Tuesday May 8 2007 10:14 IST
M S Ananth
The power of Parliament to amend the Constitution, specifically with reference to provisions relating to fundamental rights, has been under scrutiny since 1951. The amending power of Parliament was considered essentially plenary, as ‘law’ in Article 13 was held to be only legislated law and not constitutional amendment acts. The amending power was significantly restricted in I C Golak Nath (1967), where the amending power was held to be limited to the extent of fundamental rights and ‘law’ was held to include constitutional amendment acts. This ratio was reversed in Kesavananda Bharti (1973) where Parliament’s amending power was held to be limited to the Constitution’s basic structure.
Consequently, the power to amend the Constitution through entries in the IX Schedule would have to satisfy the test of ‘basic structure’ and it was the scope of this test, which was decided by the apex court in I R Coelho earlier this year. This judgment has caused much consternation among political parties and evoked a most remarkable response — a demand for a new constitution.
The apex court has held in this judgment that the extent of immunity provided by Article 31B read with IX Schedule would be subject to fundamental rights that form part of the basic structure. Therefore, challenges on the ground that insertion is not a mere violation of a fundamental right but a violation of the basic structure, would succeed.
Parliament is constituted by duly elected persons. However, given the fact that our politicians are given to ‘impulses of majority’ and ‘temporary excitement and popular caprice or passion’ it would not be prudent to make the Constitution a prisoner of such whims and fancies. Fundamental rights are rights which the Constitution declares as fundamental and not what ‘Parliament regards, at a given moment conducive to the public benefit’.
The Constitution balances fundamental rights and directive principles to ensure that the dream of equality aspired for by a large majority of Indians does indeed become a reality and does not remain a dream. The 42nd Amendment Act, which sought to give precedence to directive principles over fundamental rights, was held to be unconstitutional (Minerva Mills), as the amendment disturbed the balance between fundamental rights and directive principles. Directive principles serve as a beacon to governments to ensure that goals and aspirations of the citizens are achieved and fundamental rights ensure that the means of achieving them are not compromised. The founding fathers of the Constitution had high aspirations for future generations as can be evinced from the Constituent Assembly debates. Consequently, civil liberties and their enforceability were placed on a higher pedestal and were rightly placed as fundamental rights in the Constitution.
The founding fathers were also well aware of prevalent inequalities and the unequal distribution of wealth among them and the need to address the same. These factors have also weighed with judges and have been cogently brought out, when interpreting the relevant provisions of the Constitution. When a citizen is aggrieved by an amendment to the Constitution, made by persons he voted to power, the Constitution guarantees him the right to move the Court to redress his grievance. The Court is bound to address the grievance of the citizen by interpreting the Constitution.
In the ultimate analysis, in coming to a conclusion about whether the people have failed the Constitution or the Constitution has failed the people, the prophetic warning given by Dr Rajendra Prasad in his concluding speech, on the day of adoption of our Constitution on November 26, 1949, should be kept in mind: “If the people who are elected are capable, and men of character and integrity, they would be able to make the best even of a defective Constitution. If they are lacking in these, the Constitution cannot help the country. After all, the Constitution, like a machine, is a lifeless thing. It acquired life because of the men who control and operate it, and India needs today nothing more than a set of honest men who will have the interest of the country before them.”
The writer is a Delhi-based advocate
The New Indian Express