Amendability of Indian Constitution vis-à-vis Doctrine of Basic Structure: Explained


“The duty of man is the same in respect to his own nature as in respect to the nature  of all other things,  namely not to follow it but to amend it”- John Stuart Mill


This article has been written by Shelal Lodhi Rajput, student of Symbiosis Law School, Pune

Constitution of a country is the basic law of the land which provides the rights and duties of citizens, the constitution of a country, like any other pragmatic instrument, must keep changing with the changes in need of  society. Law is dynamic; it evolves with the changing needs and circumstances of the people of nation. The amendments of constitution, at times, becomes necessary to adapt to the changing needs of national development and strength; to overcome the difficulties which may encounter in future in working of the constitution; and to realize any popular demand for changing the political system e.g. State reorganization, provisions for SC/STs, lowering of age for voting,  providing rights which are indispensable for individuals. These changes in the constitutions on which countries base their whole governance and political institution are bought in two different ways  which is named as                                                                                                                    (a) De jure (Formal modification);                                                                                                                        (b) De facto (Informal modification);                                                                                             Here we have two different processes by which constitution can be amended or modified, first we  look what we mean by de jure or formal modification, it means that modification or amendment in constitution made by using the amending process provided in the constitution itself, which may be either participation for people directly or indirectly by their chosen representative whatever is given in the constitution. By de facto or informal modification when the constitution is amended or modified through  (a)Judicial process (b) executive actions; (c)Desuetude. Every written constitution provides a method for amendment of constitution within itself, but what about the countries which don’t have written constitution  how they amend their constitution, the change is easier their and can take place through the ordinary legislative process.

Pandit Nehru observed that “there was no permanence in the constitution, as it would stop the nation’s growth.” The amendment of constitution should only be resorted to in cases of serious repercussions or emergent circumstances or a special contingency. Generally, in a federal constitution, the procedure of amendment is complicated, so that the provisions do not get tampered too often. However, the forefathers and framers of our constitution were keen to avoid excessive rigidity. At the same time, they were aware that if the constitution was made flexible, it would be subject to frequent amendments. Thus, avoiding both extremes, Indian constitution has adopted a middle path. It is neither too rigid to prevent important amendments nor too flexible to admit frivolous changes.

However, the amendment of constitution often been used to achieve political purpose or to override judicial verdicts. Moreover, multiple and multifarious amendments undermines the sanctity of constitution as an organic instrument and creates confusion. For Example, the 42nd Amendment Act, 1976 (‘Act of Revision’) effected vital changes e.g. fundamental rights devalued vis-à-vis directive principles. The 43rd and 44th amendments wiped out many of the provisions of 42nd Amendment. The Procedure for amendment, instead of being rigid, has rather proved too flexible. There is no separate constituent body for amendment and the parliament, the ordinary legislative organ of union , performs the function.  The constitution can be amended under Article 368 as well as ordinary legislations of the Parliament under Arts 2,3 and 4. Beside these formal procedures, the constitution gets amended through constitutional practices, conventions and by judicial interpretations

First Amendment - Rights, U.S. Constitution & Freedoms - HISTORY

Power of Parliament to Amend the constitution and it’s Procedure (Article 368).                 Article 368, due to this our constitution is a living document and therefore, it can neither be called rigid nor flexible but partly rigid and flexible. It states that                                                                                              (1) Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, Parliament may in exercise of its constituent power amend by way of addition, variation or repeal any provision of this Constitution in accordance with the procedure laid down in this article.                                                                                                                                      (2) An amendment of this Constitution may be initiated only by the introduction of a Bill for the purpose in either House of Parliament, and when the Bill is passed in each House by a majority of the total membership of that House present and voting, [it shall be presented to the President who shall give his assent to the Bill and thereupon]the Constitution shall stand amended in accordance with the terms of the Bill:                                        Note:                                                                                                                                                                                The state legislature cannot initiate any bill/proposal for                                                                                    Amendment of the constitution.                                                                                                                            Previous sanction of the President is not required for introducing in parliament any bill for                               amendment of the constitution.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               (3) Nothing in Article 13 shall apply to any amendment a made under this Article .                                             Note: Clauses (4) and (5) were held unconstitutional in Minerva Mills case. For the purpose of amendment the provisions of constitution fall under three categories:

