This article is written by Shristi Suman, a second-year student of Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad. In this article, the landmark judgment of the case Keshvananda Bharti has been discussed.

 

Introduction

Keshvananda Bharati is a landmark case and the decision taken by the Supreme Court outlined the basic structure doctrine of the Constitution. The decision which was given by the bench in Keshavananda Bharati’s case was very unique and thoughtful. The judgment was of 700 pages which included a solution for both Parliament’s right to amend laws and citizen’s right to protect their Fundamental Rights. 

The Bench came up with Doctrine of Basic Structure in order to protect the interests of both citizens of India and the Parliament. The Bench through this solution solved the questions which were left unanswered in Golaknath’s case. This case overruled the decision given in the case of Golaknath v State of Punjab case by putting a restriction on the Parliament’s right to amend the Constitution. The Doctrine of Basic Structure was introduced to ensure that the amendments do not take away the rights of the citizens which were guaranteed to them by the Fundamental Rights.

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Identification of Parties

Petitioner: Kesavananda Bharati & Others

Respondent: State of Kerala 

Bench: S.M. Sikri, K.S. Hegde, A.K. Mukherjea, J.M. Shelat, A.N. Grover, P. Jaganmohan Reddy, H.R. Khanna, A.N. Ray, K.K. Mathew, M.H. Beg, S.N. Dwivedi, & Y.V. Chandrachud.

Summary of Facts

Keshvananda Bharati was the chief of Edneer Mutt which is a religious sect in Kasaragod district of Kerala. Keshvananda Bharti 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. The following amendments were made after Golaknath’s case which was challenged in the present case are:

24th Amendment

  • In the case of Golaknath, it was laid down in the judgment that every Amendment which is made under Article 368, will be taken as an exception under Article 13. Therefore, in order to neutralize this effect, the Parliament through an Amendment in Article 13 of the Constitution annexed clause 4 so that no Amendment can have an effect under Article 13.
  • The Parliament in order to remove any kind of ambiguity added clause 3 to Article 368 which reads as follows, “Nothing in article 13 shall apply to any amendment made under this article.”
  • In the case of Golaknath, the majority decided that Article 368 earlier contained the provision in which the procedure of Amendment was given and not the power so, in order to include the word power in the Article, Article 368 was amended and the word power was added in the Marginal Note.
  • The Parliament tried to draw a distinction between the procedure in an amendment and an ordinary law through an amendment in Article 368(2). Earlier the President could exercise his power to refuse or withhold a bill for the amendment. After the 24th Amendment, the President did not have a choice to refuse or withhold a bill. This was done by the Parliament in order to protect the amendment from the exception that is mentioned under Article 13 of the Indian Constitution.

25th Amendment

  • Through this Amendment, the Parliament wanted to make it clear that they are not bound to adequately compensate the landlords in case their property is taken by the State Government and in order to do so the word ‘compensation’ was replaced with the word amount under Article 31(2) of the Constitution.
  • The link between Article 19(1)(f) and Article 31(2) was removed.
  • Under Article 31(c) of the Constitution, a new provision was added in order to remove all difficulties and to fulfill the objectives laid down under Article 39(b) and 39(c), it was decided that Articles 14, 19 & 31 will not be applied to any law. In order to make Article 39(b) and 39(c) effective, the court was immunized from intervening in any law made by the Parliament.

29th Amendment

The 29th Amendment was passed in the year 1972. It inserted the Kerala Land Reforms Act into the 9th Schedule. It meant that the matters related to the Kerala Land Reforms Act will be outside the scope of the judiciary to try. All the amendments which were made by the Central Government in some or other way protected the amendments made by State Government from being tried in the court of law. Provisions of the Kerala Land Reforms Act along with 24th 25th and 29th Amendments were challenged in the court of law.

Issues before the Court

  • Whether the 24th Constitutional (Amendment), Act 1971 is Constitutionally valid or not?
  • Whether the 25th Constitutional (Amendment), Act 1972 is Constitutionally valid or not?
  • The extent to which the Parliament can exercise its power to amend the Constitution.

