The basic structure doctrine is an Indian judicial principle that the Constitution of India has certain basic features that cannot be altered or destroyed through amendments by the parliament. Key among these “basic features”, are the fundamental rights granted to individuals by the constitution. The doctrine thus forms the basis of a limited power of the Indian Supreme Court to review and strike down constitutional amendments enacted by the parliament which conflict with or seek to alter this “basic structure” of the constitution.
In 1965, The “basic features” principle was first expounded by Justice J.R. Mudholkar in his dissent in the case of Sajjan Singh v. State of Rajasthan.
In 1973, the basic structure doctrine triumphed in Justice Hans Raj Khanna’s judgment in the landmark decision of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala. Previously, the Supreme Court had held that the power of parliament to amend the constitution was unfettered. However, in this landmark ruling, the court adjudicated that while parliament has “wide” powers, it did not have the power to destroy or emasculate the basic elements or fundamental features of the constitution.
In 1975, Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain, a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court used the basic structure doctrine to strike down the 39th amendment and paved the way for restoration of Indian democracy.
In 1980, The Constitution (Forty-Second Amendment) Act had been enacted by the government of Indira Gandhi in response to the Kesavananda judgment in an effort to reduce the power of the judicial review of constitutional amendments by the Supreme Court. In the Minerva Mills case, Nani Palkhivala successfully moved the Supreme Court to declare sections 4 & 55 of the 42nd amendment as unconstitutional. Chief Justice Yeshwant Vishnu Chandrachud explained in the Minerva Mills judgment that since the power of Parliament to amend the constitution was limited, as had been previously held through the basic structure doctrine in the Kesavananda case, the parliament could not by amending the constitution convert this limited power into an unlimited power (as it had purported to do by the 42nd amendment). In addition, the court also ruled that the parliament’s “power to amend is not a power to destroy”.
The basic structure doctrine applies only to constitutional amendments. It does not apply to ordinary acts of parliament, which must itself be in conformity with the constitution.
In Kesavananda there were differing opinions even among the majority for what the “basic structure” of the constitution comprised.
Chief Justice Sikri, writing for the majority, indicated that the basic structure consists of the following:
- The supremacy of the constitution.
- A republican and democratic form of government.
- The secular character of the Constitution.
- Maintenance of the separation of powers.
- The federal character of the Constitution.
Justices Shelat and Grover in their opinion added three features to the Chief Justice’s list:
- The mandate to build a welfare state contained in the Directive Principles of State Policy.
- Maintenance of the unity and integrity of India.
- The sovereignty of the country.
Justices Hegde and Mukherjea, in their opinion, provided a separate and shorter list:
- The sovereignty of India.
- The democratic character of the polity.
- The unity of the country.
- Essential features of individual freedoms.
- The mandate to build a welfare state.
Justice Jaganmohan Reddy preferred to look at the preamble, stating that the basic features of the constitution were laid out by that part of the document, and thus could be represented by:
- A sovereign democratic republic.
- The provision of social, economic and political justice.
- Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.
- Equality of status and opportunity.
The interpretation of the basic structure has since evolved in numerous other court rulings since the Kesavananda judgment.