  • (a) Amendment by Simple Majority: By simple majority of each house of Parliament. It is like an ordinary bill. Formation of new states, creation or abolition of legislative councils is made by such procedure. Thus, amendment at the instance of the states, or amendment by state legislature, is included in such category. Amendments under this category are expressly excluded from the purview of Article 368. Some of the articles that can be amended by Parliament by simple majority are listed below:                                                                                                                                                                                      1. Admission or establishment of new states.                                                                                                2.Formation of new sates and alteration of areas, boundaries or names of existing states.                          3.Abolition or creation of legislative councils in states.                                                                                4.Second Schedule: Emoluments, allowances, privileges and so on.                                                            5.Quorum in Parliament.                                                                                                                              6. Salaries and allowances of MPs.                                                                                                              7.Rules of procedure in parliament.                                                                                                              8.Privileges of  Parliament,, its members and its committees.                                                                      9.Use of official language.                                                                                                                           10.Citizenship: acquisition and termination.                                                                                                 11.Election to Parliament and state legislature .                                                                                           12.Delimitation of constituencies.                                                                                                                 13. Union Territories.                                                                                                                                     14.5th Schedule (Provision as to administration and control of schedule  area and schedule tribes.           15.6th Schedule   (Provision  for administration of tribal areas  in state of Assam, Meghalaya,                      Tripura,  Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh .
  • (b) Amendment by Special Majority: By special majority we means the majority of ‘total members of each House’ and by majority of at least 2/3rd ‘present and voting’. All amendments, other than those referred to above, come within this ca Articletegory e.g. Powers of election commission (It is a constitutional body under Article 342(2) )Provisions which can be amended by special majority are listed below:                                                                                                                                                    1.Fundamental Rights. (FRs)                                                                                                                        2.Directive Principles of State Policy. (DPSPs) .                                                                                          3.All the provisions which are not covered by 1st and 3rd categories.
  • (c) Amendment by special majority and ratification by states:  The States are given an important voice in the amendment of these matters (required to be ratified by the legislature of not less than one-half of the states): Election between Centre and states and three lists, Representation of states in Parliament and Article 368 itself. There are provisions which relate to the federal structure of the constitution and the powers position and authority of the constituent states. The following provisions require such ratification by the states:                                                                                                           1.Election of President : Article 54 and Article 55.                                                                                     2.Executive Power of Centre and state- Article 73  and Article 162.                                                           3. Supreme court: Article 124 and 227 , High courts: Article 214 to Article 231, Judiciary for UT:             Article 241.                                                                                                                                             4.Distribution  of Legislative Power: Article 245 and 255.                                                                         5.Part XI, Chapter 1.                                                                                                                                     6.Lists of 7th Schedule.                                                                                                                               7. Representation of state in council of states: 4th Schedule.                                                                       8. Article 368 itself.
Also Read:  Article 370: Yesteryears, Present And Future Of Kashmir.

Amendment of the Fundamental Rights: A bird eye view.                                                              1. The question of amendment of fundamental rights came up in Shankari Prasad v UOI case where the          supreme court held that they could be amended.                                                                                             2.However in Golaknath v. state of Punjab case the supreme court overruled the decision in  Shankari      Prasad and held that fundamental rights cannot be amended by a constitutional amendment.                         3.In order to remove difficulties created by the above decision of Apex court i.e.SC, the parliament enacted 24th amendment  empowering the parliament to amendment  empowering the parliament to amend the fundamental rights, which was challenged in the Keshvananda  Bharti v. State of Kerala case wherein the court upheld the 24th amendment but negated the claim that parliament had unlimited amending power and also held that Parliament cannot amend the Basic structure of Indian Constitution.
4.Then came the 42nd Amendment which empowered parliament to amend even the basic structure and   such amendment could not be questioned in any court or any ground.                                                             5. Finally un the Minerva Mills case the Apex court stuck down these clauses.         

