BASIC STRUCTURE DOCTRINE

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Parliament is considered to the law making body of the Country. Bills to amend the Constitution, any reforms to be made in the legal spectrum of our Country, first begins inside the Parliament and State Legislatures. But is this power absolute? Can the law making bodies of our Country make or amend laws as per their own will. Can our Constitution be amended whenever? And can its spirit be amended? Where is the fine line between making or amending a law and damaging the spirit of the Constitution?

The answer to these questions is the BASIC STRUCTURE DOCTRINE of the Constitution. “Basic structure doctrine” is not a term that has been mentioned in the Constitution since its inception rather it is a term that gained  a position in the law of our country with time. Before, diving into the origin and the meaning of this doctrine, we can define the doctrine, in a nut shell as a principle that safeguards the basic structure of the Constitution, which has some basic features that cannot and should not be amended or done away with in spirit. Devised by the judiciary, it provides independence to it from the other two organs of the democracy, legislature and executive. 

Getting into the history of the origin of the basic structure doctrine, it began after Independence when the major concern of our legislative and executive bodies were “equitable distribution” of wealth and resources among all the citizens. Back then, right to property was a fundamental right under article 19 and article 31. Soon many states started working to abolish zamindari laws, this caused the zamindars to reach out to the apex court and fight for their fundamental right to property. The apex court upheld the case of the zamindars and struck down the anti- zamindari laws. The parliament in order to safeguard the Zamindari laws, added a new provision for it as Article 31B. Ninth schedule was also added in the Constitution. This was done by the First Amendment Act, 1951. To safeguard the ninth schedule further, the Government said that the laws mentioned therein, cannot be struck down just because they violate a fundamental right. Thus, schedule 9 of the Constitution of India, was an ace up the sleeve of the legislative to escape from the judiciary check as laws mentioned in this schedule could not be challenged on the basis of violation of fundamental rights.

In the two cases that objected against the first amendment act, 1951 as being violative of article14 of the Constitution, Sankari Prasad Singh V UOI (1952) and Sajjan Singh V State Of Rajasthan (1955), the Supreme Court did not see a problem with Schedule 9 of the Constitution as it trusted the legislature and the minds of leaders like Nehru. So, the decision came in favour of the Parliament and not for the petitioners. The Apex Court also said that the Parliament can amend any thing in the Constitution including the fundamental rights enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution.

The landmark Golak Nath case (1967) too shaped up the journey of the basic structure doctrine. Golak Nath family had challenged the court for denying them the right to own property and practice a profession of their choice. But the Punjab act was placed in the Ninth schedule of the Constitution and so the petitioner sought to voice out against that too. The Supreme Court with a narrow margin of 6-5 reversed the ruling of Sankari Prasad Singh V UOI (1952) and declared that the Parliament cannot amend Part 3 of the Constitution. Thus after the Golak Nath case the Parliament had no absolute power over the amendments in the Constitution, especially the fundamental rights of citizens. Also, the term “basic structure doctrine” was used for the first time in this case by M.K. Nambiar, a counsel in the case. The Kesavananda Bharti Case was the final nail in the coffin, it ended the tussle between the government and the judiciary. Kesavananda had filed a petition in the court against the government for its continuous efforts to acquire the land belonging to Kerela mutts. He believed the fundamental right of religious institutions to take care of and manage their own property was being violated because of constant interference from the government. While this case still had to reach a bench, the 25th amendment and 26th amendment followed by the 29th Amendment Act which added Kerela land reforms amendments Act in the Ninth schedule, thus keeping is out of any kind of judicial check. Fighting against this amendment, Kesavananda Bharti case was heard by the largest bench ever in the judicial history of India that is 13. The discussion went on for six months until 1973 when the Court finally gave a verdict to this historical case. Justice Sikri, Justice Shelat, K.S. Hegde and A.N. Grover were incline towards the concept of Parliament having certain limitations when it came to its power in amending any part of the Constitution. Their belief was very similar to the ruling of Golak Nath case. While, Justices A.N. Ray, K.K. Mathew, D.G. Palekar, M.H. Beg and S.N. Dwivedi were inclined towards the government and believed that Parliament can amend the fundamental rights or any provision of the Constitution, as they find suitable. H.R. Khanna, A.K. Mukherjee, P. Jaganmohan Reddy and Y.V. Chandrachud were neutral in the beginning of the case discussion in the Court. For the final verdict, the judges who believed in a certain limitation to the Parliament’s power of amending the Constitution especially when the potential change could damage the spirit or the basic structure of the Constitution , formed a majority of the Bench. And thus the Court ruled in favour of Parliament having a limited power and a check on its powers. The Court overruled the Golak Nath case ruling and said that more than the 24th amendment act, Article 368 held relevance when it came to the procedure for amendments in the Constitution. It further held that Article 368 did not confer any such unlimited and unchecked power on the Parliament, to dampen the basic structure of the Constitution of India. Hence, the Parliament did have limitations with its power. This ruling gave a lot of meaning to the term of Basic Structure Doctrine of the Constitution. Apex Court applied this doctrine in a number of cases to follow, some landmark ones being, Indira Nehru Gandhi, Minerva Mills. Waman Rao and I.R. Coelho. The doctrine always maintains the supremacy of the Constitution and safeguards the spirit of the Constitution against a majority that aims at altering the basic structure of the Constitution.