This exhaustive article is written by Dhawal Srivastava, from the Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law. The author elaborates upon the concept of constitutional morality and its associated nuances while discussing its historical as well as contemporary relevance in the Indian context.


In ‘A History of Greece’, author George Grote analysed the importance of a public sentiment which he described should be an integral part of Athenian Democracy under Kleisthenes. He reviewed the passage of this social force from the populace to those in power and its diffusion amongst all the sections of the society, majority or minority alike. He was essentially talking about the concept of ‘constitutional morality’, which years later was reiterated by Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar while addressing the Constituent Assembly in his speech called the ‘The Draft Constitution’ on 4th November 1948. In recent years, the invocation of this term in various judgements has become quite popular in the Indian Judiciary. 

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What is Constitutional Morality?

One of the earliest definitions of constitutional morality was given by Grote, which he described as a form of supreme obedience to the various aspects of the Constitution of the land. According to him, constitutional morality implied certain obligations for both the citizens as well as the authority which have been enlisted below: 

  • Respecting the constitution and all forms of authorities deriving their command from it.
  • Availability of right to free speech for the citizens to criticise and hold accountable all those officials acting in pursuance of their constitutional duties.
  • The obligation of the mandated authority and public officials to act well within the sanctioned charge given to them by the Constitution.
  • People contesting for political power and their opposition should have reverence for the Constitution.

Therefore, for Grote, the principles of ‘self-restraint’ and ‘plurality’ formed the fundamental elements of constitutional morality, where the former implied the responsibilities of all the stakeholders in a constitutional regime (as enlisted above in points) and the latter referred to the diverse nature of the society getting governed.

Ambedkar’s perspective on constitutional morality

According to Dr Ambedkar, the concept of constitutional morality implied the harmonious interaction between the governing and governed, including the peaceful settlement of dissent faced from the latter and conflict of interests arising between them without indulging in any major confrontations or resorting to violent revolutions. He pinned the onus of resolving the then (and still) existing disparity and inequity in the society not merely on the government or the Constitution but also on this belief system or principle of constitutional morality. He believed that this principle can help get rid of the bridge and gap between the form of administration and that of the constitution in the country. Bhimrao Ambedkar had this belief that the Indian society was largely undemocratic in nature and constitutional morality holds significance in this nation where democracy is merely a ‘top-dressing’ on the soil.

The contemporary interpretation of Constitutional Morality 

In the context of the present era, constitutional morality can be primarily defined to be constituted of two sub-classifications: as a spirit or force of the Constitution and as the antonym of popular morality. 

Ever since the advancement of years after the introduction of the constitutional rule in India, constitutional morality has scarcely been used by the courts. It was subtly indicated in the very famous Keshavnanda judgement by the apex court when it propounded the conception of the basic structure of the Constitution. Another famous case when a mention of “breach of constitutional morality” of having been committed was the First Judges case, a.k.a. S.P. Gupta v. Union of India. Thereafter, it was only recently in 2010 that Justice Ajit Prakash Shah in Naz Foundation v. Government of NCT of Delhi first used it in an antithetical manner to popular acceptance and standards of morality. In this form, a precedent was set for the courts to disregard societal norms, stigmas and limitations while assessing the actions of the State. For instance, in this case, while deliberating upon the issue of decriminalisation of homosexuality, then a criminal offence under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the Court took into cognizance the ideal of upholding the constitutional principles rather than society’s perception with regards to the legitimacy of same-sex relationships.

The trend continued, as judges started giving the rationale of constitutional morality in their judgments thereafter. The ex-Chief Justice of India, Justice Deepak Misra, in the Government of NCT of Delhi v. Union of India equated constitutional morality to a ‘second basic structure doctrine’. The fact of the principle being respected and adhered to by both the citizens as well as officials was reinstated and it, acting as a check on both of these classes alike, was reinforced by the justices. Almost all the revolutionary judgements in the recent past, whether it be the Navtej Singh Johar judgement on homosexuality or the Joseph Shine judgement on adultery, had constitutional morality as one of their crucial fundamentals. In fact, in the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association v. Union of India, commonly known as the Sabrimala judgement, the Supreme Court also bypassed the doctrine of essentiality (the principle protecting the ‘integral’ religious practices of a community) to uphold the supremacy of constitutional morality. 

Sources of Constitutional Morality

The term ‘morality’ is not excessively stated in the Constitution, let alone constitutional morality. However, there can be four sources from which constitutional morality derives itself. These are as follows: 

  1. Constitutional morality can be originated from within the Constitution itself. If read and interpreted properly, Articles 12 to 35 (Fundamental Rights), Articles 36 to 51 (Directive Principles of State Policy), Preamble and the Fundamental Duties tend to have the pervasive essence emphasising upon constitutional morality.
  2. The debates and discussions that happened in the Constitutional Assembly have been one of the most important sources of constitutional morality as Ambedkar’s views have been taken as the basis of modern-day understanding of the same.
  3. The events that unfolded during the framing of the Constitution and the requisite constitutional history associated with it.
  4. The case laws and precedents, specifically in the modern-day era with so many draconian laws read down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court and various High Courts in upholding the spirit of constitutional spirit, morality and strengthening democratic ideals.

