The Citizenship (Amendment) Act Challenge: Three Ideas

Thus far, the constitutional debate around the Citizenship (Amendment) Act has been framed around the following arguments: (a) does the grant of immunity and citizenship to a select group of migrants violate the principle of “reasonable classification” under Article 14, by virtue of the individuals and groups it excludes?; (b) does the selection of groups lack any “determining principle”, and is therefore unconstitutionally arbitrary?; and (c) by privileging religious persecution over other forms of persecution in claims to citizenship, does the CAA violate the basic feature of “secularism”?

In this post, I attempt to move beyond these basic arguments which have – by now – run their course in the public sphere. Beyond reasonable classification, arbitrariness, and secularism, I will suggest that there are deeper reasons to hold the CAA unconstitutional. As it will become clear, a closer engagement with these reasons will require us to rethink some of our long-held assumptions about Indian constitutional law. As I shall argue, however, these are not radical or off the wall arguments, but rather, implicit within constitutional practice. I shall argue, first, that the principle of equality under the Indian Constitution has moved beyond the classification and arbitrariness tests (as I have argued before); secondly, that – contrary to a widespread assumption in our legal culture – citizenship laws deserve greater judicial scrutiny instead of judicial deference; and thirdly, that notwithstanding the language of Article 11 of the Constitution, there exist implied limitations upon Parliament’s power to confer or withdraw citizenship – limitations that flow from the existence of equally important and fundamental constitutional principles. 

The Evolving Idea of Equality

In the 1950s, heavily influenced by American jurisprudence, the Indian Supreme Court adopted the “classification test” for determining violations of the guarantee of equal treatment under Article 14. The “classification test”, as everyone knows, required that in order for a law to pass Article 14 scrutiny, there must exist (a) an intelligible differentia between the individuals or groups that are subjected to differential treatment, and (b) a rational nexus between that differentia and the State’s purpose in framing the law. Right from the beginning, however, there was a dissenting tradition at the Supreme Court that recognised this approach to be excessively formalistic and constrained. In Anwar Ali Sarkar, for example, Vivian Bose J. asked what “substantially equal treatment” might mean in “the democracy of the kind we have proclaimed ourselves to be.” As Bose J. understood at the time, equality could not be divorced from more fundamental ideas about democracy and republicanism.

In the coming years, the Supreme Court made various attempts to break out of the shackles of the classification framework. For example, it evolved the “arbitrariness” standard – which is, only now, being given flesh and bones, in some of the recent judgments of Nariman J. It also held that the State “purpose” would have to be “legitimate” – i.e., it added a third, more substantive, prong to the classification test. The real breakthrough came, however, with the 2018 judgments in Navtej Johar and Joseph Shine. In reading down Section 377 and 499 of the Indian Penal Code, Constitution Benches of the Supreme Court advanced a richer and more substantive vision of equality, that was also in line with global best practices. In short, the Supreme Court shifted the focus from “reasonable classification” to the idea of disadvantage. True equality – as we can intuitively sense – is about identifying disadvantage, about identifying the axes of diadvantage, and then working to remedy them. 

To recognise and identify disadvantage, however, the law requires proxies. It is here that the observations of Indu Malhotra J., for example – as highlighted in a previous post – become important. As a shorthand for identifying disadvantage, constitutional courts all over the world have asked whether legislation picks out people on the bases of “personal characteristics” that they (a) have no control over, (b) are powerless to change, or can only change at great personal cost. Take, for example, the idea of “race”: a person does not choose the race into which they are born, and cannot – obviously – change their race in any meaningful way. Laws that pick out people on the bases of race for differential treatment, therefore, presumptively violate the principle of equality (unless, of course, they are designed to remedy racial disadvantage, through affirmative action programmes, for example). 

It is this richer and more substantive vision of equality and equal treatment that demonstrates the unconstitutionality of the CAA in starkest terms. Each of the three “conditions” under the CAA – country of origin, religion, and date of entry into India – are effectively beyond the control of the individuals the law is targeted at. A person cannot choose which country they were born in, which religious community they were born into, and when persecution forced them to flee into India. But the CAA takes the category of migrants living in India and divides them precisely on these three bases. This is why it goes against the basic tenets of equality. 

Citizenship Laws and Standards of Review 

Another common argument that is invoked by the defenders of the CAA is that issues of citizenship and migration are firmly within the domain of sovereign State powers, and the scope of judicial intervention is highly limited. Courts must – or so the argument goes – defer to the State’s decision regarding who will be granted citizenship, and how. This argument has been repeated so often over the years, and so frequently, that it has by now acquired the immovable weight of a mountain. But the most cursory examination will reveal, however, that this mountain is made of straw. 

