Kesavananda Bharati Sripadagalvaru & Ors. v. State of Kerala & Anr.

The 1973 Kesavananda Bharati judgment limited Parliament's power to amend the Indian Constitution. It led to the basic structure doctrine, shaping constitutional law in India and influencing legal systems abroad.

Kesavananda Bharati Sripadagalvaru & Ors. v. State of Kerala & Anr., commonly referred to as the Kesavananda Bharati judgment, stands as a pivotal ruling from the Supreme Court of India. This case, also dubbed the Fundamental Rights Case, introduced the basic structure doctrine to the Indian Constitution. In a narrow 7-6 verdict, the court asserted its authority to nullify constitutional amendments that contravened the fundamental framework of the constitution.

Justice Hans Raj Khanna said that the constitution has some important basic principles and values. The Court mostly agreed with the earlier Golaknath v. State of Punjab decision, which said that changes to the constitution under Article 368 should be checked to make sure they follow fundamental rights. But, this check is only needed if the changes affect the main framework of the Constitution. Also, the Court said it's okay for changes related to Directive Principles under Article 31-C, as long as they don't mess with the main structure of the Constitution.

This doctrine gives the Indian judiciary the power to check and cancel any changes made to the Constitution by the Indian parliament.

The 13-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court discussed the limits, if any, on the authority of elected representatives and the importance of individual rights. In a close 7-6 decision, the court ruled that while Parliament has broad powers, it cannot completely change or weaken the basic elements or key aspects of the constitution.

At the time of this case, the majority bench's concern that elected representatives might not act responsibly was unprecedented. The Kesavananda judgment also clarified how much Parliament can regulate property rights, especially for land reform and redistributing large landholdings to farmers. This decision overturned previous rulings that suggested property rights couldn't be limited. The case marked the end of a series of cases dealing with the boundaries of amending the Constitution.

In February 1970, Swami Kesavananda Bharati, a respected figure and leader of the Hindu monastery Edneer Matha in Edneer, Kasaragod District, Kerala, challenged the Kerala government's efforts to impose restrictions on the management of its property through two land reform acts. Nanabhoy Palkhivala, a renowned Indian jurist, persuaded Swami to file his petition under Article 26, which addresses the right to manage religiously owned property without government interference. The case lasted for 68 days, with arguments beginning on October 31, 1972, and concluding on March 23, 1973. The judgment, comprising 700 pages, was delivered thereafter.

The Supreme Court re-evaluated the ruling in Golaknath v. State of Punjab and examined the validity of the 24th, 25th, 26th, and 29th amendments to the Constitution. This case was heard by the largest-ever Constitution Bench consisting of 13 Judges. The bench delivered eleven separate judgments, with some points of agreement and disagreement on others. Nanabhoy Palkhivala, along with assistance from Fali Nariman and Soli Sorabjee, presented the case against the government in both instances.

The Court upheld the validity of clause 1 of Article 13 and a related provision in Article 368(3), as introduced by the 24th Amendment. This decision confirmed that Parliament has the authority to amend fundamental rights. However, the Court also reiterated a principle from the Golaknath case, stating that "amendment" in Article 368 refers to any addition or change within the broad framework of the Preamble and the Constitution, aimed at fulfilling the objectives in the Preamble and the Directive Principles. Regarding fundamental rights, it clarified that while fundamental rights cannot be abolished, they can be reasonably restricted in the public interest. The key point is that every part of the Constitution can be amended as long as the basic foundation and structure remain intact.

The nine signatories to the statement were:

  1. Chief Justice S M Sikri
  2. J. M. Shelat
  3. K. S. Hegde
  4. A. N. Grover
  5. P. Jaganmohan Reddy
  6. D. G. Palekar
  7. H R Khanna
  8. A. K. Mukherjee
  9. Y.V. Chandrachud

Four judges did not sign the judgment:

  1. A. N. Ray
  2. K. K. Mathew
  3. M. H. Beg
  4. S. N. Dwivedi

Chief Justice S. M. Sikri emphasized the enduring importance of individual freedom, stating that it must be safeguarded for all time and cannot be eliminated through amendment. He asserted that the fundamental rights enshrined in Part III of the Indian Constitution are inviolable, although reasonable limitations can be imposed on them in the public interest. Chief Justice Sikri noted that there is an inherent limitation on the amending power, implied from the preamble, which implies that the expression "amendment of this Constitution" in Article 368 encompasses any addition or alteration within the broad objectives of the Constitution. Therefore, according to him, every provision of the Constitution can be amended as long as the basic foundation or structure of the Constitution remains intact and unharmed.

