, the Kerala Government another act i.e. Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1971.
  • After the landmark case of Golaknath v. State of Punjab, the Parliament passed a series of Amendments in order to overrule the judgment of the Golaknath case.
  • In 1971, the 24th Amendment was passed, In 1972, 25th and 29th Amendment were passed subsequently.
  • All these amendments were under challenge in Kesavananda. Since Golaknath was decided by 11 judges, a larger bench was required to test its correctness.
  • Therefore, 13 judges were to sit on the Kesavananda case.

Issues of the case:

  • Whether constitutional amendment as per Article 368 applicable to fundamental rights also?
  • Whether 24th Amendment Act 1971 is valid?
  • Whether Section 2(a), 2(b) and 3 of 25th amendment is valid?
  • Whether 29th Amendment Act 1971 is valid?

The Doctrine of Basic Structure:

  • According to the ‘Doctrine of Basic Structure’, the Parliament has unlimited power to amend the Constitution subject to the sole condition that such amendments must not change the basic structure of the Constitution.
  • The Parliament should not in any manner interfere with the basic features of the Constitution without which the Constitution will be left spiritless and lose its very essence.
  • The basic structure of the Constitution was not mentioned by the bench and was left to the interpretation of the courts.
  • The Courts need to see and interpret if a particular amendment violates the basic structure of our Indian Constitution or not. 
  • The court found that as contended by the respondents actually there is a difference between ordinary law and an amendment.
  • Keshvananda Bharti’s case to some extent overruled Golaknath’s case. The court, in this case, answered the question which was left unanswered in Golaknath’s case in relation to the power of Parliament to amend provisions of the Constitution. 
  • The court found that the word ‘amend’ which was included in Article 368 does not refer to amendments that can change the basic structure of the constitution.
  • If Parliament wants to amend a particular provision of the Constitution then such amendment would need to go through the test of basic structure.
  • It was also decided that since the Parliament has an unlimited power to amend the Constitution subject to the basic structure then Parliament can also amend Fundamental Rights as far as they are not included in the basic structure of the Constitution.
  • 24th Amendment was upheld by the Bench whereas the 25th Amendment’s 2nd part was struck down.
  • The 25th Amendment’s validation was subjected to two conditions:
    • The court agreed that the word amount and compensation is not equivalent to each other but still the amount which is provided by the Government to the landlords should not be unreasonable.
    • The amount need not be equal to the market value but should be reasonable and closely related to the present market value.
  • The 1st part of the 25th Amendment was upheld but it was subject to the provision that the prohibition of judiciary’s reach will be struck down.

The judgment in Kesavananda Bharati:

  • The Constitutional Bench, whose members shared serious ideological differences, ruled by a 7-6 verdict that Parliament should be restrained from altering the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution.
  • The court held that under Article 368, which provides Parliament amending powers, something must remain of the original Constitution that the new amendment would change.
  • The court did not define the ‘basic structure’, and only listed a few principles — federalism, secularism, democracy — as being its part. Since then, the court has been adding new features to this concept.
  • The majority opinion was delivered by Chief Justice of India S M Sikri, and Justices K S Hegde, A K Mukherjea, J M Shelat, A N Grover, P Jaganmohan Reddy, and H R Khanna. Justices A N Ray, D G Palekar, K K Mathew, M H Beg, S N Dwivedi, and Y V Chandrachud dissented.

Conclusion:

Since Kesavananda, the ‘basic structure’ doctrine has been interpreted to include the supremacy of the Constitution, the rule of law, Independence of the judiciary, doctrine of separation of powers, federalism, secularism, sovereign democratic republic, the parliamentary system of government, the principle of free and fair elections, welfare state, etc.

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