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Indian Constitution and Doctrine of Basic Structure

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   07-Nov-2023 | Priyanka Todariya

In 1973, the Supreme Court of India delivered a landmark judgment in the Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala case that forever altered the course of Indian jurisprudence. The case bestowed upon the people of India a legal legacy of unparalleled importance—the Doctrine of Basic Structure. To truly appreciate the significance of this doctrine, we must delve into the political history and legal landscape that paved the way for this historic judgment.

A Changing Constitutional Landscape

In the nascent years of the Indian Republic, the Parliament of India initiated a series of constitutional amendments, introducing substantial modifications to the Constitution, encompassing vital aspects such as fundamental rights.

Shankari Prasad vs Union of India, 1951

This case, heard in 1951, dealt with the power of the central government to amend the Constitution. The government passed the 1st Constitutional Amendment Act in 1951, which allowed

reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression. It also introduced the Ninth Schedule, intended to protect land reform acts that could potentially infringe on fundamental

rights. Shankari Prasad, a businessman and member of the Hindu Mahasabha, challenged the constitutionality of the amendment. However, the Supreme Court upheld the amendment's

constitutionality, asserting that the power of the central government to amend the Constitution was an inherent part of the Constitution itself and not subject to challenge under the

fundamental rights provisions.

Sajjan Singh vs State of Rajasthan, 1965

The Sajjan Singh case, which took place in 1965, was another landmark in Indian constitutional history. It emerged in the context of the 17th Constitutional Amendment Act, which aimed

to secure the constitutional validity of the acquisition of land and estates falling under the Ninth Schedule. This amendment was challenged, but the Supreme Court upheld its validity and

reaffirmed that Article 368 granted Parliament the authority to modify any article in the Constitution.

I.C. Golaknath vs State of Punjab, 1967

The Golaknath case, which occurred in 1967, dealt with the interpretation of the Constitution and the extent of the amending power of Parliament. I.C. Golaknath challenged the

constitutional validity of the 17th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1964. In a landmark decision with a constitutional bench of 11 judges, the Supreme Court ruled that the Parliament did

not have the power to amend fundamental rights enshrined in Part III of the Constitution. The court declared that fundamental rights were the essential aspects of the Constitution, and

any attempt to amend them would undermine the dignity of the citizens.

The Golaknath case played a pivotal role in shaping the concept of the basic structure of the Constitution. It restored Parliament's power to amend any part of the Constitution, including

fundamental rights and the idea of the basic structure continued to influence the interpretation of the Constitution by Indian courts.

The Birth of the Basic Structure Doctrine

The basic structure doctrine, which has played a critical role in the Indian Constitutional framework, was first articulated in the Kesavananda Bharati case, 1973. A 13-judge Constitution

Bench delivered a historic verdict in which they ruled that Article 368 of the Indian Constitution did not provide the Parliament with unlimited authority to amend the Constitution. The

doctrine established that the Constitution possesses certain fundamental features that cannot be altered or destroyed by amendments made by Parliament.

Evolution of the Basic Structure Doctrine

The Kesavananda Bharati case emerged amid a conflict between the judiciary and the government led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Before this landmark case, the Supreme Court's

ruling in I.C. Golak Nath v. State of Punjab (1967) had declared that Parliament could not curtail fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. This case marked the first use of the

term "basic structure" by lawyer M.K. Nambyar, who argued that Parliament had no authority to amend fundamental rights under Part III of the Constitution.

The Indian government, reacting to the successive rulings against it, enacted a series of constitutional amendments, including the 24th, 25th, and 29th Constitutional Amendments, which

gave Parliament extensive power to modify or abolish fundamental rights.

Key Rulings and Foundational Principles

The Kesavananda Bharati judgment was a culmination of several key rulings, including Golak Nath v. State of Punjab, the challenge to the nationalization of major banks in 1969, the

abolition of Privy Purses in 1970, and Kesavananda Bharti's challenge to the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963. The 13-judge Bench in Kesavananda Bharati outlined the basic structure

doctrine, emphasizing that while Parliament could amend any part of the Constitution, it could not alter or destroy its "basic structure".

The basic structure, as described in the judgment, included principles like the supremacy of the Constitution, a republican and democratic form of government, the secular and federal

character of the Constitution, the separation of powers, individual dignity, and unity and integrity of the nation. Other judges added features such as the democratic character of the polity

and essential individual freedoms to this list.

The verdict also made it clear that judicial review was an integral component of the system of checks and balances to ensure that constitutional functionaries, including Parliament, do not

exceed their prescribed limits.

Subsequent Applications of the Basic Structure Doctrine

After its introduction in 1973, the basic structure doctrine played a pivotal role in cases like Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain (1975) and the Minerva Mills case (1980). In these cases, the

Supreme Court upheld the power of judicial review of constitutional amendments, with a majority verdict supporting the principle that judicial review is essential to the Constitution and

cannot be abrogated without undermining the Constitution's central ideals.

Criticism and Controversy Surrounding the Doctrine

The basic structure doctrine, nearly five decades after its inception, continues to be a subject of debate and criticism. Some critics argue that the doctrine grants the judiciary excessive

power to supersede a democratically elected government. The term "tyranny of the unelected," coined by former finance minister Late Arun Jaitley, was used to criticize the doctrine,

particularly in the context of the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) judgment in 2015.

Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankar's comments, expressing his disagreement with the Kesavananda Bharati case ruling and the basic structure doctrine, added fuel to this debate. He

emphasized the importance of the supremacy and sovereignty of Parliament and the need for all three branches of government to work harmoniously to achieve constitutional goals. Mr

Dhankar challenged the notion that courts can dilute "parliamentary sovereignty" by invoking the basic structure doctrine. His remarks highlight the delicate balance between the powers of

the legislature and the judiciary in India.

Defence of the Basic Structure Doctrine

Supporters of the basic structure doctrine argue that while the doctrine may have faced occasional misinterpretations, it is deeply rooted in the Constitution's text and history. The doctrine

serves as a critical safeguard against the potential abuse of power by a majoritarian government and protects the Constitution's core values. Limiting the power of Parliament to undermine

fundamental rights and central constitutional ideals is seen as crucial in preserving the principles of democracy and justice.

The unending disagreement surrounding the basic structure doctrine hints at the constant tug-of-war between the legislature and the judiciary in India. While criticism and debate are

natural in a democracy, the doctrine remains an essential element of the Indian Constitution. It is deeply rooted in the country's legal and constitutional history, and its existence is a

testament to the enduring efforts to balance and protect the fundamental principles and values enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The debates and discussions will continue, but the

basic structure doctrine remains a cornerstone of India's constitutional framework.