What is 'basic structure' doctrine that prevents alterations of the Constitution

How the Emergency of 1975-1977 necessitated safeguards against the amendment of the Constitution’s basic structure to curb violative practices.

Published : Apr 28, 2001 00:00 IST

ON April 24, 1973, a Special Bench comprising 13 Judges of the Supreme Court of India ruled by a majority of 7-6, that Article 368 of the Constitution “does not enable Parliament to alter the basic structure or framework of the Constitution” (Kesavananda Bharati vs. The State of Kerala; AIR 1973 S.C. 1461, (1973) 4 SCC 225). It, however, overruled a decision of a Special Bench of 11 Judges, by a majority of 6-5, on February 27, 1967, that “Parliament has no power to amend Part III of the Constitution so as to take away or abridge the fundamental rights” (I.C. Golak Nath & Ors. vs. The State of Punjab & Ors.: AIR 1967 S.C. 1643, (1967) 2 SCJ 486).

Founding of the basic structure doctrine

Instead, the court propounded what has come to be known as “the basic structure” doctrine. Any part of the Constitution may be amended by following the procedure prescribed in Article 368. But no part may be so amended as to “alter the basic structure” of the Constitution. It is unamendable.

As in 1968, the ruling widened the political divide. The very next day, on April 25, 1973, Indira Gandhi’s government struck a blow at the independence of the judiciary - from which it has not recovered fully even now, a quarter century later. It superseded three most senior Judges of the Supreme Court and appointed Justice A.N. Ray as Chief Justice of India. The favourite proved his worth during the Emergency.

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Only a couple of years later, the majority ruling was vindicated during the Emergency when Indira Gandhi’s appeal against the judgment of Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court - unseating her in the Lok Sabha for corrupt practices - was decided by the Supreme Court. She had taken care, meanwhile, to alter the election law retrospectively on the points on which she had lost. Worse, by means of the 39th Amendment to the Constitution, Article 329A was inserted in it to wipe out the Allahabad judgment, the election petition and the law relating to it. The right to dispute the validity of her election was taken away by not providing an alternative forum. A legislative enactment validated an election. It was successfully challenged in the light of the 1973 ruling. Article 329(4) was struck down as being violative of the principle of free elections and the rule of law. (Indira Nehru Gandhi vs. Raj Narain 1975 (Supp.) SCC 1).

This ruling spared the country much worse that was in store. Bill No. XVIII of 1975, gazetted on August 9, 1975, sought to enact the 41st Amendment to the Constitution. Immunity against criminal proceedings of the widest possible amplitude was proposed to be conferred on the Prime Minister by amending Article 361. The Bill was dropped, but it won converts to the 1973 ruling. The Supreme Court of India has since affirmed “the basic structure” doctrine in a series of rulings without demur. No one argued any longer that no other court had struck down a constitutional amendment by invoking that doctrine. For, in none other had such abuses been attempted.

What is little known in India is that this doctrine has now spread far and wide beyond its frontiers. In the 1950s and 1960s, Part III of the Constitution, embodying the fundamental rights, was emulated in the Constitution of many a Commonwealth country, including Pakistan’s in 1956. In the last two decades, the Supreme Court’s achievement has been acclaimed and adopted by courts in foreign lands.

India’s debt to German jurist Professor Dietrich Conrad

THERE is, sadly, little acknowledgement in India of that debt we owe to a distinguished German jurist and a scholar steeped in other disciplines beyond the confines of law - Professor Dietrich Conrad, formerly Head of the Law Department, South Asia Institute of the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

In Golak Nath’s case, the doctrine of any implied limitations on Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution was not accepted. The majority felt that “there is considerable force in this argument” but thought it unnecessary to pronounce on it. “This question may arise for consideration only if Parliament seeks to destroy the structure of the Constitution embodied in provisions other than in Part III of the Constitution.”

