A Chance to Settle a Constitutional Clash: Balancing Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles

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A Chance to Settle a Constitutional Clash: Balancing Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles Blog Image

Why in News?

  • The recent hearings before a nine-judge Bench of the Supreme Court of India in Property Owners Association vs State of Maharashtra have raised two critical questions regarding the interpretation and application of constitutional provisions.
  • The first question pertains to the meaning of the term "material resources of the community" as used in Article 39(b) of the Indian Constitution.
  • The second question is about the conflict between laws aimed at achieving the goals outlined in Article 39(b) and the fundamental rights to equality and freedom enshrined in Part III of the Constitution.

An Analysis of the Conflict Between Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles

  • Foundational Conflict
    • The conflict between fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy (DPSP) lies at the heart of India's constitutional jurisprudence.
    • While Part III of the Indian Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to its citizens, Part IV lays down DPSPs as guiding principles for state action.
    • This inherent tension arises from the divergent nature of these two sets of provisions: fundamental rights are justiciable and enforceable by courts, whereas DPSPs are non-justiciable and serve as moral and political directives for governance.
  • Clash of Priorities
    • The tension between fundamental rights and DPSPs arises from the competing demands of individual liberties and collective welfare.
    • While fundamental rights prioritise the protection of individual autonomy and freedom from state interference, DPSPs emphasise the state's duty to promote social and economic justice and the welfare of its citizens.
    • This tension is further exacerbated by the dynamic nature of Indian society, characterized by diverse social, economic, and cultural realities.
  • Extensive Debate in India’s Constitutional History
    • The conflict between fundamental rights and DPSPs has been a subject of extensive debate and litigation in India's constitutional history.
    • The judiciary has grappled with balancing the exercise of state power with the protection of individual rights, particularly in cases where legislative measures aimed at fulfilling DPSPs encroach upon fundamental freedoms.
    • The Supreme Court's role in adjudicating these conflicts has been crucial in shaping the contours of India's constitutional democracy.
    • The conflict between these two parts intensified during the 1970s, leading to amendments aimed at exempting certain laws from judicial review.
    • The landmark case of Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala (1973) attempted to address this conflict, but the issue persisted.

Introduction and Evolution of Article 31C

  • The 25th Amendment: Introduction of Art 31C
    • The 25th amendment to the Indian Constitution introduced Article 31C to safeguard laws aimed at implementing Article 39(b) and (c) from judicial review on grounds of violating fundamental rights.
    • This constitutional provision aimed to insulate legislative measures designed to secure the material resources of the community.
    • The article aimed to prevent the concentration of wealth from being struck down by courts based on Articles 14 and 19, which guarantee equality and various freedoms, respectively.
  • Kesavananda Bharati Case: A Challenge to Article 31C
    • The validity and scope of Article 31C came under scrutiny in the landmark case of Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala (1973).
    • The Supreme Court grappled with the question of whether Article 31C, by immunising certain laws from fundamental rights challenges, violated the basic structure of the Constitution.
    • While the Court upheld the principle of judicial review and affirmed the supremacy of the Constitution's basic structure, the ruling left ambiguity regarding the extent to which Article 31C could curtail fundamental rights.
  • Expansion through the 42nd Amendment
    • Despite the judicial scrutiny in the Kesavananda case, Parliament further expanded the scope of Article 31C through the 42nd amendment in 1976.
    • This amendment sought to broaden the immunity provided to laws made in furtherance of DPSPs, extending beyond Article 39(b) and (c) to encompass any directive principle.
    • The 42nd amendment represented a significant shift in the balance of power between fundamental rights and DPSPs, raising concerns about the potential erosion of individual liberties.
  • Minerva Mills Case: Judicial Intervention
    • The constitutionality of the expanded Article 31C faced judicial challenge in the case of Minerva Mills vs Union of India (1980).
    • The Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, struck down the 42nd amendment, emphasising the interdependence of fundamental rights and DPSPs in the constitutional framework.
    • Chief Justice Y.V. Chandrachud's assertion that fundamental rights act as a bulwark against unchecked state power underscored the significance of this decision.

Ambiguities and Unresolved Issues

  • The aftermath of the Minerva Mills case left ambiguities regarding the status of Article 31C and its compatibility with the Constitution's basic structure.
  • Justice Y.V. Chandrachud's contradictory opinions in Minerva Mills and Waman Rao vs Union of India further added to the complexity of the matter.
  • The lack of a definitive analysis from the Supreme Court on the validity of Article 31C has perpetuated the conflict between fundamental rights and DPSPs.

Property Owners Association Vs State of Maharashtra: A Chance to Settle a Constitutional Clash

  • Thorough Scrutiny of the Law in Question by the SC
    • The central issue in the case revolves around a law that allows a state government board to acquire complete control over dilapidated buildings, subject to the consent of at least 70% of residents.
    • This law purportedly seeks to further the goals outlined in Article 39(b) of the Constitution, which emphasises the importance of securing material resources for the community.
    • However, the legality of this law is called into question, particularly concerning its potential infringement on fundamental rights under Articles 14 and 19, which guarantee equality and various freedoms, respectively.
  • A Chance to Fix a Balance Between Fundamental Rights and DPSPs
    • The resolution of the Property Owners case has far-reaching implications for the delicate balance between fundamental rights and DPSPs in India's constitutional democracy.
    • The decision will determine whether laws aimed at fulfilling DPSPs, such as the acquisition of dilapidated buildings for the common good, can be immune from challenges based on fundamental rights.
    • This presents a fundamental question regarding the hierarchy of rights and duties within the constitutional framework, as well as the extent to which the state can encroach upon individual liberties in pursuit of collective welfare.
  • A Chance to Fix Ambiguities and Unresolved Issues
    • The Property Owners case provides an opportunity for the judiciary to clarify ambiguities surrounding the interpretation and application of Article 31C considering previous judicial precedents.
    • The conflicting decisions in cases such as Kesavananda Bharati and Minerva Mills have left unanswered questions regarding the validity and scope of Article 31C, particularly in relation to its compatibility with the basic structure of the Constitution.
    • Regardless of the judgments in Waman Rao and Sanjeev Coke vs Bharat Coking Coal (1982), which followed it, to date there is no conclusive analysis from the Supreme Court on Article 31C, in the form introduced by the 25th amendment, and its adherence to the Constitution’s basic structure. 
    • By providing clarity on these issues, the Supreme Court can contribute to a more coherent and consistent approach to reconciling the competing demands of fundamental rights and DPSPs.

Conclusion

  • The decision in the Property Owners case has the potential to reaffirm the foundational principles of equality, liberty, and social justice enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

By striking a balance between the protection of individual rights and the promotion of collective welfare, the judiciary can uphold the integrity of India's constitutional democracy and ensure that the imperatives of justice and equity are upheld in the governance of the country. 


Q) What is the significance of the right to equality in India?

The right to equality ensures equal treatment under the law for all citizens. It prohibits discrimination based on religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. This right promotes social inclusivity and prevents marginalisation of any group within the society.

Q) Can fundamental rights be restricted?

Yes, fundamental rights in India are not absolute and can be restricted under certain circumstances, such as for reasons of national security, public order, or morality. However, any such restrictions must be reasonable and in accordance with the provisions laid down in the Constitution. 

Source: The Hindu