Doctrine of Basic Structure: Meaning, Evolution, Features, Significance & Criticism

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Doctrine of Basic Structure
Doctrine of Basic Structure

The Doctrine of Basic Structure, as a hallmark of Indian judicial innovation, ensures that the foundational principles of the Constitution of India remain intact while the Constitution keeps on evolving through amendments. In navigating the complex interplay between change and continuity, the doctrine ensures that the soul of the Constitution remains untouched. This article of NEXT IAS aims to explain the meaning of the Doctrine of Basic Structure, its evolution, features, elements, significance, and criticisms.

  • The Doctrine of the Basic Structure of the Constitution refers to the principle established by the Indian Judiciary that certain core principles and features of the Constitution are inviolable and cannot be amended or altered by the Parliament.
  • As per this doctrine, any amendment that seeks to alter or abolish these basic features is deemed unconstitutional and void. Thus, this doctrine acts as a safeguard against arbitrary or radical changes to the Constitution, ensuring its stability, continuity, and adherence to core constitutional values.
Doctrine of Basic Structure
  • The Doctrine of Basic Structure of the Constitution is not expressly provided for in the Constitution.
    • It is, actually, a judicial doctrine, which has evolved through a series of judgments of the Supreme Court on cases related to the amending power of the Parliament.
  • The debate regarding the scope of the power of the Parliament to amend the Constitution under Article 368 started way back in 1951.
    • This issue initiated a tussle between the Legislature and the Judiciary, which ultimately culminated in the evolution of the doctrine of the Basic Structure of the Constitution.

The Evolution of this Doctrine over the years can be seen as follows:

  • In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the term ‘law’ in Article 13 includes only ordinary laws and not Constitutional Amendment Acts. Thus, Parliament can take away or abridge any of the Fundamental Rights by enacting a Constitutional Amendment Act.
  • In this case, the Supreme Court reversed its earlier stand and held that the term ‘law’ in Article 13 also includes Constitutional Amendment Acts. Hence, the Parliament cannot take away or abridge a Fundamental Right through a Constitutional Amendment Act.
  • To counter the Supreme Court verdict in the Golak Nath Case, the Parliament passed the 24th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1971, which amended Article 13 and Article 368.
  • It declared that the Parliament can take away or abridge any of the Fundamental Rights through a Constitutional Amendment Act under Article 368 and such an act will not be considered a law under the meaning of Article 13.
  • In this case, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the 24th Constitutional Amendment Act and stated that the Parliament can take away or abridge any of the Fundamental Rights.
  • However, it laid down a new Doctrine of the Basic Structure of the Constitution, according to which, the constituent power of Parliament under Article 368 does not enable it to alter the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution.
  • Thus, the overall position after the pronouncement of this judgment is that the Parliament cannot take away or abridge a Fundamental Right that forms a part of the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution.
  • As a reaction to the new Doctrine of Basic Structure, the Parliament enacted the 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1976.
  • It amended Article 368 to declare that there is no limitation on the constituent power of Parliament. Accordingly, no amendment can be questioned in the court of law on any ground, including that of the contravention of the Fundamental Rights.
  • In this case, the Supreme Court invalidated the above provision of the 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act of 1976 on the ground that it excluded Judicial Review which is a ‘basic feature’ of the Constitution.
  • In this case, the Supreme Court adhered to the Doctrine of Basic Structure and clarified that it would apply to all the Constitutional Amendment Acts enacted after the date of the Kesavananda Bharati Case Judgment i.e. April 24, 1973.
    • Present Position
      • Thus, the present position is that the Parliament under Article 368 can amend any part of the Constitution, including Fundamental Rights, but without affecting the Basic Structure of the Constitution.
  • From the various judgments, the following have emerged as the basic features of the Constitution:
    • The Supreme Court has not yet defined what constitutes the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution. It has kept evolving the elements of basic structure through various judgments.
  • Some of the major elements of the Basic Structure of the Constitution as listed as follows:
– Supremacy of the Constitution
– Sovereign, Democratic, and Republican nature of the Indian Polity
– Secular Character of the Constitution
– Separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary
– Federal character of the Constitution
– Unity and integrity of the nation
– Welfare State (socio-economic justice)
– Judicial Review
– Freedom and dignity of the individual
– Parliamentary system
– Rule of law
– Harmony and balance between Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles
– Principle of Equality
– Free and fair elections
– Independence of Judiciary
– Limited Power of Parliament to amend the Constitution
– Effective access to justice
– Principles (or essence) underlying fundamental rights
– Powers of the Supreme Court under Articles 32, 136, 141 and 142
– Powers of the High Courts under Articles 226 and 227

