top of page

From Kesavananda to Puttaswamy: Navigating through Constitutional Challenges

Updated: Mar 13

Authored by Priyal Bansal, 1st year law student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. The author has secured 3rd Rank in Article Writing Competition organised by The Society For Constitutional Law Discussion



From Kesavananda to Puttaswamy: Navigating through Constitutional Challenges
Supreme Court of India

Abstract

The study encompasses various landmark judgments that have shaped the trajectory of constitutional jurisprudence in India. The comprehensive analysis begins with the pivotal case of Kesavananda Bharati, which provided the fundamental structure doctrine and traverses through subsequent matters of right to go abroad in Maneka Gandhi, discussing the scope of Article 32 in MC Mehta, reservation to Other Backward Classes (O.B.C.s) in Indira Sawhney, guidelines for sexual harassment at workplace in Vishakha, right to die in Aruna Shanbaug, recognition of the third gender in NALSA, and concludes with the Right to Privacy in Puttaswamy judgment. 


Each case unfolds a chapter in India’s legal history, influencing constitutional interpretations and socio-legal norms. It emphasizes the transformative power of judicial choices in upholding the constitutional ethos and adapting to the evolving desires of a democratic society. In doing so, the article contributes to a richer comprehension of the complex tapestry of Indian constitutionalism and its enduring relevance in modern instances. It gives a vivid picture of the evolution of constitutional principles in the world’s largest democracy, India. The study is concluded by providing some cases where the Supreme Court has yet to decide matters. The ongoing or awaiting judgments represent the challenges in the Indian legal framework. The outcomes of these cases could potentially shape or redefine the constitutional jurisprudence. 

 

Introduction

In India’s dynamic legal landscape, the judiciary emerges as a weaver, weaving social and legal development along with constitutional reforms, keeping the transitional journey of Indian society in consideration. It examines the crucial decisions that have left an indelible mark on the Constitution of India and has helped shape the legislation in the state.  


The Constitution of India is the supreme law of the land, and no legislation can violate the constitutional mandates and rules. It lays down the fundamental rights and the fundamental duties of the people towards the nation. It was adopted on 26 November 1949 and enacted on 26 January 1950. It replaced the Government of India Act of 1935, passed during British rule in India. It declares the constitution as a socialist, secular, sovereign, and democratic republic and establishes equality, liberty, and justice for the nation's citizens.


The Indian Judiciary has multiple functions and powers, but the primary ones are interpreting the laws and the constitution and resolving disputes between parties. Some other allied functions are listed below. These functions of Indian judiciary have a profound impact on the Constitution, as they play a crucial role in interpreting, safeguarding and upholding its principles. It also contributes to the evolution in society, and maintenance of constitutional democracy. 

  1. To safeguard and protect the fundamental rights of the citizens.

  2. To resolve the disputes between the center and the state governments.

  3. To maintain a system of Checks and Balances. 

  4. To ensure the rule of law.

  5. To guard the Constitution of India. 


Landmark Judgments

Kesavananda Bharati V. State of Kerala (1973) 

The Kesavananda Bharati judgment was delivered by a 13 Judges constitutional bench of the Supreme Court of India on April 24, 1973, a milestone in constitutional law. Hindu religious leader Shri Kesavananda Bharati constitutionally opposed amendments aimed at curtailing the judicial and fundamental rights of the people. The case arose because of the 24th and 25th Constitutional Amendment Acts, which aimed to weaken fundamental rights, particularly the Right to Property (Article 31). In a historic 7:6 majority decision, the court established the basic structure doctrine encompassing elements such as democracy, secular governance, national unity, and the rule of law transcending constitutional manipulation. The importance of Kesavananda Bharati case is to shape the constitution by limiting the amendment power of Parliament, ensuring that fundamental constitutional principles remain unchanged. The doctrine has been a complex test of legislative power while preserving the fundamental values ​​of the constitution and its flexibility in changing times. The case is pivotal in Indian constitutional law, affecting the country's constitutional development.


