Basic structure of Indian Constitution

The Basic Structure of Indian Constitution seeks to uphold the supremacy of the Constitution against the laws made by Parliament. Originally, the Constitution of India did not have the word “Basic structure”. It was the famous Kesavanand Bharati case that resulted in the Supreme Court bringing the Basic Structure of India’s Constitution. So, what was the Kesavanad Bharati case? What is Basic Structure of Indian Constitution and why has it become an important aspect of our constitution? Let’s understand everything in this article.

Kesavananda Bharati case

Kesavananda Bharati (1940-2020) was a Hindu monk and head of Edneer Mutt, Kerala. He was the petitioner in the case Kesavananda Bharati Vs State of Kerala. Kesavanad Bharati challenged the Kerala Government’s decision to acquire the Edneer Mutt’s property through the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963. Bharati argued that the state government’s action violated fundamental rights; Article 25, Article 26, and Article 31.

The Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala case was heard by a Supreme Court bench of 13 Judges (largest so far). Even though Kesavanaad Bharati lost the case, the Court’s judgement gave a safety valve to the Indian Constitution against the government by introducing the basic structure concept.

In Kesavananda Bharati case, the bench dealt with two important questions.

  1. The extent of Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution. The court reviewed the Golaknath v. State of Punjab case which held that the fundamental rights cannot be amended by the Parliament.
  2. The case also dealt with the constitutional validity of several amendments approved by the Parliament in the past.

Judgment and Basic structure of Indian Constitution

Propounded by Justice Hans Raj Khanna, the basic structure was only a part of the judgement in the case. However, it became an important safeguard against majoritarianism. Overruling the judgment of Golaknath v. State of Punjab case, the court held that the powers of Parliament are unfettered and it can amend any part of the Constitution under Article 368.

The court upheld the validity of the 24th Amendment Act by stating that Parliament can abridge or take away the fundamental rights. However, the court also laid down a new doctrine of Basic Structure of Indian Constitution. The Court held that the Indian Constitution has some basic features that cannot be altered or destroyed through the amendments of the Parliament. This means the Parliament cannot take away or abridge the fundamental rights that are included in the basic structure.

What is Basic Structure of India?

The Supreme Court has not explicitly defined the basic structure of Indian Constitution. However, through various cases, the judiciary has clarified the features of the basic structure. At present, the following features of Indian Constitution are part of basic structure.

Basic Structure of Indian Constitution

Supremacy of the Constitution
Rule of law
The objectives specified in the Preamble to the Constitution of India
Federalism (including financial liberty of states under Articles 282 and 293)
Principle of Separation of Powers
Judicial Review
Articles 32 and 226
The Sovereign, Democratic, Republican nature of the Indian Constitution
Freedom and dignity of the individual
Unity and integrity of the Nation
The principle of equality
The “essence” of other Fundamental Rights in Part III
Independence of the Judiciary
Effective access to justice
Powers of the Supreme Court under Articles 32, 136, 141, 142
The concept of social and economic justice
The balance between Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles
The Parliamentary system of government
The principle of free and fair elections
Limitations upon the amending power conferred by Article 368
Legislation seeking to nullify the awards made in exercise of the judicial power of the State by Arbitration Tribunals constituted under an Act

Present position regarding power of Parliament under Article 368

The Judiciary has made it clear that Parliament under Article 368 is empowered to amend any part of the Constitution including the fundamental rights. However, it cannot affect anything that is included in the basic structure of the Constitution. The court with its power of judicial review may strike down any law or amendment passed by the Parliament in conflict with the basic structure.

Landmark cases related to Basic Structure doctrine

The basic structure is undefined and has evolved over the years through various judgements of the Judiciary. Some of the important cases that contributed to the evolution of basic structure are given below.

Kesavanada Bharati case (1973) – The basic structure doctrine was developed in this case. The case added nine elements to the basic structure. The judgment of the case made the following features part of the basic structure;

  1. Supremacy of the Constitution
  2. Seperation of power
  3. Republic and Democratic form of government
  4. Secularism
  5. Federal character of Indian Constitution
  6. Sovereignty and unity of India
  7. Parliamentary system
  8. Welfare state; to ensure social and economic justice
  9. Freedom and dignity of the individual

Election case (Indira Gandhi case, 1975) – With 39th Amendment Act, the Indira Gandhi Government amended Article 329(A) to make the elections of the President, the Vice President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha as the matters that cannot be subject to judicial review. The court stuck down clause 4 of the Article 329 (A) on the grounds that the amendment seeks to destroy the basic structure. The case upheld some important features as part of Basic structure doctrine, these includes;

  1. India is a sovereign democratic republic
  2. Free and fair elections
  3. Equality of status and opportunity of an individual
  4. Judicial review
  5. Rule of law

Minerva mills case (1980) – In this case, the court invalidated two changes made by the 42nd Amendment Act (1976). The court upheld the supremacy of the Constitution over Parliament and added/reaffirmed the following as basic features of the Constitution.

  1. Limited power of Parliament to amend the Constitution
  2. Balance between fundamental rights and directive principles
  3. Judicial review

Delhi Judicial Services Association case (1991) – This case added powers of the Supreme Court under Articles 32, 132. 136, 141 and 142 as part of basic features of Indian Constitution.

S R Bommai case (1994)The S R Bommai case judgment has its own significance. In this case the apex court held that the power of the President to dismiss a state government is not absolute. The court made the proclamation of Article 356 to impose the President’s rule subject to judicial review.
The court also stated that the policies made by state governments in conflict with the basic structure will also be a valid ground for imposition of President’s rule.