Contentions by Parties on issues

Petitioner’s contentions

It was contended by the petitioner that the Parliament cannot amend the Constitution in a way they want to as they have a limited power to do so. The Parliament cannot exercise its power to amend the constitution by changing its basic structure as the same was propounded by Justice Mudhokar in the case of Sajjan Singh v State of Rajasthan. The petitioner pleaded for the protection of his property under Article 19(1)(f) of the Indian Constitution. 

It was argued by him that the 24th and 25th Constitutional Amendments violated the Fundamental Right which was provided under Article 19(1)(f) of the Indian Constitution. Fundamental Rights are rights available to citizens of India to ensure freedom and if any Constitutional amendment takes away such right then the freedom which is ensured under the Constitution to its citizens will be deemed to be taken away from them.

Respondent’s contentions

The respondent was the State. The State contended that Supremacy of Parliament is the basic principle of the Indian Legal System and so the Parliament has the power to amend the Constitution unlimitedly. State also contended that in order to fulfill its socio-economic obligations which have been guaranteed to the citizens of India under the Preamble, it is important that the Parliament exercises its power to amend the constitution without any limitations.

Judgment

It was held by the apex court by a majority of 7:6 that Parliament can amend any provision of the Constitution to fulfill its socio-economic obligations guaranteed to the citizens under the Preamble subject to the condition that such amendment won’t change the basic structure of the Indian Constitution.

The majority decision was delivered by S.M. Sikri CJI, K.S. Hegde, B.K. Mukherjea, J.M. Shelat, A.N. Grover, P. Jagmohan Reddy JJ. & Khanna J. Whereas, the minority opinions were written by A.N. Ray, D.G. Palekar, K.K. Mathew, M.H. Beg, S.N. Dwivedi & Y.V. Chandrachudjj. The minority bench wrote different opinions but was still reluctant to give unfettered authority to the Parliament. The landmark case was decided on 24th April 1973.

The court upheld the 24th Constitutional Amendment entirely but the 1st and 2nd part of the 25th Constitutional Amendment Act was found to be intra vires and ultra vires respectively. It was observed by the court in relation to the powers of the Parliament to amend the Constitution that it was a question that was left unanswered in the case of Golaknath.

The answer to the question was found in the present case and it was deduced by the court that the Parliament has the power to amend the Constitution to the extent that such amendment does not change the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. It was laid down by the court that the Doctrine of Basic Structure is to be followed by the Parliament while amending the provisions of the Constitution.

The Doctrine of Basic Structure

According to the doctrine, the Parliament has an 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 our 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.

Critical Analysis of the Judgement

The majority of the Bench wanted to preserve the Indian Constitution by protecting the basic features of the Constitution. The judgment was given after analyzing the various aspects and was based on sound reasoning. The Bench feared that if the Parliament would be provided with unlimited power to amend our Indian Constitution then the power will be misused and would be changed by the Government according to its own will and preferences. The basic features and the very spirit of the Constitution can be altered by the Government if they have unlimited powers to make amendments. There was a need for a doctrine to preserve the rights of both Parliament and citizens, therefore, the Bench came up with a midway to protect both of their rights through the doctrine of Basic Structure.

Even before our Indian Constitution came into force, approximately 30 amendments were already made to it. After the commencement of the Indian Constitution in 1951, around 150 amendments have been passed, whereas, in the United States, only 27 amendments have been passed in 230 years. Despite the huge number of amendments, the spirit, and ideas of the framers of the Indian Constitution have remained intact. Indian Constitution did not lose its identity and spirit because of the decision taken by the Bench in this case.

The landmark case of Keshavananda Bharti provided stability to the Constitution. Though the petitioner lost his case partially, yet the judgment that was given by the Bench, in this case, worked out to be a savior of Indian democracy and saved the Constitution from losing its spirit. 


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