Let’s go back to the basics. What was the original justification of judicial review in a democratic society? What justified an unelected Court striking down laws passed by democratically-elected legislatures? The answer, of course, was that the primary role of the Court was that of a counter-majoritarian institution. It existed to check the excesses of majoritarianism, on the understanding that true democracy meant something more than brute majority rule. For this reason, in its famous Carolene Products footnote, the US Supreme Court noted that the role of the Court was particularly important in cases involving “discrete and insular minorities.” Why? Because it were these minorities that faced the greatest difficulties in articulating their interests through the normal channels of (majoritarian) democratic governance. The task of the Court, essentially, was to come to the rescue of those whom the political process – formally or effectively – excluded from equal participation. Thus, for instance, if there is a country where same-sex relations are viewed with opprobrium by a large segment of the population – to the extent that the LGBTQ+ community is permanently excluded from access to political power, as nobody else will ally with them – the Court is justified in subjecting laws targeting that community to stringent scrutiny. 

It should be obvious that migrants – or refugees, as the case may be – fall squarely within this category. As they cannot vote, they are formally excluded from participation in the political process. More than any other vulnerable or marginalised group in the country, they have no say in the laws and policies that will impact them. For this reason, laws that affect citizenship status in the manner that the CAA does, must be subjected to the highest threshold of judicial scrutiny, rather than the lowest. 

Harmonising Constitutional Principles: Sovereign Powers and Conditions of Entry

In a constitutional democracy, no power is absolute. Constitutional authorities are established by – and owe their existence to – the Constitution, and the powers they exercise flow from that same Constitution. In some cases, these powers are limited in express terms. For example, Article 13 of the Constitution expressly limits Parliament’s power of law-making by making it subject to the fundamental rights chapter. 

Article 11 of the Constitution – that deals with citizenship – contains no such express limitation. It gives to Parliament the right to “regulate citizenship by law”, and allows Parliament to make “any” provision with respect to acquisition and termination of citizenship, and “all other matters” relating to citizenship. Commentators have pointed to the width of these words to argue that in matters of citizenship, Parliament has virtually unlimited power (apart from the usual touchstone of the fundamental rights chapter).

What this argument ignores, however, is that express limitations are not the only manner in which constitutional authorities are constrained. As noted in Kesavananda Bharati, there also exist implied limitations that flow from the structure of the Constitution. When – and how – do we discern implied limitations? For the purposes of this post, a short answer will suffice: power under the Constitution to do “x” is limited at the point at which doing “x” will frustrate or destroy another, equally important constitutional principle. This principle was most recently reiterated by the UK Supreme Court in Miller v The Prime Minister, where the British Prime Minister’s power to “prorogue” Parliament was held to be limited by the constitutional principle of representative democracy, according to which it was Parliament’s function to scrutinise and debate important legislation. It was found that the Prime Minister’s prorogation – just before the deadline for Brexit – had the effect of denying Parliament an adequate opportunity to debate the proposed EU Withdrawal Bill, and was therefore unconstitutional. 

What is the implied limitation in the present case? The answer is the constitutional principle of secularism. Secularism – as Kesavananda Bharati held – is a basic feature of the Indian Constitution (independent of its subsequent insertion into the Preamble during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency). The Indian Constitution commits us to being a secular polity. The key issue, then, is that can the conditions of entry into the polity (determined by citizenship law) be such that they frustrate the character of the polity itself. The answer, obviously, is no. In other words, therefore, there is an implied limitation upon the power under Article 11 to grant or withdraw citizenship, that does not permit Parliament to pass any such law that would negate the secular character of the polity – in this case, through the backdoor, by creating conditions of entry where religious claims become determinants of citizenship. To put it in a single sentence: the principle of secularism acts as an implied limitation upon Parliament’s power to legislate on citizenship. Parliament, therefore, has all powers to prescribe conditions of citizenship except and insofar as such conditions frustrate the Constitutional commitment towards preserving a secular polity. 


Sterile debates over “reasonable classification”, “rational nexus”, and “sovereign powers” can only take us so far. More than that, they serve as conceptual prisons that stop us from thinking more deeply about the idea of equality, the link between equality and democracy, and what the Constitution really asks of us. In recent years, Indian constitutional jurisprudence has begun to liberate itself from that conceptual prison, and has articulated a richer vision of equality and democracy. The CAA challenge now gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to further develop – and evolve – that jurisprudence.

[Disclaimer: the author is involved in two of the petitions challenging the constitutionality of the CAA.]

