Constitution is not merely a legal document. The Constitution embodies a political vision of a plural democratic polity. This political vision combines with the values which the founding fathers infused to provide a just social compact in which individual aspirations for dignity and liberty would be achieved. Hence, any interpretation of the Constitution must be unabashed in accepting the importance of the Constitution as a political document which incorporates a blue print for democratic governance. The values which the Constitution as a political document incorporates, provide the foundation for understanding its text.
It is in that sense that successive generations of judges have reminded themselves that it is, after all, a Constitution that we are expounding. The words of the Constitution cannot be construed merely by alluding to what a dictionary of the language would explain. While its language is of relevance to the content of its words, the text of the Constitution needs to be understood in the context of the history of the movement for political freedom.
Constitutional history embodies events which predate the adoption of the Constitution. Constitutional history also incorporates our experiences in the unfolding of the Constitution over the past sixty eight years while confronting complex social and political problems. Words in a constitutional text have linkages with the provisions in which they appear. It is well to remember that each provision is linked to other segments of the document.
It is only when they are placed in the wide canvas of constitutional values that a true understanding of the text can emerge. The principle that the text has to be deduced from context reflects the limitations in understanding the Constitution only as a legal document. To perceive the Constitution as a purely legal document would be an injustice to the aspirations of those who adopted it and a disservice to the experience of our society in grappling with its intractable problems.
Justice HR Khanna in Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala– (“Kesavananda”) held thus:
“A Constitution encompasses within itself the broad indications as to how the nation is to march forward in times to come. A Constitution cannot be regarded as a mere legal document… A Constitution must of necessity be the vehicle of the life of a nation. It has also to be borne in mind that a Constitution is not a gate but a road. Beneath the drafting of a Constitution is the awareness that things do not stand still but move on, that life of a progressive nation, as of an individual, is not static and stagnant but dynamic and dashful.”
The second value which must be borne in mind is that the Constitution recognises the aspirations of popular sovereignty. As its Preamble tells us, the document was adopted by “We the People of India”. The Preamble sets forth at the outset the creation of a “sovereign… democratic, republic”. It is through the expression of the sovereignty of the people and on the cornerstone of a democratic and republican form of government that the Constitution seeks to achieve justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.
The width of our constitutional aspirations finds abundant reflection in the plurality and diversity of the elements which it comprehends within justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. Justice incorporates its social, economic, and political manifestations. Liberty incorporates freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship. Equality is defined in its substantive sense to include equality of status and opportunity. Fraternity seeks to assure dignity to the individual while, at the same time, ensuring the unity and integrity of the nation.
There are four abiding principles which are essential to understanding the content of the Constitution.
- The first is that as a political document, the Constitution is an expression of the sovereignty of the people.
- The second is that the Constitution seeks to achieve its vision of a political and social ordering on the basis of democracy. A democratic form of government recognises that sovereignty resides within the people. Popular sovereignty can exist when democracy is meaningful.
- The third principle is that the Constitution adopts a republican form of government in which the powers of sovereignty are vested in the people and are exercised directly or through their elected representatives.
- The fourth, which is not the least in importance, is the secular ideology of the Constitution. For, it is on the foundation of a secular order that freedom, liberty, dignity and equality to every citizen is achieved.
These principles, it is well to remind ourselves, are not just political exhortations. They constitute the essence and substance of the Constitution and provide the foundation for the fine print of governance. It is through the expression of popular sovereignty that the Constitution has provided an assurance for the enforcement of equality and of equal protection of the law. The four founding principles constitute the means of achieving accountability and amenability to the rule of law. The democratic method of governing the country is a value which is intrinsic to the Constitution.
Democracy as a way of life is also instrumental in achieving fundamental freedoms which the Constitution assures to each individual. Each of the four principles has an inseparable connect. They provide the basis on which the Constitution has distributed legislative and executive power between the Union and the states. They provide the foundation for ensuring basic human freedoms in the realisation of dignity, liberty and autonomy. They embody the architecture for the governance of the nation.
In many respects, the complexity of our Constitution is a reflection of the intricate cultural and social structures within Indian society. The Constitution has attempted to bring about an equilibrium in which a diversity of tradition, plurality of opinion and variations of culture can co-exist in one nation. To ignore the infinite variety which underlies our constitutional culture is to risk its cohesion. The integrity of the nation is founded on accepting and valuing co-existence. Constitutional doctrine must be evolved keeping in mind these principles.
