Kesavananda Bharati : Remembering our saviour of democracy


Kesavananda Bharati is known far and wide as a petitioner for his “Kesavananda Bharati vs. State of Kerala” case. The verdict was deemed a landmark in the Indian judicial history since it helped us guard our democracy. The judgment was made in 1973 with the largest bench of 13 judges in the Supreme Court. The verdict was in the majority of 7-6 and ruled that no amendments could be made to the basic structure of the Constitution by the Parliament. No definitive “basic structure” was provided by the SC, they only listed a few principles — federalism, secularism, democracy and hence the court has since been adding new features to this concept.

Shri Kesavananda Bharati was appointed the head of Sri Edneer Mutt, in Kasaragod district, Kerala, in 1961, and belonged to the Parampara of Thotakacharya, one of the first four disciples of Adi Shankara. He was a follower of the Smartha Bhagawatha tradition of Advaitha Pantha. He took Sanyasa at the age of 19 and headed the Edneer Mutt as the Peetadhipathi until his death in 2020. [Source: Wikipedia]

On March 21, 1970, Bharati filed a petition in the SC with the help of Nani Palkhivala to challenge the recently imposed Land Reform (Amendment) Act, 1969, by the Government of Kerala. The government had taken over the “mutt” owned land and imposed restrictions which had caused him to face financial and functional issues as it was the only source of income for his asharam. Besides the land reform, his petition also put into question the Constitutional amendments passed under the administration of Indira Gandhi in 1970.

Initially, after the independence, the judiciary strongly believed in the righteousness of the political decisions made by the Parliament, which at the time comprised of some of our greatest freedom fighters. This is believed to be the reason why, at first, the Parliament was given downright power to alter the Constitution as per its convenience and at its will. In the following years, the Constitution was amended in accordance with this conviction until the Golaknath judgement of 1967. Here, with the involvement of a bench of 11 judges, the verdict ruled was that no amendments could be made by the Parliament to the fundamental rights of the Constitution. In early 1969, Indira Gandhi tried to nationalise multiple banks, only to be struck down by the Supreme Court. A year later, she tried to abolish privy purses, but this was once again annulled by the SC. Soon, Mrs. Indira Gandhi made some drastic amendments to the constitution of India (the 24th, 25th, 26th and 29th) in order to overrule the Supreme Court. These alterations resulted in the Parliament having complete power to ultimately change any part of the constitution.

Bharati’s case not only argued against the four amendments but also against the Golaknath judgment. Since the Golaknath judgment included a bench of 11 judges, Bharati’s case had to comprise of at least 13 – making it the largest bench – in order to ensure the scrutinization and thoroughness of the judgment. After making references to numerous other cases, it was held that Parliament could amend any part of the Constitution so long as it did not alter or amend “the basic structure or essential features of the Constitution.” [Source: The Hindu]. Since there was no definitive framework as to what the “basic structure” implied to, it has been left open for interpretation for the courts to decide as per the case.

He passed away at the age of 79, on 6th September, 2020 due to age related ailments. Had Swami HH Sri Kesavananda Bharati not raised this question for us, we would have been at the complete mercy of the government. They could have easily taken away our right to speech, right to freedom and many other rights that are now protected due to this one step taken by Kesavananda. As a nation, we will forever and rightfully remember him as the seer petitioner who saved our democracy.

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