Golak Nath vs State of Punjab, or simply the Golak Nath case, was a 1967 Indian Supreme Court landmark case, in which the Court ruled that Parliament could not curtail or limit any of the Fundamental Rights in the Constitution.
Background of the case
The family of Henry and William Golak Nath held over 500 acres of farmland in Jalandhar, Punjab. After the introduction of 1953 Punjab Security and Land Tenures Act, the state government held that the brothers could keep only thirty acres each, a few acres would go to tenants and the rest was declared surplus. This was challenged by the Golak Nath family who filed a petition under Article 32 challenging the 1953 Punjab Act because it denied them their constitutional rights to acquire an entire property and practice any profession Article 19 (f) and (g) and to equality before law and equal protection of the law (Article 14). They sought the seventeenth amendment – which had placed the Punjab Act in ninth schedule- declared ultra vires i.e. beyond the powers.
The issues raised in this case were:
- Whether Fundamental Rights can be amended or not?
- Whether Amendment is a “law” under the meaning of Article 13(2).
On 27th February 1967, the judgement which overruled the rulings in Shankari Prasad and Sajjan Singh cases, the Supreme court by a majority of six to five ruled that Parliament had no power to take away or abridge, by the process of constitutional amendment, any of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
“These rights are given a transcendental position and kept beyond the reach of parliamentary legislation”, the judgment said.
The Chief Justice, Justice K. Subba Rao, delivering the judgment for himself and four other judges of the Supreme Court, dismissed the petitions by Golak Nath and others against the State of Punjab.
The Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951, the Constitution (Fourth Amendment) Act, 1951, and the Constitution (Seventeenth Amendment) Act, 1964 abridge the scope of Fundamental Rights. But based on earlier decisions of this court, they were valid. On the application of the doctrine of prospective overruling this decision will have prospective operation only therefore the said amendments will continue as valid. The power of Parliament to amend the Constitution is derived from the Articles 254, 246 and 248 of the constitution and not from Article 368, which only deals with the procedure. It was very clear with the then existing political scenario the existing decision of supreme court of giving absolute powers to parliament to amend fundamental rights also was overruled. A new concept of prospective overruling was made. Thus, in this decision it was held that parliament had no rights at all to amend the fundamental rights.
Whether Amendment is a “law” under the meaning of Article 13(2)?
Since 1951, questions have been raised about the scope of the constitutional amending process contained in Article 368. In Shankari Prasad Singh v. Union of India, the argument against the validity of the First Amendment was that Article 13 prohibits enactment of a law infringing or abrogating the Fundamental Rights that the word “Law” in Art. 13 would include any law; even a law amending the Constitution and, therefore, the validity of such a law could be judged and scrutinised with the reference to the fundamental rights which it could infringe. Here, in this case was a conflict between Articles 13 and 368.
Adopting the literal meaning of the constitution, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the 1st Amendment. The Court rejected the contention and limited the scope of Art. 13 by ruling that the word ‘Law’ in Art. 13 would not include within its compass a constitution amending law passed under Art. 368. The Court stated on this point: “We are of the opinion that is the context of Art. 13 laws must be taken to mean rules and regulations made in the exercise of ordinary legislative power and not amendments to the Constitution made in the exercise of constituent power with the result that Art. 13(2) do not affect amendments made under Art. 368.”
The Court held that the terms of Art. 368 are perfectly general and empower Parliament to amend the Constitution without any exception. The fundamental rights are not excluded or immunized from the process of constitutional amendment under Art. 368. These rights could not be invaded by legislative organs by means of laws and rules made in exercise of legislative powers, but they could certainly be curtailed, abridged or even nullified by alterations in the Constitution itself in exercise of the constituent power.
There is a clear demarcation between Ordinary Law, which is made in exercise of legislative power, and Constitutional Law, which is made in exercise of constituent power. Both Article 13 and 368 are widely phrased and conflict in operation with each other. To avoid the conflict, the principle of harmonious construction should be applied. Accordingly, one of these Articles ought to be read as being controlled and qualified by the other. In the context of Article 13, it must be read subject to Art. 368. Therefore, the word ‘law’ in Art. 13 must be taken to refer to rules and regulations made in exercise of ordinary legislative power, and not to constitutional amendments made in the exercise of the constituent power under Art. 368 with the result that Art. 13(2) do not affect amendments made under Art. 368. The Court, thus, disagreed with the view that the fundamental rights are inviolable and beyond the reach of the process of constitutional amendment. The Court, thus, ruled that Art. 13 refer to a “legislative” law that is an ordinary law made by a legislature, but not to a constituent law that is a law made to amend the constitution. The Court thus held that Parliament could by following the ‘procedure’ laid down in Art. 368 amend any fundamental right.
Whether Fundamental Rights can be amended or not?
A political society undergoes changes with the passage of time. To face new problems and challenges, changes and modifications are called for in all aspects of national life. It is therefore, impossible to make a constitution which can satisfy the needs of the people for all times to come. Changing circumstances will require modification of constitutional provisions. A constitution that denies the right to amend is likely to be destroyed and replaced by the succeeding generations. Hence, the constitution of India was not drafted to be very rigid. The amending powers of the parliament are given under Article 368 of the constitution. It does not put any restrictions on the parliament regarding which portion of the constitution parliament can amend. Restrictions come from Article 13 which says parliament shall not make any law which is inconsistent with the Fundamental rights. However, issue remains whether Amendment to constitution should be considered as law or not, if the amendment to constitution is law, it can’t be inconsistent with the fundamental rights.
The landmark case had two significant impact in the due course of time. They were:
- Parliament passed the 24th Amendment in 1971 to abrogate the Supreme Court judgement. It amended the Constitution to provide expressly that the Parliament has the power to amend any part of the Constitution including the provisions relating to Fundamental Rights.
- The Supreme court of India, overruled this judgment in the landmark case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala.
The Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, held that the Parliament under the Indian Constitution is not supreme, and that it cannot change the basic structure of the Constitution. It also declared that under certain circumstances, the amendment of fundamental rights would affect the basic structure and therefore, would be void. Thus, one can see that this case is drawn on a larger canvas as compared to that of Golak Nath. It also overruled Golak Nath and thus, all the previous amendments which were held valid are now open to be reviewed. They can also be sustained because neither do they affect the basic structure of the constitution nor are they reasonable restrictions on the fundamental rights in public interest. Both the cases, if seen closely, bear the same practical effects. In the Gola Nath Case, it was laid that the Parliament cannot amend so as to take away the fundamental rights enshrined in Part III, whereas in the case of Keshavananda, it was held that the parliament cannot amend so as to affect the basic structure.
Thus, the landmark Golak Nath case helped in justifying the importance of fundamental rights of a person. Also, it laid out that any laws conflicting with fundamental rights are declared ultra-vires.
- The Punjab Security of Land Tenures Act,1953
- Constitution of India
- Shankari Prasad vs union of India, AIR 1951 SC 455
- Sajjan Singh vs State Of Rajasthan, 1965
- Kesavananda Bharati vs State Of Kerala, 1973