The conflict between the amending power of the Parliament and the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution of India could be regarded as one of the longest, but the most crucial ones in the history of Independent India. This conflict was instigated due to an underlying battle between Article 13 and Article 368 as well. The aforementioned conflict, that lasted for decades and almost seemed interminable at one point, was characterized by a tussle between the Judiciary and the Legislature. Although the said tussle was quite extensive, it created an everlasting effect on the Indian legal system. The decade’s long struggle for the co-existence of the Fundamental Rights and the amending power of the Parliament plays a very significant role while studying the Constitution of India as it primarily gave impetus to the concept of ‘Basic structure of the Constitution’, or the ‘Basic Structure Doctrine’ as some like to call it. The Basic Structure Doctrine can be studied with the help of certain landmark cases, especially Shankari Prasad Vs Union of India[i] (hereinafter referred to as “Shankari Prasad’s Case”), Sajjan Singh v. State of Rajasthan[ii] (hereinafter referred to as “Sajjan Singh’s Case”), I. C. Golaknath v. State of Punjab[iii] (hereinafter referred to as “Golaknath’s Case”) and Kesavananda Bharti v. the State of Kerela[iv] (hereinafter referred to as “Kesavanada Bharti’s Case”). In this article, we will be doing a thorough study of Shankari Prasad Case and alongside understanding the Zamindari System and the infamous constitutional amendment that sparked the debate around the Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution of India.
Brief Overview of the Shankari Prasad Case
The debate around the amending power of the Parliament and its conflict with Fundamental Rights was ignited in Shankari Prasad Case. Shankari Prasad case was decided in 1951 and was triggered by certain land reforms like the abolishment of the Zamindari system by the State Governments. Although this move was challenged in Court, it was further strengthened by the First Amendment Act which considerably restricted the Right to Property. Therefore, the issue before the Apex Court primarily revolved around the constitutional validity of the First Amendment Act. Since it was indefinite whether ‘law’ as mentioned in Article 13 (2) of the Constitution of India involved the amendments made by the Parliament, that too was brought into question.
The Counsel for the Petitioner ardently argued that the First Amendment Act was an attack on the Fundamental Rights as given in the Constitution of India and was abrogating Article 13 (2) of the Constitution of India which read “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 aforementioned section clearly substantiates the petitioner’s underlying argument i.e., the parliament cannot create a law that sweeps away the Fundamental Rights as provided in Part III of the Constitution of India. In spite of Petitioner’s meticulous arguments, the Court expressed its opinion by stating “We find it, however, difficult, in the absence of a clear indication to the contrary, to suppose that they also intended to make those rights immune from the constitutional amendment.”
The Supreme Court of India also remarked that “Had it been intended to save the fundamental rights from the operation of that provision, it would have been perfectly easy to make that intention clear by adding a proviso to that effect.” Further, the Apex Court opined that ‘law’ as provided in Article 13 (2) only includes rules or regulations owing to the exercise of ordinary legislative power. The definition of law could not be widened or interpreted to include Constitutional amendments. Not only were the powers of the Parliament to amend the Constitution, including Fundamental were upheld, but also the validity of the land reforms were recognized. Nonetheless, the judgement of the court in Shankari Prasad’s case was challenged and brought forth in future cases concerning the Doctrine of Basic Structure.
What was the Zamindari System?
In order to understand the gravity of this landmark case, it is pertinent to understand the concept of the Zamindari System. The Indian Land Revenue System under the British Rule would be predominantly characterized by the Mahalwari System, the Ryotwari System and the Zamindari System. For the purpose of this Article, we will only concern ourselves with the Zamindari System. Introduced by Lord Corwallis in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Varanasi, it was referred to as the Permanent Settlement System. Zamindars were the owners (commonly referred to as ‘ the landlords ’) and were vested with the right to collect rent. This rent was to be collected from the peasants irrespective of whether the yield was poor. Since the rent was divided into eleven parts, the Zamindars received one part of this rent, while the East India Company received the remaining parts i.e., ten parts.
Why was the First Amendment challenged?
This Zamindari System was finally abolished with the help of the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951 (hereinafter referred to as “the First Amendment Act”). The Constitutionality of the First Amendment Act was widely challenged in Shankari Prasad’s Case. The First Amendment Act secured the constitutional validity of the Acts enacted by various States in wake of ending this practice.
The First Amendment Act inserted Article 31 A which made it possible for the State to acquire a property without having violated any Fundamental Rights. Furthermore, Article 31 B created a protective shield around certain acts and regulations included in the Ninth Schedule as it protected such Acts and Regulations from being questioned on the grounds of violation of Fundamental Rights. The First Amendment Act also added the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution of India. This helped protect the land reform laws as it contained a list of laws that could not be brought into question in a court of Law.
