landmark cases
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This case summary is written by Gurkaran Babrah, a first year law student at Symbiosis Law School, Noida.

Introduction

Golaknath v State of Punjab is one of the landmark cases in the Indian legal history. A number of questions were raised in this case. But the most important issue was whether the parliament has the power to amend the fundamental rights enshrined under Part III of the Constitution of India or not. The petitioners contended that the parliament has no power to amend the fundamental rights whereas the respondents contended that the constitution-makers never wanted our constitution as rigid and Non-flexible one. The court held that the parliament cannot amend the fundamental rights. This ruling overturned in Kesavananda Bharati vs Union of India 1973. In this, the court held that the parliament can amend the constitution including fundamental rights but the parliament cannot change the basic structure of the constitution.

Identification of Parties (including `the name of the judges)

PETITIONER: I.C GOLAKNATH & ORS

RESPONDENT: STATE OF PUNJAB 

DATE OF JUDGEMENT: 27/02/1967

BENCH: RAO, K. SUBBA (CJ), WANCHOO K.N, HIDAYATULLAH. M, SHAH J.C, SIKRI S.M, BACHAWAT R.S, RAMASWAMI V, SHELAT, J.M, BHARGAVA, VASHISHTH, MITTER, G.K, VAIDYALINGAM C.A.

Summary of Facts

The family of Henry and William golaknath were in possession of over 500 acres of farmland in Jalandhar, Punjab. Under the Punjab security and Land Tenures Act, the government held that the brothers could keep only thirty acres each, a few acres would go to tenants and the rest was declared surplus. This was challenged by the family of golaknath in the courts. Further, this case was referred to the Supreme court in 1965. The family filed a petition under Article 32 challenging the 1953 Punjab Act on the grounds that it denied them their constitutional rights to acquire and hold property and practice any profession (Article 19 (f) and (g) and to equality before the protection of the law (Article 14). They sought to have the seventeenth amendment – which had placed the Punjab Act in ninth schedule – declared ultra vires (beyond the powers). Golaknath. I.C v State of Punjab is one of the landmark cases in the Indian history. With its ruling, in this case, the court developed jurisprudence around what is known as the doctrine of basic structure. The court in 1967 ruled that the Parliament can not curtail any of the fundamental rights enshrined under the constitution of India. 

Issues before the Court 

The issue which came before the court was whether the parliament has the absolute power and the power to amend the fundamental rights enshrined under the constitution or not?

Contention of the parties 

Petitioner’s arguments

  • The petitioner argued that the constitution of India was drafted by the constituent assembly and it is of permanent nature. No one can change or can try to bring change in the constitution of India.
  • They argued that the word “amendment” in question only implies a change in accordance with the basic structure but not altogether a new idea.
  • Further, the petitioner contended that the fundamental rights enshrined under part III of the constitution cannot be taken away by the parliament. They are the essential and integral part of the constitution without which constitution is like a body without a soul.
  • The petitioner also argued that Article 368 of our constitution only defines the procedure for amending the constitution. It does not give the power to the parliament to amend the constitution.
  • The last thing on which the petitioner argued before the court was that Article 13(3)(a) in its definition of “law” covers all types of law i.e. statutory and constitutional etc. And by virtue of Article 13(2), which says that the state cannot make any law which takes away the rights mentioned under Part 3, any constitutional amendment which takes away the Fundamental rights will be unconstitutional and invalid.

Respondent’s arguments 

  • The respondent contended before the court that constitutional amendment is a result of the exercise of its sovereign power. This exercise of sovereign power is different from the legislative power which parliament exercises to make the laws.
  • Our constitution makers never wanted our constitution to be rigid in its nature. They always wanted that our constitution to be flexible in its nature.
  • The object of the amendment is to change the laws of the country as it deems fit for the society. They argued that if there won’t be any provision for amendment then, it would make constitution a rigid and non-flexible one.
  • They further argued that there is no such thing of basic structure and non-basic structure.
  • All the provisions are equal and of equal importance. There is no hierarchy in the constitutional provisions. 

Judgement (Ratio and Obiter)

In this case, at that time the supreme court had the largest bench ever. The ratio of the judgment was 6:5, majority was favouring the petitioners. The CJI at that time and with other justices (J.C. Shah, S.M. Sikri, J.M. Shelat, C.A. Vaidiyalingam) wrote the majority opinion. Justice Hidayatullah agreed with CJI Subba Rao and therefore he wrote a separate opinion. Whereas Justices K.N. Wanchoo, Vishistha Bhargava and G.K Mitter they all wrote single minority opinion and justices R.S. Bachawat & V. Ramaswami wrote separate minority opinions.

The majority opinion of golakh Nath shows scepticism in their minds about the then course of parliament. Since 1950 the parliament has used article 368 and have passed a number of legislations that had in one or other way have violated the fundamental rights under part III of the constitution. The majority had doubts that if Sajjan Singh remained the law of the land, a time can come when all fundamental rights adopted by our constituent assembly will be changed through amendments. Keeping in view the problem of fundamental rights and fearing that there can be a transfer of Democratic India into totalitarian India. Therefore, the majority overruled Sajjan Singh & Shankari Prasad. 

