Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala case is a landmark case in the constitutional and legal history of India, which provided a definite answer to the issue of whether the power of the Parliament to amend the Constitution is absolute and unqualified. The decision in Kesavananda Bharati case laid down the “basic structure doctrine” of the Indian Constitution. Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala case holds immense significance for several reasons, one of them being that it was heard by the largest-ever bench constituted by the Supreme Court of India, comprising thirteen judges of the Supreme Court.
BENCH: 13 Judge Bench of Justice YV Chandrachud, Justice SM Sikri, Justice JM Shelat, Justice KS Hegde, Justice AN Grover, Justice AN Ray, Justice PJ Reddy, Justice DG Palekar, Justice Hans Raj Khanna, Justice KK Mathew, Justice MH Beg, Justice SN Dwivedi, Justice BK Mukherjea (Keshvanand Bharti Judgement was the largest bench till date).
KESAVANANDA BHARTI JUDGEMENT DATE: April 24th, 1973
KESAVANANDA BHARTI CASE CITATION: AIR 1973 SC 1461
BACKGROUND OF KESHVA NANDAN BHARTI CASE
In the judgement of Golaknath vs State of Punjab (1967 AIR 1643), the Supreme Court held the Parliament does not have the power to amend the Part III of the Constitution containing the fundamental rights, as fundamental rights are sacrosanct and indelible.
It was held that any amendment made under Article 368 would be treated as an exception under Article 13. As a result, in order to counteract this effect, the Parliament annexed clause 4 to Article 13 of the Constitution, so that no amendment would have an effect under Article 13.
Following the landmark case of Golaknath v State of Punjab, the Parliament passed a series of amendments to overturn the Golaknath case’s judgement.
The 24th Constitution Amendment Act 1971 affirmed the power of the Parliament to amend any part of the Constitution, including Part III, and made it mandatory for the President to give his assent to a Constitutional Amendment Bill.
Following that, the 25th Constitution Amendment Act 1972 curtailed the right to property enshrined in Article 19(1) and Article 31, empowering the government to acquire private property for public use in exchange for compensation decided by Parliament rather than the courts.
The Parliament included the Kerala Land Reforms Amendment Act 1969, and the Kerala Land Reforms Amendment Act 1971 in the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution.
KESAVANANDA BHARTI CASE FACTS
- His Holiness Sripad Galvaru Kesavananda Bharati, the lead petitioner in this case, was the leader of the Edneer Mutt, a religious sect in Kerala’s Kasaragod district. Kesavananda Bharti had some plots of land in the sect that he owned in his name.
- The Kerala State government enacted the Land Reforms Amendment Act in 1969, which conferred upon the government the right to acquire some of the land owned by Edneer Mutt, of which Keshav Nand Bharti was the leader.
- On March 21, 1970, Kesavananda Bharti filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution to enforce his rights guaranteed by Article 25 which confers the right to practise and propagate religion), Article 26 which guarantees the right to administer religious affairs, Article 14 provides right to equality, Article 19(1)(f) provides freedom to acquire property, and Article 31 which provides for Compulsory Acquisition of Property.
- While the petition was still being heard by the court, the Kerala government passed another act, i.e., the Kerala Land Reforms Amendment Act 1971.
- Whether the 24th Constitutional Amendment Act 1971 is constitutionally valid?
- Whether the 25th Constitutional Amendment Act 1972 is constitutionally valid?
- What is the extent to which the Parliament can exercise its power to amend the Constitution?
Kesavananda Bharati’s Contentions (Petitioner) –
The petitioner argued in Keshwanand Bharti vs State of Kerala that because Parliament has limited power to amend the Constitution, it cannot do so in an arbitrary and unrestrained way.
The petitioner referred to the statement given by Justice Mudholkar in the case of Sajjan Singh v State of Rajasthan (1964) wherein it was said that the Parliament cannot exercise its power to amend the constitution by modifying its basic structure.
The petitioner sought protection and rights of his property under Article 19(1)(f) of the Indian Constitution. It was contended by the petitioner that the 24th and 25th Constitutional Amendments violated the fundamental right guaranteed by Article 19(1)(f) of the Indian Constitution.
