As discussed in the last essay, interpreting the DPSPs as framework values within which the nature and scope of Part III rights are determined, is perhaps the best way of understanding – and intellectually grounding – the Court’s approach that Mr. Seervai finds so unpalatable. In a series of cases, from Kesavananda Bharati through Minerva Mills and beyond, the Court has called for a “harmonious construction” of Parts III and IV, and regularly cited Granville Austin to observe that Parts III and IV “are complementary and supplementary” to each other, followed by vague pronouncements that leave it entirely unclear how this harmonizing is done, and what basis it has. If we view harmonizing as the Directive Principles providing the structural foundation within which fundamental rights are understood, it is not only one way of understanding what the Courts are doing, but also – as we have seen above – grounded in both text and history.
Although we have traced this interpretive approach to N.M. Thomas, we find glimpses of it throughout the Court’s jurisprudence. In his concurring opinion in Re Kerala Education Bill, for instance, Justice Aiyer refused to find a right to State recognition in minority educational institutions under Article 30(1) as implicit in the right to establish minority institutions, on the ground that this would make Article 45 redundant. Justice Aiyer was very clear that the question was not about a conflict between Article 30(1) and Article 45, and which was subordinate to the other. Rather, the question was about the content of the Article 30(1) right, whose determination was informed by Article 45.
We can also find the argument in cases after N.M. Thomas. In Randhir Singh v. State of UP, the question was whether different pay-scales for drivers working in different departments violated Articles 14 and 16. Invoking Article 39(d) – equal pay for equal work, the Court held:
“Construing Articles 14 and 16 in the light of the Preamble and Art. 39(d) we are of the view that the principle ‘Equal pay for Equal work’ is deducible from those Article and may be properly applied to cases of unequal scales of pay based on no classification or irrational classification though these drawing the different scales of pay do identical work under the same employer.”
This is precisely the kind of reasoning we have discussed above. The Court invokes the Directive Principles to understand what equality under our Constitution truly means, in concrete circumstances; that is, in this case, it is the Part IV commitment to equal pay for equal work that informs the understanding of the Court that a distinction in pay for similar work is precisely the kind of arbitrary/irrational classification that amounts to unequal treatment under Article 14. A similar argument was echoed in Atam Prakash v. State of Haryana, where the Court referred to the Preamble and the Directive Principles to examine whether a particular classification was legitimate under Article 14.
Interestingly, the argument made by the Court in N.M. Thomas, Randhir Singh and Atam Prakash had been anticipated as far back as 1973, in the context of Article 19(1)(a). In Bennett Coleman the Court held that the government was not permitted, under 19(1)(a), to impose restrictions upon big newspapers in an attempt to equalize market conditions and facilitate the entry of new players into the marketplace of ideas, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to compete. In so doing, the Court adopted a particular individualistic, liberal theory of free speech that rendered constitutionally irrelevant the economic conditions that limited access to the existing means of effective communication of ideas in society, such as newspapers, television etc., all of which require a substantial resource base. Justice Mathew’s dissent invoked the Principles to argue against this conception, and advocate an alternative vision of free speech that refused to separate the freedom of expression from the economic and social conditions that defined and shaped it in a liberal-capitalist society. He held:
“… any theory of freedom of expression must take into account… the right of the public to education arising from the affirmative duty cast on the Government by the directive principles to educate the people, apart from the right of the community to read and be informed arising under the theory of the freedom of speech itself.”