Unlike many other constitutional texts in the democratic world, the Indian Constitution has lived through a multitude of amendments. In Puttaswamy , the Court had held:
“The Constitution was drafted and adopted in a historical context. The vision of the founding fathers was enriched by the histories of suffering of those who suffered oppression and a violation of dignity both here and elsewhere. Yet, it would be difficult to dispute that many of the problems which contemporary societies face would not have been present to the minds of the most perspicacious draftsmen. No generation, including the present, can have a monopoly over solutions or the confidence in its ability to foresee the future.”
The exercise of the amendatory power cannot be construed as a reflection of the deficiency of its original text, as much as it is a reflection of the felt need to create new institutions of governance, recognize new rights and to impose restraints upon the assertion of majoritarian power. Over time, the Constitution was amended to provide constitutional status to local self-governing bodies, such as the Panchayats in Part IX, the municipalities in Part IXA and co-operative societies in Part IXB. These structures of governance have been constitutionally entrenched to enhance participatory and representative democracy.
In other amendments, new rights have been expressly recognized such as the right to free and compulsory education for children between the ages of six and fourteen in Article 21A. As the nation gained sobering experiences about the excess of political power during the Emergency, the constituent power responded by introducing limitations (through the Forty Fourth Amendment) on the exercise of the emergency powers under Article 352 and by circumscribing the power to override elected governments in the states under Article 356.
The basic structure doctrine was evolved by judicial interpretation in Kesavananda to ensure that the fundamentals of constitutional governance are not effaced by the exercise of the constituent power to amend the Constitution. The postulate of the doctrine is that there are values which are so fundamental and intrinsic to the democratic way of life, a republican form of government and to the preservation of basic human freedoms that these must lie outside the power of legislative majorities to override by the exercise of constituent powers. The doctrine was a warning to “a fledgling democracy of the perils of brute majoritarianism”.
The basic structure doctrine and the power of judicial review have ensured (in the course of the previous thirty four years) the preservation of basic constitutional safeguards and the continuance of constitutional institutions accountable to the sovereignty of the people. The basic structure doctrine imposes a restraint on the exercise of the constituent power. Equally, it is necessary to remember that the exercise of the constituent power may in certain cases be regarded as enhancing the basic structure.
The constituent power enhances the basic structure when it recognizes new sets of human freedoms, sets up new structures of representative governance in the constitutional text or imposes restraints on the power of the state to override popularly elected institutions. Secularism, which is inherent in the entire constitutional framework and flows from fundamental rights guaranteed in Part III, is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution.- Secularism is based on the foundations of constitutional morality and reflects the idea of our democracy.
The insertion of the word “Secular” into the Preamble of the Constitution, by the 42nd amendment, did not redefine the Constitution’s identity. The amendment formally recognized the bedrock of the constitutional scheme. The amendment solidified the basic structure of the Constitution.
Democracy has been held, by a Constitution Bench of this Court in Kihoto Hollohan v Zachillhu, to be a part of the basic structure of our Constitution. The insertion of Article 239AA by the exercise of the constituent power is an instance of an amendment elevating a democratic form of governance to a constitutional status for the National Capital Territory. In interpreting such exercises of the constituent power which fortify the basic structure, the meaning of the constitutional text must be guided by the intent underlying such exercises of the constituent power.
A nine-judge Bench of this Court in I.R. Coelho v State of Tamil Nadu had held thus:
“The Constitution is a living document. The constitutional provisions have to be construed having regard to the march of time and the development of law. It is, therefore, necessary that while construing the doctrine of basic structure due regard be had to various decisions which led to expansion and development of the law. The principle of constitutionalism is now a legal principle which requires control over the exercise of Governmental power to ensure that it does not destroy the democratic principles upon which it is based. These democratic principles include the protection of fundamental rights.
The principle of constitutionalism advocates a check and balance model of the separation of powers, it requires a diffusion of powers, necessitating different independent centers of decision making. The principle of constitutionalism advocates a check and balance model of the separation of powers, it requires a diffusion of powers, necessitating different independent centers of decision making.”
Govt of NCT Delhi v. Union of India (2018)
 AIR (1973) SC 1461
 (2017) 10 SCC 1
 Raju Ramchandran, “The Quest and the Questions”, Outlook (25 August, 2014), available at
 1992 SCC Supl. (2) 651
 (2007) 2 SCC 1