Basic Structure Theory


One thing that has had a long lasting effect on the evolution of the Indian Constitution is the theory of the basic structure of the Constitution. The Judiciary advanced this theory in the famous case of Kesavananda Bharati. This ruling has contributed to the evolution of the Constitution in the following ways:

  • It has set specific limits to the Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution. It says that no amendment can violate the basic structure of the Constitution;
  • It allows the Parliament to amend any and all parts of the Constitution (within this limitation); and
  • It places the Judiciary as the final authority in deciding if an amendment violates basic structure and what constitutes the basic structure.

The Supreme Court gave the Kesavananda ruling in 1973. In the past three decades, this decision has governed all interpretations of the Constitution and all institutions in the country have accepted the theory of basic structure. In fact, the theory of basic structure is itself an example of a living constitution. There is no mention of this theory in the Constitution. It has emerged from judicial interpretation. Thus, the Judiciary and its interpretation have practically amended the Constitution without a formal amendment.

All living documents evolve in this manner through debates, arguments, competition and practical politics. Since 1973, the Court has, in many cases, elaborated upon this theory of basic structure and given instances of what constitutes the basic structure of the Constitution of India. In a sense, the basic structure doctrine has further consolidated the balance between rigidity and flexibility: by saying that certain parts cannot be amended, it has underlined the rigid nature while by allowing amendments to all others it has underlined the flexible nature of the amending process.

There are many other examples of how judicial interpretation changed our understanding of the Constitution. In many decisions the Supreme Court had held that reservations in jobs and educational institutions cannot exceed fifty per cent of the total seats. This has now become an accepted principle. Similarly, in the case involving reservations for other backward classes, the Supreme Court introduced the idea of creamy layer and ruled that persons belonging to this category were not entitled to benefits under reservations. In the same manner, the Judiciary has contributed to an informal amendment by interpreting various provisions concerning right to education, right to life and liberty and the right to form and manage minority educational institutions. These are instances of how rulings by the Court contribute to the evolution of the Constitution.

Review Of The Constitution

In the late nineties, efforts were made to review the entire Constitution. In the year 2000 a commission to review the working of the Constitution was appointed by the Government of India under the chairmanship of a retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Venkatachaliah. Opposition parties and many other organisations boycotted the commission. While a lot of political controversy surrounded this commission, the commission stuck to the theory of basic structure and did not suggest any measures that would endanger the basic structure of the Constitution. This shows the significance of the basic structure doctrine in our constitutional practice.

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Bibliography : NCERT – Indian Constitution At Work

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