The world got to know about the passing away of the sage Keshvanand Bharati or Kesavananda Bharati Sripadagalvaru at the Edaneer Mutt, in the early hours of 6th September 2020, whose petition made the Supreme Court of India reach a landmark decision on the celebrated doctrine of ‘basic structure of the Constitution‘ in 1973 and set a precedent for the forthcoming generation in India.

Keshvanand Bharati managed to challenge the Kerala Land Reform legislation which was affecting his fundamental right to freely practice and profess his religion guaranteed under the Constitution nearly four decades ago to set the principle of the Supreme Court of India being the “guardian” of the basic structure of the Constitution of India.

While the seer did not fully get the relief he wanted and his lands were partially acquired under the Land Reform laws of Kerela, the case became noteworthy for its landmark verdict which bestowed the Parliament with the widest powers to amend the Constitution and concurrently provided the judiciary with the powers to review any amendments.

What were the facts of the case?

In February 1970 Swami Kesavananda Bharati, the primary petitioner and the chief of Edneer Mutt in the state of Kerala, opposed the attempts by the to acquire the ashram lands under the two novels land reform acts seeking imposition of restrictions on the management of its property.

The petitioner’s counsel Nanabhoy Palkhivala convinced Swami to file a writ petition under Article 26, regarding the right to manage religiously owned property without any interference of government.

The case was heard for a total period of 68 days, the arguments commencing on October 31, 1972, and ending on March 23, 1973, by a full bench comprising of 200 pages judgment for the first time in Indian history.

What was the matter in question?

Kesavananda Bharati Sripadagalvaru & Ors. Vs. State of Kerala & Another’s AIR1970 SC 1461, better known as Kesavananda Bharati judgment, is a ruling that demarcated the basic structure of the Constitution and whether the basic structure of the constitution could be amended under Article 368 of the Constitution. Bharati’s counsel Nani Palkhivala had filed a writ petition invoking Article 26 of the Constitution on March 21, 1970, challenging the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1969, and the three Constitutional amendments — 24, 25, and 29.

Arguing that such laws violated his fundamental right to practice and propagate religion (Article 25); including rights related to freedom of religious denomination & the management and administration of the mutt property, (Article 26); and right to property (Article 31).

The laws related to land reforms were also challenged on the ground that such laws threatened to deprive of its property which helped to provide as the primary income source for the ashram.

Judgments:

The judgment given by the full bench stated that through the doctrine of “Basic Structure” of the constitution, it possesses a basic structure of constitutional principles and values. It also partially concreted the prior precedent Golaknath v. State of Punjab, which held that constitutional amendments through Article 368 were subject to fundamental rights review, but only if they could affect the ‘basic structure of the Constitution.’ The Court also upheld the constitutionality of the first provision of Article 31-C, which provided that amendments seeking to implement the Directive Principles of state policy that do not affect the ‘Basic Structure, shall not be the subject to judicial review.

The 13-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court reflected on any possible restrictions, if any, of the powers of the elected representatives of the people and the nature of fundamental rights of an individual.

Affirming the validity of clause (4) of Article 13 and a corresponding provision in article 368(3), inserted by the 24th Amendment, the Court settled in favor of the view that Parliament has the power to amend the fundamental rights maintaining the other proposition drawn in re. Golaknath’s case providing that the expression “amendment” of the Constitution under Article 368 implied any addition or alteration in any of the requirements of the Constitution inside the broad silhouettes of the Constitution and further to convey the objects in the Preamble and the Directive Principles of State Policy.

Further, the fundamental rights shall not be subjected to abrogation or reasonable abridgments that could be affected in the public interest.

Thus, the final verdict was divided into a 7-6, it ruled that while the Parliament has ‘wide’ powers, it did not have any power to destroy or emasculate the basic elements or fundamental features of the constitution.

Finally, the Supreme Court of India provided that both land reform acts included in the Ninth Schedule are enable shield of Article 31B of the Constitution (the (validation of certain acts and regulations).

Significance of the Judgement:

1. Although, the petitioner could not fully get the relief he sought for, however, the judgment gained widespread acceptance and legitimacy due to subsequent cases and judgments following the case.

2. The imposition of the State of Emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975, and the following effort to overturn her prosecution through the 39th Constitutional Amendment. When the Kesavananda case was decided, the primary fear of the majority bench that elected representatives could not be relied on to act responsibly was apparent to be unprecedented.

3. The basic structure doctrine was later also approved by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh in 1989, by expressly making it a basis of the on the reason provided in the Kesavananda case, as a precedent for case ANWAR HOSSAIN CHOWDHURY VS. BANGLADESH, 1989 B.L.D. (SPL) 1, 41 D.L.R. (AD) 165 (1989).

4. The Kesavananda judgment also succeeded to define the extent to which Parliament could have the power to restrict property rights, in cases of land reform and the rearrangement of large landholdings to cultivators, superseding previous rulings suggesting that that suggested that the right to property could not be limited. Further, setting a precedent for many cases relating to limitations to the power to amend the Constitution.

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