Guest Post: The 103rd Amendment and a New Typology of the Basic Structure

(This is a guest post by Nivedhitha K.).

The 103rd Constitutional amendment enables 10% reservation for the ‘economically weak’ of the forward caste. Prior to the amendment, the Indian Constitution only provided reservation for the ‘backward class’, where the determination of backward class was based on ‘caste’. Therefore, until recently, reservation has always been ‘caste-based’.  The 103rd amendment revamps the structure of the equality code by enabling reservation solely based on ‘economic capacity’.

A Constitutional amendment can be struck down only if the basic structure of the Indian Constitution- as propounded in the case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala – is ‘damaged’. In this essay, I will analyse a series of cases that deal with the basic structure doctrine, and develop a working test to challenge Constitutional amendments. The 103rd Constitutional amendment will then be tested upon the evolved working test.

Concepts, Facets, and Conceptions

An analysis of a series of cases involving the basic structure doctrine, elucidates that the basic structure operates at three levels of abstraction: concept, facet, and conception. Consider the 99th Constitutional amendment, which substituted the NJAC in place of the collegium for the appointment of judges, and was challenged in the NJAC case. The five-judge bench struck down the amendment on the ground that ‘primacy of the judiciary’ in appointment of judges is an integral part of ‘independence of the judiciary’, which – in turn – is an integral part of the basic feature of democracy. Therefore a question of whether the ‘independence of the judiciary’ is damaged, was answered with reference to ‘primacy of the judiciary’. A similar three-level abstraction was made in the case of PUCL as well. Though the case did not involve the challenge of a Constitutional amendment, the observations in the case would be useful for our analysis.  In the PUCL case, provisions of the Election Rules, 1961 that allowed a person who exercised NOTA to be identified, wre challenged on the ground of violation of secrecy of ballots.  The bench while holding that the NOTA button is to be set up in the EVM, observed that secrecy of ballots was ‘fundamental’ to a free and fair election, which in turn is a basic feature of the Indian Constitution.

Therefore, three levels of abstraction could be identified through the PUCL case and the NJAC case. In the NJAC case, the abstraction is in the form of democracy –> independence of the judiciary –> primacy of the judiciary in judicial appointments. In the PUCL case, the abstraction is in the form of democracy –> free and fair elections –> secrecy of ballot. All the three levels of abstraction are a part of the basic structure. Through the remaining part of the essay, the three levels of abstraction will be termed as concept (‘democracy’), facet (‘independence of the judiciary’ and ‘free and fair elections’), and conception (‘primacy of the judiciary’ and ‘secrecy of ballots’). 

A concept is a basic principle that governs the Constitution such as democracy, rule of law, secularism, federalism, and equality. They are broad principles that are usually identified with reference to preamble of the Indian Constitution. A facet is a particular aspect of the concept, which is independent of the structure of the Constitution. It is a means to the end of the ‘concept’, without which the concept would be nugatory. On the other hand, a conception is a subset of the facet, and a specific understanding of the facet that is Constitution-specific. A conception could exist in different forms, of which, a few might form a part of the basic structure and few might not. For instance, in the case of RC Poudyal, an amendment was challenged on the ground of violation of the one person- one vote conception. The court observed that alteration of the one person- one vote conception would not damage the basic feature of democracy since different conceptions of democracy could exist. However, certain conceptions might be fundamental to the concept within the constitutional framework, an alteration of which will damage the concept (which is a basic feature). This position was elucidated in the PUCL case, wherein it was observed that the conception of ‘secrecy of votes’ is fundamental in a ‘constituency-based election’, and not in a ‘proportional representation system’. In Poudyal, the conception was not a basic feature, while in PUCL the conception was a basic feature. Therefore, conceptions may or may not be fundamental to the concept. If it is the former- it is a basic feature, else it is not.

Crucially, how are facets and conceptions that are basic features identified? Though all basic features are identified through judicial recognition, the degree of intervention (for identification) differs. Facets can be identified through (what I define as) the “manifestation and interpretation” approach, and the conceptions by the “interpretation approach” alone. According to the manifestation approach, the facet is ‘per se’ a clear understanding of the concept. For instance, the identification of free and fair election as an integral part of democracy, did not involve a lot of jurisprudential debate. However, certain facets are either in their nascent stage of jurisprudential development, or are subject to conflicting views. For instance, the jurisprudence surrounding equality were undergoing evolution, until MN Thomas, where both formal and substantive equality were recognised as facets of equality. In such cases, it would not be appropriate to identify facets (that are basic features) through the manifestation approach; instead the interpretation approach is to be used.  Through the interpretation approach, a two prong test is to be undertaken. Firstly, judicial pronouncements should have held that they are facets of the concept, and secondly, those facets should have been recognised as basic features, expressly or through necessary implication.

