What is the Basic Structure Doctrine ? - Explained


Basic Structure Doctrine

According to the Judgment of the Supreme Court, the Basic Structure Doctrine is a part of the Constitution and the Parliament cannot tamper with it in any way. The basic Structure Theory of the Constitution was a remarkable decision given by the Supreme Court during the Kesavananda Bharati Case.

The Basic Structure Doctrine has been a cornerstone of constitutional interpretation in India, serving as a check on the powers of the Parliament to ensure that fundamental changes to the Constitution respect the original intentions and overarching principles upon which the Constitution was founded. It has been invoked in various landmark judgments following the Kesavananda Bharati case to review and sometimes strike down constitutional amendments and legislation that were found to violate the basic structure of the Constitution.

The Basic Structure Doctrine is a principle established by the Supreme Court of India that upholds the supremacy of the Constitution and identifies certain fundamental features of the Constitution that cannot be altered or destroyed through constitutional amendments.

What is the Basic Structure Doctrine ? - Explained

What is the Basic Structure Doctrine?

The Basic Structure Doctrine is a judicial principle in Indian constitutional law that the Constitution of India has certain basic features that cannot be altered or destroyed through amendments by the Parliament. This doctrine ensures the permanence and sanctity of the core principles and underlying framework of the Constitution, safeguarding its spirit.

The doctrine was first established in the landmark judgment of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala in 1973 by the Supreme Court of India. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that while the Parliament has wide powers to amend the Constitution under Article 368, these powers do not extend to altering the basic structure of the Constitution.

The basic structure includes, but is not limited to, the supremacy of the Constitution, the rule of law, the principle of separation of powers, the objectives specified in the Preamble to the Constitution (such as Justice, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity), the federal character of the Constitution, the unity and sovereignty of India, the secular nature of the Indian state, the democratic character of the polity, and the welfare state (i.e., socio-economic justice).

Components of the Basic Structure Doctrine

The Supreme Court has not provided an exhaustive list of what constitutes the basic structure, allowing for flexibility and interpretation as per the needs of the times. However, through various judgments, several features have been identified as part of the basic structure, including:

  • Supremacy of the Constitution
  • Rule of Law
  • Independence of the Judiciary
  • Doctrine of Separation of Powers
  • Federal Character of the Constitution
  • Secularism
  • Sovereign, Democratic, and Republic nature of the Indian polity
  • Individual freedom and dignity
  • Mandate to build a welfare state

Development of the Basic Structure Doctrine

The development of the Basic Structure Doctrine in Indian constitutional law marks a significant evolution in the judicial oversight over the powers of the Parliament to amend the Constitution. This doctrine emerged out of a series of judicial decisions, culminating in the landmark Kesavananda Bharati case. Here is a chronological overview of how the doctrine developed:

Shankari Prasad v. Union of India (1951): This was the first case that challenged the power of the Parliament to amend the Constitution, particularly the Fundamental Rights. The Supreme Court held that the Parliament could amend any part of the Constitution, including the Fundamental Rights, under Article 368.

Sajjan Singh v. State of Rajasthan (1965): The Supreme Court reiterated its position from Shankari Prasad, affirming the Parliament's power to amend the Constitution, including Fundamental Rights.

I.C. Golaknath v. State of Punjab (1967): Marking a significant shift, the Supreme Court ruled that the Parliament could not amend the Fundamental Rights. The decision was that the Constitution conferred a fundamental immutability to the rights enshrined in Part III, beyond the amending power of the Parliament under Article 368.

The Kesavananda Bharati Case (1973): The contradictions and tensions between the Parliament's power to amend the Constitution and the immutability of Fundamental Rights led to the landmark judgment in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala. The case was heard by the largest ever Constitution Bench of 13 judges. The core issue was whether the Parliament's amendment power was unlimited, or if there were inherent limitations to it.

The Supreme Court, in a 7-6 decision, introduced the Basic Structure Doctrine, ruling that while the Parliament had wide powers to amend the Constitution, this power did not extend to altering the "basic structure" of the Constitution. However, the Court did not provide a comprehensive list of what constituted the Constitution's basic structure, leaving it to be determined on a case-by-case basis in future jurisprudence.

Read: Case of Keshavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala

Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain (1975): This case reinforced the Basic Structure Doctrine when the Supreme Court invalidated the 39th Amendment Act, which sought to place the election of the Prime Minister beyond judicial review. The Court held that such a change affected the basic feature of democracy, and hence was void.

Minerva Mills v. Union of India (1980): This case further solidified the Basic Structure Doctrine. The Supreme Court struck down parts of the 42nd Amendment Act, which sought to give primacy to Directive Principles over Fundamental Rights and also aimed to limit judicial review. The Court held that a balance between Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles is an essential feature of the basic structure of the Constitution.

The development of the Basic Structure Doctrine represents a critical juncture in Indian constitutional law, balancing the need for constitutional evolution with the preservation of its core principles. It highlights the judiciary's role in maintaining the sanctity of the Constitution against potential excesses by the legislative and executive branches of the government.