Justice Mathew’s rejection of free speech as an individual right of non-interference, in favour of it being a social good characterized by principles of equal access, was grounded in the DPSPs, much like N.M. Thomas’ changed vision of equality. And twenty years after Bennett Coleman, in LIC v. Manubhai D. Shah, the Supreme Court, in holding that Article 19(1)(a) required a having a right to reply, even for an in-house journal, in order to ensure complete information, essentially accepted the free-speech-as-a-social-good approach. Although the LIC court did not expressly cite Part IV, the implications are obvious, when it held that fundamental rights were broadly phrased, as abstract concepts, precisely so that Courts could ground them and give them meaning in accordance the socio-economic goals found elsewhere in the Constitution (which, obviously, would be the Preamble and Part IV):
“[The framers] had themselves made provisions in the Constitution to bring about a socio-economic transformation. That being so, it is reasonable to infer that the Constitution makers employed a broad phraseology while drafting the fundamental rights…”
Similarly, in Bandhua Mukti Morcha, the Court referred to Articles 39(d) and (e), 41 and 42 to infuse substantive content into the dignitarian principle underlying Article 21’s guarantee of the right to life – and many of the substantive rights that the Court was to subsequently read into Article 21 were located within this dignitarian foundation. In Olga Tellis, used the same technique (relying upon Articles 39(a) and 41) to read in a right to livelihood under the right to life. In Nashirwar v. State of MP, the Court invoked the Directive Principles dealing with prohibition to infuse moral content into Article 19(1)(g)’s freedom of trade: the right to freedom of trade itself was held not to include activities of a res extra commercium nature such as trade in alcohol. And as recently as 2014, it invoked Articles 39(e) and (f) to hold the right to a safe and healthy environment was part of the right to life.
In sum, therefore: We have seen how the Directive Principles have structured the application of equality under 14-15-16, free expression under 19(1)(a), freedom of trade under 19(1)(g), and life under Article 21, helping the Courts to select what conceptions, our of a number of available (and conflicting) ones, all consistent with the abstract concepts of equality, speech etc., are concretely required by the Constitution.
But doesn’t this approach, it might be objected, render fundamental rights utterly subordinate to the Directive Principles? We are, after all, arguing for the Directive Principles playing a role in ascertaining the very content of fundamental rights. It is important to understand that this is not so. The Directive Principles, we have argued, inform the content of fundamental rights; they do not determine them. The fundamental rights continue to embody concepts, and concepts themselves not only have determinate meaning, but also have core, paradigm cases that any conception must respect and account for. To invoke an old chestnut: H.L.A. Hart’s famous “No vehicles in the Park” rule has its penumbra of doubt in the case of bicycles and toy trucks, where the decision might go either way without necessarily being right or wrong, but it also has its core of certainty that definitively proscribes buses and tractors. Similarly, the Directive Principles might tell us which conception of equality the Constitution subscribes to, as they did in N.M. Thomas, but they can only do so within the bounds allowed by the concept of equality.
The tortured history of Articles 31A and 31C seem to bear this out. 31A, aimed at land reform, was inserted into the Constitution following a series of Article 14 challenges to land legislation. 31A bars an Article 14 challenge to laws – inter alia – authorizing the acquisition of any estate, taking over the management of any property, and so on. Although the Amendment itself – historically – was necessitated by a particularly doctrinaire interpretation of equality by the early Court, it is also obvious that its provisions are broad enough for land legislation that might be difficult to justify on most conceptions of equality, even those shaped by the Directive Principles – hence the need for the protection of a constitutional amendment. Similarly, 31C insulated any law aimed at giving effect to anything in Part IV from a 14 or 19 challenge – clearly indicating that it is possible for Part IV-grounded laws to violate fundamental rights (hence, the need for an amendment to insulate them). This understanding, at least partially motivates the Court’s 2005 opinion in State of Gujarat v. Mirzapur Moti Kasab Jamat, another cow-slaughter case. There, the Court observed:
“A restriction placed on any Fundamental Right, aimed at securing Directive Principles will be held as reasonable and hence intra vires [as long as] it does not run in clear conflict with the fundamental right…”
In light of our discussion above, I suggest that “clear conflict” is best understood as implying the settled, indisputable central (or minimum) core of any concept (such as equality, free speech, freedom of conscience etc.) that conceptions cannot violate if they are to be conceptions of that concept in the first place. The Directive Principles are structuring values, but they themselves operate within a web of constraints determined by the very concepts (located in Part III) whose underlying structure they must provide.