On the other hand, a conception is identified solely through judicial interpretation, because these are Constitution specific. In order to determine as to whether a conception is a basic feature, an in-depth analysis is to be undertaken. The judiciary would decide with regard to the structure of the Constitution, provisions and the silences of the Constitution. Let me explain this through an example. Federalism is a basic feature of the Constitution; the autonomy – in principle – of the constituent units is a facet of federalism (‘per se’ aspect of federalism). Conceptions of federalism are numerous. One conception is that the residuary power is to belong to the centre, while another conception is that it shall belong to the state; the centre could hold consultations with the constituent units (state), before implementing an international obligation, or might not hold consultations. Each of these conceptions are Constitution-specific. In India, the conception of the centre holding the residuary power is a part of the concept of Indian federalism, which might not be for the US. Similarly, consultations with the state on state subjects, that the international obligation covers, maybe a conception that is integral in Australia, but not in India. Therefore, unlike identification of facets, a Constitution-specific approach will have to be undertaken to identify the conceptions. As stated above, a conception may or may not be a basic feature. A conception (after identification through a Constitution-specific approach) will be a basic feature, only if it is integral to the functioning of the facet. In order to identify as to whether it is integral to a facet, judicial pronouncements and structure of the Constitution shall be used as an aid. So, if conceptions violate the facet, they will be unconstitutional. If they are not violative of the facet, they might or might not be basic features- depending on how integral they are to the facet.

Judicial pronouncements to identify a Basic Feature

In order to identify conceptions and facets that are basic features through judicial pronouncements, it is first to be established that judicial pronouncements could be used to identify basic features. Judicial pronouncements have been used to identify basic features, and to test the violation of basic structure in the past. Y V Chandrachud J, in the election case, addressed the question of whether excluding the election of the prime minister and the speaker from the ambit of judicial review would violate the basic feature of equality. To conclude that it violated the basic structure, he tested the provision on the intelligible differentia classification test propounded in Anwar Ali Sarkar. This approach was followed in I. R Coelho as well. Y K Sabharwal CJ while delivering the decision observed, “The Constitution is a living document. The constitutional provisions have to be construed having regard to the march of time and the development of law. It is, therefore, necessary that while construing the doctrine of basic structure due regard be had to various decisions which led to expansion and development of law” (paragraph 42). He analysed the transformation undergone by Article 21 from AK Gopalan to Maneka Gandhi, and held that broad interpretations must be used to identify any abridgment of the basic structure.

Finally, in the NJAC case, a submission was made that a basic feature could be identified only through plain reading of the provisions of the Constitution. Khehar CJ disagreed with the submission and observed that the basic feature is to be identified by reading original plain provisions and the interpretation placed on it by the courts. He observed, “In the above view of matter, it would neither be legal nor just to persist on an understanding of the provision(s) concerned merely on the plain reading thereof as was suggested on behalf of the respondents. Even on a plain reading of Article 141, we are obligated to read the provisions of the Constitution in the manner they have been interpreted by this court” (paragraph 299). The second judges and the third judges’ case had read ‘consultation’ with the judiciary in appointment of judges to mean ‘concurrence’. This conception – i.e., that judicial independence required judicial primacy in appointments – that was established through interpretation was regarded as a part of the basic structure in the NJAC judgment.

Facets of Equality are Basic Features

Having established that judicial interpretations could be used to determine whether a facet or a conception is a basic feature, I will now establish that egalitarian equality and formal equality are facets of equality, and are basic features of the Constitution. Before addressing this question, a preliminary question of whether fundamental rights can be a part of the basic structure is to be answered. The general perception is that Kesavananda Bharati held fundamental rights to not be a part of the basic structure. However, in IR Coelho, Khanna J’s judgment in Kesavananda Bharati was construed to hold that fundamental rights are a part of the basic structure, and it was the right to property that was held not to be a basic feature. Hence the majority in the Kesavananda Bharati case – as interpreted in Coelho – did regard fundamental rights as a part of the basic structure.

Equality has been recognised as a basic feature in quite a few cases. In Ashoka Kumar Thakur, Balakrishnan CJ observed, ‘the principle of equality cannot be completely taken away so as to leave the citizens in this country in a state of lawlessness’ (paragraph 119). Similarly, in the case of M. Nagaraj, it was held that ‘equality is the essence of democracy and, accordingly a basic structure of the Constitution’ (Paragraph 27). Likewise, a portion of Article 329A was struck down for its violation of the basic feature of equality in the election case by Y V Chandrachud J. Therefore, equality (which is a concept) is a part of the basic structure.