Implications of the Basic Structure Doctrine

The Basic Structure Doctrine has profound implications for Indian constitutional law and the balance of power between the Judiciary and the Parliament. Its introduction and application have significantly shaped the dynamics of constitutional amendments and the protection of fundamental constitutional principles. Some key implications of the doctrine are:

1. Limitation on Parliamentary Power:

The most direct implication of the Basic Structure Doctrine is the limitation it places on the Parliament's power to amend the Constitution. While the Parliament retains the ability to make significant changes and adaptations to the Constitution, it cannot alter the fundamental framework or core principles that form the Constitution's basic structure. This ensures that the essential features of the Constitution, such as democracy, rule of law, secularism, and federalism, remain intact and inviolable.

2. Judicial Review Strengthened:

The doctrine significantly empowers the judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court of India, by granting it the authority to review and invalidate constitutional amendments that violate the basic structure. This role of judicial review acts as a check on the powers of the Parliament, ensuring that any attempt to alter the Constitution's core values can be challenged and scrutinized in the judiciary.

3. Protection of Fundamental Rights:

By establishing that certain principles, including some fundamental rights, are beyond the amending power of the Parliament, the Basic Structure Doctrine provides a robust mechanism for the protection of individual rights and liberties. It ensures that fundamental rights, which are a crucial component of the basic structure, cannot be abrogated or diluted by constitutional amendments.

4. Balancing Flexibility and Rigidity:

The doctrine strikes a delicate balance between allowing for necessary constitutional changes and adaptations (flexibility) and preserving the core values and principles of the Constitution (rigidity). This balance is crucial for the evolution of the legal system in response to changing societal needs while maintaining the integrity and identity of the Constitution.

5. Encourages Constitutional Morality:

The Basic Structure Doctrine underlines the importance of constitutional morality, emphasizing the principles of justice, fairness, and equality enshrined in the Constitution. It serves as a reminder to both the judiciary and the legislature to uphold these values in their functions, ensuring that the spirit of the Constitution guides governance and law-making.

6. Dynamic Interpretation of the Constitution:

The doctrine allows for a dynamic interpretation of the Constitution, acknowledging that the understanding of what constitutes the basic structure can evolve over time. This flexibility ensures that the Constitution can adapt to new challenges and changes in societal values, without compromising its foundational principles.

In summary, the Basic Structure Doctrine plays a pivotal role in safeguarding the integrity of the Indian Constitution, ensuring that its core principles are upheld while allowing for necessary adaptations and evolution. It exemplifies the balance between judicial oversight and legislative power, contributing to the resilience and dynamism of Indian democracy.

Criticism and Debate over Basic Structure Doctrine

The Basic Structure Doctrine, while widely regarded as a cornerstone of constitutional law in India, has not been without its critics and points of debate. The doctrine's implications for democratic governance, judicial authority, and constitutional amendment powers have sparked discussions and controversies. Some of the main criticisms and areas of debate surrounding the Basic Structure Doctrine:

1. Judicial Overreach:

One of the most prominent criticisms is that the doctrine leads to judicial overreach. Critics argue that by granting the judiciary the power to determine the constitutionality of constitutional amendments, the doctrine excessively expands judicial authority. This, they claim, infringes upon the principle of separation of powers by allowing the judiciary to have the final say in matters that should be within the purview of the legislative process, potentially undermining the democratic mandate of the elected legislature.

2. Lack of Constitutional Basis:

Critics also contend that the Basic Structure Doctrine lacks a clear constitutional basis, as the Constitution of India does not explicitly mention or allude to a "basic structure" that is inviolable. They argue that the doctrine was judicially invented and imposes an extra-constitutional limitation on the amending powers of the Parliament, which was not envisioned by the framers of the Constitution.

3. Vagueness and Subjectivity:

The doctrine has been criticized for its inherent vagueness and the subjectivity involved in determining what constitutes the "basic structure" of the Constitution. Since the Supreme Court did not provide an exhaustive list of features that form the basic structure, it leaves much to judicial interpretation. Critics argue that this vagueness can lead to inconsistency in judicial decisions and grants excessive discretionary power to judges, potentially leading to arbitrary rulings.

4. Impact on Constitutional Evolution:

Some argue that the Basic Structure Doctrine impedes the evolutionary potential of the Constitution by placing undue restrictions on constitutional amendments. They contend that societal progress and changing circumstances may necessitate significant constitutional reforms, which could be hampered by the judiciary's power to invalidate amendments deemed to violate the basic structure.

5. Democratic Principle Concerns:

The doctrine raises concerns about the democratic principle, particularly the supremacy of the people's will as expressed through their elected representatives. Critics assert that by allowing unelected judges to have the final word on the constitutionality of amendments passed by the democratically elected Parliament, the doctrine may contravene the principle of democratic governance.

Debate and Support:

Despite these criticisms, the Basic Structure Doctrine has also received considerable support. Proponents argue that it serves as a crucial safeguard against majoritarian excesses and the erosion of fundamental rights and democratic principles. It is seen as a necessary check on the powers of the Parliament to prevent arbitrary amendments that could alter the very essence of the Constitution and the democratic fabric of the nation.

