Explained: What was the Kesavananda Bharati case, its judgement that termed as the 'genesis of the basic structure' of the Constitution?

Bhavik Bamania
Bhavik Bamania
 -  5 mins read

Basic structure is interpreted includes the supremacy of the Constitution, rule of law, independence of the judiciary, doctrine of separation of powers, federalism, secularism, sovereign, democratic, republic, unity, the parliamentary system of government, principle of free and fair elections, welfare state contained in the Directive Principles of the State Policy, provision of social, economic and political justice etc.

Kesavananda Bharati case (1973), you must have came across with this name even if you absolutely no idea about law, you might have mugged up if you are UPSC or any State PSC aspirant sometime you might have wonder what was the case and why this case actually saved the idea of the democracy in India, which you find it dead almost on every alternative days in present times in opposition statements.

The head of the Edaneer Mutt in Kasargod His Holiness Kesavananda Bharati Sripadagalvaru passed away in the morning hours of Sunday (6th September 2020) in Mangalore he was 79. He may have left us today but he will be remembered as the saviour of democracy in India for eternal times, Swami who mounted against the arbitrary actions of Kerala Government’s land reforms which later came up as the historical decision in the history of Indian Judiciary.


Since the Constitution of India is adopted, there was an intense debate on the subject of the Parliament has the power to amend the key features and which principles should be considered in it. Earlier, when the generation of freedom fighters were in the House the apex court reposed faith on the leaders and the freedom was given to them to amend the Constitution to the Parliament.

As the time progressed, and the next generation started to take over, the members tried to hijack the powers given to suit their political interest, the debate become furious when The Supreme Court pronounced verdict in I.C. Golaknath and Ors. vs State of Punjab and Anrs. (1967), where the apex court curbed the power and held the verdict that Parliament can’t touch the Fundamental Rights and this power only lays in the hand of constituent assembly.

As a result, the then Prime Minister reacted to this judgement by enacting major amendments to the Constitution 24th, 25th, 26th and 29th to overturn the verdict of Supreme Court. These amendments were also challenged then leading to furious tussle between the Judiciary and the Legislature.

In RC Cooper v Union of India or Bank Nationalisation Case (1970), the 25th Amendment was challenged which Nationalisation of Banks by the government, the apex quashed the Indira Gandhi’s policy of nationalisation of banks.

In Madhavrao Scindia v. Union of India (1971) it struck down the abolition of privy purse of the rulers of former princely stats, which was introduced by 26th Amendment.

What was Kesavananda Bharati Case?

When the 29th Amendment (1972) was enacted, and the 24th Amendment (1971) where Article 31C was amended and the implementation of Directive Principles over Fundamental Rights which do not effect the basic structure of the constitution, shall not be the subject of judicial review it allowed governments to takeover the private property even on the sake of curbing Fundamental Rights.

Based on the above 29th Amendment of land reforms the Kerala government made two land reforms to impose restriction on the management of the property of the Mutt, this leads to file a case on the basis of Article 26, of the Constitution which concerns with the right to manage religious property without government interference.

Thus it was challenged in Supreme Court as the violation of Fundamental Rights over the constitutional rights, and all the four amendments made by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (24th,25th,26th and 29th) came in the ambit of this case.

Since, the previous case of Golaknath was decided by 11 judges Bench, hence to judge the correctness the larger bench is required and hence Bench of 13 judges — the largest formed in the Supreme Court, was constituted. Nani Palkhivala, Fali Nariman, and Soli Sorabjee presented the case against the government.

The three lawyers who presented the case against the government Fali Nariman,Nani Palkhivala, Soli Sorabjee


The judges were splited on the ideological differences as can be seen in the verdict as well.

The majority opinion was delivered by Chief Justice of India S M Sikri, and Justices K S Hegde, A K Mukherjee, J M Shelat, A N Grover, P Jaganmohan Reddy, & H R Khanna.

Justices A N Ray, D G Palekar, K K Mathew, M H Beg, S N Dwivedi, and Y V Chandrachud dissented.

The Verdict

After hearing for marathon 68 working days on daily basis from 31st October 1972 to 23rd March 1973, on 24th April 1973, the verdict was pronounced with wafer-thin margin of 7-6, that the “basic structure” of the Constitution is untouchable, and cannot be amended by the Parliament, however the Court itself haven’t defined the basic structure

After the Kesavananda Bharati Verdict, the ‘Basic structure’ is today widely interpreted includes the supremacy of the Constitution, the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, doctrine of separation of powers, federalism, secularism, sovereign democratic republic, the parliamentary system of government, the principle of free and fair elections, welfare state, etc.

From time to time the Supreme Court has defined the basic structure in various judgements like in the case of SR Bommai vs Union of India (1994) where the apex court stated that the power of the President to dismiss a State government is not absolute. The verdict said the President should exercise the power only after his proclamation (imposing his/her rule) is approved by both Houses of Parliament. Till then, the Court said, the President can only suspend the Legislative Assembly by suspending the provisions of Constitution relating to the Legislative Assembly.


Indira Gandhi after the blow from Supreme Court, as Justice AN Ray who favoured the government view by dissenting with the verdict was appointed as the 14th Chief Justice of India superseding Justices Shelat, Grover and Hegde, who were on the side of the majority in the case after the retirement of CJI SM Sikri who retired on 26th April 1973.

Attorney General Nitin De, moved the Supreme Court without filing the review petition and CJI AN Ray, ordered a Bench of 13 judges to review the verdict however on 12th November 1975 succumbed to peer pressure, the bench was dissolved.

However, to repel the outcome and after the crusading blow faced from Supreme Court then Indira Gandhi government came up with even more controversial amendment after proclaiming National Emergency, which is known as 42nd Amendment of the Constitution (1976), it is also known as the “Mini Constitution”, since it has deep impact on the constitution, even the preamble wasn’t spared and “Socialist, Sovereign and Secular” the three words were added into it.


Though, the judgement was historical and termed as the landmark decision, the Swamiji didn’t got any relief from the court as the amendments in the Kerala land reforms which he challenged were upheld by the Supreme Court, yet he may have got nothing from the case but he did what was impossible if he hadn’t dared to challenge the land reforms. He may have left us today but he will be remembered forever whenever the Kesavananda Bharati Case will be discussed.

I am here so that I can open the archives of my memory
I wish to deliver what I have received from mankind to mankind
I wish to light-up darkness to enlighten the hidden treasures,
And in that process, I am writing what I have found from mankind.
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