I now aim at establishing that substantive equality and formal equality are facets of the concept of equality, and are basic features of the Constitution. A facet, as explained above, is a means to the end of concept, which is Constitution independent. In the case of MN Thomas, substantive equality and formal equality were held to be facets of equality, after a decade of jurisprudential arguments surrounding the subject. But the facets were not ‘clear manifestations’ of equality, which is clear from the fact that it was evolved after a dozen cases had debated on the issue. Therefore, in order to establish that the facets are basic features, the interpretation approach is to be used. The two-pronged test is applied. Firstly, judicial interpretation must have regarded equality and substantive equality as facets of equality. This test is fulfilled, with reference to MN Thomas. The second test is that the facets should have been held to be a basic feature, expressly or through necessary implication. The essence test, and the judgment in Nagaraj and Indra Sawhney will be used to identify that facets of substantive and formal equality are a part of the basic structure by necessary implication.

The ‘essence test’ was propounded in IR Coelho and accepted in NJAC. It was observed in IR Coelho, “It cannot be held that the essence of the principle behind Article 14 is not a part of the basic structure. In fact, the essence or principle of the right or nature of violation is more important than the equality in the abstract or formal sense” (Paragraph 109).  The essence of equality as provided in the Constitution is its ability to provide for both substantive and formal equality. In Nagaraj, a question arose as to whether providing for consequential seniority in reservations pertaining promotions would violate the basic structure. The amendment was tested on whether Art 16(1) was violated. The bench held that it cannot be said that the insertion of the concept of ‘consequential seniority’ abrogated the structure of Art 16(1). Further, in the case of Indra Sawhney (2000), it was held that if the creamy layer is not excluded from the ambit of reservation, then it would amount to treating unequal’s equally, violating Art 14 and 16(1) – the basic features of the Constitution (paragraph 65 and 27).  Though it was not expressly observed that Art 16(1) which provides for substantive equality is a basic feature of the Constitution, the same could be construed through necessary implication because the amendments were tested on Art 16(1) for violation of the basic structure doctrine. Formal equality has been expressly recognised as a basic feature in Indra Sawhney as it was held that non exclusion of the creamy layer would amount to treating unequals equally(which is a principle guiding formal equality).

Therefore, through the above observations, it is proved that substantive and formal equality are facets of equality, and are basic features of the Constitution.  

The Alteration Test

It has been argued by Gautam Bhatia, that only if the entire equality code is abrogated would there be a violation of the basic structure doctrine, and the parliament is qualified to prescribe different forms of equality. Bhatia’s argument is based on the Nagaraj judgment, wherein the constitutional validity of Art 16(4A) and Art 16(4 B) was in question. In Nagaraj, the revamp of the equality code was upheld because it was regarded that none of the conceptions that were basic features were altered. It was observed that the substitution of consequential seniority in place of the catch up rule was not violative of the basic feature of equality, because the catch up rule was not a constitutional requirement, but was judicially evolved through ‘service jurisprudence’. However, other judicially evolved conceptions such as the 50% ceiling limit, the concept of creamy layer, compelling reason of backwardness, inadequacy of representation, and overall administrative efficiency were regarded as constitutional requirements. Therefore, Nagaraj was an attestation that alteration of a conception that is a basic feature would violate the basic structure of the constitution- it was just that none of the conceptions that were altered in Nagaraj were regarded as basic features. 

It may also be argued that Balakrishnan CJ in Ashok Kumar Thakur observed, “the principle of equality cannot be completely taken away so as to leave the citizens in this country in a state of lawlessness. But the facets of the principle of equality could always be altered especially to carry out the directive principles of state policies” (Paragraph 119). This objection would not hold good for two reasons. Firstly, in the instant case, the facet of equality- as in this case substantive equality- itself is a basic feature. Secondly, the observation was made on the premise that ‘abrogation’ of the basic structure and not ‘alteration’ is the test to determine the violation of the basic structure.

However, Madan Lokur J, in the NJAC judgment, correctly clarified that the Kesavananda Bharati case did not propound the abrogation test, but rather propounded the ‘alteration test’. He observed, “the Bench that decided Kesavananda Bharati were of the opinion that it is enough to declare a constitutional amendment as violating the basic structure if it alters the basic structure. Undoubtedly, some of the learned judges, have used very strong words in the course of their judgment, etc. But when it came to stating what is the law actually laid down, the majority decided that “Article 368 does not enable Parliament to alter the basic structure or framework of the Constitution” (Paragraph 797). The reading down of the NJAC amendment was primarily because of the substitution of alteration test in place of the abrogation test.

