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Kesavananda Bharati Case – Explained

Kesavananda Bharati Case – Explained

UPSC CSE Mains Syllabus: GS-2- Indian Constitution- historical underpinnings, evolution, features, amendments, significant provisions and basic structure.

Kesavananda Bharati Case – Explained

What was the case:

Swami Kesavananda Bharati Sripadagalavaru, the head of a Kerala math, challenged the state government’s attempt to impose restrictions on the management of the religious property.

In an earlier case called Golak Nath vs. the State of Punjab, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament could not curtail any fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution. 

The Swami Kesavananda Bharati case was heard by a 13-member constitutional bench.

Division among Judges:

  • It was alleged that before the case got underway, divisions reflected in the very composition of the bench. 
  • One the one hand, there were the judges including Chief Justice SM Sikri — who had heard the Golak Nath case and had predetermined views about Parliament’s amending power.
  • It is reported that at the same time the Indira Gandhi government packed the Supreme Court with judges “expected to decide in its favour.

What was the case about?

  • The case was primarily about the extent of Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution.
  • The court was reviewing a 1967 decision in Golaknath v State of Punjab. In this the SC reversed its earlier verdicts and had ruled that Parliament cannot amend fundamental rights.
  • The court was deciding the constitutional validity of several other amendments.
  • Notably, the right to property had been removed as a fundamental right.
  • Parliament had also given itself the power to amend any part of the Constitution and passed a law that it cannot be reviewed by the courts.
  • The executive vs judiciary manoeuvres displayed in the amendments ended with the Kesavananda Bharati case, in which the court had to settle these issues conclusively.
  • Politically, the case represented the fight for supremacy of Parliament led by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Court’s decision:

  • In its majority ruling, the court held that fundamental rights cannot be taken away by amending them.
  • While the court said that Parliament had vast powers to amend the Constitution, it drew the line by observing that certain parts are so inherent and intrinsic to the Constitution that even Parliament cannot touch it.
  • However, despite the ruling that Parliament cannot breach fundamental rights, the court upheld the amendment that removed the fundamental right to property.
  • The court ruled that in spirit, the amendment would not violate the “basic structure” of the Constitution.
  • Kesavananda Bharati, in fact, lost the case.
  • But as many legal scholars point out, the government did not win the case either.

Basic structure doctrine:

  • The origins of the basic structure doctrine are found in the German Constitution which, after the Nazi regime, was amended to protect some basic laws.
  • The original Weimar Constitution, which gave Parliament to amend the Constitution with a two-thirds majority, was in fact used by Hitler to his advantage to made radical changes.
  • Learning from that experience, the new German Constitution introduced substantive limits on Parliament’s powers to amend certain parts of the Constitution which it considered ‘basic law’.
  • In India, the basic structure doctrine has formed the bedrock of judicial review of all laws passed by Parliament.
  • No law can impinge on the basic structure.

Has it been defined:

  • What the basic structure is, however, has been a continuing deliberation.
  • While parliamentary democracy, fundamental rights, judicial review, secularism are all held by courts as basic structure, the list is not exhaustive.

Immediate impact of the verdict:

  • Politically, as a result of the verdict, the judiciary faced its biggest litmus test against the executive.
  • The Indira Gandhi-led government did not take kindly to the majority opinion and superseded three judges —J M Shelat, A N Grover and K S Hegde — who were in line to be appointed CJI after Justice Sikri.
  • Justice A N Ray, who had dissented against the majority verdict, was instead appointed CJI.
  • The supersession resulted in a decades-long continuing battle on the independence of the judiciary and the extent of Parliament’s power to appoint judges.
  • But the ruling has cemented the rejection of majoritarian impulses to make sweeping changes or even replace the Constitution and underlined the foundations of a modern democracy laid down by the makers of the Constitution.

Source:”Indian Express”.

Possible UPSC Mains Question:

Why Kesvananda Bharati case is considered as a landmark judgement? How far did it protect the constitution of India from arbitrary changes?