Edited excerpt from the judgment

The question whether there is any implied limitation on the amending power under Article 368 has not been decided by Supreme Court till now. That question did not come up for consideration in Sankari Prasad’s case. In Sajjan Singh’s case neither the majority speaking through Gajendragadkar C.J. nor Hidayatullah J. (as he then was) went into that question. But Mudholkar J. did foresee the importance of that aspect.

For the first time in Golak Nath’s case, the contention that the power of amendment under Article 368 is subject to certain inherent and implied limitations was urged. Subba Rao C.J. speaking for himself and four of his colleagues, while recognising the force of that contention refrained from pronouncing on the same.

Wanchoo J. (as he then was) speaking for himself and two other judges opined that the power under Article 368 is a very wide power but it may not include a power to abrogate the Constitution. He did explain what he meant by “abrogate the Constitution“.

Hidayatullah J. (as he then was) did not address himself to that question. Bachawat J. side-stepped that question by saying that the impugned amendments did not destroy any, basic feature of the Constitution, The only judge who rejected the contention that there are inherent or implied limitations on the amending power was Ramaswami J.

From the above discussion it is seen that in cases that came up for consideration before Supreme Court in the past several judges did consider the possibility of having some limitation on the amending power under Article 368 though they did not definitely pronounce on that question.

The Intention of the Constitution Makers

Our founding fathers, at any rate, most of them had made immense sacrifices for the sake of securing those objectives. For them freedom from British rule was an essential step to render social justice to the teeming millions in this country and to secure to one and all in this country the essential human rights. Their Constitutional plan was to build a welfare state and an egalitarian society.

The question arises whether those very persons could have intended to empower the Parliament, a body constituted under the Constitution to destroy the ideals that they dearly cherished and for which they fought and sacrificed.

If the nature of the power granted is clear and beyond doubt the fact that it may be misused is wholly irrelevant. But, if there is reasonable doubt as to the nature of the power granted then the Court has to take into consideration the consequences that might ensue by interpreting the same as an unlimited power.

The contentions of Union and States

Their submission in short was this that so long as the expression the “Constitution of India” is retained, every other article or part of it can be replaced. They tried to tone down the effect of their claim by saying that, though legally, there is no limitation on the amending power, there are bound to be political compulsions which make it impermissible for Parliament to exercise its amending power in a manner unacceptable to the people at large.

The strength of political reaction is uncertain. It depends upon various factors such as the political consciousness of the people, their level of education, strength of the various political organizations in the country, the manner in which the mass media is used and finally the capacity of the government to suppress agitations. Hence the peoples’ will to resist an unwanted amendment cannot be taken into consideration in interpreting the ambit of the amending power. Extra-legal forces work in a different plane altogether.

We find it difficult to accept the contention that our Constitution-makers after making immense sacrifices for achieving certain ideals made provision in the Constitution itself for the destruction of those ideals. There is no doubt as men of experience and sound political knowledge, they must have known that social, economic and political changes are bound to come with the passage of time and the Constitution must be capable of being so adjusted as to be able to respond to those new demands.

The essential features of the constitution can’t be destroyed

Our Constitution is not a mere political document. It is essentially a social document. It is based on a social philosophy and every social philosophy like every religion has two main features, namely, basic and circumstantial. The former remains constant but the latter is subject to change. The core of a religion always remains constant but the practices associated with it may change. Likewise, a Constitution like ours contains certain features which are so essential that they cannot be changed or destroyed. In any event it cannot be destroyed from within.

In other words, one cannot legally use the Constitution to destroy itself. Under Article 368 the amended Constitution must remain ‘the Constitution’ which means the original Constitution. When we speak of the ‘abrogation’ or ‘repeal’ of the Constitution, we do not refer to any form but to substance. If one or more of the basic features of the Constitution are taken away to that extent the Constitution is abrogated or repealed. If all the basic features of the Constitution are repealed and some other provisions inconsistent with those features are incorporated, it cannot still remain the Constitution referred to in Article 368. The personality of the Constitution must remain unchanged.