Consolidating my arguments above, basic structure exists in three levels of abstraction – concept, facet, and conception. A facet is either identified through the manifestation approach or the interpretation approach. If the facet cannot be identified manifestly, because the jurisprudence surrounding it is subject to differing views, then the interpretation approach is to be used. Through the interpretation approach, it is not sufficient if it is proved that they are facets of the concept, but it must also be proved that the facets are basic features. Using this approach, it was established that both formal and substantive equality are facets of equality, and are basic features. I then explained the possibility (and necessity) of identifying basic features through principles established by judicial interpretations; this argument helped in establishing that the facet of substantive equality is a basic feature. The golden triangle of Articles’ 14, 19 and 21, which invokes the test of arbitrariness, has also received the stamp of a basic feature in the cases of M. Nagaraj and Coelho. In Nagaraj, it was held that the test of ‘reasonableness’ is a basic feature. Therefore, the 103rd constitutional amendment would now be tested for violation of the basic feature of ‘reasonableness’ and ‘formal and substantive equality’.

The test of arbitrariness and Formal Equality

Three impacts arise on the inclusion of Articles’ 15(6) and 16(6), which strike at arbitrariness and substantive equality. Firstly, through the amendment, ‘economically weaker section’ of the forward castes and the members of the backward class are treated at par with each other by providing them with reservation. A person belonging to the backward class under Article 15(4) is disadvantaged on three parameters- social, economic and educational. On the other hand, the class introduced under Article 15(6) would only be disadvantaged economically.

Secondly, explanation to Article 15(6) states that the ‘economically weaker section’ shall be notified by virtue of ‘family income’. If a threshold limit is prescribed to determine the family income, then a person who falls below the poverty line and a person who falls below the prescribed threshold but above the poverty line would be treated alike.

Thirdly, Article 16(6) provides for reservation in jobs for the economically weaker section without any requirement of proving the ‘adequacy’ of representation, while on the other hand Article 16(4) states that a person belonging to backward class, to be eligible for reservation, has to prove that his class is not adequately represented. Therefore, for a person to be eligible for reservation under Art 16(4), he will have an extra obstacle to surpass, unlike the reservation provided under Art 16(6).

Any positive steps that are taken to provide for egalitarian equality must be guided by the principle underlying formal equality- which is to treat equals equally, and unequal’s unequally. Through the first two effects, two unequally placed classes are treated equally, violating the basic structure of formal equality. All the three effects would fail the test of arbitrariness that runs through the golden triangle as well.

Violation of Substantive Equality

My next argument against the constitutionality of the 103rd amendment is that it violates the basic feature of substantive equality. Let us now go back to the three levels of abstraction of basic structure- concept, facet and conception. Art 16(4) and 15(4), which permit reservation in educational institutions and jobs on the basis of caste are conceptions of substantive equality since it is one of the forms of achieving substantive equality under the Indian Constitution. Without going into the question of whether the conception of ‘reservation solely on the basis of caste’ is a basic feature, we will analyse as to whether reservation solely based on economic criteria (which is a conception of equality (and substantive equality)), is a basic feature. Recall the first section, wherein I explained that certain conceptions are basic features and a few are not.  To identify if they are basic features, judicial pronouncements shall be taken into consideration. Reference is made to the nine-judge bench decision in Indra Sawhney for this purpose. The bench made two observations on using economic determinants for the purpose of reservation. Firstly, economic criteria cannot be solely used to determine ‘backward classes’ under Art 16(4). Secondly, reservation solely based on economic criteria will not be permitted under Art 16(1). The first observation would not be of support to our case since the observation was made with regard to a specific class- the ‘backward class’- which cannot be imported to a different class that has been created (the economically weak class). However, the second observation would support our case. The observation surely restricts executive and legislative actions to provide reservation purely based on economic criteria. But my contention is that the conception of ‘prohibiting reservation solely on economic criteria’ is a basic feature. This conclusion is arrived at on basis of the interpretation approach with the aid of MN Thomas.

