Landmark Judgment: Keshavananda Bharti vs. The State of Kerala


The foundation of the case Keshavananda vs State of Kerela was laid down in 1967, when Supreme Court of India passed the judgements in Golaknath vs State of Punjab case. Various questions were raised in this case, one of the major one being the Parliament’s right to amend the Constitution of India. The petitioner claimed that the parliament has no power to amend the Constitution while the respondent argued on the bais that Constitution makers never wanted the Indian Constituion to be a rigid and inflexible one. The Court ruled that the Parliament cannot amend the fundamental rights. After this remarkable judgement the desperate Parliament in order to gain it’s lost supremacy and autonomy passed a series of amendments to indirectly revoke whatever was decided in Golaknath’s case. In 1971, The Indira Gandhi govt. with huge majority in lower house passed 24th, 25th and 29th Amendments in consecutive years.

In 1971, 24th Amendment enabled the Parliament to dilute Fundamental Rights through Amendments of the Constitution and empowered it to amend any provision of the Constitution. It also makes it obligatory for the President to give his assent, when a Constitution Amendment Bill is passed.

 In 1972, 25th Amendment curtailed the right to property, and permitted the acquisition of private property by the government for public use, on the payment of compensation which would be specified by the Parliament and not the courts.

 The petitioner for the case was Shri Keshava Nanda Bharathi. He was an Indian Hindu monk who served as Shankaracharya of Edneer Mutt, a Hindu monastery in Kasaragod District, Kerala. He was appointed there in 1961. Keshavananda was born to Manchthaya Sreedhara Bhatt and Padmavathi Amma in 1940. He took Sanyas when he was 19. He was referred to as Srimad Jagatguru Sri Sri Sankaracharya Thotakacharya Keshvanandi Bharti Sripadangalaveru. Along with being the petitioner of the landmark decision of the Supreme Court of India He was also the only Shankaracharya to have publicly issued a statement stating that it was a mistake for the government of India to open the vaults of Padmanabhaswamy Temple. He claimed that all the assets found in the vaults should be the responsibility of the temple’s trust. He was awarded the Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer Award in 2018 by the Governor of Kerela. He died on 6th September 2020 at the age of 79 due to cardiac arrest.

Along with Keshavananda Bharti, Nanabhoy Pallkhivala was the advocate representing Keshavananda Bharti also made a major contribution to the Constitution of India. Nani Ardeshir Palkhivala was born in 1920 in Bombay. His family name derives from the profession of his forefathers who had been manufacturers of ‘Palkhis’. He was called to the bar in 1946 and served in the chambers of the legendary Sir Jamshedji Behramji Kanga in Bombay. His initial forte was tax and commercial law. Nani Palkhivala was appointed as the Indian Ambassador to the United States in the year of 1977. He received unremunerative doctorates from Princeton University, Rutgers University, Lawrence University, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Annamalai University, Ambedkar Law University, and the University of Mumbai. He died on 11 December 2002. He was 82.

The immediate cause for the case Keshavananda Bharti vs the State of Kerala was being filed was 29th Amendment. In 1972, 29th Amendment act was passed. The Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963 Had the effect of inserting the Kerala land reforms act to the 12th schedule which means it is outside the scope of judicial review. This means that the matters related to the Kerala land reforms act will be outside the scope of the judiciary to try. Through this act, the government was trying to intervene in the religious property of the people of Kerela. The Kerala government attempted to acquire need much property through the Kerala land reforms act of 1963.

Nanabhoy Palkhivala immediately ran to Keshava Nanda to make him aware of this action which violated his fundamental rights and particularly his fundamental right to religion Article 25, freedom of religious domination Article 26 and right to property Article 31.

All the amendments were made by the central government of India and in some way or the other it protected the amendments made by the state government from being tried in the court of law. Provisions of the Kerala reforms act along with the 24th 25th and 29th amendment were challenged in the court of law.

 The issues challenged were:

  • Constitutional validity of 24th Constitutional Amendment Act
  • Constitutional validity of 25th Constitutional Amendment act
  • Extent of parliament’s power for amendments to the constitution.

 First the case went to Kerala high court and then to supreme court where it lasted for 68 days with a constitutional bench of 13 judges. (The largest panel of judges in the history of India)

Kesavananda Bharati appealed in the court that the Parliament cannot amend the Constitution in a way they want as thier power to do so is limited and restricted. It was based on the basic structure theory propounded by Justice Mudholkar in Sajjan Singh vs State of Rajasthan. They argued that the 24th and 25th Constitutional amendment violated the fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution. Fundamental rights are the rights available to the citizens of India to ensure freedom and if any Constitution amendments take away such rights and the freedom which is guaranteed under the Constitution to its citizens will be assumed to be taken away from them. They also submitted that it was the Constitution of India which granted the freedom from tyranny.

