Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala case is a landmark verdict given by the 13- judges bench of the Supreme Court. The verdict set the principles that the Supreme Court is the guardian of the Basic Structure of the Constitution.
Equivalent Citation- Writ Petition (Civil) 135 of 1970.
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In 1963 (amended again in 1969), the Kerala Land Reforms Act, was enacted to fulfil the socio-economic obligation of the state government of Kerala.
Under this act, the state government acquired the land belonging to the Edneer Mutt in the Kasargod District of Kerala.
Challenging this Land acquisition, the Chief of Edneer Mutt, His Holiness Kesavananda Bharati, filed a written petition pursuant to Article 32 for the protection of rights pursuant to Article 25, Article 26, Article 14, Article 19(1) and Article 31 of the Indian Constitution. Meanwhile the Golaknath case judgments put severe restrictions on the power of the parliament to amend the constitution.
In the years that followed the Golaknath Case, the Bank Nationalization Act was defeated by the Supreme Court. In 1969, the Supreme Court again struck down the Presidential Order aiming at the abolition of Privy Purse in R.C.Cooper VS. Union of India and Madhav Rao Scindia Vs. Union Of India.
Following these defeats, to nullify the consequences of these rulings, the Government of India passed the 24th and 25th Constitutional Amendment Acts.
The Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963, was included in the 9th Schedule of the constitution by the Constitution (29th Amendment Act, 1972)
So, the petitioners in the case challenged the constitutional validity of the 24th, 25th and 29th Amendments Acts.
The petitioner in the argument contended that the power of the parliament to amend the constitution is limited and restrictive. They said “the constitution gave the Indian citizen freedoms which were to subsist forever and the constitution was drafted to free the nation from any future tyranny of the representatives of the people. According to the petitioners, Article 31C, which was added in the 25th amendment, has stripped away the right”
Their reasoning for restricted parliamentary authority was also based on the Principles of the Basic Feature suggested by Justice Mudholkar in his dissenting Judgment in the Case of Sajjan Singh (1964).They pleaded for the protection of their fundamental rights to property under Article 19(1)(F) that was violated by the enactment of the 24th and 25th constitutional Amendment Act.
The State of Kerala, on the other hand, claimed that Parliament’s power to amend the constitution was absolute and unrestricted. No limit on the power of Parliament to amend the Constitution should be put in order to satisfy the socio-economic responsibilities guaranteed to citizens in the Preamble.
On the principle of an egalitarian state, the foundation of the Constitution has been erected. If the power to amend is limited and the petitioners’ claim is acknowledged, then the laws enacted by the State to satisfy its socio-economic obligations are clearly at odds with the constitutional rights provided for in Part III of the Constitution. In effect, Article 31C lifts the ban levied on the state legislature and parliament pursuant to Article 14, 19 and 31.
The respondent argued that “Parliament should abrogate fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and voice, freedom to join associations or unions, and freedom of religion.” Democracy may also be replaced and one law of the party can be set up.
The Supreme Court by a 7:6 majority held that the parliament in the exercise of constituent power can amend any provision of the constitution. The Court gave the following reasoning:
- Article 368 includes the power to amend the constitution. Second, within the scope of Article 13, the basic structure of the constitution can not be amended. Article 13 means laws passed by the legislature are subject to constitutional requirements. Article 13(2) of the legislation does not apply to the constitution. The Supreme rule is the Constitution.
- Third, a constitutional amendment is an exercise of constituent power. In the Golaknath situation, the majority view is, respectfully, incorrect.
- Fourth, the power of amendment does not have any express limits.
- Fifth, the power of amendment does not have any implicit or inherent limits. Neither the Preamble nor Article 13(2) limits the power of amendment in any way.
- Sixth, the power to amend is broad and unrestricted, and the power to amend implies the power to add, change or repeal any clause of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court also observed that ‘the Indian Constitution is a social document first and foremost. Most of its provisions are either specifically aimed at advancing the goals of the social revolution by creating the conditions required for its achievement, but despite the permeation of the entire Constitution with the goal of national renaissance, the fundamental rights and the Directive Principles of the State Policy are at the heart of the commitment to the social revolution in Part III and IV. They are the Constitution’s conscience. Therefore, in order to enforce the obligations placed on States under Part IV, the privileges bestowed on people or persons under Part III can need to be abridged in some respects….’
So, the Court held the Amendment to the Constitution as valid.
On the question to which extent the constitution can be amended, the Court deduced the ‘Doctrine of Basic Structure’.4 It implies that though Parliament has the power to amend any provision of the Constitution, it cannot in any manner interfere with the features so fundamental to the Constitution without which the Constitution would be spiritless.