The Supreme Court in MN Thomas held that Art 16(4) is not an exception to Art 16(1), but is one of the methods for achieving equality under Art 16(1). Art 16(1) prescribes substantive equality, wherein positive actions are to be taken to establish factual equality. Therefore, 16(1) prescribes the facet of equality – substantive equality, and Article(s) 16(4) and (the impugned) 16 (6) are conceptions of substantive equality. Conception of substantive equality can only exist to the extent of which is permissible under Art 16(1) (the facet) since Art 16(1) is an all-encompassing provision- with regard to reservation in jobs. Any observation on Art 16(1), would hence be applicable to the different conceptions of reservation. Therefore, if reservation based on economic capacity cannot be brought under Art 16(1), it cannot be included through 16(6).A conception that alters the facet (substantive equality) which is basic feature, violates the basic structure doctrine. Therefore, by reading Indra Sawhney and MN Thomas together, a conception that reservation shall not be solely based on economic criteria is established. Since the 103rd amendment alters this conception and it is to be struck down.

Hence, the 103rd amendment is unconstitutional, for it alters the facets of formal equality and substantive equality, and violates the test of arbitrariness.

Guest Post: The Case against the 103rd Amendment

(This is a guest post by Malavika Prasad. A prior version appeared here.)

The 103rd Constitutional Amendment permits the State to:

  1. make special provisions (Article 15(6)),
  2. make special provisions, including reservations in admissions to educational institutions, in addition to the existing reservations to the extent of 10%, and
  3. make provision for reservations in appointments or posts, in addition to the existing reservations to the extent of 10% for the advancement of “any economically weaker sections of citizens other than the classes mentioned” in Articles 15(4) and (5) and Article 16(4).

In this piece, I respond to Gautam Bhatia and Anup Surendranath, and make the basic structure argument against the 10% reservation for this class of beneficiaries. I do not present any analysis on the constitutionality of other “special provisions” such as scholarships, fee waivers, etc.


Reservations are meant to ensure that the ideal of “equal opportunity” is not a mirage for persons subordinated by social structures such as caste, gender, race, etc. This is why Article 16(4) is considered to be an emphatic restatement of Article 16(1)’s principle of equality of opportunity (see NM Thomas, Indira Sawhney and this paper examining the relationship between the two articles). Prior to the 103rd Amendment, in an ideal India in which quality education is available in public schools, a beneficiary of reservation under Articles 15(4) and (5) and Article 16(4) (let’s call them “protected groups”), from the parent’s generation ought to attain upward mobility of the degree and kind that enables their children or grandchildren to compete for the unreserved, open seats. So long as there is a steady stream of first generation learners from protected groups attending school each year with the benefit of reservation, the numbers of second and later generation learners from protected groups in the total pool of students (comprising reserved and unreserved seats) ought to grow. Growing numbers of later generation learners from these protected groups, in even unreserved seats, would be testimony to the success of a reservation program: the parental generation, being beneficiaries of reservation, gained a boost that enabled the later generations compete without the need for a similar boost. In other words, the benefit of reservation to earlier generation learners enables later generations of learners to work their way up, in educational institutions and the workforce, and out of the conditions of backwardness.

This logic is, of course, an oversimplification resorted to here only for the purpose of the argument. In reality, the conditions of backwardness that characterize OBCs are qualitatively different than those for SCs/STs. The key difference between the two is of social stigma: persons from SC communities, for instance, regardless of their attainments in education and employment, continue to face the stigma of untouchability by other members of society, a reality steadfastly recognised by the Supreme Court in 1992 Indira Sawhney, albeit with a recent and problematic departure in Jarnail Singh. A study of the castes and tribal groups classified as SC/ST, and the determinants for doing so is available in Chapter 5 of Marc Galanter’s Competing Inequalities.

The Rights of Later-Generation SC/ST/OBC Learners

After Articles 15(6) and 16(6), the number of second and later generation learners from protected groups who take up unreserved seats might diminish, notwithstanding the growing numbers of them who are capable of competing in the open channel. This would not have happened but for the Amendment, because the new set of beneficiaries under Articles 15(6) and 16(6) are to be “other” than those from the protected groups contemplated in Article 15(4) and (5) and 16(4). In other words, the new class of beneficiaries is defined in opposition to the old classes of beneficiaries. So when the State sets about following the Amendment’s instructions to name the new class of beneficiaries, it must first analyse what counts as “economic disadvantage” and then produce “indicators”. Then, it must test which persons qualify against these indicators of economic disadvantage. In doing so, the State must consider only persons who are not from the protected groups of SCs/STs or OBCs. Thus, to the extent of 10%, educationally well-to-do persons can be beneficiaries of reservations in educational institutions under Article 15(6). Likewise, classes of citizens who are adequately represented in the State services can be beneficiaries of reservations in the State services under Article 16(6). The Amendment thus cements the claim of persons from upper castes who are possibly educationally well-to-do and adequately represented in State services, on 10% of seats or posts.  

