Case Analysis

Golakhnath v. State of Punjab [1967]

By Garima Bairagi

Introduction

It is one of the landmark cases which is related to whether fundamental rights can be amended or not. The landmark case of I.C. Golaknath v. State of Punjab was the first to analyze the scope of article 368, which only mentions the procedure of the amendment, and not any authority was given as to who could amend the fundamental rights. This case was the basis that formed the basis for the Basic Structure Doctrine’s formulation. This case is significant because it protects the deterioration of basic rights that have occurred as a result of the application of Article 368. This decision was significant in limiting the parliament’s arbitrary power and ensuring that fundamental rights were given a fundamental status in the Constitution. The power of Parliament to modify the Constitution under Article 368 and whether such an amendment can be appealable under Article 13(2) if it violates citizens’ fundamental rights was a controversial question. During this time, the same questions were raised in the cases of Shankari Prasad and Sajjan Singh, in which the court found that Parliament had the capacity to change the fundamental right and that the term “amendment” does not fall within the jurisdiction of law under Article 13(2) of the Constitution. The non-amenability of fundamental rights, argued by Justice Hidayatullah in his dissenting decision in the Sajjan Singh case, led to Golaknath v. State of Punjab, a historic case in constitutional history. The petitioners argued that parliament does not have the authority to change fundamental rights, while the respondents argued that our constitution was never intended to be inflexible or non-flexible. The court ruled that parliament has no power to modify basic rights. In the case of Kesavananda Bharati v Union of India in 1973, this judgment was overturned. The court ruled that while parliament can amend the constitution, including fundamental rights, it cannot change the constitution’s core framework.

Facts of the Case

  • Henry and William Golaknath were two brothers who had almost 500 acres of land in Punjab. And in the year 1965, the Punjab government amended its security and land tenures act. This amended act was transferred into the 9th schedule of the constitution by the Punjab government, which means that this amendment cannot be questioned in court.
  • According to this amended law, each of the Golaknath brothers can only have some 30–40 acres of that land, and some of the remaining land would be distributed to the tenants working on that land, while the remaining land would be acquired by the government for the purpose of development.
  • After this, the Golaknath brothers were offended by this decision of the Punjab government because they were legally the owners of that land and they would not give it away like that. It was their fundamental right to property that was violated by the government.
  • They approached the Supreme Court under article 32 of the constitution for the protection of their “right to property”, under article 19(1)(f), and had also raised questions about the validity of the 17th constitutional amendment act of the year 1964, which included this land amendment act in the 9th schedule along with some other acts.

Issues Raised 

This case had already raised questions about the various articles and provisions of the law, but some of the main issues that were raised during the case are as follows:

  1. Whether Parliament had absolute power to amend the fundamental rights guaranteed to us by the Indian Constitution?
  2. Whether the 17th constitutional amendment act of 1964 was valid or not?
  3. Whether the word “law” mentioned in article 13(2) of the Constitution of India includes “amendment” in it or not?

Judgment of the Court

In this case, the Supreme Court had the greatest constitution bench ever at the time, in 1967, comprising of 11 judges in total. Fundamental rights are the most vital part of the constitution. The decision was delivered in a 6:5 ratio, with the majority of the bench agreeing with the petitioners’ arguments. The majority opinion in the case was written by Subba Rao, the Chief Justice of India at the time, along with other judges. The petitioners won the majority of the votes. Sajjan Singh Vs. State of Rajasthan and Shankari Prasad v Union of India were overruled by the majority because in both these cases it was held by the supreme court that the word “amendment” does not come under the ambit of the law in article 13. They did so because they were distrustful of these decisions becoming precedent, and they were concerned that if frequent amendments continued, fundamental rights would be endangered and compromised. The Supreme Court had already upheld Parliament’s amending power prior to the Golaknath Vs. State of Punjab judgment. However, Golaknath’s case can be seen as a landmark moment in the history of this area of law. The Supreme Court has ruled that parliament cannot modify the Constitution’s fundamental rights. The majority focused on the minor note of Article 368 of the Constitution, stating that this article merely specifies the method for amending the Constitution and that, as a result, Article 368 cannot be interpreted as having absolute power over the parliament to amend the Constitution.