Maneka Gandhi V. Union of India (1978)

In the Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India case, the government confiscated journalist Maneka Gandhi's passport, citing ‘public interest’ under Section 10(3)(c) of the Passport Act, 1967. Maneka Gandhi objected the move and alleged a violation of her fundamental rights under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court held that Section 10(3)(c) was invalid, as it gave vague and undefined powers to the Transport Authority and lacked a provision for hearing aggrieved persons, violating Article 14. It gave the government power to check the validity of the law for seizing the passport. Maneka Gandhi's passport was to remain in the custody of authorities until it was found to be valid. This landmark case defined the broad meaning of 'life and personal liberty' in Article 21 of the Constitution and extended freedom of speech and expression beyond national boundaries. It simultaneously challenged Articles 14, 19, and 21, revealing a remarkable and wide-ranging example of judicial activism on fundamental rights in India. 


M.C. Mehta V. Union of India (1986)

In this case, the Supreme Court of India introduced the ‘principle of absolute liability,’ pointing out that absolute liability applies to companies like Sriram, which carry out intrinsically hazardous activities. This means that any business that engages in actions that accidentally cause harm to the environment or people would bear absolute responsibility. 


Indira Sawhney V. Union of India (1992)

It is one of the most important decisions of the Supreme Court of India on the system of reservation in the public service. The court aims to balance social interest and the welfare of the underprivileged. Notably, the decision moved away from using purely economic criteria for classification and introduced the concept of a ‘creamy layer’ of people that had already benefited dramatically from equal opportunity. Although the court ruling was seen as a compassionate attempt at social justice, successive administrative changes in retention norms raised concerns about political considerations gaining ground. Over the years, anti-reservation sentiment grew, challenging the effectiveness and fairness of the reservation system. Despite the controversy surrounding the case, the Indira Sawhney judgment remains an important reference point in the ongoing debate on reservations in India.


Vishaka V. State of Rajasthan (1997) 

The landmark case dealt with sexual harassment in the workplace. The case stemmed from a gang rape of a social worker in Rajasthan, leading the court to admit that there was a lack of law to protect women from workplace abuse. In the absence of any legislation, the Court has established guidelines to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The policies outlined preventive measures, grievance procedures, and disciplinary measures for employers. The employer’s responsibility to provide a safe work environment was emphasized. Sexual harassment was defined broadly to include unwanted advances, solicitation of sexual favors, and creating a hostile or intimidating work environment. The decision was a pioneering step in acknowledging and addressing the widespread issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. This was followed by the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act (POSH) 2013, which provided a comprehensive legal framework for dealing with such cases.


Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug V. Union of India (2011)

The judgment focused on euthanasia and the right to die. Aruna a nurse who was in a continuous vegetative state for decades through a brutal sexual assault that left her in a coma. The appellant requested leave to be executed. The Supreme Court upheld the aggravating circumstances and rejected strict executions but allowed passive executions in specific cases. The court has established guidelines for the withdrawal of life support programs from patients in a vegetative state if the family or next of kin, based on an evaluation by a competent medical board, approves. The decision distinguished between active euthanasia (intentionally causing the death of the patient) and passive euthanasia (withdrawal of life support), allowing the latter under strict safeguards. Aruna’s case had far-reaching implications for the discourse on euthanasia and end-of-life care in a country that established legal principles governing end-of-life decisions, balancing the right to die with dignity and the need for strong safeguards to prevent potential abuse.


National Legal Service Authority (NALSA) V. Union of India (2014) 

The court held that transgender individuals have the right to identify with their gender identity regardless of medical intervention. It affirmed the right to equality, dignity, and freedom from discrimination and directed the government to implement affirmative action policies to ensure their inclusion in education and employment. Furthermore, the law recognized a ‘third gender’ category, distinguishing it from the binary concept of gender. The court emphasized the need to raise awareness of transgender issues in society. 


