On Constitutional Morality: Thoughts from Delhi

Guest Contributor: Anmol Mittal is a 5th Year Student at National Law University, Delhi. 

The question of what the true import of the term “Constitutional morality” is has become pertinent following India’s (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Presidential Order C.O. 272, and the subsequent State Reorganisation Bill introduced in the parliament. On the morning of August 5, through a combination of the Presidential order and the Reorganisation bill, the special status accorded to the State of Jammu & Kashmir, by way of Article 370, within the Indian Union, was revoked. To examine where the moral compass of India’s Constituent document lies, it’s necessary that the Constitution be considered as a ‘whole’, and not as being contained ‘essentially’ in Part-III on Fundamental Rights (Part-III rights). 

For the uninitiated, Part-III rights are, in a manner of speaking, India’s version of the bundle of rights in America guaranteed through the 1st, 5th, 6th amendments and so on. Article 19 corresponds directly with the 1st Amendment, Article 20 with the 5th Amendment, and the 6th Amendment has, in a manner of speaking, read into Article 21 and so on. Through a series of constitutional decisions, the Supreme Court of India has placed Part-III rights in the ‘infallible’ category–i.e. they cannot be amended to the ‘disadvantage’ of the holders of these rights. The legislative body is disempowered insofar as it’s amending authority is inhibited at the infallible category, a principle better understood in India as the “Basic Structure Doctrine”. This is, by no means, a mean feat. As Senior Advocate Arvind Datar notes in Courtroom Genius, no other country following a Westminister-type parliamentary democracy had ever had a legislation duly passed by Parliament struck down on grounds of fundamental rights violation. Kesavananda Bharati case, the genesis of such doctrine, really was an outlier. 

The seal of the constituent assembly of India

India, like various other countries with a protracted anti-colonial struggle, places its Constitution and the decisions of its Constituent Assembly as central in determining the validity of actions of present day government. While this in itself is hardly unusual, it is the political value that the Indian government still attaches to the Constitution that sets it apart from other nations. Seldom will one find instances in India of blatant disregard of the Constitution from members of the Executive branch of Government. On either side of the political divide, therefore, it is pertinent to understand India’s Constitution as a ‘whole’, and to not obfuscate the myriad considerations that the Constituent Assembly had in its mind when finalizing it in 1949. 

When drafting the Constitution, India’s Constituent Assembly must have been, as a matter of presumption, truly aware and cognizant of the implications of including Art. 358-359 in the Constitution. Specifically, Article 359, which states that: 

the right to move any court for the enforcement of such of [the right conferred by Part III (Except Art. 20 & 21)] as may be mentioned in the order……remain suspended for the duration for which the proclamation is in force”.

The presence of ‘Emergency Provisions’ under Art. 352 and its enabling provisions in Art. 358-359 suggest that the Constituent Assembly and its conception of a ‘Constitutional Morality’ considered a ‘threat’ to the Security of India as a bigger ‘emergency’ than the suspension of fundamental rights in mounting an effective counter to such a threat. If the converse, which is to say that the constituent assembly in its wisdom was convinced that Part-III rights would, by law, never be suspended from operation the correct position according to the Constituent Assembly, the text of the Constitution would not have so expressly contravened it. 

The only condition for suspension of Part-III rights is that there be a Proclamation of ‘Grave Emergency’ under Art. 352 by the President. This would be enough grounds to activate Art. 358, which automatically suspends all fundamental freedoms under Art. 19, such as speech, movement or even trade. Further, Art. 359 empowers the Government to, by issuing a Presidential Order, suspend the ‘enforcement’ of all other fundamental rights under Part-III.  

In Attorney General for India vs. Amratlal Prajivandas and Others, a nine-judge bench ruled on the extent of the President’s powers during a Proclamation of emergency under Art. 359. The Supreme Court, stating the view of the Constituent Assembly, held that the President was not clothed with the power to suspend fundamental rights but only their enforcement. This implied that while in theory fundamental rights exist, their judicial protection is suspended for the duration of the emergency. Essentially, writ jurisdiction, which enables anyone to move the court under Articles 32 & 226 for enforcement of their Part-III rights is suspended, except in cases where Fundamental Rights under Art. 20 & 21 are claimed to be violated, i.e. protections with respect to Convictions, such as the Right to Self-Incrimination, and the Right to Life. 

Therefore, all that the constitution requires to set in motion the suspension of generally revered Part-III rights is the meeting-of-minds of members of the Cabinet (The only time the word ‘Cabinet’ is used in the Constitution) and the communication of the same to the President, an exercise of purely executive power with no legislative approval. The provisions, after the Indian experience with the Emergency under PM Indira Gandhi, were tweaked to strengthen them by requiring the communication of such meeting-of-minds in writing. The grounds for the judgment of the Cabinet that security is under threat earlier included even ‘internal disturbances’, which was removed to limit the 3 grounds to War, External Aggression and Armed Rebellion. 

The import of Art.358-359 is further muddled following the Maneka Gandhi judgment. A 7 judge-bench laid to rest the AK Gopalan theory, that each Article in Part-III guarantees a distinguishable right, and each right is contained wholly in separate silos, with no overlap amongst each other. The Court disagreed with Gopalan, and constructed fundamental rights as being protected through overlapping provisions and not as ‘restricted’ under specific provisions of Part-III: i.e. a right may be guaranteed by and protected under several articles and not exclusively under one. The Right to Privacy, for instance, has been read as both, a part of the Right to Life (Article 21), because it is essential to the enjoyment of life, and also as under Right to Freedom of Expression (Article 19)

Therefore, the extent to which Part-III rights will be suspended (or not) during a proclamation under Art. 352 is subject to the minds in Bhagwan Das Road (The seat of the Indian Supreme Court) demarcating the extent to which a right falls under Art. 19 and not 20 & 21. This indicates a reversal to the ‘restricted’ conception of Fundamental rights as under Gopalan in order to safeguard their exercise, and also leaves to judicial discretion issues ill-suited for adjudication during an Emergency.

In effect, for a government exercising complete (‘Single’) majority in the Parliament, legislative approval for the passage of a bill, after the proclamation of an emergency and suspension of Fundamental rights, is only a matter of procedure. Freedom to speak and question the government in Parliament is the protection, in essence, that the Constitution ensures for our democracy. However, once these two parameters are met and the single ruling party has passed a bill, a 6-month suspension period follows before requiring legislative scrutiny again. 

Two conclusions can be drawn. One: ‘Constitutional Morality’ and ‘enforcement of Part-III rights’ are two separate spirits in the Indian Constitution, with the former comprising more than just the latter. As a result, it cannot be claimed that actions taken in violation of Part III rights invariably violate ‘Constitutional Morality’. Two: the suspension of Part-III rights can be considered violative of ‘Constitutional Morality’ only in cases where the prescribed ‘Constitutional process’ is violated. In other words, the essence of Part-III rights is contained not only in their substance, but also in the processes required to render them (un)enforceable. 

Seen in light to the developments in Kashmir, to criticise the media blackout and the militarisation of the valley only on grounds of the violation of the substance of Part-III may not be the same as stating that the actions undertaken are beyond ‘Constitutional Morality’. Emphasis needs to be added to the procedures which are required in order to ensure that Part-III rights are not suspended arbitrarily. It is the political cost of having to declare an ‘emergency’ to meet the Arbitrariness requirement and igniting the collective paranoia of Indians left over by Indira Gandhi which is crucial to any meaningful opposition to the actions of August 5 on grounds of ‘Constitutional Morality’. 

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