The majority said that the parliament has no right to amend the fundamental rights. These are fundamental rights are kept beyond the reach of parliamentary legislation. Therefore, to save the democracy from an autocratic actions of the parliament the majority held that parliament cannot amend the fundamental rights enshrined under Part III of the Constitution of India The majority said that fundamental rights are the same as natural rights. These rights are important for the growth and development of a human being.

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Critical Analysis of the Judgement

Fundamental rights are considered to be necessary for the development of human personality. These rights are the rights which helps a man to figure out his/her own life in a manner he/she wants. Our constitution has given us the fundamental rights which also includes the rights of minorities and other backward communities. According to the Constitution, Parliament and the state legislatures in India have the power to make laws within their respective jurisdictions. But, this power is not absolute in nature. The Constitution rests with the judiciary and the power to adjudicate upon the constitutional validity of all laws also rests with the judiciary. 

If a law made by Parliament or the state legislatures violates any provision of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has the power to declare such a law invalid, unconstitutional or ultra vires. This check notwithstanding, the founding fathers wanted the Constitution to be an adaptable document rather than a rigid framework for governance. They wanted it to be a flexible document which can adjust or adapt itself according to the changing situations. 

Parliament was invested with the power to amend the Constitution. Article 368 of the Constitution gives the impression that Parliament’s amending powers are absolute and encompass all parts of the document. But the Supreme Court has acted as a brake to the legislative enthusiasm of Parliament ever since independence. With the intention of preserving the original ideals envisioned by the constitution-makers, the apex court pronounced that Parliament could not twist, damage or alter the basic features of the Constitution under the pretext of amending it. The phrase ‘basic structure’ itself cannot be found in the Constitution. The Supreme Court recognised this concept for the first time in the historic Kesavananda Bharati case in 1973

The basic structure of the constitution consists of:

  • Supremacy of the constitution;
  • Secular character of the constitution; 
  • Demarcation of power among the legislature, executive, and judiciary; 
  • Integrity and unity of the nation;
  • Democratic and republican form of government; and
  • Sovereignty of the nation.

These are the elements of the basic structure of the constitution. The parliament has the right to amend anything but it can not amend or change any of the fundamental elements of the basic structure. Majority believed that the parliament was drawing power of amendment from article 368 whereas this article only provides the producer of an amendment. The majority said that the power to amend an article of the constitution is under article 248. The miniority’s opinion was that if the decision comes in favour of the majority then the constitution will become rigid. And if the parliament will not have the power of amending the constitution then the constitution would become static. In accordance with the minority opinion the procedure of Article 368 very much correspond to the legislative process but it is different from ordinary legislation.

The judgement provided the prospective overruling of the law. The decision to overrule the earlier judgements was an important, smart and reasonable move by the judiciary of the country. This doctrine of prospective ruling said that effects of the law will only be applicable on future dates or future judgements. Past decisions will not be get affected by it. There was a reason why the majority chose the doctrine of prospective ruling. 

These reasons were:

They wanted to avoid multiple litigations which could have followed after this judgment. 

The majority also chose this to save the nation from the chaos of retrospective action. 

They also wanted to reduce the negative effect of this judgement which could have led to invalidating the previous constitutional amendments. 

This was in order to minimize the negative impact of the judgment invalidating the earlier constitutional amendments.

Another reason why the majority went for prospective overruling was that since the decision, in this case, was that the parliament has no right to amend the fundamental rights, therefore, every previous amendment will be invalid and unconstitutional. 

Conclusion

The Golakh v state of Punjab was one of the important cases in India history. The judgement of this case came at a very crucial time. It came when the democracy was suffering from the start of what later became the “darkest decade” of India. This judgment helped to stop the parliament from showing its autocracy. The majority bench was afraid of deterioration of the soul of the constitution. This judgement forbade the parliament from causing any damage to the fundamental rights of the citizens by implementing a law which had the effect of suppressing the autocracy of the parliament. 

The judgment was focused on protecting the fundamental provisions which are equal to fundamental or natural rights of mankind and no government can take it. Golaknath is a kind of victory of “rule of law” because it made it clear that even the lawmakers are not above the law. This case reinforced the faith of the citizens that the law is supreme, not the one who makes it(Parliament), neither who implements (Executive) it and nor the one who interprets it (Judiciary).

But there‘s nothing perfect in this world. The same goes with this judgment. The judgement of Golaknath is not a perfect judgement. One of the biggest flaws was that the judgement granted rigidity to the constitution. The court said if there has to be an amendment then it has to be through a constituent assembly. Secondly, the court only protected the fundamental rights from the absolute power of the parliament but it could have protected all the fundamental features of the constitution. They did not use the opportunity in a way they could have used. Due to these kind of problems in the judgement it was overruled to some extent in another landmark judgment in the case of Kesavananda Bharati v Union of India 1973. To read more about Kesavananda Bharati v Union of India 1973 refer to the link given below.

References


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