Minerva Mills v. Union of India: Analyzing the Basic Structure Doctrine

By Siddharth Dalabehera

INTRODUCTION

The “Basic Structure” doctrine is the judge-made doctrine whereby certain features of the Constitution of India are beyond the limit of the powers of amendment of the Parliament of India. No part of the Constitution may be so amended by Article 368 so as to “alter the basic structure” of the Constitution. Or in a context in which, any constitutional amendment that violates the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution would be invalid. Neither the Doctrine of Basic Structure nor the basic features of the Constitution have been explicitly mentioned in the constitution of India.

The phrase “Basic Structure” was introduced for the first time by M.K. Nambiar and other counsels while arguing for the petitioners in the Golaknath v. State of Punjab case, but it was only in 1973 that the concept surfaced in the text of the apex court’s verdict. The doctrine of the basic structure of the Constitution owes its evolution in the ratio of the majority judgment of the Supreme Court in the landmark case Keshvanand Bharti v. State of Kerala.

In the aftermath of the enunciation of the doctrine of basic structure of the Constitution by the Supreme Court in the case of Keshavanandha Bharti v. State of Kerala, this case involved a further analysis of the basic structure of the constitution in the context of the limitations to the amending powers of the parliament and the balance between fundamental rights and directive principles of the state policy.

The following are the facts of the case:

1. Petitioner No. 1 which is a limited company owned a textile undertaking called Minerva Mills situated in the State of Karnataka. This undertaking was nationalized and taken over by the Central Government under the provisions of the Sick Textile Undertakings (Nationalisation) Act, 1974, Petitioners 2 to 6 are shareholders of Petitioner No. 1, some of whom are also unsecured creditors and some secured creditors.

2. Respondent 1 is the Union of India. Respondent 2 is the National Textile Corporation Limited in which the textile undertaking of Minerva Mills comes to be vested under Section 3(2) of the Nationalisation Act of 1974. Respondent 3 is a subsidiary of the 2nd respondent.

3. On August 20, 1970, the Central Government appointed a Committee under Section 15 of the Industries (Development and Regulation) Act, 1951 to make a full and complete investigation of the affairs of the Minerva Mills Ltd., as it was of the opinion that there had been or was likely to be a substantial fall in the volume of production. The said Committee submitted its report to the Central Government in January 1971, on the basis of which the Central Government passed an order dated October 19, 1971, under Section 18A of the Act of 1951, authorizing Respondent 2 to take over the management of the Minerva Mills Ltd. on the ground that its affairs were being managed in a manner highly detrimental to public interest.
4. By these petitions, the petitioners challenge the constitutionality of Sections 4 and 55 of the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976 and it is this contention alone with which they propose to deal in these petitions.

CASE SUMMARY

The researcher will deal with the following issues of the case:

1. Whether the amendments introduced by Sections 4 and 55 of the Constitution ( 42nd Amendment) Act, 1976 damage the basic structure of the Constitution?

2. Whether directive principles of State policy contained in Part IV can have primacy over fundamental rights conferred by Part III of the constitution?

These issues emerged in the light of the following pleadings:

ARGUMENTS FROM THE PETITIONER

1. The contention of the petitioners was that there were inherent or implied limitations on the power of amendment and therefore Article 368 did not confer power on Parliament to amend the Constitution so as to destroy or emasculate the essential or basic elements of features of the Constitution.

2. The basic structure of the Constitution rests on the foundation that while the directive principles are the mandatory ends of government, those ends can be achieved only through permissible means which are set out in Part III of the Constitution.

3. If Article 31C as amended by the 42nd Amendment is allowed to stand, it will confer an unrestricted license on the legislature and the executive, both at the center and in the States, to destroy democracy and establish an authoritarian regime.

4. Section 4 of the 42nd Amendment has robbed the fundamental rights of their supremacy as if there were a permanent emergency in operation.

5. It is impossible to envisage that destruction of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by Part III is necessary for achieving the object of some of the directive principles.

6. Indian Constitution is founded on the bedrock of the balance between Parts III and IV. To give absolute primacy to one over the other is to disturb the harmony of the Constitution. This harmony and balance between fundamental rights and directive principles is an essential feature of the basic structure of the Constitution.

7. Effect of giving immunity to laws enacted for the purpose of giving effect to any one or more of the Directive Principles would, be in reality and substance to wipe out Articles 14 and 19 from the Constitution and that would affect the basic structure of the Constitution.

8. The consequence of this exclusion of the power of judicial review by Section 55 of the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976, which inserted Sub-sections (4) and (5) of Article 368 would be that, the limitation on the amending power of Parliament would become non-existent and the amending power of Parliament would stand enlarged.

ARGUMENTS FROM THE RESPONDENT

1. Securing the implementation of directive principles by the elimination of obstructive legal procedures cannot ever be said to destroy or damage the basic features of the Constitution.

2. Further, laws made for securing the objectives of Part IV would necessarily be in public interest.

3. A law which fulfils the directive of Article 38 is incapable of abrogating fundamental freedoms or of damaging the basic structure of the Constitution inasmuch as that structure itself is founded on the principle of justice- social, economic and political.