The argument of implied limitations had been advanced at the Bar by M. K. Nambyar, one of India’s leading constitutional lawyers. Few people knew then that he owed the argument to Professor Conrad. In February 1965, while on a visit to India, Conrad delivered a lecture on “Implied Limitations of the Amending Power” to the Law Faculty of the Banaras Hindu University. A paper based on the subject was sent to Prof. T. S. Rama Rao in Madras for his comments. Nambyar’s attention was drawn to this paper which he read before the Supreme Court, though with little result.

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Prof. Conrad’s lecture, delivered in February 1965, showed remarkable perceptiveness besides deep learning. He observed:

“Perhaps the position of the Supreme Court is influenced by the fact that it has not so far been confronted with any extreme type of constitutional amendments. It is the duty of the jurist, though, to anticipate extreme cases of conflict, and sometimes only extreme tests reveal the true nature of a legal concept. So, if for the purpose of legal discussion, I may propose some fictive amendment laws to you, could it still be considered a valid exercise of the amendment power conferred by Article 368 if a two-thirds majority changed Article 1 by dividing India into two States of Tamilnadu and Hindustan proper?

“Could a constitutional amendment abolish Article 21, to the effect that forthwith a person could be deprived of his life or personal liberty without authorisation by law? Could the ruling party, if it sees its majority shrinking, amend Article 368 to the effect that the amending power rests with the President acting on the advice of the Prime Minister? Could the amending power be used to abolish the Constitution and reintroduce, let us say, the rule of a moghul emperor or of the Crown of England? I do not want, by posing such questions, to provoke easy answers. But I should like to acquaint you with the discussion which took place on such questions among constitutional lawyers in Germany in the Weimar period - discussion, seeming academic at first, but suddenly illustrated by history in a drastic and terrible manner.”

A more detailed exposition of Prof. Conrad’s views appeared after the judgment in Golak Nath’s case (Limitation of Amendment Procedures and the Constituent Power; Indian Year Book of International Affairs, 1966-1967, Madras, pp. 375-430).

Legal procedures

In 1973, as in 1968, the Bench was split evenly. Six of the Justices (Chief Justice S.M. Sikri, Justices J.M. Shelat, A.N. Grover, K.S. Hegde, S. Mukherjee and P. Jagan Mohan Reddy) were of the view that Article 368 does not enable Parliament to abrogate or take away fundamental rights, including the right to property, because there are in Article 368 inherent or “implied limitations” in that it does not empower Parliament to alter or destroy the “basic structure” of the Constitution. Six other Justices (Ray, M.H. Beg, D.G. Palekar, S.N. Dwivedi, K.K. Mathew and Y.V. Chandrachud) held that there were no limitations to the power of constitutional amendment beyond those which are contained in Article 368, and Parliament was competent to amend any provision of the Constitution.

It was the judgment of Justice Khanna that tilted the balance. He rejected the theory of implied limitations but held that the word “amendment” itself suggested the limitations. “The power of amendment under Article 368 does not include the power to abrogate the Constitution nor does it include the power to alter the basic structure or framework of the Constitution. Subject to the retention of the basic structure, the power of amendment is plenary and includes within itself the power to amend the various articles of the Constitution, including those relating to fundamental rights as well as those which may be said to relate to essential features.”

He, however, approved as “substantially correct” the following observations by Prof. Conrad: “Any amending body organised within the statutory scheme, howsoever verbally unlimited its power, cannot by its very structure change the fundamental pillars supporting its constitutional authority.”

It was no mere coincidence that a German jurist had thought of implied limitations on the amending power. Article 79(3) of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, adopted on May 8, 1949, six months before the drafting of India’s Constitution ended, bars explicitly amendments to provisions concerning the federal structure and to “the basic principles laid down in Articles 1 and 20 (on human rights and the “democratic and social” set-up). The Germans learnt from the bitter experience of the Nazi era. The framers of the Constitution of India refused to look beyond the Commonwealth countries and the United States.

