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Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973): A Detailed Analysis

Introduction

Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala is, arguably, the most landmark judgment in the history of the Supreme Court of India. It laid down the doctrine of the “Basic Structure” of the Constitution, which cannot be altered even by a constitutional amendment.

Background

  1. Impetus: Swami Kesavananda Bharati, the head of the Edneer Mutt in Kerala, challenged the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1969, which imposed restrictions on the management of its own property. During the pendency of this case, the 24th, 25th, 26th, and 29th Amendments to the Constitution were enacted. These amendments sought to overcome the judgments of the Supreme Court in Golak Nath, Bank Nationalization, and Privy Purses cases.
  2. Challenge: Kesavananda Bharati challenged the validity of these amendments, asserting that they damaged the core principles of the Constitution.

Key Issues

  1. Does the power of Parliament to amend the Constitution include the power to alter its fundamental identity or its “basic structure”?

Judgement and Key Takeaways

  1. Basic Structure Doctrine: The Supreme Court, by a slim majority of 7:6, introduced the ‘Basic Structure’ doctrine. It was held that while Parliament has wide powers to amend the Constitution, it does not have the power to destroy or alter its “basic structure”.
  2. Identification of Basic Structure: The Court refrained from providing an exhaustive list of what constitutes the “basic structure”. However, it did identify certain features, including the supremacy of the Constitution, the division of power between the centre and the states, the fundamental rights, and the principle of secularism, among others.
  3. Validity of Amendments: The Court upheld the validity of the 24th, 25th, and 29th Amendments but held that one provision of the 25th Amendment, which prevented judicial review of laws implementing Directive Principles, was unconstitutional as it damaged the basic structure.
  4. Overruling Previous Judgments: The Court overruled the previous judgment in the I.C. Golak Nath case, which had held that Parliament cannot amend Fundamental Rights.

Implications and Importance

  1. Checks on Parliamentary Supremacy: The judgment put a check on the unfettered power of Parliament to amend the Constitution, ensuring that core principles are preserved.
  2. Evolution of the Doctrine: The concept of the “basic structure” has been invoked and refined in numerous subsequent cases. In the Minerva Mills case (1980), for instance, the Court added the principle of the balance between Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles to the basic structure.
  3. Shield against Majoritarianism: The doctrine acts as a shield against possible majoritarian excesses, ensuring the Constitution’s longevity and preserving its core principles against transient political majorities.

Conclusion

The Kesavananda Bharati case stands as a cornerstone in the edifice of Indian constitutional law. It balances the flexibility required to adapt the Constitution to changing needs and the rigidity necessary to preserve its core principles. It’s a testament to the wisdom of the Indian judiciary in understanding the delicate balance between the need for societal progress and the preservation of foundational values.

Shivendra Pratap Singh

Advocate

High Court Lucknow

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