An Indian Law student cannot possibly study constitutional law without studying certain landmark judgements. The judgement given in I.C. Golaknath & Ors vs State of Punjab [i] seems to be of great importance. This case happens to be one of the most important cases in the history of India. Although the basic structure doctrine was developed in Kesavananda Bharti v. State of Kerela[ii], this case could be equally credited for the development of the basic structure as this case discussed some important articles of the Constitution along with tackling the issue of the scope of the Parliament to amend the Constitution. In the case of I.C. Golaknath vs State of Punjab, the petitioners questioned the validity of the Punjab Security and Land Tenures Act, 1953 and the Mysore Land Reforms Act, 1962 as amended by Act 14 of 1965.
The Constitution (Seventeenth) Amendment Act, 1964 was also challenged as these aforesaid Acts were included in the 9th schedule through this constitutional Amendment. Furthermore, the most important question that was brought about in this judgement was whether the Parliament possessed the power to amend the Fundamental Rights given in Part III of the Indian Constitution. Lastly, in order to help curb parliament’s power to amend Fundamental Rights, the question of whether the word ‘amendment’ means law, as given in Article 13, was also dealt with.
Facts of the Case
Henry Golaknath and William Golaknath’s family were in possession of over 500 acres of farmland in Jalandhar, Punjab. The state government of Punjab, referred to the Punjab Security and Land Tenures Act, 1953 (hereinafter “1953 Act”) which was placed in the Ninth Schedule by the Constitution (Seventeenth Amendment) Act, 1964, and held that the brothers could keep only 30 acres of land each, a few acres would go to the tenants, and the rest would be declared surplus. Henry Golaknath’s son, daughter and granddaughters were the petitioners along with others (in the combined petitions) who challenged this act before the court.
The Petitioners by filing a writ petition under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution challenged the 1953 Act as they believed that the act was in violation of their constitutional rights guaranteed under Article 19(f) [which is now repealed], Article 19(g) and Article 14 which states the right to acquire and hold property, right to practice any profession and right to equality respectively. They sought to have the Constitution (Seventeenth) Amendment Act, 1964 repealed as it had placed the 1953 Act in the Ninth schedule of the Constitution, and declare it ultra vires of the state government to curtail the fundamental rights of citizens guaranteed under the Constitution.
Issue of Golaknath Vs State Of Punjab Case
The combined petitions by the son, the daughter and the granddaughters of Henry Golaknath along with different petitioners had a few main issues:
- Whether the parliament has the absolute power to amend the fundamental rights enshrined under the constitution?
- Whether the word ‘law’ as given in Article 13(2) includes amendments?
- Validity of the Constitution (Seventeenth) Amendment Act, 1964 was also challenged.
The petitioner’s arguments in Golaknath Vs State Of Punjab case are as follows:
1. The counsel for the petitioner made arguments in relation to the permanent nature of the Indian Constitution and laid emphasis on how it should not be amended to the extent where it tampers with its fundamental characteristic.
2. The counsel for the petitioner contended that fundamental rights inscribed in Part III of the Indian Constitution are integral to the constitution. Hence, they form an essential part of the constitution. In absence of these rights, the Constitution is like a body without its soul.
3. The counsel for the petitioner argued that the word “amend” has a limited meaning under Article 368 of the Constitution. Article 368 provides for the procedure amendment of the constitution and it does not mention the power to the Parliament to make an amendment to the Constitutional per se.
4. Further, the counsel for the petitioner also argued upon the interpretation of the word ‘amendment’ as it implies for a change in tune with the basic structure of the Indian Constitution.
5. The counsel for the petitioner contended that the meaning of “law” under Article 13(3) of the Indian Constitution includes every branch of law. Therefore, by the application of Article 13(2) which reads as follows: “The State shall not make any law which takes away or abridges the rights conferred by this Part and any law made in contravention of this clause shall, to the extent of the contravention, be void”, the state cannot make laws that strip the citizens off their fundamental rights and such laws would deem to be void.
The Respondent’s arguments in Golaknath Vs State Of Punjab case are as follows:
1. The Counsel for the Respondent argued that a Constitutional amendment is made in exercise of the sovereign power and differs from the legislative power of the Parliament. Furthermore, the object of amendment as given in the constitution is to let the parliament amend the constitution according to the will of the people and changing scenarios in the country.
2. The Counsel for the Respondent questioned the concept of a basic and non-basic features of the constitution and believed everything in the constitution to be basic and further stated that it could be amended for the growth and progress of the country. They argued that the absence of amendment provisions from the constitution would make it extremely rigid.
3. The Counsel for the Respondent disregarded inequality between different provisions of the constitution and stated that all the provisions are equal with no underlying hierarchy.