It is, again, to Prof. Dietrich Conrad that we owe a mass of information on the spread of the “basic structure” doctrine in a lecture on “Basic Structure of the Constitution and Constitutional Principles,” delivered at the Indian Law Institute in New Delhi on April 2, 1996. It was published in Law and Justice, a journal of the United Lawyers Association, New Delhi (Vol. 3, Nos. 1-4; pages 99-114).

Prof. Conrad aptly remarked that “in this free trade of constitutional ideas the Indian Supreme Court has come to play the role of an exporter. This holds true with respect to at least two major innovations introduced by the court”; namely, public interest litigation and “the basic structure doctrine”. The doctrine was adopted by the Supreme court of Bangladesh in 1989 expressly relying on the reasoning in the Kesavananda case of 1973 (Anwar Hossain Chowdhary vs. Bangladesh; 41 DLR 1989 App. Div. 165, 1989 BLD (Spl.) 1).

PAKISTAN has so far declined to follow suit, though there have been significant shifts in that direction. Prof. Conrad points out that in 1963 in Fazlul Quader Chowdry vs. Mohd. Abdul Haque, the Pakistan Supreme Court had introduced the expressions “fundamental” or “essential features of the Constitution”, “fundamentals of the Constitution” or “essential features of the Constitution”, “fundamentals of the Constitution”, “basic structure of government” and so on to describe the inherent limitations of a presidential power to remove difficulties in bringing the Constitution into operation.

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“This language was used in order to distinguish the President’s power of mere adaptation from wider powers of constitutional amendment, holding that a change, e.g. ‘essential features’, went beyond adaptation and could only be done by amendment. Nevertheless, soon thereafter it was noted in an Indian case in the context of the amending power itself.” (Justice J. R. Mudholkar in Sajjan Singh vs. The State of Rajasthan, AIR 1965 SC 845 at p. 862). From there to Kesavanda was a short step. Dr. Kamal Hossain, distinguished counsel and former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, pointed out to the Bangladesh Supreme Court in 1989 that the doctrine “originated from a decision of Dhaka High Court”.

Prof. Conrad added: “Recently, in the famous case on judicial appointments, the Pakistan Supreme Court has come very close to recognising a “basic structure” limitation on the power of amendment. In fact it is amazing to see how they could arrive at certain conclusions and still evade an express recognition of the doctrine” (Al-Jehad Trust vs. Federation of Pakistan; PLD 1996 SC. 367).

Prof. Conrad concluded his tour d’horizon by saying that “the concept of a basic structure giving coherence and durability to a Constitution has a certain intrinsic force which would account for its appearance in various jurisdictions and under different circumstances. It remains to take a closer look at some implications of this theory as they appear from comparative constitutional experience.

Evolution of constitutional philosophy

In this respect, a very interesting development is going on in India bringing Indian constitutional philosophy into closer rapport with European antecedents. This development is the emergence of constitutional principles in their own right - being something more than a summary or a heading of particular provisions and possibly transcending their literal wording. It can be observed in the use recently made of the basic structure doctrine in the Bommai case.

Here the basic structure concept was resorted to outside its original scope and function. No question of constitutional amendment was involved in the case. But the Supreme Court held that policies by a State government directed against an element of the basic structure of the Constitution would be a valid ground for exercising the central power under Article 356, that is, the imposition of President’s Rule. Secularism was held to be such an essential feature of the Constitution and part of its basic structure.”

Prof. Conrad, one might add, is learned in India’s history and Hindu philosophy no less, besides constitutional law. He has written extensively on knotty issues of Hindu law and Muslim law; notably on the Shah Bano case. At Heidelberg, he has been a guide, friend and philosopher to many a South Asian student.

There is a sad void in our academia. There is no institution which informs us of legal developments in neighbouring countries. There is, however, one institution in London which does just that and on a far wider scale, too. It is Interights, at Lancaster House, 33 Islington High Street, London, NI 9LHO.

A.G. Noorani is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
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