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Theory of Basic structure ( Doctrine of Basic Structure)                                                             The Doctrine of Basic Structure was laid down in the landmark judgement of Keshvananda Bharati case. Its a judge-made doctrine where by certain features of the constitution of India are beyond the limit of the powers of amendment of the Parliament of India, any such amendment will be held void ab initio and such amendment will be struck down and the Act will be null and  void. This case is also known as ‘Fundamental Rights case’, A special bench of 13 Judges of supreme court of Indian ruled by a majority of 7-6, that Parliament has wide powers of amending the constitution and it extends to all the articles, but amending power is not unlimited and does not include the power to destroy or abrogate the ‘Basic  Feature’ or ‘Framework’ of constitution. There are implied or inherent limitations on the power of amendment under Article 368.                                                                                                                                                       The expression “Amendment of constitution” in Article 368 means any change in any of the provisions of constitution within the broad contours of Preamble and the constitution to carry out the objectives in Preamble and Directive Principles. Thus, it would mean that while fundamental rights cannot be abrogated, reasonable abridgements of fundamental rights can be effected in the public interest. The ‘Basic Structure’ of the constitution consists of the following features-                                                                                                              (a) Supremacy of Constitution.                                                                                                                              (b) Republican and Democratic form of Government, and sovereignty of country,                                             (c) Secular and federal character of constitution, and                                                                                           (d) Separation of powers between Legislature, Executive and Judiciary.                                            The Doctrine of basic structure will act as safety-valve against the arbitrary use of amending power. The Judgement thus make it clear that it is the constitution that it is the constitution that is supreme in India , and not the Parliament. Parliament is a creature of the constitution and derives its power from constitution, including the power to amend under Article 368 . There is a clear distinction between the ordinary legislative power and the constituent power (amending power) of Parliament. It may be noted that the power to amend is vested by Article 368 in Parliament (except where ratification by State Legislature is required).Hence, Parliament cannot, directly or indirectly, abdicate or delegate that power to some other body: if it does, the court would strike down that constitution Amendment Act as invalid. In Minerva Mills case (1980),the Supreme court struck down the unlimited power of Parliament to amend any provision of the constitution , which was laid down by the Indra government via 42nd Amendment Act, 1976. The basic structure includes Rule of Law and Judicial Review, Independence of Judiciary ,Harmony an Balance between Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of state Policies and in certain cases some FRs also have been held to be ‘Basic Features’ of constitution and they cannot be amended in any circumstances. In I.R. Coelho case (2007), a 9-Judge Constitutional Bench held that any law placed in the IX Schedule of the constitution after April 24, 1973 , when Keshvananda Bharti’s judgement was delivered will be open to challenge. The court observed that even though the Act is put in the Ninth Schedule by a constitutional  amendment, its provisions would e open to challenge on the ground that they destroy or damage the basic structure of the constitution, for instance, if the fundamental rights are taken away or abrogated. Further, the power of judicial review which forms integral part of the doctrine of Basic structure cannot be removed or abrogated by any Act. The Ninth Schedule, which was introduced through Article 31-B by the First Constitution Amendment Act, 1951, aimed to save land reform laws enacted by various states from being challenged in the court. Later on, however, it became an omnibus and very kind of law whether it related to elections, mines and minerals, industrial relations, requisition of property, monopolies etc. were included in it. In the present case, the petitioners had challenged the validity of the various central and state laws put in the Ninth Schedule including the Tamil Nadu Reservation Act. The Act provided for the reservation of 69% of seats in government jobs for the OBCs. The said Act was added in the IX Schedule because of the ruling of Apex court in the Mandal case that overall  reservation cannot be exceed 50%.                                                       

What more?  A thought on replacement of the Existing Constitution.                                  The historic review of constitution would mean a holistic, integrated approach to see what, if any, amendment are necessary in the light of nearly 50 years’ experience of working the constitution. A most intriguing legal tangle has emerged on the question whether the entire constitution can be replaced by resorting to the procedure prescribed by Article 368. In Keshvananda case, the majority held that the word ‘amend’ implied that ” while any piecemeal change may be made, the  old constitution cannot be totally destroyed or so radically changed as to lose its identity” ; the doctrine of basic structure will always be there and basic features guaranteed by constitution cannot be amended.   The ways in which suggested to replace the existing constitution or if need to amend the basic features of constitution not structure in the following ways:                                                                                                                                                                                                    (a) Revolution                                                                                                                                                        (b) Parliament converting itself into constituent assembly.                                                                                  (c) Referendum.                                                                                                                  Above here are the ways but they are so difficult to implement in practical way. To setup constituent Assembly we have to amend Article 368 itself, but the majority  in Minerva Mills case held that the limited nature of the amending power in Article 368 is itself one of the basic features of the existing constitution so that parliament cannot enlarge its own power by setting up Constituent Assembly.  in some  constitution if world we have provisions for referendum ( Public Opinion)  but not in India  as such explicitly mentioned but they are provided in Constitutions of Japan, France, Switzerland and Ireland. Ours constitution is one of the lengthiest and bulkiest written constitution of world.  In the context of Indian constitution it is true that according to Article 368 of Indian Constitution, Parliament has power to amend the constitution but it cannot change the Basic structure of the constitution, as from the various judicial precedents  we get to see that Parliament  has power to amend the constitution but cannot amend the basic structure by any way. In the most recent on the same lines we get to see that Apex court has struck down the amendment by parliament which is for the setup of National Judicial Commission, the apex court struck  down the NJAC Act, as it is in contradiction with the basic structure of constitution  of India in the purview of field of Judiciary. Amendment is a safety valve provided to the constitution and if it is not provided, it may cause to the blasting of the entire structure.                       

“A new constitution should be more amendable. A needlessly confusing system of courts should be altered to produce an arrangement that would be simple, responsible, and less awkward.” Charles Edison                                                              


1] Image from Indian Express

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