Keshvanand Bharati Case: A landmark in the Indian Constitutional History

    Largest Constitutional Bench, Longest hearing, One of the longest judgments, and A Doctrine that saved Democracy in India.

    On the 6th of September, a Hindu monk named Keshvanand Bharati died. He was 79 years old and is a known name for students, professionals, academicians in the field of law.
    He was none other than the petitioner in the case of Keshvanand Bharati Case (Keshvanand Bharati Sripadagalvaru & Ors. v. State of Kerala & Anr., 1973, SC). This case has historical importance and is considered one of the landmark cases in the Constitutional History of India. Heard for 68 days, arguments commencing from October 31, 1972, to 23rd March 1973, it is to date the longest heard case in the history of the Indian Supreme Court. This 703-page judgment of the Supreme Court has been the longest appellate judgment in the last century.
    This case came at the time when there was a power struggle going on between the judiciary and the Parliament. And the major issue that was in question, in this case, was the power of the constitution to amend the Constitution. The question put in front of the !3-judges bench, in this case, was whether the parliament has the power to alter, amend, abrogate any part of the Constitution even to the extent of taking away all the fundamental rights.
    In this article let us see what were the facts of the case, the issues that were involved in the case, the judgment of the court, and the Doctrine of Basic Principle evolved in the case and what makes the Keshvanand Bharati Case a protector of Democracy in India.

    His Holiness SripadGalvaru Keshvananda Bharati was head of Edneer Matha in Kerala. Kerala government under the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963 (further amended by Kerala Land Reforms Amendment Act, 1969) acquired some of the land owned by this matha. Therefore, on 21st March 1970, a Writ Petition was filed by the Keshavanand Bharati under Article 32 of the Constitution for enforcement of his fundamental rights under Article 14(Right to equality), Article 19(1)(f)(Freedom to acquire property), Article 25(Right to practice and propagate religion), Article 26(Right to manage religious affairs), and Article 31(Compulsory Acquisition of property) of the Constitution. He also prayed that the provisions of the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963 (Act 1 of 1964) as amended by the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act 1969 (Act 35 of 1969) be declared unconstitutional, ultra vires, and void. While the proceedings were underway,the Parliament passed the Constitution (Twenty-ninth Amendment) Act, 1972, which inserted certain land reform laws32 to the Ninth Schedule and adversely affected Swami Kesavananda.
    Hence, the petitioner challenged the constitutional validity of the Twenty-fourth, Twenty-fifth, and Twenty-ninth Amendments to the Constitution. According to the Twenty-fourth Amendment, constitutional amendments were not ‘law’ under Article 13, and the Parliament had the power to amend, vary, or repeal any provision of the Constitution. The Twenty-fifth Amendment (1971) gave Articles 39(b) and 39(c) precedence over the fundamental rights to equality(A.14), the seven freedoms(A.19), and property(A.31). It also took away the power of the courts to decide whether a law was passed to further the policy laid down in these Articles. The Twenty-ninth Amendment (1972) added two land reform statutes to the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution

    There were three issues in front of the Supreme Court to solve in this case. They were-
    • Constitutional Validity of the 24th, 25th, and 29th Constitutional Amendments.
    • Power of the Parliament to amend the Constitution.

    Regarding the issue of the constitutional validity of the Constitutional Amendment Acts 24th, 25th, and 29th, the Court held that these amendments are valid except for the “escape clause” of the 25th Amendment.
    Further Deciding about the amending powers of the Government, the Court held that Article 368 did not enable the Parliament to alter the basic structure or the framework of the Indian Constitution. They gave the Doctrine of Basic Structure, which now acts as a filter through which only a law consistent with the Constitution can pass.
    The Court is this case firmly took its role as the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution, and hence its protector (Guardian) of the Constitution.

    Court held that the Parliament has immense power to amend the Constitution, but it should use this amending power in a way that does not destroy the basic structure or the essence of the Constitution.
    Though Every Jurist had their list of the principles that they considered the basic structure of the Constitution. The Court in this case did not explicitly mention what constitutes the basic structure. It was left for further interpretation by the Courts. But if we take the majority opinion in the case and further Supreme Court decisions, the following principles can be considered as the Basic Structure of the Indian Constitution-
    • The supremacy of the Constitution
    • Republican and democratic form of government
    • Secular character of the constitution
    • Federal character of the constitution
    • Separation of power
    • Unity and Sovereignty of India
    • Judicial Review
    • Balance between Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles
    • Rule of law
    • Free and fair Elections

    The Keshavanand Bharati Case established the Supremacy of the Constitution and limited the scope of Article 368 of the Constitution by laying down the test of Basic Structure to all the amendments made thereafter. It also confirmed the role of the Judiciary as the Guardian and the sole interpreter of the Constitution. Keshavananda firmly established that the Supreme Court was unmatched in authority when it came to constitutional matters. The Doctrine of Basic Structure was applied to several cases thereafter to protect the sanctity and the spirit of our Constitution.

    Nani Palkhiwala, the counsel for the petitioner, has later in his book, “we, the people” said-
    “By limiting the Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution, the Supreme Court pre-empted such a scenario and ensured that the people’s representatives—meant to be servants of the Constitution—would not become its masters.”

    Suggestive Readings
    1. 10 Judgments that changed India(Chapter 1)
    2. Working a Democratic Constitution(Chapter 11-Pg.258)
    3. We, the people by Nani Palkhiwala