In the end, it was concluded by the Supreme Court that Parliament does not have the absolute power to amend the fundamental rights given under Part III of the Constitution of India. The court applied the “doctrine of prospective overruling,” which means that this new decision will take effect after this judgment and will not jeopardize previous rulings. The court argued that by depriving them of their own property, the Punjab government had violated the fundamental right to property enshrined in Article 19(f) of the Constitution. The parliament had already violated fundamental rights by misapplying article 368 of the constitution and enacting laws that violated fundamental rights. The court ruled that amending the fundamental rights is beyond the power of Parliament and cannot be altered easily. The court also said that in article 13 the word “law” will include amendments also because by making any kind of modification in law simultaneously, we are bringing in a new law. As a result, in order to protect democracy from parliament’s undemocratic activities, the majority ruled that parliament cannot modify the fundamental rights provided in Part III of the Indian Constitution. The majority of people believe that fundamental rights and natural rights are the same things. These rights are critical for a person’s growth and development.

Law concepts at Stake

This case had so many legal concepts, some of which were changed by the court after this case. The main aspect of this case was the fundamental rights that were provided to us under Part III of the constitution. The respondents here have violated the “right to property” (mentioned in article 19 (1) (f) of the constitution) of the petitioners by depriving them of their own land. Although now the “right to property” is no longer a fundamental right, it has been transferred into the category of constitutional rights under article 300A. This case has also raised objections to article 368 of the constitution, which provides the proper procedure to amend laws, but it does not give absolute power to the parliament to amend any law which may violate fundamental rights. Another important aspect of the law discussed in the case was the 17th constitutional amendment act of 1964, which was the main root cause of this case. According to this 17th amendment, some more new laws were entered into schedule 9 of the constitution, which gave the law’s immunity to be protected from any appeal against them in a court of law. Schedule 9 of the Indian constitution provides us with a list of laws that cannot be challenged in a court of law. The majority of the laws in this list are related to agriculture and landholding etc. Article 13 of the constitution was also mentioned several times in the case and also holds an important place in the judgment. This article says “any law which violates the fundamental rights of the citizens would be invalid.” But the main point of contention in this article was the ambit of the term “law.” This term includes amendments or not. This was further clarified by the court in this judgment that the term “law” is similar to that of an “amendment” because, in the end, the amendment would also become the law.

Similar Cases

  1. Shankari Prasad v. Union of India: Following independence, the Indian government implemented several agrarian reforms that posed a threat to people’s fundamental rights, particularly the right to property, which was challenged in a number of high courts. The Bihar Land Reforms Act of 1950 was the first agrarian reform law, which was later challenged in the Patna High Court. As a result, the 1st Constitutional Amendment Act was enacted to protect this law and overturn High Court decisions. The (First Constitutional Amendment) Act of 1951 was challenged in this case. Certain laws limiting the right to property were enacted as a result of this amending act. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the first amendment. It was further decided that Article 13 could not overrule Article 368 because, while Article 13 protects basic rights, this article uses universal law, which merely refers to ordinary laws. It signifies that the law is simply using legislative authority and not constitutional authority. The boundary between regular law and constitutional amendment has been precisely drawn by the Supreme Court. It was concluded in the case that parliament has the power to amend any of the rights prescribed in the Indian constitution.
  2. Sajjan Singh v. the State of Rajasthan: The 17th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1964 was challenged in this case. The issue of whether fundamental rights can be amended was challenged again in this case. The 9th schedule contains various property-related statutes, and its unique feature is that it is not accessible to judicial oversight. As a result, one of the fundamental features of the constitution, the right to judicial review, was taken away. The Supreme Court ruled that article 368 of the Indian Constitution gives Parliament the power to amend any of the articles. As was previously stated, the scope of Article 13 is limited to regular legislation, not constitutional amendments, whereas the scope of Article 368 is limited to constitutional law. Mudholkar and Hidayatulah, two of the five judges on the bench, issued opposing opinions. According to Justice Mudholkar and Hidayatulah, fundamental features of the Constitution cannot be changed. According to him, every world constitution has certain fundamental characteristics. Such characteristics must not be altered. Fundamental parts of the Indian Constitution, he believed, could not be amended.
  3. The rulings of the two preceding cases were overturned in this landmark case. It was held that parliament has the power to change or amend any law, but the basic structure of the constitution should not be altered. The basic structure concept says that Parliament has limitless freedom to amend the Constitution, provided that such changes do not affect the Constitution’s fundamental structure. The bench made no reference to the Constitution’s essential structure, leaving it to the courts to interpret. This was later confirmed by the Supreme Court in a number of other decisions. The court argued that the term “amends” used in Article 368 does not refer to changes to the Constitution’s fundamental structure. If Parliament wants to change a constitutional provision, it must pass the “basic structure” test first.

