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One of the most landmark judgments in the history of the Constitution of India was Golaknath v. State of Punjab. In the present case, a number of issues were raised; however, the most important issue was whether the Parliament of India has the vested power to make an amendment to the fundamental rights, guaranteed under Part III of the Indian Constitution, 1950. Whilst the Petitioners in the case contended that Parliament has no such power, the respondents contended that the framers of the Constitution never intended the Constitution of India a rigid and non-flexible one.
The Apex Court held that Parliament can’t amend the fundamental rights but this ruling was later overturned in the Kesvananda Bharati case, 1973. It was held in this case that the parliament is vested with the power to bring amendments to the constitution including Part III dealing but this power can’t extend to change the basic structure of the constitution.
Case Name: I. C. Golaknath and Ors v. State of Punjab
Citation: (1967 AIR 1643)
Petitioner: I.C Golaknath & ors
Respondent: State of Punjab
Date of Judgement: 27/02/1967
Bench: Rao, K. Subba (CJ), Wanchoo K.N, Hidayatullah. M, shah J.C, Sikri S.M, Bachawat R.S, Ramaswami V, Shelat, J.M, Bhargava, Vashishth, Mitter, G.K, Vaidyalingam C.A.
I. Factual Background of the Case
The family of the Petitioners, Henry and William Golaknath were in possession of over 500 acres of farmland in Jalandhar, Punjab. As per the Punjab Security and Land Tenures Act, 1953 the state government held that the Petitioner brothers can keep only 30-acres of land each, a few acres would go to the tenants, and the rest to be declared surplus. The Petitioners challenged this act of the state government before the court where their case was finally referred to the Apex Court in 1965.
A writ petition was filed by the Petitioners under article 32 of the Indian Constitution, challenging the 1953 act on the grounds that the act is violative of their constitutional rights to acquire and hold property and practice any profession and as mentioned under (Article 19 (f) and (g). Also, the act is denying them the right to equality before the protection of the law as mentioned under Article 14 of the Constitution. They sought to have the 17th amendment which had placed the Punjab Act, 1953 in the ninth schedule of the Constitution, declaring it ultra vires (beyond the powers) of the state government to curtail the fundamental rights of citizens guaranteed under the Constitution.
The present case of Golaknath v. State of Punjab is one of the landmark judgments pronounced in Indian legal history. With its ruling, the court developed jurisprudence around what is known as the doctrine of basic structure and in 1967 ruled, the court ruled how the Parliament cannot curtail any of the fundamental rights enshrined under the constitution of India.
II. Issues Involved
The main issue involved in the case which came for pronouncement before the court was that; “whether the parliament has the absolute power and the power to amend the fundamental rights enshrined under the constitution or not”?
III. Contention of the Parties
Arguments on behalf of the Petitioner
- The counsel on behalf of the petitioner argued that the Indian Constitution was drafted by the constituent assembly and was given a permanent nature by its founding members. No one is vested with that absolute power to amend or try to make amendments in the Constitution of India.
- It was argued before the court that the term ‘amendment’ in question only implies a change in accordance with the basic structure of the Indian Constitution but not inserting altogether a new idea.
- Further, it was contended that the fundamental rights guaranteed under part III of the constitution can’t be taken away by the parliament. Fundamental rights are the most essential and integral part of the Indian Constitution, which if taken or abridged, will leave our constitution like a body without a soul.
- It was also argued on behalf of the Petitioner that the amendment provision mentioned in Article 368 of our constitution only defines the procedure for amending the constitution and it doesn’t entail the power to the Parliament to make an amendment to the Constitutional itself.
- It was further argued before the court that Article 13(3) (a) in its definition of ‘law’ covers all types of law i.e. statutory and constitutional etc. Also, by virtue of Article 13(2) provisions, the state can’t make any law that takes away the rights mentioned under Part III, any constitutional amendment which takes away the Fundamental rights will be held unconstitutional and void by the court.
Arguments on behalf of the Respondent
- The counsel on behalf of the respondent contended before the Apex court that a constitutional amendment is a result of the exercise of its sovereign power. This exercise of sovereign power is different from the legislative power which parliament exercises to pass any ordinance or make law.
- It was argued that the framers of the Indian constitution never intended our constitution to be rigid and non-flexible in its nature.
- The object of bringing an amendment to the Constitution is to change the laws of the country as it deems fit for society. They argued that if there won’t be any provision for amendment then, it would make the constitution a rigid and non-flexible one.
- The Respondent also argued that there is no such concept of the basic structure or non-basic structure in the provisions of the Indian Constitution.
- They further contended that all the constitutional provisions are equal and are of equal importance, with no hierarchy in place for the enshrined provisions.
IV. Decision Held
In the present case, at that time in 1967, the Supreme Court had the largest constitutional bench ever. The ratio of the judgment given was in 6:5 where the majority of the bench was in favour of the arguments of the petitioners. The Chief Justice of India at that time, Subba Rao, with other justices (J.C. Shah, S.M. Sikri, J.M. Shelat, and C.A. Vaidiyalingam) wrote the majority opinion in the case. Justice Hidayatullah agreed with the CJI and therefore he wrote a separate opinion. Whereas Justices K.N. Wanchoo, Vishistha Bhargava and G.K Mitter all wrote single minority opinions and justices R.S. Bachawat & V. Ramaswami wrote separate minority opinions.
The majority opinion of Golakh Nath shows scepticism in the minds of judges about the then course of administration of the Indian parliament. Since 1950 the parliament has used Article 368 of the Constitution numerous times and has passed a number of legislations that had in one or another way violated the fundamental rights of the citizens, as guaranteed under part III of the constitution.
The majority of the bench had doubts that if the ruling of the Sajjan Singh case remained the law of the land, a time is not far to come when the fundamental rights adopted by our founding members of the constituent assembly will be changed through a series of amendments.
Keeping in view of this problem of such a casual amendment to Part III and fearing that if this continues to persist, this may result in a change of status of Democratic India into totalitarian India. Therefore, the majority overruled the decision given in the Sajjan Singh & Shankari Prasad where the Parliament was vested with the innumerous power to bring an amendment to even Part III of the Indian Constitution.
It was finally held in the case that the parliament has no right to amend the fundamental rights. The fundamental rights being the most essential right of citizens are to be kept beyond the reach of parliamentary legislation. Therefore, to save the democracy of the country from autocratic actions of the parliament, the court held that parliament can’t amend the fundamental rights enshrined under Part III of the Constitution of India. It was observed that fundamental rights are the same as natural rights and are of significant importance for the growth and development of a human being.
Undoubtedly, the Golaknath case is of prime importance in preserving the significance of the Fundamental rights safeguarded by the constitutional provisions. However, the present judgment is not free from flaw, and one of the biggest criticisms of the case revolves around the fact that the majority bench granted rigidity to the Indian Constitution.
Firstly, the court was of the opinion that if there was to be a constitutional amendment, it had to be done through a constituent assembly.
Secondly, the Supreme Court in this case only protected the fundamental rights from the possible misuse of the absolute power given to the Parliament; however, it could have actually protected all the basic features of the Constitution in that context.
Not much later, due to these intricacies in the Golaknath Case, its ruling was overruled to some extent in 1973 with another landmark of Kesavananda Bharati v. Union of India.
 (1967 AIR 1643).
 (1973) 4 SCC 225.
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