State of Kerala’s Contentions (Respondent) –
The State of Kerala contended that the parliament’s power to amend the Constitution is absolute and unlimited, and unfettered. This argument was based on a fundamental principle of the Indian legal system, namely the supremacy of Parliament.
Re Berubari Union Case 1960 was also on this point.
Furthermore, the state argued that in order to fulfil the socio-economic obligations guaranteed to people by the union in the Preamble; it is essential that the Parliament’s authority be unrestricted.
- (The majority view in Kesavananda Bharati Case) Chief Justice SM Sikri and Justice, JM Shelat, Justice KS Hegde, Justice AN Grover, Justice Jaganmohan Reddy, Justice Hans Raj Khanna, Justice BK Mukherjea: The power to amend does not include the power to change the basic structure of the Constitution to the point of altering its identity. This proposition will be used to determine the legitimacy of a constitutional amendment.
- (The majority view) Justice YV Chandrachud, Justice AN Ray, Justice DG Palekar, Justice KK Mathew, Justice MH Beg, Justice SN Dwivedi: the power of amendment under Article 368 is plenary, with no implicit or inherent limits, and includes the ability to introduce, change, or repeal various articles of the Constitution, except those relating to fundamental rights.
- Although agreeing with this viewpoint, Justice Khanna had noted that the power does not apply to changing the basic structure or framework of the Constitution.
- Justice Ray and Justice Mathew agreed with the view of plenary rights, but they believe that there cannot be a complete repeal of the Constitution, resulting in a constitutional void. According to them, any reform should leave a government mechanism in place for the development, interpretation, and enforcement of laws.
The thirteen-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Keshwanand Bharti Case 1973 by a majority of 7:6 held that the Parliament has the authority to amend any clause of the constitution as long as the amendment does not violate the Basic Structure of the Constitution.
Despite writing different opinions, the minority bench did not concede that there are certain provisions that are fundamental. They were also hesitant to grant Parliament complete and unfettered authority to amend the Constitution.
The apex court upheld the entire 24th Constitutional Amendment Act 1971 but considered the first part of the 25th Constitutional Amendment Act 1972 to be intra vires and the second part to be ultra vires.
The court, using social engineering and balancing the interests of both litigants, determined that neither the Parliament nor the Supreme Court has the authority to corrode the Basic Structure of the Constitution, nor can it withdraw the mandate to create a welfare state and a fair society. The Basic Structure Doctrine was thus formulated in the Kesavananda case which implied that, although the Parliament has the authority to amend the entire Constitution, they must do so in a way that does not contradict the features so fundamental to the Constitution that it would be spiritless without them.
Esteemed jurist and illustrious advocate Nani Palkhivala and the seven judges on the majority bench in Keshavantha Bharathi Case believed that by issuing this decision, they had protected Indian democracy, for which our revered ancestors had fought so valiantly.
The most significant result of the freedom struggle was democracy, which gave ordinary citizens who were most oppressed the power and rights. If the bench had ruled differently, the rights and authority for which our esteemed freedom fighters battled so valiantly would have withered away.
Thus, this momentous judgement upheld the constitutional values, strengthened the foundation of the Constitution and restored the confidence of the common people in the judiciary and in a democracy.
The Kesavanand Bharti decision forms the most powerful and binding precedent in the history of the Indian Constitution. The basic structure doctrine is used to determine the constitutional validity of any amendment or act of the Parliament.
According to former Chief Justice of India Sarv Mittra Sikri, the following elements constitute the basic structure of the Constitution or fundamental features of the Constitution, or what was laid down as the Basic Structure Doctrine:
- Supremacy of the Constitution
- Republican and democratic form of government
- Secular character of the Constitution
- Separation of powers between the legislature, executive, and judiciary
- Federal character of the Constitution.
In simple words, the Basic Structure Doctrine is a rule that states that certain provisions of the Constitution that are so fundamental to the values, objectives and sole of the Constitution cannot be amended under any circumstances.
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