The genesis of India's 'basic structure' doctrine

India and Pakistan are slowly reintegrating their economies, through trade and investment. Will we stop at sterile commercial transactions, or can there be more to the engagement of the two countries? Most of us in India think of Pakistan as a country with serious governance problems; we think that India has little to learn from Pakistan. A careful reading of history will surprise most of us.

One of the most important developments in the history of the Indian Constitution was the rise of the `basic structure’ doctrine, which
limits the extent to which a powerful political configuration can amend the Constitution. What is not widely known is the intellectual
links that led up to this. A judge of the Supreme Court of India created what was possibly the first constructive jurisprudential
connection between India and Pakistan: he imported the concept of basic structure into Indian jurisprudence from a decision of the
Supreme Court of Pakistan. This is not to say that the basic structure doctrine was not discussed before by myriad scholars and applied in other countries, but merely to celebrate an old acquaintance that not too many of us recall today.

The authors of the Constitution of India saw the necessity of having a mechanism for amending the Constitution: Art. 368 of the
Indian Constitution. However, one question that has time and again caught the attention of the Indian Supreme Court is the extent of this amending power. For example, can Parliament amend the Constitution and make India an autocracy? If not, then is there any implied restrictions to the power of amendment? And if such restictions do exist, what is the scope of judicial review of an amendment passed by a super majority of the elected representatives of the country?

There appear to be three critical milestones in India’s path to the basic structure doctrine.

Justice Mudholkar in the case of Sajjan Singh (AIR 1965 SC 845), for the first time (para 63) used the phrase `basic feature’ of the Constitution to argue that there are certain features of the Constitution that cannot be amended by the Parliament through its amending powers under Art. 368 of the Constitution. This judgment was a seperate concurrent opinion and not the majority view of the Court. Justice Mudholkar drew upon the Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision in Fazlul Quader Chowdhry v. Mohd Abdul Haque, 1963 PLC 486, which had used the basic structure doctrine already.

The phrase `basic structure’ or `basic feature’ of the Indian Constitution has arisen in some decisions before Mudholkar, J. pointed it out in 1964. For example, in re: Beruberi Union case (AIR 1960 SC 845) and State of West Bengal v. Union Of India (AIR 1963 SC 1241) used the phrase but in a much looser sense and not squarely in the context of implied limitations to the amending power under Art. 368. It is, then, fair to say that Justice Mudholkar was the first important introduction of this concept into Indian jurisprudence.

The decision of Sajjan Singh came up for reconsideration by the Supreme Court in IC Golak Nath’s case (AIR 1967 SC 1643). Justice Wanchoo after opining in para 113 that `the power to amend includes the power to add any provision to the Constitution, to alter any provision and substitute any other provision in its place and to delete any provision’, went on to discuss in para 115 if there are any implied limitations on the power of amendment under Art. 368. In this context he referred to the doctrine of basic structure as was highlighted for the first time in India in the separate opinion of Justice Mudholkar. However, Justice Wanchoo ultimately opined that no limitations can be and should be implied upon the power of amendment under Art. 368 but did not go into the question as to whether Art. 368 can be used to repeal the present constitution and come up with a completely new one. Justice Wanchoo was however speaking only for himself and two other judges amongst the 11 who were on the bench. Finally, 6 judges held that Fundamental Rights cannot be taken away by an amendment while 5 judges held that Fundamental Rights can be taken away by an amendment. However, the line of argument taken up by Mudholkar and Wanchoo, that there are implied restrictions to the power to amendment under Art. 368, was still a fringe argument.

This implied restriction or basic structure argument gained prominence for the first time in Kesavananda’s judgment (AIR 1973 SC 1461) where a 13 judge bench of the Supreme Court deliberated on this issue. In spite of the length and complexity of the judgment, the one ratio that emerges out of it is that the amending power under the constitution cannot be used in a manner so as to interfere with the basic structure of the Indian constitution. Reference to Mudholkar’s views in Sajjan Singh (which in turn was the view of the Supreme Court of Pakistan) was made in para 681.

It is in this context, we should recognise the immense contribution of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to the constitutional jurisprudence of India. And Justice Mudholkar needs to be credited for at least trying to make possibly the first jurisprudential connection between the two neighbours back in 1964.

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