Importance of Constitutional Morality

Constitutional Morality has been described as one of the transformative and revolutionary nature by several of its proponents. The significance of constitutional morality can be enlisted below:

  • While it aims to keep pace with the changing times, principles and ambitions of the society, the doctrine of constitutional morality also safeguards and upholds the enforcement of rule of law in the country. Thus, it is, in no way, one-sided and tends to question both the citizens as well as the government.
  • The doctrine of constitutional morality is also helpful for the congenial cooperation and coordination of all the stakeholders in promoting and reinforcing the democratic ideals of the nation. It strives for a greater amiability amongst people to pursue constitutional ambitions which are not possible to be won without unity and team spirit. Thus, it points to the idea of propagating the trust of the people on democratic institutions.
  • The principle of constitutional morality can be used for reading down laws or statutes which are inconsistent with the incumbent time and can be used to bring about a positive transformation in the perception of societal or public morality. For instance, in passing a law prohibiting Sati, right to life and dignity was passed on to the Indian widows who were earlier considered to be harbingers of misfortune and ill-luck. However, after the passage of this law, there has been a clear change in the public mindset with regards to Sati and the rights of widows in India. It also led to the promulgation of more rights to them such as those of remarrying and getting educated post their husband’s demise.
  • Constitutional morality is specifically substantially significant for a vibrant and diverse country like India which has got a heterogeneous population with so many further subclassifications: caste, religion, colours, sexual orientation, languages, genders, etc. Since ‘plurality’ is one of the crucial ethos of the principle of constitutional morality, it recognises this distinction and non-homogeneity and promotes diversity, helping to make the society more inclusive.
  • It is observed that a lot of officers resign or leave their government jobs in order to show solidarity to some movements and for upholding constitutional morality. However, the principle of constitutional morality is contrary to this; it promotes people to be an active participant of the system and fight the inequalities and non-constitutional elements. 

Criticism of Constitutional Morality

Besides the pros and importance attached to constitutional morality, there are also certain concerns which need to be addressed by legal experts, legislators, jurists and the courts. These have been discussed below:

  • There is no explicit mention of the term ‘constitutional morality’ in the Constitution of India. Moreover, despite the presence of several precedents or judgments based on the principle, there is no fixed definition that has been attributed to constitutional morality. Thus, it has an open-ended meaning and is privy to subjective interpretations by different perception holders. Moreover, it has been left on the discretion of the individual judges to interpret its essence and apply in requisite situations.
  • Another viewpoint presented by those in opposition to the doctrine of constitutional morality is that it hinders the organic and natural development of liberalism or rectification of the wrongs or ethical ills of the society as it vests powers in the hands of the courts to implement a ‘top-down approach’ of the ideal on the morality front. Some have supplemented this proposition with the corollary premise that it indirectly reflects a lack of faith on the true ideals of democracy which is based on the wisdom of the populace that is to be governed. 
  • One strong argument against the existence of constitutional morality as a judicial principle is that it is in clear violation of a very basic tenet of democracy, that is, of separation of power between the three wings of the State governance framework: judiciary, legislature and the executive. Dissenters keep pushing forth the idea that the projected objective of upholding and promoting democracy by using constitutional morality is merely a sham as it establishes judicial supremacy and excess activism by the courts, leading to the intervention in those functions which are primarily sanctioned to be undertaken by the legislature. Some also interpret this as a fraud on the constitution in a veil of promoting constitutionalism.
  • Another corollary criticism to the previous point is the promotion of judicial overreach done by constitutional morality by putting it against societal morality.
  • In the recent past, the Attorney General of India, Mr K.K. Venugopal described Constitutional Morality as “dangerous” to the country. He expressed that the Supreme Court is slowly transforming into a “third Parliament Chamber”. Coming from a senior legal officer like the AG himself, this can spark the growth of a negative perception amongst the masses regarding this principle.


It can be concluded that both Ambedkar and Grote did not perceive Constitutional Morality as an instrument for combating or resolving government action; rather, they equated it with a self-imposed restraint by the people to uphold the constitutional ideals. However, with the passage of time and almost seventy decades after Dr Ambedkar delivered his Constituent Assembly speech in 1948, a lot of different interpretations of the principle have been affixed by different scholars and judges. For now, the two-pronged definition of constitutional morality encompasses: firstly, a legal mechanism of fighting popular morality and a reminder that Courts should keep themselves free from, sometimes rigid, societal beliefs and opinions that need a revamp for the betterment and comprehensive advancement of the country. Secondly, it helps in holding the government accountable by facilitating the courts to examine the spirit and conscience of the Indian Constitution.

Thus, it is rightly categorised as a second basic structure doctrine. It is rightly a bit vague and unclear with regards to its definition, like most of the other constitutional doctrines which are heavily dependent and reliant on the interpretation of the judges while delivering judgments in different cases. However, the kind of judicial system that exists in the country makes it a necessity, and also mandates it for the judges to fill in the “hollow vessels of these doctrines” with words of legal expertise and experience garnered over the years of practice.


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