Facts of Shankari Prasad Case
The move for the abolishment of the Zamindari System is what triggered Shankari Prasad Case. Various State governments were taking efforts to ban the then prevailing Zamindari System, this led to reallocation of the land that was held by the Zamindars. As a result, this created unrest amongst the affluent Zamindars. They were clearly negatively impacted by this move. Therefore, they decided to employ legal means and challenge the new laws that were prohibiting and creating hurdles in the Zamindari system. They argued that this would violate their Fundamental Right of ‘Right to Property’ which was formerly provided in Part III of the Constitution and was regarded as a Fundamental Right. Since the issue revolving around the abolishment of the Zamindari System was stirred due to the First Amendment Act, this amendment was brought into question as well.
Issues raised in Shankari Prasad Case
The following were the primary issues raised in Sajjan Singh’s case:
- Whether or not the First Amendment Act encroaches upon the Fundamental Rights by adding certain provisions?
- Whether or not the First Amendment Act is ultra vires the Constitution of India?
- Whether or not the term ‘law’ contained in Article 13 of the Constitution of India includes constitutional amendments?
Verdict of the Supreme Court in Shankari Prasad Vs Union Of India
This landmark case was heard by a five judges bench comprising of Justice M. Patanjali Sastri, B.K. Mukherjea, Sudhi Ranjan Das, N. Chandrasekhara Aiyar and Chief Justice Hiralal Kania. In the opinion of the Apex Court, the First Amendment Act or the changes brought about by it were not unconstitutional. Patanjali Shastri J., distinguished between legislative power and constituent power. The learned Judge stated that “law” as provided in Article 13 failed to include the Constitutional Amendment that is made in the exercise of constituent power and held that fundamental rights were not outside the scope of amending power.[v]Although the petitioners contended that ‘law’ contained in Article 13 (2) of the Constitution of India includes constitutional amendments, the Supreme Court disregarded their contention. The Apex Court held that Article 368 includes the power to amend the Constitution, not excluding the fundamental rights enshrined in Part III. The Court stated that although a constitutional amendment is a law, there is a clear demarcation between legislative and constituent power. Furthermore, it was stated that the term ‘law’ as provided in Article 13 (2) includes ordinary law made in the exercise of certain legislative power and not constitutional amendments that are made in the exercise of certain constitutional power. Article 31 A and Article B, introduced by the First Amendment Act were deemed to be valid and were, therefore, not ultra vires the Constitution of India.
Shankari Prasad’s case was truly a landmark judgement as it helped evolve the Basic Structure Doctrine. Although the Apex Court failed to uphold Fundamental Rights, it played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Basic Structure Doctrine. This case highlighted one of the most debated topics related to the Indian Constitution i.e., the Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution of India, especially Fundamental Rights. This issue was again raised in Golaknath’s case where the Supreme Court overruled its judgement in Shankari Prasad and Sajjan Singh’s Case and held that the Parliament had no power to amend Part III of the Constitution, that contained the Fundamental Right, leaving no power with the Parliament to abrogate the fundamental rights. Despite the sound judgement rendered in Golaknath’s Case, the Supreme Court took a different stance in Kesavanada Bharti’s case which established the Basic Structure Doctrine. In Kesavananda Bharti’s Case the Court held that although the power to amend the Constitution was present, the basic structure of the Constitution could not be altered. Notwithstanding that, the minority judges in Kesavanada Bharti’s Case held that Fundamental Rights cannot be amended. The reiteration of the Basic Structure Doctrine can be observed in The Doctrine of Basic Structure was further reiterated by the Supreme Court of India in several judgements which include other landmark cases like Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain[vi], Minerva Mills v. Union of India[vii], Waman Rao v. Union of India[viii], etc.
[i] Shankari Prasad v. Union of India, A.I.R. 1951 S.C. 458
[ii] Sajjan Singh v. State of Rajasthan, A.I.R. 1965 S.C. 845
[iii] I.C. Golak Nath v. State of Punjab, A.I.R. 1967, S.C. 1643
[iv]Kesavanand Bharti v. State of Kerala, A.I.R. 1973 S.C. 1461
[v]Prathik Gandhi, BASIC STRUCTURE AND ORDINARY LAWS (ANALYSIS OF THE ELECTION CASE & THE COELHO CASE), Indian Journal of Constitutional Law, Volume 4 (2010).
[vi] Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain, AIR 1975 S.C. 2299
[vii] Minerva Mill Ltd. v. Union of India, (1980) 3 SCC, 625
[viii] Waman Rao v. Union of India, (1981) 2 SCC 362
4. https://medium.com/@legalresolved/Shankari-Prasad Vs Union-of-India-case-judgment-2b09fa5afe24
6. https://lawsisto.com/legalnewsread/ODcyOA==/Sri-Shankari-Prasad Vs Union-of-India-1951
7. Srivastav, Tuhina, Parliament’s Power to Amend Indian Constitution – Doctrine of Basic Structure (October 7, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1688864or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1688864