Justice K.S. Puttaswamy V. Union Of India (2017)

The judgment confirmed that the Right to Privacy is a fundamental right under the Constitution of India. The case challenged the validity of the biometric identification system of the Aadhaar system for violating the right to privacy. The then Chief Justice J.S. Khehar unanimously held that the right to privacy is an integral part of the right to life and personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. Recognizing that the right to privacy is not absolute and may be subject to reasonable limitations, the court established three-pronged test for assessing invasion of privacy. So, any legally permissible pursuit of a legitimate national objective is proportionate to the necessity of such interference. K.S. Puttaswamy's decision had far-reaching implications, affecting aspects of Indian law and governance, particularly data protection and censorship. This reinforced the importance of individual privacy rights in the digital age and laid the foundation for subsequent privacy and data protection developments in India.


Awaiting Justice: Unsettled Matters in the Supreme Court

After observing a series of essential judgments by the country's apex court, here are a few instances where the court should take the lead and guide the way to safeguard our constitution. 


Sedition (Section 124A)

The Supreme Court has yet to set up a constitutional bench to hear the proceedings upon the validity and scope of Section 124A. The recent Bhartiya Nyaya Sanhita (BNS) Bill, introduced in August 2023, proposed Section 150 in context with sedition. It includes the words “electronic communication” to the prior stated definition of Section 124A. It also excludes the punishment of just paying a fine and getting away with the crime of sedition. It has increased the minimum sentence from three to seven years, which may be extended to lifetime imprisonment. Although the definition provided in Section 150 of the BNS bill continues to exclude “the government established by law”, like Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, it is challenging on the part that it is debatable what is against the security and integrity of the country. 


Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019

Citizenship (Amendment) Act was passed in 2019. The ministry has not released its rules to date, so no progress could be recorded on citizenship applications despite them being in the frame to avail of the benefits under the act. It was recorded that some 800 Pakistani Hindus were staying in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, in the hope that one day they would be recognized and provided with Indian citizenship. Still, they lost all hope when, even till 2021, the rules were not issued, and thus back to Pakistan.


Section 376

The Delhi High Court in May 2022, gave its verdict on the constitutionality of exception to Section 375- exempting husbands in cases of rape. The division bench experienced an equal split in the bench and thus the ambiguity persists. 


Sabarimala Review Case

The Supreme Court, in its verdict in September 2023, gave its ruling by a constitutional bench of five judges, where it was found that the exclusion of women of the age group of 10-50 years is unconstitutional as it violates Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. Despite the judgment by the highest court in India, women were not allowed on the temple's premises. Several review petitions have been filed in the court to be considered by a larger bench in response to the question of law. 


Conclusion

In conclusion, this study examines the transformative journey of constitutional law in India, highlighting essential decisions that shaped the legal landscape and social norms. Starting from the landmark case of Kesavananda Bharati, which laid the basic structure doctrine, the analysis meanders through various issues, such as Maneka Gandhi and MC Mehta. These cases reflect the active role of the judiciary in interpreting and protecting constitutional rights. From protecting fundamental rights to dealing with matters of workplace harassment, euthanasia, transgender rights, and privacy, the Supreme Court has played a crucial role in maintaining constitutional rights. The analysis highlights the power of constitutional interpretation tailored to the evolving needs of a democratic society. In celebrating India’s constitutional achievements, the study also highlights some issues awaiting consideration by the Supreme Court. These pending cases, including cases of sedition, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and the Sabarimala review petition, represent an ongoing challenge to ensure that the constitutional principles remain relevant and practical.


Disclaimer: The Society For Constitutional Law Discussion makes endeavours to ensure that the information published on the website is factual and correct. However, some of the content may contain errors. In the blog/article, all views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of TSCLD or its members in any manner whatsoever. In case of any Query or Concern, please reach out to us.

bottom of page