With respect to the 25th Amendment, the first section of the amendment was found valid by the court.
In other words, the laws passed to give effect to the State Policy Theory Directive in compliance with Part IV are subject to judicial review.
The court also held the 29th Amendment valid. However, it said that ‘the question whether the acts included in the Ninth Schedule by that amendment or any provision of those acts abrogates any of the basic elements of the Constitutional structure or denudes them of their identity will have to be examined when the validity of those Acts comes up for consideration.’
In other words, the laws included in the ninth schedule can be challenged in the court of law, on the grounds that they abrogate the basic elements of the constitutional structure
Kesavananda Bharati Case overruled Golaknath case judgment with regard to the power to amend the Constitution. All the amendments to the constitution were subjected to the test of ‘Basic Structure Doctrine´. It reflected the judicial creativity of a very high order.
The Supreme Court gave an illustrative list of basic elements of the Constitution. The list includes:
- The Supremacy of the Constitution.
- The Sovereignty of India.
- Republic and Democratic form of government.
- Legislative, executive and judicial division of powers. Federal Constitutional Character.
- The individual’s integrity is protected by the different freedoms and fundamental rights contained in Part III, and the mandate contained in Part IV to create a welfare state. The nation’s stability and dignity.
Political controversies concerning the decision were present. As a reaction to the verdict, despite there being 3 other judges who were senior to him on the bench at the time, the government elevated Justice A.N.Ray to the position of Chief Justice.
The bench of 13 judges was set up by Chief Justice A.N.Ray in 1975 to review the Kesavananda Bharati case.
But the bench was unilaterally dissolved after the two days of the argument, on the ground that “no review petition was filed and the revision had been initiated over an oral request, making the review process improper.”
The government headed by Indira Gandhi sought to undo the implication of the Kesavananda Bharati case. The government enacted the 42nd amendment Act, 1976 giving unlimited power to the parliament to amend the constitution. It also provided that the validity of no constitutional amendment shall be called in question in any court on any grounds.
The rule which is drawn through this judgement regarding the test of basic structure of the constitution and defining the boundaries for the parliament to make amend the constitution is limited. It is the instrument of social change and the manifestation of society’s will for popular change. Legislation adjusts according to the predominant needs and requirements of the culture. The rationality behind the Ninth Schedule’s formation and the utility of a time when it was thought that the Constitution was amended by the Constitution First Amendment Act, 1951 and thus read with the Ninth Schedule to insert Article 31-B, necessarily implies that time demanded to provide security to Abolition Actions of Zamindari to facilitate social reforms, such as land reform. And, in all the 13 Acts that were put in the first place, the same is mirrored.
The Ninth Schedule is nothing more than a legislative attempt to ensure socio-economic improvements. This initiative is highly anticipated to eliminate discrepancies in societies and all those classes which are at the verge of poverty. By upholding the essential features of the Constitution, the bulk of the Bench decided to retain the Indian Constitution. After evaluating the different aspects, the decision was given and was based on sound reasoning. The Bench feared that if Parliament were granted unlimited authority to amend our Indian Constitution, the power would be misused and the government would change it according to its own will and desires. If they have unrestricted authority to make changes, the basic characteristics and the very spirit of the Constitution may be changed by the government. There was a need for a doctrine to safeguard both Parliament and citizens’ rights, and therefore the Bench came up with a way through Basic Structure doctrine, to uphold both of their rights.
Approximately 30 changes had already been made to it long before our Indian Constitution came into force. Around 150 amendments were passed after the adoption of the Indian Constitution in 1951, while only 27 amendments were passed in 230 years in the United States. The spirit and ideals of the framers of the Indian Constitution have remained unchanged, despite a large number of amendments. Due to the decision taken by the Indian Constitution, identity and spirit have not been lost. The Bench’s decision was made in this case.
The landmark case of Kesavananda Bharati v state of Kerala provided the Constitution with stability. Although the petitioner partially lost his case, the Bench’s judgment, in this case, turned out to be a savior of Indian democracy and saved the Constitution from losing its spirit.
 AIR 564, 1970 SCR (3) 530.
 AIR 530, 1971 SCR (3) 9.
 Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala case summary, available at http://lawtimesjournal.in/kesavananda-bharti-vs-state-of-kerala-case-summary/ (last visited on 7th January, 2021)
 Introduction to the Constitution of India , D.D.Basu (LexisNexis Butterworths Wadhwa, 6th edn., 2012).
BY ISHITA MISHRA | BANASTHALI VIDHYAPEETH