It is also necessary to bear in mind that the power to amend the Constitution is conferred on Parliament, a body constituted under the Constitution. The people as such are not associated with the amendment of the Constitution. From the preamble we get that it is the people of this country who conferred this Constitution on themselves. The statement in the preamble that the people of this country conferred the Constitution on themselves is not open to challenge before Supreme Court. Its factual correctness cannot be gone into by Supreme Court which again is a creature of the Constitution. The facts set out in the preamble have to be accepted by Supreme Court as correct.

Anyone who knows the composition of the Constituent Assembly can hardly dispute the claim of the members of that Assembly that their voice was the voice of the people. They were truly the representatives of the people, even though they had been elected under a narrow franchise. When a power to amend the Constitution is given to the people, its contents can be construed to be larger than when that power is given to a body constituted under that Constitution. Two-thirds of the members of the two Houses of Parliament need not necessarily represent even the majority of the people of this country.

Our electoral system is such that even a minority of voters can elect more than two-thirds of the members of the either House of Parliament. That is seen from our experience in the past. That apart, our Constitution was framed on the basis of consensus and not on the basis of majority votes. It provides for the protection of the minorities. If the majority opinion is taken as the guiding factor then the guarantees given to the minorities may become valueless.

It is well known that the representatives of the minorities in the Constituent Assembly gave up their claim for special protection which they were demanding in the past because of the guarantee of Fundamental Rights. Therefore the contention on behalf of the Union and the States that the two-thirds of the members in the two Houses of Parliament are always authorised to speak on behalf of the entire people of this country is unacceptable.

The President of India under Article 60 of the Constitution is required to take an oath before he assumes his office to the effect that he will “to the best of his ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”. Somewhat similar oaths have to be taken by the Governors of States, Ministers at the Centre and in the States, Judges of the superior courts and other important functionaries.

 When the President of India is compelled to give assent to a Constitutional amendment which might destroy the basic features of the Constitution, can it be said that he is true to his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” or does his oath merely mean that he is to defend the amending power of Parliament? Can the amending power of Parliament be considered as the Constitution? The whole scheme and the structure of our Constitution proceeds on the basis that there are certain basic features which are expected to be permanent.

Implied limitations

Implied limitations on the powers conferred under a statute constitute a general feature of all statutes. The position cannot be different in the case of powers conferred under a Constitution. Several of the powers conferred under our Constitution have been held to be subject to implied limitations though those powers are expressed in general terms or even in absolute terms.

The executive power of the Union is vested in the President and he is authorised to exercise the same either directly or through officers subordinate to him in accordance with the Constitution. Under Article 75, it is the President who can appoint the Prime Minister and the Ministers are to hold office during his pleasure. Despite this conferment of power in general and absolute terms, because of the scheme of the Constitution, its underlying principles and the implications arising from the other provisions in the Constitution, this Court has held in several cases that the President is a Constitutional head and the real executive power vests in the Cabinet.

Similarly though plenary powers of legislation have been conferred on the Parliament and the State legislatures in respect of the legislative topics allotted to them, yet this Court has opined that by the exercise of that power neither Parliament nor the State legislatures can delegate to other authorities their essential legislative functions nor could they invade on the judicial power. These limitations were spelled out from the nature of the power conferred and from the scheme of the Constitution.

Article 368 prescribes that if Parliament wants to amend Article 54, the Article dealing with the election of the President, the amendment in question must be ratified by the legislatures of not less than one half of the States. No such express limitation is placed on the amending power of Parliament in respect of Article 52 which provides that there shall be a President of India. If it be held that Article 52 can be amended without complying with the requirements of the proviso to Article 368, the limitation placed on Parliament in respect of the amendment of Article 54 becomes meaningless.

Preamble as the guiding light

The broad contours of the basic elements or fundamental features of our Constitution are clearly delineated in the preamble. Unlike in most of the other Constitutions, it is comparatively easy in the case of our Constitution to discern and determine the basic elements or the fundamental features of our Constitution. For doing so, one has only to look to the preamble.

