In S.R. Chaudhuri v. State of Punjab and others[1], a three-Judge Bench has opined that constitutional provisions are required to be understood and interpreted with an object-oriented approach and a Constitution must not be construed in a narrow and pedantic sense. The Court, while holding that the   Constituent   Assembly   debates   can   be   taken   aid   of, observed the following: ¬

“The words used may be general in terms but, their full import and true meaning, has to be appreciated considering the true context in which the same are used and the purpose which they seek to achieve.”

The Court further highlighted that the Constitution is not just a document in solemn form but a living framework for the government   of   the   people   exhibiting   a   sufficient   degree   of cohesion   and   its   successful   working   depends   upon   the democratic spirit underlying it being respected in letter and in spirit.

In Ashok Kumar Gupta and another v. State of U.P. and others[2], the Court observed that while interpreting the Constitution, it must be borne in mind that words of width are both a framework of concepts and means to the goals in the Preamble and concepts may keep changing to expand and elongate the rights.

The Court further held that constitutional issues are not solved by mere appeal to the meaning of the words without an acceptance of the line of their growth and, therefore, the judges should adopt purposive interpretation of the dynamic concepts of the Constitution and the Act with its interpretative armoury to articulate the felt necessities of the time. Finally, the Court pointed out:¬

“To construe law one must enter into its spirit, its setting and history.”

In Indian Medical Association v. Union of India and others[3], referring to the pronouncement in  M.  Nagaraj   v. Union of India[4], the Court said:¬

“In   M.   Nagaraj,   Kapadia   J.,   (as   he   then   was) speaking for the Court, recognized that one of the cardinal principles of constitutional adjudication is that the mode of interpretation ought to be the one that is purposive and conducive to ensure that the constitution endures for ages to come. Eloquently, it was   stated   that   the   “Constitution   is   not   an ephemeral legal document embodying a set of rules for the passing hour”.”

The emphasis on context while interpreting constitutional provisions has burgeoned this shift from the literal rule to the purposive method in order that the provisions do not remain static and rigid. The words assume different incarnations to adapt themselves to the current demands as and when the need arises. The House of Lords in Regina (Quintavalle) v. Secretary of State for Health[5] ruled:¬

“The   pendulum   has   swung   towards   purposive methods   of   construction.  This   change   was   not initiated by the teleological approach of European Community   jurisprudence,   and   the   influence   of European legal culture generally, but it has been accelerated   by   European   ideas:   see,   however,   a classic early statement of the purposive approach by Lord Blackburn in River Wear Commissioners v. Adamson (1877) LR 2 AC 743 at p. 763 (HL). In any event,   nowadays   the   shift   towards   purposive interpretation is not in doubt.  The qualification is that the degree of liberality permitted is influenced by the context. …”

Emphasizing   on   the   importance   of   determining   the purpose and object of a provision, Learned Hand, J. in Cabell v. Markham[6] enunciated:¬

“Of course it is true that the words used, even in their literal sense, are the primary, and ordinarily the   most   reliable,   source   of   interpreting   the meaning of any writing: be it a statute, a contract, or anything else. But it is one of the surest indexes of   a   mature   and   developed   jurisprudence   not   to make   a   fortress   out   of   the   dictionary;   but   to remember that statutes always have some purpose or   object   to   accomplish,   whose   sympathetic   and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning.”

The components of purposive interpretation have been elucidated   by   Former   President   of     the   Supreme   Court   of Israel, Aharon Barak, who states:¬

“Purposive   interpretation   is   based   on   three components:   language,   purpose,   and   discretion. Language shapes the range of semantic possibilities within which the interpreter acts as a linguist. Once the interpreter defines the range, he or she chooses the   legal   meaning   of   the   text   from   among   the (express   or   implied)   semantic   possibilities.   The semantic   component   thus   sets   the   limits   of interpretation by restricting the interpreter to a legal meaning that the text can bear in its (public or private) language.”[7]

As   per   the   observations   made   by   Aharon   Barak, judges interpret   a   Constitution   according to its purpose which comprises of the objectives, values and principles that the constitutional text is designed to actualize.   Categorizing this   purpose   into   objective   and   subjective   purpose,   he states:¬

“Subjective   component   is   the   goals,   values,   and principles that the constituent assembly sought to achieve   through   it,   at   the   time   it   enacted   the constitution. It is the original intent of the founding fathers.   Purposive   interpretation   translates   such intent   into   a   presumption   about   the   subjective purpose, that is, that the ultimate purpose of the text is to achieve the (abstract) intent of its authors. There is also, however, the objective purpose of the text –   the goals, values, and principles that the constitutional   text   is   designed   to   achieve   in   a modern democracy at   the time of interpretation. Purposive   interpretation   translates   this   purpose into the presumption that the ultimate purpose of the constitution is its objective purpose.”

It is also apt to reproduce the observations made by him in   the   context   of   the   ever   changing   nature   of   the Constitution:-  

“A constitution is at the top of a normative pyramid. It is designed to guide human behavior for a long period of time. It is not easily amendable. It uses many   open   ended   expressions.   It   is   designed   to shape the character of the state for the long term. It lays the foundation for the state’s social values and aspirations.  

In   giving   expression   to   this constitutional   uniqueness,   a   judge   interpreting   a constitution must accord significant weight to its objective   purpose   and   derivative   presumptions. Constitutional   provisions   should   be   interpreted according to society’s basic normative positions at the time of interpretation.”

He has further pointed out that both the subjective as well as the objective purposes have their own significance in the interpretation of constitutional provisions:¬

“The intent of the constitutional founders (abstract subjective intent” remains important. We need the past to understand the present. Subjective purpose confers historical depth, honoring the past and its importance. In purposive interpretation, it takes the form   of   presumption   of   purpose   that   applies immediately, throughout the process of interpreting a constitution. It is not, however, decisive. Its weight is substantial immediately following the founding, but   as   time   elapses,   its   influence   diminishes.  

It cannot   freeze   the   future   development   of   the constitutional provision. Although the roots of the constitutional provision are in the past, its purpose is determined by the needs of the present, in order to solve problems in the future. In a clash between subjective   and   objective   purposes,   the   objective purpose of a constitution prevails. It prevails even when   it   is   possible   to   prove   subjective   purpose through   reliable,   certain,   and   clear   evidence. Subjective   purpose  remains   relevant,   however,   in resolving   contradictions   between   conflicting objective purposes.”


Govt of NCT of Delhi v. Union of India (2018)

[1] (2001) 7 SCC 126

[2] (1997) 5 SCC 201

[3] (2011) 7 SCC 179

[4] (2006) 8 SCC 202

[5] (2003) UKHL 13 : (2003) 2 AC 687 : (2003) 2 WLR 692 (HL)

[6] 148 F 2d 737 (2d Cir 1945)

[7] Aharon Barak, Purposive Interpretation in Law, Princeton University Press,

2005 – Law