The Keshavananda Bharati Case

I read today about the sad demise of Sri Keshavananda Bharati Swamiji of the Edaneeru Matha, Kasargodu at the age of 79. His name will always be associated with the Supreme Court Judgment of 1973 in what has come to be known as the ‘Keshavananada Bharati Case’ . This case was mentioned to us frequently by Professor K Karunakaran ( who taught us Labour Laws in XLRI in 1972-74) as being a landmark judgement. This led me today to go back decades in time and understand what that case was about.

To recapitulate, in 1960, Sri Keshavananada Bharati Swamiji became the Head of the over 1200 year old Edaneeru Matha in Kasargod. It was founded by Sri Thotakacharya , one of the first four disciples of Sri Adi Sankaracharya. In 1971 or so, the Government of Kerala sought to impose restrictions on the Matha property which led Sri Keshavananada Bharati Swamiji to take the case up to the Supreme Court. He questioned the right of the Government to alter the fundamental rights of the citizens of India.

The case was argued for 68 days before a Full Bench of 13 Judges of the Supreme Court of India. It became the centre of attraction during those times for the principles being argued before the highest Court of the land. The Government of the time ( headed by Prime Minister Smt Indira Gandhi) argued that Parliament was supreme in India and the Government of the day could amend the Constitution if it was for the benefit of the people. The illustrious lawyers Nani Palkhivala, Fali Nariman, and Soli Sorabjee represented the petitioners against the government.

The Supreme Court held by a narrow margin of 7-6 that while admittedly the Parliament had wide powers it did not have the power to alter the basic structure of the Constitution. The judges who upheld Swamiji’s plea were then Chief Justice of India S M Sikri, and Justices K S Hegde, A K Mukherjea, J M Shelat, A N Grover, P Jaganmohan Reddy, and H R Khanna.

In the decades that followed this judgement of 1973 has served to be the cornerstone for determining the ” basic structure” doctrine in constitutional law in India. It covers the supremacy of the Constitution, the independence of the judiciary etc. It was often alleged that Smt Indira Gandhi was very annoyed at the outcome of the case and consequently the judges who ruled against the Government were not given promotions due to them. It is a fact that Chief Justice Sikri retired the day after the verdict, and the Government appointed Justice A M Ray in his place. He superseded Justices Shelat, Grover, and Hegde who had ruled against the Government in the process.

While the residents of Kasargod will for long remember Sri Keshavananada Bharati Swamiji for all the good work he did for the Edaneeru Matha, students of law, politics and the Constitution, all over India will never forget him for this landmark case, settled 47 years ago.

Om Shanti, Shraddhanjali to Srimath Swamiji.

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