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The basic structure doctrine is a common law legal doctrine that the constitution of a sovereign state has certain characteristics that cannot be erased by its legislature. The doctrine is recognised in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan and Uganda. It was developed by the Supreme Court of India in a series of constitutional law cases in the 1960s and 1970s that culminated in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, where the doctrine was formally adopted.

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  • The basic structure doctrine is a common law legal doctrine that the constitution of a sovereign state has certain characteristics that cannot be erased by its legislature. The doctrine is recognised in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan and Uganda. It was developed by the Supreme Court of India in a series of constitutional law cases in the 1960s and 1970s that culminated in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, where the doctrine was formally adopted. In Kesavananda, Justice Hans Raj Khanna propounded that the Constitution of India has certain basic features that cannot be altered or destroyed through amendments by the Parliament of India. Key among these "basic features", as expounded by Justice Khanna, are the fundamental rights guaranteed to individuals by the constitution. The doctrine thus forms the basis of the power of the Supreme Court of India to review and strike down constitutional amendments and acts enacted by the Parliament which conflict with or seek to alter this "basic structure" of the Constitution. The basic features of the Constitution have not been explicitly defined by the Judiciary, and the claim of any particular feature of the Constitution to be a "basic" feature is determined by the Court in each case that comes before it. The Supreme Court's initial position on constitutional amendments had been that any part of the Constitution was amendable and that the Parliament might, by passing a Constitution Amendment Act in compliance with the requirements of article 368, amend any provision of the Constitution, including the Fundamental Rights and article 368. That the Constitution has "basic features" was first theorised in 1964, by Justice J.R. Mudholkar in his dissent, in the case of Sajjan Singh v. State of Rajasthan. He wondered whether the ambit of Article 368 included the power to alter a basic feature or rewrite a part of the Constitution. He wrote, It is also a matter for consideration whether making a change in a basic feature of the Constitution can be regarded merely as an amendment or would it be, in effect, rewriting a part of the Constitution; and if the latter, would it be within the purview of Article 368? In 1967, the Supreme Court reversed its earlier decisions in Golaknath v. State of Punjab. It held that Fundamental Rights included in Part III of the Constitution are given a "transcendental position" and are beyond the reach of Parliament. It also declared any amendment that "takes away or abridges" a Fundamental Right conferred by Part III as unconstitutional. In 1973, the basic structure doctrine was formally introduced with rigorous legal reasoning in Justice Hans Raj Khanna's decisive judgment in the landmark decision of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala. Previously, the Supreme Court had held that the power of Parliament to amend the Constitution was unfettered. However, in this landmark ruling, the Court adjudicated that while Parliament has "wide" powers, it did not have the power to destroy or emasculate the basic elements or fundamental features of the constitution. Although Kesavananda was decided by a narrow margin of 7–6, the basic structure doctrine, as propounded in Justice Khanna's judgement, has since gained widespread legal and scholarly acceptance due to a number of subsequent cases and judgments relying heavily upon it to strike down Parliamentary amendments that were held to be violative of the basic structure and therefore unconstitutional. Primary among these was the imposition of a state of emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975, and her subsequent attempt to suppress her prosecution through the 39th Amendment. When the Kesavananda case was decided, the underlying apprehension of the majority bench that elected representatives could not be trusted to act responsibly was perceived as unprecedented. However, the passage of the 39th Amendment by the Indian National Congress' majority in central and state legislatures, proved that in fact such apprehension was well-grounded. In Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain and Minerva Mills v. Union of India, Constitution Benches of the Supreme Court used the basic structure doctrine to strike down the 39th Amendment and parts of the 42nd Amendment respectively, and paved the way for restoration of Indian democracy. The Supreme Court's position on constitutional amendments laid out in its judgements is that Parliament can amend the Constitution but cannot destroy its "basic structure". The basic structure doctrine was rejected by the High Court of Singapore. It was initially also rejected by the Federal Court of Malaysia, but was later accepted by it. Conversely, the doctrine was initially approved in Belize by the Supreme Court, but rejected by the . (en)
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  • "Perhaps the position of the Supreme Court is influenced by the fact that it has not so far been confronted with any extreme type of constitutional amendments. It is the duty of the jurist, though, to anticipate extreme cases of conflict, and sometimes only extreme tests reveal the true nature of a legal concept. So, if for the purpose of legal discussion, I may propose some fictive amendment laws to you, could it still be considered a valid exercise of the amendment power conferred by Article 368 if a two-thirds majority changed Article 1 by dividing India into two States of Tamilnad and Hindustan proper? "Could a constitutional amendment abolish Article 21, to the effect that forthwith a person could be deprived of his life or personal liberty without authorisation by law? Could the ruling party, if it sees its majority shrinking, amend Article 368 to the effect that the amending power rests with the President acting on the advice of the Prime Minister? Could the amending power be used to abolish the Constitution and reintroduce, let us say, the rule of a moghul emperor or of the Crown of England? I do not want, by posing such questions, to provoke easy answers. But I should like to acquaint you with the discussion which took place on such questions among constitutional lawyers in Germany in the Weimar period - discussion, seeming academic at first, but suddenly illustrated by history in a drastic and terrible manner." (en)
  • Any amending body organised within the statutory scheme, howsoever verbally unlimited its power, cannot by its very structure change the fundamental pillars supporting its constitutional authority. (en)
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  • Implied Limitations of the Amending Power (en)
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  • The basic structure doctrine is a common law legal doctrine that the constitution of a sovereign state has certain characteristics that cannot be erased by its legislature. The doctrine is recognised in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan and Uganda. It was developed by the Supreme Court of India in a series of constitutional law cases in the 1960s and 1970s that culminated in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, where the doctrine was formally adopted. (en)
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  • Basic structure doctrine (en)
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