4. The unamended Article 31C having been upheld by the majority in Kesavananda Bharati case, the amended Article 31C must be held to be valid, especially since it has not brought about a qualitative change in comparison with the provisions of the unamended article and comes within the sweeping powers of amendment under Article 368.

5. Besides, the directive principles being themselves fundamental in the governance of the country, no amendment of the Constitution to achieve the ends specified in the directive principles can ever alter the basic structure of the Constitution.

6. The issue is too wide and academic and it is the settled practice of the court not to decide academic questions.

7. The deprivation of some or the fundamental rights for the purpose of achieving welfare of people cannot possibly amount to a destruction of the basic structure of the Constitution.

JUDGEMENT

By a majority of 4:1, the Court held the Section 4 of the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976 as being unconstitutional on the ground of violation of the basic structure. Similarly, the Section 55 of the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976 was held unconstitutional unanimously.

The majority opinion was delivered by Chief Justice Chandrachud on behalf of Gupta J., Untawalia J. and Kailasam J.

(1) Validity of Amendments to Article 368

Chandrachud, C.J., discerned the ratio of Keshavanada Bharti’s case as ‘Parliament has the right to make alterations in the Constitution so long as they are within its basic framework’.26The aforesaid amendments tend to confer unlimited amending power on to the Parliament extending up to the effacement of the Constitution itself. In the words of the majority:

‘Parliament cannot, under Article 368, expand its amending power so as to acquire for itself the right to repeal or abrogate the Constitution or to destroy its basic and essential features. The donee of a limited power cannot by the exercise of that power convert the limited power into an unlimited one.’

Thus, clause (5) was declared as unconstitutional on the ground of damaging the basic features of the Constitution. Moving further, clause (4) which barred judicial review in cases of constitutional amendments was held unconstitutional as it sought to make the entire Part III unenforceable and thus, enlarge the power of the Parliament limited by Article 13. The Court reasoned that if a constitutional amendment goes beyond the pale of judicial review then ordinary laws made in pursuance thereof will escape judicial scrutiny by virtue of protection offered by such an omnipotent amendment. Hence, such a clause was in transgression of the limitations on the amending power and hence unconstitutional.

(2) Validity of Amendments to Article 31C

The amendment made to Article 31C vastly extended its scope from the protection of laws made for the purposes of Article 39 (b) and (c) to all the Articles under Part IV from the challenge on the ground of Article 14 and 19.
The majority then undertook the task of weighing Directive Principles of State Policy [hereinafter ‘DPSPs’] against the Fundamental Rights. In respect of DPSPs, it observed:

‘However, the preservation of basic liberties provided under Part III has also been a solemn endeavour of the Indian Constitution. In view of the drafting history of Indian Constitution, both Part III and Part IV formed an integral and indivisible scheme and thus in the opinion of the majority ‘to destroy the guarantees given by Part III in order purportedly to achieve the goals of Part IV is plainly to subvert the Constitution by destroying its basic structure.’

The relation between the two parts was explained in the words quoted underneath:

Granville Austin’s observation brings out the true position that Parts III and IV are like two wheels of a chariot, one no less important than the other. You snap one and the other will lose its efficacy. They are like a twin formula for achieving the social revolution, which is the ideal which the visionary founders of the Constitution set before themselves.

In other words, the Indian Constitution is founded on the bedrock of the balance between Parts III and IV. To give absolute primacy to one over the other is to disturb the harmony of the Constitution. This harmony and balance between fundamental rights and directive principles is an essential feature of the basic structure of the Constitution. Those rights are not an end in themselves but are the means to an end, The end is specified in Part IV.

Hence, the majority declared the amendment to be beyond the powers of Parliament as violative of the essential features of the Constitution while emphasizing that:

Three Articles of our Constitution, and only three, stand between the heaven of freedom into which Tagore wanted his country to awake and the abyss of unrestrained power. They are Articles 14, 19 and 21. Article 31C has removed two sides of that golden triangle which affords to the people of this country an assurance that the promise held forth by the Preamble will be performed by ushering an egalitarian era through the discipline of fundamental rights, that is, without emasculation of the rights to liberty and equality which alone can help preserve the dignity of the individual.

COMMENT

This case substantiated the ‘basic structure’ doctrine by emphasizing over the importance of the balance between fundamental rights and DPSP as being a part of the basic structure of the constitution. This case has further broadened the concept of the ‘basic structure’ of the constitution which has ensured the survival of the fundamental aspects over which the constitution is based upon.

Basic structure of the Constitution is of prime importance as it prevents the parliament from having unconditional power and becoming the master of Law itself. One certainty that emerged out of this tussle between Parliament and the judiciary is that all laws and constitutional amendments are now subject to judicial review and laws that transgress the basic structure are likely to be struck down by the Supreme Court. In essence Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution is not absolute and the Supreme Court is the final arbiter over and interpreter of all constitutional amendments.

Finally, the Basic Structure of the constitution reiterates a well settled notion that none is above the Constitution, neither the parliament nor the judiciary.

Formatted on February 14th, 2019.

One Reply to “Minerva Mills v. Union of India: Analyzing the Basic Structure Doctrine”

  1. The date of judgement may be mentioned . In the facts of the case when the Textile was taken over and the names of the legal luminaries who represented the Petitioner and the Union may also be indicated .

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