The respondent in this case was the state of Kerala. The state pleaded that the supremacy of the Parliament is the basic principle of the Indian legal system and so the Parliament has the full power to amend the Constitution limitless and unfettered. It was based on the principle of Indian legal system that the supremacy of the Parliament. Further the state pleaded that in order to fulfill its Socio economic obligations guaranteed to the citizens by the union in preamble, it is of immense importance that there is no limitation upon the authority of the Parliament.

 The panel gave the decision with 7:6 majority.

It gave the verdict-

• Parliament of India could amend any part of the constitution.

• However, the basic structure can’t be altered.

The case gave:

• Basic structure doctrine

• Preamble is the part of the constitution                                                                                                                                                                                           

By the majority of 7:6 held that Parliament can amend any and every provision mentioned in the Constitution subject to the condition that such amendment does not violate the basic structure of the Constitution. The majority decision was delivered by S.M. Sikri CJI, K.S. Hegde, B.K. Mukherjea, J.M. Shelat, A.N. Grover, P. Jagmohan Reddy jj. & Khanna J. concurring with the majority. Whereas the minority opinions were written by A.N. Ray, D.G. Palekar, K.K. Mathew, M.H. Beg, S.N. Dwivedi & Y.V. Chandrachudjj. The minority bench though writing diverse opinions, they didn’t acknowledge to the fact that there are some provisions which are fundamental. The landmark case was decided on 24 April 1973.

The bench of 13 judges upheld the entire 24th amendment entirely and the 1st and 2nd part of the 25th Constitutional Amendment act was found to be intra vires and ultra vires respectively. The court was balancing the interest of both litigants held that neither the Parliament possesses power to amend the basic structure of the Constitution nor it can revoke the mandate to build welfare state and egalitarian society. It finally got the answers to all the questions left on answered in GolakNath case that was the parliament’s power to amend the Constitution. The parliament got the freedom to amend but was restricted by the court to the extent that such amendment does not change the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. It was laid down by the court that the doctrine of basic structure is to be followed by the Parliament by amending the provisions of the Constitution.

The doctrine of basic structure is one of the fundamental judicial principle connected with the Indian Constitution. This doctrine holds that there is a basic structure of the Indian constitution and the Parliament cannot amend the basic features of the Constitution. Though the Parliament has the power to amend the entire Constitution but the subject to the condition that they cannot in any manner into fed the features so the fundamental to this Constitution that without them it would be pointless .

It is a dynamic document that can be amended according to the needs of the society whenever needed. Constitution under article 368 grant power to the Parliament to amend it whenever there is a requirement. It also lays down the procedure for the amendment in detail.

The judges did not provide what exactly constitutes the basic structure but provided a descriptive list of what may constitute the basic structure.

As per Sikri, C.J., the basic structure may constitutes the following elements:

  • The supremacy of the Constitution
  • Republican and Democratic forms of Government
  • Secularism of the Constitution
  • Separation of Powers between the bodies the legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary
  • Federal Character of the Constitution

Shelat and Grover, JJ., added the following constituents to the above list:

  • The mandate to build a welfare state contained in the Directive Principles of State Policy
  • Maintenance of the unity and integrity of India
  • The sovereignty of the country

Hegde and Mukherjee, JJ., had their list of the elements which may constitute of the basic structure, which included:

  • The sovereignty of India
  • The democratic character of the polity
  • The unity of the country
  • Essential features of individual freedom
  • The mandate to build a welfare state

Whereas Jaganmohan Redd, J., recognized that it was the Preamble that laid down the basic features of the Constitution, which are:

  • A sovereign democratic republic
  • The provision of social, economical, and political justice to all
  • Liberty when it comes to any thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship
  • Equality of status and opportunity

After this judgment, the general conclusion was that the judiciary is trying to create an overhaul over the Parliament, but soon an opportunity was laid down before the Court to analyze the doctrine.

As of now there is no dispute regarding the existence of the doctrine, the only problem that emerges time and again is the contends present in the doctrine. Certain contends have been reaffirmed again and again by the quotes whereas some of them are still in the process of considerations. This doctrine grants the fine balance between flexibility and rigidity that should be present in amending powers of the Constitution.

The case holds a lot of importance in the history of the Indian constitution. The judgement was given by analyzing the numerous elements and was based on sound reasoning. The bench feared that if the Parliament would be provided with unconditional power to amend our Indian Constitution than the power will be misused and would be changed by the government according to its own will and intentions. The case KeshavaNanda Bharathi v/s State of Kerala helped us in understanding the basic structure doctrine. In this case, the validity of the 29th amendment was immunized, in the ninth schedule, Kerala‘s takeover of the religious mutt’s property was challenged. This case limits the power of the Supreme Court. The court is bound by the ‘Golden triangle’ of rights created by article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. The judgement that was given by the bench in this case worked out to be a savior for the Indian democracy and conserve the Constitution from misplacing its spirit.

Author- Aishwarya Agarwal

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