IAS Prelims : GS Polity and Governance : Doctrine of Basic Structure

This article provides the understanding of the Basic Structure Doctrine as evolved by the Supreme Court of India.

Feb 20, 2015 17:23 IST
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According to the Article 245 of Constitution of India and the respective lists of the Subjects, Parliament and the state legislatures in India have the power to make laws within their respective jurisdictions .This power is not absolute in nature. The Constitution of India vest the power to Judiciary to adjudicate about the constitutional validity of all laws made by Parliament or the state legislatures.

Doctrine of Basic Structure

If a law made by Parliament or the state legislatures violates any provision of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has the power to declare such a law invalid or ultra vires. Basic Structure Doctrine is a principle laid down by the judiciary. According to the doctrine, the basic features of the Indian constitution could not be destroyed or changed. The constitution empowers the Parliament and the State Legislatures to make laws within their respective jurisdiction. Bills to amend the constitution can only be introduced in the Parliament, but this power is not absolute. 

If the Supreme Court finds any law made by the Parliament inconsistent with the constitution, it has the power to declare that law to be invalid.  To preserve the ideals and philosophy of the original constitution, the Supreme Court has pronounced that the Parliament cannot destroy, distort or alter the basic structure of the constitution. Though the phrase 'basic structure' itself is untraceable in the Constitution.
Supreme Court recognised this concept for the first time in the historic Kesavananda Bharati case in 1973. Ever since the Supreme Court has been the interpreter of the Constitution .

Evolution of the Doctrine

There is no mention of the word "Basic Structure" in the constitution. The concept developed gradually with the interference of the judiciary from time to time to protect the basic rights of the people and the ideals and the philosophy of the constitution.

• The First Constitution Amendment Act, 1951 was challenged in the Shankari Prasad Vs. Union of India case. The amendment was challenged on the ground that it violates the Part-III of the constitution, so it should be considered invalid. The Supreme Court held that the Parliament, under Article 368, has power to amend any part of the constitution including fundamental rights. The Court gave the same ruling in Sajjan Singh Vs State of Rajasthan case in 1965.

• In Golak Nath Vs State of Punjab case in 1967, the Supreme Court overruled its earlier decision. The Supreme Court held that the Parliament has no power to amend Part III of the constitution as the fundamental rights are transcendental and immutable. According to the Supreme Court ruling, Article 368 only lays down the procedure to amend the constitution and does not give absolute powers to the parliament to amend any part of the constitution.

• The Parliament, in 1971, passed the 24th Constitution Amendment Act. The act gave the absolute power to the parliament to make any changes in the constitution including the fundamental rights. It also made it obligatory for the President to give his assent on all the Constitution Amendment bills sent to him.
In 1973, in Kesavananda Bharti Vs. State of Kerala case, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the 24th Constitution Amendment Act by reviewing its decision in Golaknath case. The Supreme Court held that the Parliament has power to amend any provision of the constitution, but doing so, the basic structure of the constitution is to be maintained.

But the Apex Court did not any clear definition of the basic structure. It held that the "basic structure of the Constitution could not be abrogated even by a constitutional amendment".

In the judgement, some of the basic features, which were listed by the judges were as follows:

  • Supremacy of the Constitution
  • Republican and democratic form of government
  • Secular character of the Constitution
  • Federal character of the Constitution
  • Separation of power between the legislature, executive and the judiciary
  • Unity and Sovereignty of India
  • Essential features of the individual freedoms secured to the citizens
  • Equality of status and opportunity of an individual
  • Secularism and freedom of conscience and religion
  • Rule of law

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