4. The Counsel for the Respondent argued that since a lot of the amendments were made out of political necessity, they ought to be out of the limit of judicial jurisdiction.
5. In defence of reversing previous decisions that made the Respondent’s case, the Counsel for the Respondent argued that to enforce Directive Principles of the State, the Constitution has been amended many times. Hence, the reversal of the previous decisions would introduce disturbance and create a havoc in the country.
Judgement As Laid Down In Golaknath vs State of Punjab Case by the Supreme Court
Golaknath Vs State Of Punjab case witnessed one of the largest constitutional bench of that time comprising of Former Chief Justice Subba Rao, Justice K.N. Wanchoo, Justice M. Hidayatullah, Justice J.C. Shah, Justice S.M. Sikri, Justice R.S. Bachawat, Justice V. Ramaswami, Justice J.M. Shelat, Justice Vihishtha Bhargava, Justice G.K. Mitter and Justice C.A. Vaidiyalingam.
The majority ruled in favour of the Petitioners. The majority overruled the decision given in Sajjan Singh v State of Rajasthan[iii] and Shankari Prasad v. Union of India[iv]. They did so as they were sceptical about these judgements setting precedent and there was a sense of fear that if constant amendments persist, the Fundamental rights could be in grave danger and may be diluted. While overruling these judgements they applied the doctrine of Prospective Overruling which would be discussed at further length in this article.
Prior to the judgement laid down in Golaknath Vs State Of Punjab case, the Supreme Court had upheld the amending power of the Parliament. But Golaknath’s case can be regarded as a turning point for this practice. In the present, Supreme Court held that parliament cannot amend the fundamental rights as given in the Constitution. The majority relied on the marginal note of Article 368 of the Constitution and gave that this article only gives the procedure to amend the Constitution and therefore, it cannot be said that Article 368 gives the parliament absolute power to amend the Constitution.
The majority stated that the amendment power of the parliament was under Article 248 of the Constitution, and that it gave the parliament the residuary power. Furthermore, the majority held that the definition under the concerned clause of Article 13 is not exhaustive, rather it is inclusive. Therefore, amendments are included within the meaning of ‘law’.
The majority, in an attempt to save democracy, was of the opinion that Fundamental Rights cannot be exposed to amendment. In their observation, they equated Fundamental Rights with Natural rights and deemed it necessary for the overall growth of a human. Previously, in the case of Shankari Prasad and Sajjan Singh, the Apex Court was of the opinion that amendments would not fall within the ambit of Article 13.
Further, the court held that the Fundamental rights are not immune from the amendment process, therefore, giving parliament a green light to amend any part of the Indian Constitution. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court reversed its previous verdict. In Golaknath’s case Fundamental rights were upheld and the court held that parliament did not have the right to amend Fundamental Rights enshrined in Part III of the Indian Constitution. The Apex Court was of the opinion that in spite of it being the parliament’s duty to enforce the directive principles of state policy, they must not do so by altering Fundamental Rights.
Doctrine of Prospective Ruling
The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling basically means that the effects of the law to be laid down will be applicable on the future dates. This means that the past decisions will not be affected by the law laid down in that particular decision. As stated before, the Supreme Court, in this case, applied this doctrine to protect the country from the trouble that would be enfolded if this judgement was to be applied retrospectively. Doing this would help in minimizing the negative impact of the judgment as it might invalidate the earlier constitutional amendments.
Scenario after the Pronouncement of ‘Golaknath vs State of Punjab’ Judgement
Post the judgement laid down in Golaknath Vs State Of Punjab, several attempts were made to overrule this judgememt. An attempt was made to overrule the judgement in Golaknath’s case by introducing the Constitution (Twenty-Fourth Amendment), Act (hereinafter “24th Constitutional Amendment) in 1971. The 24th Constitutional Amendment made it mandatory for the President to give his assent if the bill has been passed in Lok Sabha as well as Rajya Sabha. The 24th Constitutional Amendments introduced clause (4) in Article 13, this acted as a shield to protect Article 368 from Article 13. Through this amendment, clause (1) and (3) were added to Article 368 to limit the scope of Article 13 and to establish the distinction between the amending power of Parliament and its legislative power.
This judgment showcased the valour of the Judiciary to uphold the Fundamental rights of the citizens of this country over any arbitrary actions by any authorities or persons. The judgement given in Golaknath Vs State Of Punjab would always be regarded as the cornerstone of Judiciary’s attempt to safeguard Fundamental rights. In spite of the subtle, indirect tussle between the Indian Judiciary and the Indian Parliament during that time, this mere attempt by the Indian Judiciary went a long way in protecting democracy.