During the last fifteen months of the working of the Constitution, certain difficulties have been brought to light by judicial decisions and pronouncements specially with regards to the chapter on fundamental rights. This was the reason behind legislating the First Constitutional Amendment Act of 1951, which wreaked havoc in the country. The Act brought about major changes in Part III of the constitution, which deals with fundamental rights. Some of these include the imposition of restraints on the freedom of speech and expression and the enactment of the ninth schedule which safeguards the laws from judicial review. Since any law contravening the fundamental rights is void, the same was challenged in the court of law.
The zamindari system was the bone of contention. The zamindari system was introduced by Lord Cornwallis in 1793. The Zamindars owned the land and had all of the powers relating to possession such as the purchase and sale of the land. They were in charge of collecting the taxes from the peasants and handing them over to the British. India experienced radical land reforms after Independence. Even before the adoption of the Constitution, there were Zamindari abolition bills being passed in various states all across the country such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. When the zamindars challenged the same contending that it violated their right to property pursuant to Article 19 and Article 31 of the Constitution of India, the courts delivered varying judgements. While the Patna High Court declared the bill unconstitutional, the High Courts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh upheld its validity. This prompted the Government of India to enact the First Constitutional Act of 1951. The zamindars, therefore, exercised their right to constitutional remedies and contested the constitutional validity of the amendment.
- Whether the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951 was constitutional?
- Whether amendments come under the ambit of the term ‘law’ in Article 13(2) of the Constitution of India?
From the side of the petitioner:
Until both houses of the Parliament convene for the first session, Article 379 of the then Constitution of India designates the Constituent Assembly of India as the provisional parliament. It was argued that the power of parliament to amend the constitution was not conferred upon the provisional Parliament but the two houses of the Parliament. Thus, the exercise of this power was incompetent. In addition, article 368 is a complete code in itself and does not provide for any amendment being made in the bill after it has been introduced in the House. Furthermore, the newly inserted articles to the Constitution by the First Amendment, Articles 31A and 31B are ultra vires since the Centre has no authority to pass legislation relating to matters in the State List.
From the side of the respondent:
The framers of the Constitution laid particular importance on the constitutional amendment process since it must not be altered often in accordance to the wishes of the people. Thus, they introduced three classes of amendments. They are:
- The requisite being a bare majority, the same required for passing an ordinary law.
- The requisite being a special majority i.e. not less than two thirds of the members of the House.
- The requisite being the same as above plus a ratification by not less than one-half of the States.
The aforementioned amendment came under the third class. Now, when the power to implement the other two classes of amendments is vested with the Parliament, this power should be too, because there is only a procedural differentiation between the classes and there is no intention of delegating the power to another body. Countering the petitioner’s argument, the respondent submitted that, because of procedural inconsistencies, it is incorrect to label Article 368 as a code. Moreover, it was also argued that amendments were not a part of the legislative process and thus, must not be brought within the framework of Article 13(2) of the Constitution of India.
The case was adjudged by a five judge bench with Hon’ble Judge M Patanjali Sastri delivering the verdict. The petition was dismissed. In the context of the word ‘law’ pursuant to Article 13 must be taken to mean “rules and regulations made in the exercise of ordinary legislative power and not amendments to the Constitution made in exercise of constituent power, with the result of which Article 13(2) does not affect amendment made under Article 368.” Thus, the validity of the First Constitutional Amendment Act, 1951 was upheld.
The same was sustained in a subsequent judgement. However, in a future case which held that fundamental rights are transcendental and immutable and Article 368 cannot amend the same since it only prescribes the procedure to amend, the decision was overruled. Later, in 1973, this judgement was overruled. This was the landmark judgement which propounded the concept of Basic Structure Doctrine, in order to place limits on the unfettered power of the Parliament, when it comes to amending the Constitution. The doctrine is a judicial principle which prescribes fundamental features of the Indian Constitution that cannot be changed or destroyed by amendments.
The main objective of Article 13 of the Constitution of India is to determine the validity and constitutionality of law. There is no specific mention of amendments in both Articles 13 and 368 of the Constitution of India. Hence, it was open to the interpretation of the courts. Over the years, different cases and varied judgements eventually led to the formation of the Doctrine of Basic Structure. Although, the verdict of the judgment of Sankari Prasad Singh Deo v. Union of India, 1951 was overruled, it was significant in the process of constitutional interpretation and the creation of the doctrine which is instrumental in preserving the spirit of the Constitution of India.
Uddin, Mohammad Moin, and Rakiba Nabi. “JUDICIAL REVIEW OF CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS IN LIGHT OF THE ‘POLITICAL QUESTION’ DOCTRINE: A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF THE JURISPRUDENCE OF SUPREME COURTS OF BANGLADESH, INDIA AND THE UNITED STATES.” Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 58, no. 3, 2016, pp. 313–336. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/45163394. Accessed 3 Jan. 2021.
Gae, R. S. “Land Law in India: With Special Reference to the Constitution.” The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 2, 1973, pp. 312–328. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/758169. Accessed 3 Jan. 2021.
Gae, R. S. “AMENDMENT OF FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS.” Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 9, no. 4, 1967, pp. 475–520. JSTOR,. Accessed 3 Jan. 2021.http://www.jstor.org/stable/43949952
Sri Sankari Prasad Singh Deo v. Union of India  AIR SC 458
Sajjan Singh v. The State of Punjab  AIR 464
I.C. Golaknath & Ors. v. The State of Punjab  AIR 1643
Kesavananda Bharati v. The State of Kerala & Anr.  AIR SC 1461
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