Nowadays, there is an issue on every Indian news channel which gets discussed rigorously. Recently, in Karnataka, a student was restricted from entering an educational institution because she was wearing a Hijab. This issue mainly attracts a fundamental right of any citizen to practice his or her religion freely and also every citizen’s right to education. Every issue comes down to some fundamental rights of a citizen. It carries a lot of weight in the Indian Constitution.

There are some basic human rights which every Indian citizen has the right to enjoy, called Fundamental Rights. These fundamental rights are included in Article 12 to Article 35 in the Indian Constitution which are Right to Equality, Right to Freedom, Right against Exploitation, Right to Freedom of Religion, Educational and Cultural Rights, and Right to Constitutional Remedies. Over the period of years, there have been many cases where the conflict on Fundamental rights was raised. One of the historic cases that revolve around fundamental rights in India is Kesavanand Bharti V. State of Kerala. It paved the way to one of the important Amendment Acts in the Indian Constitution. It is the longest case in India that went on for 68 days, more than 100 cases were cited, and with a panel of 13 judges, the longest bench ever. Constitutions of more than 70 countries were compared.

After independence, every state in India for the betterment of their social and economic conditions started making new laws and regulations. There was a huge gap between rich and poor people. When the Constitution came, people understood their right to equality. At that time, resources and means of production were available to only certain people. To bridge this gap, the Kerala Government introduced Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963. These reforms restricted the property rights of any citizen, that is, how much property can be owned by one citizen. Under this Act, the Kerala government took over the land of Edneer Mutt of Kasaragod district. The Kerala Government wanted to control religiously owned properties. The head of the Mutt, Shri. Kesavanand Bharti challenged this land acquisition stating the income of the Mutt got affected after the takeover and they were facing problems to manage the daily work itself. He filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court stating the Land Reforms Act violates Fundamental Rights such as Article 14 (Equality rights), Article 19 (Freedom of Speech and Expression), Article 25, and Article 26 (Freedom to manage religious affairs). Nanabhoy Palkhivala presented his case in the Supreme Court. The 24th, 25th, and 29th Constitutional Amendments were also challenged which were introduced after the Golaknath case, 1967.

  • 24th Amendment Act: gives the power to Parliament to amend any provision of the Constitution.
  • 25th Amendment Act: states that the Right to property can be curtailed. Government can acquire private property of any citizen for public use and compensation for such shall be decided by Parliament and not by the court.
  • 29th Amendment Act: puts the Land Reforms Act in the 9th Schedule of the Constitution. Laws under the 9th Schedule cannot be reviewed by the court and gets immunity from any questions. 

The main question of the case was whether the Parliament can amend the fundamental rights and if yes, then to what extent?

The petitioner, Kesavanand Bharti, argued that the powers under Article 368 are limited and not absolute. After the Golaknath case, under Article 368 parliament was given unlimited powers to amend the constitution, on which the Supreme Court put some restrictions. He argued that the Fundamental rights are to protect citizens’ freedom. However, the 24th and 25th Amendment Act gives powers to Parliament to restrict them. The respondent, the Government of Kerala, argued that Parliament has unlimited and absolute powers to amend the provisions of the Constitution under the Amendment Acts 24, 25, and 29.

The Supreme Court gave judgment in favour of the Government of Kerala, by the majority of seven votes. The judgment in Golaknath V. State of Punjab 1967 was overruled. The 24th, 25th, and 29th Amendment Acts were held valid. However, a new provision was inserted in the Ninth schedule that allowed judicial review of laws, which violated the basic features of the Constitution. The Supreme Court said that under Article 368 of the Constitution, Parliament held powers to amend the provisions of the Constitution. However, these powers are not absolute. There are still some basic features, which cannot be interfered with. Thus, on 24th April 1973 for the first time, the Supreme Court introduced something called Basic Structure Doctrine stating the Constitution of India has certain basic essential features that cannot be altered or destroyed through amendments by the Parliament of India. An indicative list of such features was given such as the independent judiciary, Parliamentary structure, free and fair elections, etc. and any feature to be included in this list will be decided by the Court.

At that time, there was a constant fight between the Government of India and the Supreme Court. Ex-Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, introduced the 39th and 41st amendment in 1975, which said that any existing or ex-prime minister at any time cannot be charged in any civil or criminal case and also the tenure of President of India would be for 6 months to 1 year only. In this period, nationalisation of banks was carried out which was also a subject of dispute. It was clear that through these amendments, the Government wanted more power in its hands. Mr. Palkhivala saw an opportunity through Swamiji’s case to challenge a series of amendments introduced by the Indira Gandhi Government granting unlimited powers to the Parliament. Kesavanand Bharti's case by ruling out these amendments made a great contribution and limited Parliament’s powers to make any drastic amendments that may affect the core values of the Constitution. On one hand, it gave powers to the government to amend but on the other hand, it also put restrictions on the Government. An emergency was declared shortly after this judgment under which the Prime Minister bestowed with the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be canceled and civil liberties to be suspended. Thus, the Kesavanand Bharti case judgment proved timely and safeguarded the democracy of India for upcoming years. It strengthened the base for the protection of the fundamental rights of every Indian citizen.

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