The Doctrine of Basic Structure of the Constitution holds a place of paramount significance in the constitutional framework of India. Its importance can be understood as follows:

  • Preserves Constitutional Integrity – The doctrine strikes a balance between the need for constitutional flexibility and the imperative of maintaining the fundamental integrity and identity of the Constitution. This helps maintain the integrity and stability of the constitutional order.
  • Maintains Supremacy of the Constitution – The doctrine upholds the principle that the Constitution is supreme and serves as the highest law of the land.
  • Upholds Constitutional Morality – It upholds the principles of constitutional morality and ensures that constitutional amendments adhere to the overarching values of justice, equality, and fairness.
  • Prevents Authoritarianism – This doctrine acts as a bulwark against authoritarian tendencies to dismantle democratic institutions or undermine constitutional norms.
  • Ensures Stability and Consistency – The doctrine prevents frequent and radical changes to the constitution that could disrupt governance, thereby contributing to the stability and consistency of the legal system.
  • Protects Democracy – By protecting the democratic values as ‘basic features’ of the Constitution, this ensures that India remains a sovereign, socialist, secular, and democratic republic.
  • Protects Fundamental Rights – By preserving these fundamental rights from infringement through constitutional amendments, this doctrine safeguards individual liberties and promotes social justice.
  • Promotes Judicial Review – This doctrine empowers the judiciary to review constitutional amendments while enhancing its role as a guardian of the constitution and promoting the rule of law.

While the Doctrine of Basic Structure of the Constitution has been instrumental in safeguarding constitutional integrity and protecting fundamental principles, it has also faced criticism from various quarters on the following grounds:

  • Lack of Constitutional Basis – One common criticism is that the doctrine is not supported by any explicit provision in the Constitution.
  • Lack of Clarity – This doctrine lacks precise definition and clarity regarding its elements. This ambiguity opens the door to judicial discretion and interpretation, leading to uncertainty and inconsistency in its application.
  • Inherent Subjectivity – The determination of what constitutes the Basic Structure is inherently subjective and varies based on individual judges’ interpretations which can lead to conflicting decisions by different benches of the judiciary.
  • Judicial Activism – Critics argue that the Basic Structure doctrine vests excessive power in the judiciary, enabling judges to engage in judicial activism and make subjective determinations about constitutional amendments.
  • Violation of Separation of Powers – By allowing the judiciary to intervene in the legislative and constituent power of the Parliament, it leads to a violation of the principle of the separation of powers.
  • Undemocratic Nature – At times, it leads to undemocratic practices as it allows unelected judges to override decisions made by democratically elected representatives.
  • Stifling Constitutional Evolution – By imposing rigid constraints on the amending power of the legislature, the doctrine may impede the evolution of the Constitution in response to new challenges and circumstances in response to changing societal needs.

The Doctrine of Basic Structure of the Constitution stands as a cornerstone of constitutional jurisprudence, providing a framework for the preservation of fundamental principles and values inherent in the Constitution. It is a testament to the visionary foresight of the Indian judiciary that safeguards the foundational principles of the constitution from arbitrary changes.

What is the Basic Structure of the Indian Constitution?

The Doctrine of the Basic Structure of the Constitution refers to the principle established by the Indian Judiciary that certain core principles and features of the Constitution are inviolable and cannot be amended or altered by the Parliament.

Can the Basic Structure of the Constitution be Amended?

The Parliament can amend the provisions of the Constitution but cannot destroy its ‘Basic Structure’. Thus, the ‘Basic Structure’ cannot be amended.

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