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The Doctrine of Basic Structure of Indian Constitution

In our democratic society, the Constitution holds special importance as it binds all the citizens and governs their life as per the ideals of our forefathers. It was drafted a long ago and various socio-economic changes occurred in our environment after that. So, it was important for us to keep up with the new developments and make amendments to the constitution. However, it is equally important to note that during this process, we also needed to ensure that the basic ideals of our legal system shall remain protected. Thus, in order to strike a balance between the power to amend the constitution and maintain the identity of our legal system, a new doctrine named “The Doctrine of Basic Structure of Indian Constitution” was adopted by our jurists.

In this article, we will explore the meaning and evolution of this doctrine along with its The Doctrine of Basic Structure of Indian Constitution.

The Doctrine of Basic Structure of Indian Constitution

As per the Doctrine of Basic Structure of Indian Constitution, there are certain features of the Constitution, which cannot be amended by the parliament by virtue of Article 368 of the constitution. These features are known as the basic structure, basic elements or fundamental features of the constitution. Any constitutional amendment or new law will be declared unconstitutional if it violates the basic features of the constitution. These basic features include rule of law, democracy, secularism, federalism, parliamentary form of government, etc. It is important to note that this doctrine is nowhere mentioned in the constitution itself but it was developed after a series of cases in the Kesavananda Bharati case of 1973.

Evolution of Doctrine of Basic Structure

The Doctrine of Basic Structure of Indian Constitution emerged due to the sharp conflict between Parliament and judiciary after the independence. The government was enacting various laws with the aim of land reformation to achieve its goal of socialism. The judiciary on the other hand struck down these laws as they were violating constitutional provisions.

To tackle this, the government enacted the first and fourth amendment and added schedule 9 to the constitution which put these laws outside the scope of judicial review. So, the main question before the judiciary was whether the parliament has unlimited power to amend the constitution under Article 368 of the constitution or not.

The series of judgements started in the Shankari Prasad Deo vs. Union of India (1952), wherein the Supreme Court held that the parliament can amend any part of the constitution without any limitation. The court held that restrictions under Article 13(2) will not apply to the amendments under Article 368 of the constitution. Similarly in Sajjan Singh vs the State of Punjab, the Supreme Court again stated that the Parliament had unlimited powers to amend the constitution which also include taking away fundamental rights also.

The 11 judge bench of the Supreme Court in the Golak Nath case took an altogether different stance from the earlier judgements. The bench with a 6:5 majority stated that there are some implied limitations on the parliament to amend the constitution. It stated that Article 368 only talks about the procedure and it in no way empowers the parliament to take away the fundamental rights through an amendment.  The decision of Golak Nath was a big blow to the Indira Gandhi government and therefore it enacted the 24th amendment to nullify the judgement of Golak Nath. Through this amendment, a new clause was added in Article 13 which gave unlimited power to the Parliament to amend the constitution.

The controversy was finally settled in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala case (1973) wherein a 13 Judge bench heard the validity of the 24th Amendment. The bench with a 7:6 majority overruled the Golaknath Judgement and held 24th Amendment valid. The Bench stated that the Parliament could amend any part of the constitution but the amendment should not affect the basic structure of the Constitution. However, it is important to note that the court didn’t define the exact meaning of basic structure and nor does it provide any method to identify it. The “basic structure doctrine” was left open for interpretation for future cases.

Interpreting the scope of Basic Structure Doctrine

The applicability of the Doctrine of Basic Structure of Indian Constitution came before the Hon’ble Supreme Court for the first time in Indira Gandhi vs Raj Narain Case (popularly known as the election case). In this case, the question was related to the validity of the 39th Amendment by which the electoral dispute of Prime Minister, President of India, vice president and speaker of Lok Sabha was put beyond the scope of judicial review.

The court stated that the 39th Amendment is invalid as it violated the 2 core elements of the basic structure of the constitution. These elements were Democracy and Rule of Law. The court stated that equality, free and fair elections and popular sovereignty come under the scope of democracy.

The term “Rule of Law” mainly involves 3 elements. Firstly, there shall be the supremacy of law. The parliament and the executive need to assure that all their actions shall be in accordance with the well-established provisions of the constitution. Secondly, there shall be a principle of equality that states that law shall be enforced in a just and fair manner. There shall be no discrimination on the ground of sex, caste, birth, etc. Lastly, there shall be the predominance of legal spirit wherein the court are the enforcers of law and they must be impartial and free from influence. It is very essential that there shall be no arbitrariness in government action.

Judicial Review as Part of Basic Structure

The 42nd Amendment of 1976 has curtailed the power of courts to examine the validity of parliamentary amendments The Supreme Court in Minerva Mills vs Union of India was faced with the issue of whether the power of judicial review can be abolished through a constitutional amendment.

The court explicitly stated that judicial review is a part of the basic structure of the constitution. It was stated that judicial review is very essential for maintaining the balance of power between various organs of the constitution and its absence will lead to the death of democracy and rule of law. Thus, the court struck off the provision of the 42nd Amendment.  Further, in L.Chandra Kumar vs Union of India, It was held that the right to approach Supreme Court under Article 32 and High court under Article 226 also comes under the scope of basic structure.

Independence of Judiciary as Part of Basic Structure Doctrine

It is evident from our historical experience that the parliament and executive always try to influence the working of the judiciary. In Shri Kumar Padma Prasad v. Union of India, the issue was regarding the appointment of a Judge of a High court. The Supreme court in the case clearly held that the independence of the Judiciary is a cardinal principle of our democracy. Further, in the Supreme Court’s Advocates-on-Record vs. Union of India, the court reiterated the same and stated that the independence of the judiciary is a part of the basic structure of the constitution as it is very essential to strike a balance between various organs of a democratic society. Recently, the Supreme court declared the “National Judicial Appointment Commission” unconstitutional as it was against the principle of Independence of the Judiciary. Read more about the Independence of the Judiciary.

Secularism and Federalism as part of Basic Structure

In S. R Bommai vs Union of India, 1994, the Supreme Court while interpreting Article 356 held that Secularism and federalism are part of the basic structure of the constitution and they can never be abrogated. The court stated that “secularism” is an important element for determining the validity of action under Article 356. Further, the president shall not use their power in a manner to undermine the federal structure of the Constitution.

Importance of the Basic Structure Doctrine

The Doctrine of basic structure is very important for maintaining a balance between the needs of a changing environment and the spirit of our legal system. This doctrine put a check on the working of the government and ensured that it didn’t adopt extreme steps in the greed of power. In the absence of this doctrine, the parliament would have unlimited power to amend the constitution and it may use it arbitrarily to satisfy its own personal interest. They might change the concept of separation of power and amend the democratic status of our country to a dictatorship or hereditary monarch. Finally, this doctrine played a very crucial role in determining the validity of various constitutional amendments.

Conclusion

The Doctrine of Basic Structure of Indian Constitution was evolved in the Kesavananda Bharati case after a continuous period of conflict between the Judiciary and Parliament.  There is no concrete definition for this term and different judges have different opinions about it. However, one common view is that the parliament has no power to destroy the basic features of the constitution. This doctrine keeps aside core constitutional elements and values from the amendment making power of the parliament. Finally, It is important to note that the judiciary hasn’t closed the box of “basic structure” and new element can be added as per the needs of our progressive society.