Have you ever heard about a case popularly known to be the ‘Savior of our Indian Democracy’? Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973) is a significant and the most renowned case in the history of our country whereby a judgment was delivered to protect the democracy of India, and its popularity is because of the fact that it led to a set- up of a largest 13 Judge Bench to hear the case in Indian history. On 24th April 1963, the Supreme Court laid down the Basic Structure Doctrine in this case. In order to understand the main crux of the case let us first discuss the facts and main issue which made it a landmark one.
What was Kesavananda Bharati’s case?
Kesavananda Bharati was the founder of “Edneer Mutt” which was a Hindu Mutt situated in a district of Kerala. He challenged the Kerala government’s attempt to impose restrictions on the management of its property. This landmark judgment was also the climax of a serious dispute between the Judiciary and the Parliament under the leadership of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The conflict arose due to the continuous adverse rulings by the Supreme Court against the move of Indira Gandhi and her government.
The first ruling was made in the year 1967 in the Golak Nath case whereby the Supreme Court took an extreme view that Parliament could not amend or alter any fundamental right.
Secondly, later after two years, Indira Gandhi nationalized 14 major banks of India and the paltry compensation was made payable in bonds that matured after 10 years! This move was struck down by the Supreme Court, although it upheld the right of Parliament to nationalize banks and other industries.
Thirdly, a year after, in 1970, Indira Gandhi removed the Privy Purses. This was a constitutional betrayal of the heartfelt and dignified assurance given by Sardar Patel to all the erstwhile rulers. This judgment was also struck down by the Supreme Court.
Assuming these three successive adverse rulings, which had all been argued by N.A. Palkhivala who was the attorney for Kesavananda Bharati, Indira Gandhi decided to cut and shrink the size of Supreme Court and the High Courts and she introduced a series of constitutional amendments such as the 24th Amendment in 1971, 25th Amendment in 1972, and 29th Amendment in 1972 that nullified all the three successive judgments that are the Golak Nath v State of Punjab (1967), Bank Nationalization case (1970) and Privy Purses judgments. In short, these amendments gave Parliament uncontrolled and unlimited power to alter and abolish any fundamental right.
Why did Kesavananda challenge the Amendments?
These series of constitutional amendments were challenged by Kesavananda Bharati since the state government of Kerala introduced the Land Reforms Amendment Act, 1969 and acquired certain sect’s land of which Kesavananda Bharati was the chief.
On March 1970, Kesavananda Bharti approached the Supreme Court under Section 32 of the Indian Constitution for enforcement of his rights via writ petition which assured under Article 25 (Right to practice and propagate religion), Article 26 (Right to manage religious affairs), Article 14 (Right to equality), Article 31 (Compulsory Acquisition of Property), Article 19(1)(f) (freedom to acquire property),. When the petition was still under consideration by the court, the Kerala Government passed another act that is Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1971.
The efforts put in this case are to answer a major issue:
1. Whether the Parliament has unlimited power to amend the Constitution?
In simple words, could Parliament alter, amend, repeal any part of the Constitution to the extent of infringing the fundamental rights?
2. And Does Preamble form part of the Indian Constitution?
A bare reading of article 368 of Indian Constitution does not specify any provision in relation to the limitation of powers of the Parliament to alter or amend any part of Indian Constitution. There was no express provision that prevented Parliament from taking away a citizen’s right to freedom of speech or his religious freedom.
Previous cases of Shankari Prasad and Sajjan Singh gave absolute powers to the Parliament in amending the Constitution. But the Golaknath case said that the Parliament could not amend the Fundamental Rights and the court held that amendment under Article 368 is ‘law’ within the meaning of Article 13 under the Constitution.
What the Bench said
It was a 700 pages judgment in which the majority was 7:6 and the bench said that Indian Parliament can amend or alter any part of the Constitution as long as it does not alter or amend the Preamble or essential features of the Constitution. The basic structure doctrine has definitely preserved the democracy of India and this case has left a landmark judgment that will always remain crucial for India.
Majority decision was delivered by- S.M. Sikri, K.S Hegde, B.K. Mukherjee, A.N Grover, P. Jagmohan Reddy, Khanna and J.M Shelat.
Minority decision was delivered by- A.N. Ray, D.G. Palekar, K.K. Mathew, M.H. beg, S.N. Dwivedi and Y.V. Chandrachud.
Evolution of the Basic Structure Doctrine
Since the time when the constitution was adopted, it was debatable whether the Parliament has the right to amend the key provisions of the Constitution. In the verdicts of Shankari Prasad v UOI (1951) & Sajjan Singh v State of Rajasthan (1965) held that the Parliament has the power to amend any part of the Constitution including the Fundamental Rights.
But in the Golaknath v State of Punjab (1967) case the Supreme Court held that the Parliament could not amend Fundamental Rights.
The Petitioner Kesavananda Bharti did not win any relief in this case and the amendments in the Kerala Land Reform laws which he had challenged were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1973.
But the efforts of Kesavananda Bharati, Palkhivala and judgment delivered due to majority formed by the seven judges helped India to continue to be the world’s largest democracy and the efforts of the founding fathers of our Constitution did not go in vain.