Revisiting the Landmark Case of ‘Kesavananda Bharati’ that Strengthened the Indian Democracy

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On 6 September 2020, the religious head of the Edneer Mutt of Kerala departed from the earth leaving his thousands of followers behind. The question of the matter is the relationship between a celebrated religious leader and constitutional law. To answer this question plainly, this religious head was the lead plaintiff on arguably the case that fortified the Indian Democracy, his name – His Holiness Kesavananda Bharati.

Forty-seven years ago, a thirteen judge bench including then-Chief Justice Sikri delivered the most significant judgement in the history of the Indian judiciary.

In the case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, the bench was quite divisive and rendered a 7-6 decision. Herein, the aforementioned Constitutional Bench ruled that there exists an uninfringeable, unalterable and impregnable  ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution of India that is Constitutionally barred from any amendment by the parliament.

The Political Background of the Case

To provide a political background to this case, it must be known that this case came at a time of great political charge, making it all the more important to safeguard the constitutional integrity.

After the judgement of Golaknath v. State of Punjab, the parliament passed three constitutional amendments namely- the 24th, 25th, & 29th constitutional amendments in 1971 and 1972 to override and thus, indirectly overturn the decision in the Golaknath case, thereby regaining autonomy on the Constitution.

Facts and Issue of the Case

The plaintiff, His Holiness Kesavananda Bharati was the chief of a religious sect in Kerala. This sect had certain landholdings in its name, State Govt. which by the virtue of the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963 and thereafter the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1969 were acquired by the State Govt. of Kerala to fulfil obligations termed “Socio-economic”.

Thus in 1970, his holiness moved the Apex Court under Article 32 of the Constitution, claiming infringement of rights under Article 25, 26, 14, 31, and now constitutionally invalid 19(1)(f).

The issues, in this case, were regarding the constitutional validity of the 24th constitutional amendment, the 25th constitutional amendment, and the extent of the parliament’s power and the autonomy to amend the Constitution.

The Ratio of the Case & the “Basic Structure Doctrine”

The thirteen judge-bench returned a decision in favour of the plaintiffs that the parliament is entitled to amend the Constitution, subject to the fact that such an amendment does not violate the basic structure of the Constitution of India.

The Apex Court upheld the 24th Constitutional (Amendment) Act. On the other hand, the Court found that the first part of 25th Constitutional (Amendment) Act to have been “intra vires” but the 2nd part of the act was held to be “ultra vires”. The dispute left open by the Golaknath judgement was recovered by the SC in this case by providing the extent of the amending power and autonomy of the parliament with respect to the constitution.

The “Basic Structure Doctrine” became a central tenet to the Indian Constitution. The basic structure doctrine is now fundamental to the constitutional. It safeguards the constitutional rights and values with a consideration to protect the rights from legislative arbitrariness. It provides that even though the parliament has the right to amend the Constitution, such right is subject to the conditions placed on it by the basic structure doctrine.

The constitutional requirements of the doctrine are that the amendments by the parliament must not in any shape or form impede or obstruct such provisions that are fundamental to the very nature and essence of the Constitution without which it losses its spirit. To better understand the doctrine, it is important to analyse the judgement of this case in which the ethos of the doctrine is beautifully expressed. The SC said that the word ‘amendment’ itself has a limited meaning within the Constitution does not permit any damage to or destruction of the basic or fundamental features or essential elements of the Constitution.

The position taken by the Court was that every provision of the Constitution can be amended provided in the result the basic foundation and structure of the Constitution remains the same. The basic structure may be said to consist of the following features:

  1. The supremacy of the Constitution;
  2. Republican and Democratic form of Government;
  3. Secular character of the Constitution;
  4. Separation of powers between the Legislature, the executive and the judiciary;
  5. Federal character of the Constitution.

The Court then elaborated on the elements of the basic structure that are indicated in the preamble and translated in the various provisions of the Constitution. Justice Mukherjee wrote that the edifice of the Constitution is built upon and stands on several props, remove any of them, the Constitution collapses. These were denoted in the said judgement as (1) the Sovereign Democratic Republic; (2) Justice, social, economic and political; (3) Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; (4) Equality of status and of opportunity. Each one of these is important and collectively they assure a way of life to the people of India which the Constitution guarantees.

Thus, if any of the above elements are withdrawn or rejected the structure will not survive and it will not be the same Constitution as it once was. Such a Constitution cannot maintain its identity, and thus it loses its essence and its promise.

Legacy and Relevance of the Keshavnanda Bharti Case

The legacy of His Holiness Keshavnanda Bharti goes beyond his religious work to the larger part played by him helping strengthen the Indian democracy and safeguarding the essence of the Indian Constitution. The case bearing his name will forever defend the Constitution, the people, and the constitutional promise.

Be it the separation of powers, the federal nature of our government, or the ideals of justice upheld by the preamble; this case acts as a no defect zone for the democracy’s present and its future. This 1970 case is of great relevance at every step of the constitutional journey as it supports and lifts the Constitution from losing its very identity and thus, the identity of the democracy that stands today.


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