Justices Shelat and Grover highlighted that the preamble to the Constitution holds the key to its fundamental principles. They emphasized the need to balance and harmonize Parts III and IV of the Constitution, which respectively outline fundamental rights and directive principles. According to these Judges, this balance and harmony between these two integral parts are essential elements of the Constitution that cannot be altered. They interpreted the term "amendment" in Article 368 in a way that preserves Parliament's power to amend the Constitution while ensuring that the structure and identity of the Constitution remain intact. They asserted that there is an implied limitation on the amending power, which prevents Parliament from abolishing or altering the identity of the Constitution or any of its basic structure.

Justices Hegde and Mukherjea asserted that the Constitution of India is primarily a social document rather than a political one, founded on a social philosophy. They argued that it comprises two main components: basic and circumstantial. The basic elements remain constant, while circumstantial aspects are subject to change. According to these Judges, the fundamental features of the Constitution are outlined in the preamble, and Parliament lacks the authority to abolish or weaken these fundamental features. They emphasized that while building a welfare state is a crucial goal for any government, it should not come at the expense of sacrificing human freedoms. Applying these principles, the Judges invalidated Article 31C, even in its original form, as it conflicted with these fundamental principles.

Justice Jaganmohan Reddy interpreted the term "amendment" as allowing for change rather than destruction, which is associated with repeal or abrogation. He argued that the power of amendment cannot be expanded by amending the amending power itself. Justice Reddy identified the essential elements of the basic structure of the Constitution, such as justice, freedom of expression, and equality of status and opportunity, as reflected in its preamble. He contended that the term "amendment" cannot include the right to abolish pivotal features and fundamental freedoms, and thus, that part of the basic structure cannot be compromised. Justice Reddy also criticized Article 31D, as it conferred power on Parliament and State Legislatures to enact laws that undermined Article 14, rendering it unconstitutional. In conclusion, he affirmed that while the power of amendment is broad, it does not extend to completely abolishing or damaging fundamental rights or essential elements of the Constitution's structure. Within these limits, Parliament retains the authority to amend any provision of the Constitution.

Justice H. R. Khanna emphasized that while Parliament possesses the authority to amend the Constitution, this power is limited to amendments and does not extend to altering the basic structure or framework of the Constitution. He agreed with the views of six other learned Judges that certain "essential elements," including fundamental rights, cannot be amended due to implied restrictions on Parliament's powers.

According to Justice Khanna, while Parliament can make changes to adapt to changing circumstances, it cannot tamper with the foundation or alter the basic institutional pattern of the Constitution. Therefore, the words "amendment of the Constitution," despite their broad scope, do not empower Parliament to destroy or abolish the basic structure or framework of the Constitution.

This interpretation led to the formulation of the basic structure doctrine, which is now considered the cornerstone of Constitutional law in India.

The government of Indira Gandhi reacted strongly to the court's restriction on its powers. On April 26, 1973, Justice Ajit Nath Ray, one of the dissenting judges, was promoted to Chief Justice of India, superseding three senior judges, which was unprecedented in Indian legal history.

The immediate consequence of the judgment was seen in the form of the 42nd Amendment, enacted in 1976. This amendment was a direct response to the court's ruling and aimed to curtail the impact of the judgment. However, despite this amendment, the judgment established the principle that Parliament holds full legislative authority to amend any part of the Constitution, except when such amendments contravene the basic features of the Constitution.

In the 1980 case of Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain, the Supreme Court used the basic structure doctrine to invalidate the 39th Amendment. This amendment, passed during The Emergency in 1975, aimed to shield the election of key officials from judicial scrutiny, but the court ruled against it, citing the basic structure doctrine. This move was seen as an attempt to thwart Gandhi's prosecution.

Furthermore, the basic structure doctrine found resonance beyond India's borders. In 1989, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh adopted this doctrine in its ruling on Anwar Hossain Chowdhary v. Bangladesh, explicitly drawing on the reasoning laid out in the Kesavananda case.