The basic structure doctrine, which emerged during the Kesavananda Bharati case in 1973, is a judicial innovation that pertains to the foundational elements of the constitution. These foundational features, if tampered with, would fundamentally alter the nature of the constitution. The doctrine holds that the legislature, under Article 368, cannot modify the basic structure of the constitution through its amending power.

The evolution of the basic structure doctrine can be traced back to five constitutional debates that were resolved through judicial pronouncements and legislative actions.

  • 1. In the Shankari Prasad case of 1951, the Supreme Court (SC) opined that the power of parliament to amend the constitution includes the power to amend Fundamental Rights.
  • 2. The Sajjan Singh case upheld the distinction between constituent power and legislative powers, thereby excluding constitutional amendments from judicial review.
  • 3. The Golaknath Case of 1967 established that Fundamental Rights hold a transcendental and immutable position, prohibiting parliament from abridging these rights. However, the 24th amendment act of 1971 declared that parliament had the power to curtail fundamental rights.
  • 4. The Keshavananda Bharati Case in 1973 upheld the validity of the 24th amendment but introduced the concept of the basic structure. It determined that constitutional changes should not alter the basic structure of the constitution.
  • 5. In response, parliament enacted the 42nd amendment act, which stated that there were no limitations on the constituent power of parliament, rendering any amendment unquestionable. However, the Minerva Mills case of 1980 invalidated this provision, affirming that judicial review is a fundamental aspect of the constitution’s structure.

Despite its origin outside the constitution, the significance of the basic structure doctrine in preserving the fundamental framework of the constitution is substantial.

Firstly, it prevents the tyranny of the majority and maintains the separation of powers by limiting the excessive exercise of parliamentary power. This ensures the integrity of the constitution’s essence.

Secondly, the basic structure doctrine safeguards the vision of the constitution’s framers, upholding the ideals of justice, equality, and liberty that underpin our egalitarian society. These core principles, as part of the basic structure, remain resilient to amendments.

Thirdly, the doctrine empowers the judiciary to fulfill its intended role as the guardian of the constitution. The independence of the judiciary and the concept of judicial review are both considered integral components of the basic structure.

Moreover, the basic structure doctrine preserves the secular and federal character of the constitution, ensuring their inalienable nature.
Additionally, the doctrine prevents a sharp shift towards socialism, thus safeguarding the constitution’s identity. It strikes a delicate balance between individual and collective rights, as well as between socialism and capitalism.

While critics argue that the basic structure doctrine is vague and a legal innovation, it enables the judiciary to interpret laws in light of evolving societal changes. It provides a framework for accommodating the shifting aspirations of society while maintaining the fundamental construct of the constitution.

In conclusion, the basic structure doctrine has played a crucial role in safeguarding the essential elements of the constitution. It acts as a check on parliamentary power, upholds the founding ideals, enables judicial independence, preserves secularism and federalism, and maintains a balance between individual and collective rights. As a result, the basic structure doctrine serves as an important mechanism for reconciling societal progress with the enduring principles of the constitution.

Legacy Editor Changed status to publish December 27, 2023