Every country in the world has its own unique constitution, which empowers us with so many rights and duties and provides us with the most basic kind of rule book. One of the most prominent features of the Indian Constitution is the Fundamental Rights, which are a vital part of the constitution. Fundamental rights give us the very basic rights to survive in society, like the right to equality, education, free speech, and many other similar rights, but what will happen if these basic rights get altered? They will affect us very badly because all of our other rights are somewhat related to them. A similar thing happened in this case where a person was deprived of his fundamental rights by the amendments of the government. The ability to amend the Constitution was given to Parliament. The Constitution’s Article 368 represents the idea that Parliament’s amending powers are unrestricted and extend to all areas of the document. Since independence, however, the Supreme Court has acted as a restraint on Parliament’s legislative enthusiasm. The Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may not alter, harm, or change the fundamental characteristics of the Constitution under the pretense of amending it, in an attempt to uphold the original goals envisioned by the founders. The majority’s viewpoint was admirable in that it attempted to safeguard Indian democracy from Parliament’s dictatorial activities. They feared that if Parliament continued to infringe on Fundamental Rights by making amendments to them, the day might come when these guaranteed fundamental rights would be a thing of the past. The term “basic structure” does not appear in the Constitution. In the landmark Kesavananda Bharati case in 1973, the Supreme Court recognized this idea for the first time.

Conclusion

This decision demonstrated the judiciary’s boldness in upholding citizens’ fundamental rights in the face of arbitrary measures by any government or individual. The decision in Golaknath vs. Punjab will always be remembered as the cornerstone of the judiciary’s efforts to protect fundamental rights. Despite the subtle, indirect fight between the Indian Judiciary and the Indian Parliament at the time, the Indian Judiciary’s attempt to defend democracy went a long way. Regardless of the judgment’s merits and drawbacks, the judiciary was able to demonstrate to Parliament that the Constitution is being watched over and guarded by some institutions. The ruling was successful in discouraging Parliament from intruding on any more fundamental rights. This arrogant conduct of Parliament indicated Parliament’s fear of the judiciary and demonstrated that India is not anarchy where rulers are the only absolute power. The decision successfully reminded Parliament of its role as servants of the people in Indian democracy. However, this decision is not without flaws because it argues for a very strict constitution, which is unhealthy for the adaptability of laws to changing times, which is a necessary condition for a law to be relevant in a changing society. The judgment’s second flaw was that it exclusively protected Part III of the Constitution, leaving other fundamental features of the constitution unprotected. The judgment’s flaws did not allow it to last long, and it was overruled in the Kesavananda Bharati case, which was decided in 1973. Hence, it can be concluded that for a healthy society, the balance of flexibility and rigidity must be present so that the needs of every section of society can be fulfilled.

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