The doctrine continues to be a subject of legal, academic, and political debate, reflecting broader discussions about the balance between flexibility and rigidity in constitutional design, the role of the judiciary in democratic societies, and the mechanisms needed to protect constitutional democracy.

Landmark Judgments on Basic Structure Doctrine

The Basic Structure Doctrine has been central to several landmark judgments by the Supreme Court of India. These cases not only established and affirmed the doctrine but also expanded its interpretation and application over the years. Here are some of the landmark judgments related to the Basic Structure Doctrine:

1. Kesavananda Bharati vs. State of Kerala (1973)

This is the foundational case where the Basic Structure Doctrine was first articulated. The Supreme Court held that while the Parliament has wide powers to amend the Constitution, it cannot alter the basic structure or framework of the Constitution. This case set the precedent for the doctrine, although the court did not provide a comprehensive list of what constitutes the basic structure.

2. Indira Nehru Gandhi vs. Raj Narain (1975)

In this case, the Supreme Court applied the Basic Structure Doctrine to strike down the 39th Amendment Act, which sought to validate the election of the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, which had been declared void by the Allahabad High Court. The Court held that certain amendments made by the 39th Amendment were unconstitutional as they violated the basic structure, particularly the principle of free and fair elections.

3. Minerva Mills vs. Union of India (1980)

The Supreme Court further reinforced the Basic Structure Doctrine in the Minerva Mills case. It declared that two changes made by the 42nd Amendment Act were unconstitutional: one that gave primacy to the Directive Principles of State Policy over the Fundamental Rights, and another that limited the judicial review power of the courts. The Court affirmed that any law or amendment which impairs the harmony and balance between Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles or restricts judicial review could damage the basic structure.

4. Waman Rao vs. Union of India (1981)

This case dealt with the validity of the Constitution (Amendment) Acts passed between April 24, 1973 (the date of the Kesavananda Bharati judgment), and June 30, 1981. The Supreme Court held that the acts and amendments which came into force after the Kesavananda Bharati decision would be subject to scrutiny according to the Basic Structure Doctrine, thereby upholding the doctrine's retrospective application only from the date of the Kesavananda Bharati judgment.

5. S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India (1994)

This case is primarily known for its examination of the President's rule under Article 356 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court held that the power of the President to dismiss a state government is not absolute and is subject to judicial review. The court asserted that federalism is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution, and any action impacting it would be scrutinized to ensure it does not violate this essential feature.

6. M. Nagaraj & Others vs. Union of India & Others (2006)

In this case, the Supreme Court was dealing with the validity of the 77th, 81st, 82nd, and 85th Constitutional Amendments, all related to reservations in promotions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The Court upheld the amendments but stated that the principle of equality is a basic feature of the Constitution. It held that any law made under these amendments giving effect to reservation should not obliterate the principle of equality.

7. I.R. Coelho (Dead) By LRs vs. State of Tamil Nadu (2007)

This case is significant for reaffirming the applicability of the Basic Structure Doctrine to laws placed in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. The Court held that even the laws under the Ninth Schedule would be open to judicial review if they were found to be violative of the basic structure or essential features of the Constitution.

8. Indian Young Lawyers Association vs. The State of Kerala (2018)

In this case, commonly known as the Sabarimala case, the Supreme Court allowed women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple, striking down the temple's rule that banned women of menstruating age. The Court held that the practice violated women's right to equality under Article 14, the right to freedom of religion under Article 25, and amounted to gender discrimination, reaffirming that gender justice is an inseparable part of the basic structure.

These landmark judgments underscore the Supreme Court's role in interpreting and safeguarding the Constitution through the Basic Structure Doctrine. They highlight the dynamic tension between the powers of the legislature to amend the Constitution and the judiciary's role in ensuring that such amendments do not erode the Constitution's fundamental values and principles.


The Basic Structure Doctrine places limitations on the power of Parliament to amend the Constitution. It implies that Parliament cannot amend the Constitution in a manner that destroys or eliminates the basic structure of the Constitution.

The Basic Structure Doctrine empowers the judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court, to review and strike down constitutional amendments that violate the basic structure of the Constitution. The court acts as the guardian of the Constitution and ensures that the basic structure is preserved.

The concept of the Basic Structure Doctrine has evolved over time through various court judgments. The Supreme Court has expanded and clarified the scope of the doctrine in subsequent cases.

It's important to note that the exact scope and interpretation of the Basic Structure Doctrine may vary on a case-by-case basis, and the Supreme Court has the final authority to determine what constitutes the basic structure of the Constitution.

Also Read: Types of Writs under the Constitution of India



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Barristery.in: What is the Basic Structure Doctrine ? - Explained
What is the Basic Structure Doctrine ? - Explained
The Basic Structure Doctrine is a principle established by the Supreme Court of India that upholds the supremacy of the Constitution and identifies ce
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