The contention of People’s compulsion

It was further urged that the Constituent Assembly knowing that, it will disperse, had arranged for the recreation of a Constituent Assembly, under Article 368 in order to so shape the Constitution as to meet the demands of the time. However, attractive these theories may sound in the abstract, on a closer examination, it will be seen that they are fallacious, more particularly in a Constitutionals set up like ours. We have earlier noticed chat under our electoral system, it is possible for a party to get a 2/3rd majority in the two Houses of Parliament even if that party does not get an absolute majority of votes cast at the election.

That apart, when a party goes to election, it presents to the electorate diverse programmes and holds out various promises. The programmes presented or the promises held out need not necessarily include proposals for amending the Constitution. During the General Elections to Parliament in 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967, no proposal to amend the Constitution appears to have been placed before the electorate. Even when proposals for amendment of the Constitution are placed before the electorate as was done by the Congress Party in 1971, the proposed amendments are not usually placed before the electorate.

Under these circumstances, the claim that the electorate had given a mandate to the party to amend the Constitution in any particular manner is unjustified. Further a Parliamentary Democracy like ours functions on the basis of the party system. The mechanics of operation of the party system as well as the system of Cabinet government are such that the people as a whole can have little control in the matter of detailed law-making.

The assertion that either the majority of members of Parliament or even 2/3rd members of Parliament speak on behalf of the nation has no basis in fact. Indeed it may be possible for the ruling party to carry through important Constitutional amendments even after it has lost the confidence of the electorate. The members of Lok Sabha are elected for a term of five years. The ruling party or its members may or may not enjoy the confidence of the electorate throughout their terms of office. Therefore it will not be correct to say that whenever Parliament amends the Constitution, it must be held to have done it as desired by the people.

There is a further fallacy in the contention that whenever Constitution is amended, we should presume that the amendment in question was made in order to adapt the Constitution to respond to the growing needs of the people. We have earlier seen that by using the amending power, it is theoretically possible for Parliament to extend its own life indefinitely and also, to amend the Constitution in such a manner as to make it either legally or practically unamendable ever afterwards. A power which is capable of being used against the people themselves cannot be considered as a power exercised on behalf of the people or in their interest.

On a careful consideration of the various aspects of the case, we are convinced that the Parliament has no power to abrogate or emasculate the basic elements or fundamental’ features of the Constitution such as the sovereignty of India, the democratic character of our polity, the unity of the country, the essential features of the individual freedoms secured to the citizens. Nor has the Parliament the power to revoke the mandate to build a Welfare State and egalitarian society.

These limitations are only illustrative and not exhaustive. Despite these limitations, however, there can be no question that the amending power is a wide power and it reaches every Article and every part of the Constitution. That power can be used to reshape the Constitution to fulfil the obligations imposed on the State. It can also be used to reshape the Constitution within the limits mentioned earlier, to make it an effective instrument for social good.

We are unable to agree with the contention that in order to build a Welfare State, it is necessary to destroy some of the human freedoms. That, at any rate is not the perspective of our Constitution. Our Constitution envisages that the States should without delay make available to all the citizens of this country the real benefits of those freedoms in a democratic way. Human freedoms are lost gradually and imperceptibly and their destruction ‘is generally followed by authoritarian rule. That is what history has taught us. Struggle between liberty and power is eternal.

Vigilance is the price that we like every other democratic society have to pay to safeguard the democratic values enshrined in our Constitution. Even the best of governments are not averse to have more and more power to carry out their plans and programmes which they may sincerely believe to be in public interest. But a freedom once lost is hardly ever regained except by revolution. Every encroachment on freedoms sets a pattern for further encroachments. Our Constitutional plan is to eradicate poverty without destruction of individual freedoms.

In the result we uphold the contention of Mr. Palkhivala that the word “amendment” in Article 368 carries with it certain limitation and, further, that the power conferred under Article 368 is subject to certain implied limitations though that power is quite large.


Kesavananda Bharthi v. Union of India (1973)