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The case of Minerva Mills v. Union of India (“Minerva Mills”) is one of the finest examples exhibiting the advantages of the system of checks and balances. The vigil of the Apex Court negated the agenda of the Parliament to become the supreme law-making body. The genesis of the case lies in the Parliament enacting the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976 (“the Act”), which gave vast powers to the Parliament to enact laws by abrogating the fundamental rights and making them subservient to the Directive Principles of State Policy. In addition to that, the scope of judicial review was also curtailed.
The Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution had been in dispute for a long time. Before Minerva Mills, the Supreme Court in I.C. Golaknath v. State of Punjab held that the Parliament could not amend the Fundamental Rights, which was later overruled in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (“Kesavananda Bharati”). The law laid in Keshavananda Bharati was that the Parliament could amend the Constitution subject to the limitation that it did not alter or destroy its basic structure.
The dispute arose when the Government decided to hand over the administration of Minerva Mills to the National Textile Corporation Limited under the provisions of the Sick Textile Undertakings (Nationalisation) Act, 1974. The takeover was the result of a report filed by a committee appointed by the Government under Section 15 of the Industries (Development and Regulation) Act, 1951 to investigate the company’s affairs. The Committee opined that there had been or there existed a chance of a decrease in volume of production. This aggrieved the shareholders of Minerva Mills, who filed a writ petition before the Hon’ble Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution. Among challenges to other provisions, the Petitioners challenged the constitutional validity of the Act which is the bone of contention in the present case.
At the heart of the dispute in Minerva Mills were Sections 4 and 55 of the Act. The Hon’ble Court had to decide whether Sections 4 and 55 of the Act violated the limitation laid down in Keshavananda Bharati, resulting in the violation of the basic structure of the Constitution. Section 4 of the Act amended Article 31C, and declared all laws made in pursuance of Directive Principles of State Policy, which are inconsistent with Articles 14, 19 and 31 will not be void nor can be challenged before a Court of law. Further, Section 55, introduced clauses 4 and 5 to Article 368. Clause 5 conferred upon the Parliament the power to bring in amendments that could alter or destroy the Constitution’s identity whereas clause 4 curtailed judicial review of amendments altogether.
By a majority of four judges and the lone dissent of Justice PN Bhagwati, The Hon’ble Supreme Court declared Sections 4 and 55 to be unconstitutional to the extent that they violated the basic structure doctrine. Justice Chandrachud, writing on behalf of himself and three others, has given a reasoned decision as to why the provisions failed to stand the test of constitutionality. Firstly, the Court expounded the nature of Clause 5, which it determined demolished the very basis of democracy. Further, under Article 368 only limited amending power is provided, which cannot be the touchstone to enlarge the amending power. Clause 4 deprived the Courts with the power of judicial review and hence it was deemed unconstitutional as well. Article 31C was deemed void as it violated the basic structure for exclusion of judicial review and being inconsistent with Articles 14 and 19 respectively.
The Supreme Court deserves a lot of plaudits for this judgement as it is a testament to the Apex Court upholding the sanctity of the Constitution. The facets that the Court upheld have not only been fruitful to many litigants but also for the whole country. The remedy to approach courts in case of any violation of fundamental rights still stands. All issues the Supreme Court had adjudicated upon would not have reached those conclusions if not for Minerva Mills.
Though Minerva Mills is to be celebrated for more than its contribution to constitutional jurisprudence, there is one aspect that the author does not agree with. Article 32 is for the redressal of issues based on the violation of fundamental rights. However, Article 32 does not grant the Supreme Court the unfettered right to pronounce its verdict on every matter. There are certain limitations. One is that the Court will not decide upon hypothetical questions of law, which was contended by the respondents but brushed aside by the Court. But only Justice PN Bhagwati took note of this anomaly and held that the objection should have sustained regarding Article 31C as the petitioners were not aggrieved by it.
The significant achievement of Minerva Mills is that the Hon’ble Supreme Court identified the threat to its existence and laid down two pertinent observations in unambiguous terms. Firstly, it reiterated that the judiciary is an integral and indispensable part of the basic structure doctrine. Secondly, Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy are on equal footing. By the first observation, it is clear that the Court’s jurisdiction cannot be simply curtailed to make Article 32 redundant. The second observation makes it abundantly clear that the fundamental rights cannot stand abrogated under the guise of Directive Principles of State Policy. This decision has far-reaching consequences. The Government could make laws, and under the guise of Directive Principles of State Policy, they could not be amenable to judicial review. Hence, people will have to experience the resulting implications, which would have resulted in the fundamental rights merely being written words on a paper, having no value.
Author: Sreyas T. Manoj from The National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India