Furthermore, the new class of beneficiaries is left to the State to notify from time to time, “on the basis of family income and other indicators of economic disadvantage.” What might count as “indicators of economic disadvantage” is unclear. Since “indicators of economic disadvantage” are to be understood in conjunction with “family income”, presumably, the indicators of disadvantage will consider disadvantage that afflicts families, and thus members of families i.e. individuals. Thus, the Amendment will cement the claim of persons from educationally well-to-do and otherwise well-represented upper-castes, based solely on characteristics that are individual to them.

This damages the basic structure of the Constitution of India. To be clear, the argument is not that the Amendment excludes second and later generation learners of SC/ST/OBCs capable of accessing unreserved seats, from accessing 10% unreserved seats. This by itself is not a problem for the basic structure; it is thus no response to argue that the SC/ST/OBCs already have 50% reserved seats and thus cannot remedy the loss of potential access to unreserved seats. The argument is that the exclusion of these later generation learners, due to an a priori reservation of 10% seats for persons from the upper-castes, is a violation of the basic structure doctrine.

The Logic of Group Representation

This argument hinges on the premise that reservations, as a special provision are meant to achieve representation of communities so far either unrepresented or inadequately represented in the State. That reservations are meant to guarantee opportunity for representation was the premise of even the debates in the Constituent Assembly on Article 16 (Draft Article 10) for instance here, here, here, here and here.

If we can agree that reservations are meant to remedy inadequate representation, then I make two claims:

First: reservations in particular, unlike other special provisions, are only a fruitful remedy to persons subordinated by a structural barrier such as caste, race and gender. This follows from the purpose of reservations being to enhance the representation of those groups that are inadequately represented. Inadequate representation of certain groups is a consequence of members from those groups being held back, throughout their lives, from accessing opportunities on par with the rest of society, by other members of society. For instance, gatekeepers to social spaces such as schools, workplaces, shops etc. continue to practice untouchability, or create other onerous entry barriers for persons from SC/STs. Such continual treatment as “lesser” than others could also psychological harms and intergenerational trauma in persons from SC/STs. One’s birth into castes that are SC/ST then becomes the cause for further and cumulative disadvantage that is not only social and educational but also economic. Contrast this with persons from upper-castes who are setback by “economic disadvantage”. Such disadvantage is not caused by being systematically treated discriminatorily by other members of society. Even the framers of the 1st Constitutional Amendment which introduced Article 15(4) were conscious of the nature of economic disadvantage, as Galanter notes:

In spite of [Prime Minister Nehru’s] reluctance to talk about caste, it is clear that what was intended were not measures to erase all inequalities, but specifically those which were associated with traditional social structure. “[W]e want to put an end to . . . all those infinite divisions that have grown up in our social life . . . we may call them by any name you like, the caste system or religious divisions, etc. There are of course economic divisions but we realize them and we try to deal with them. . . . But in the structure that has grown up . . . with its vast number of fissures or divisions.”

Galanter also notes that Nehru was unwilling to accept any of KT Shah’s amendments that sought to remedy only “economic backwardness” of individuals, as opposed to social and educational backwardness of “classes”:

He then observed: “But if I added ‘economically’ I would at the same time not make it a kind of cumulative thing but would say that a person who is lacking in any of these things should be helped. ‘Socially’ is a much wider word including many things and certainly including economically” (id., 9830).

Since “economic disadvantage” as contemplated in the 103rd Amendment is unlike the structural disadvantage of caste, in that it varies from individual to individual and does not result from membership in a subordinated group, there is nothing to be gained from granting reservations to persons suffering economic disadvantage. This is because the barriers facing upper-caste persons with economic disadvantage are not barriers of representation. One might respond that reservations nonetheless are sought by groups that do not seek to be better represented, because they are an immediate and tangible benefit unlike other special provisions. While that may be true of the demand for reservation by upper-castes, it is not constitutional to accede to such a demand – which is the substance of my next claim.

Equality and the Basic Structure


Second, if reservations are to remedy the effects of caste-subordination by providing representation, then enhancing and cementing the representation of upper-castes damages democracy, which is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution of India.  This aphorism is oft-invoked in cases concerned with questions of what comprises a representative democracy (“free and fair elections”, “judicial review of governor’s powers”) and how a representative democracy can be realized (mechanisms like “one-person-one-vote”, or “secret ballot”). For instance, Justices Khanna and Mathew held, in Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain, that the constitutional amendment immunizing the election of the Prime Minister and Speaker from judicial challenge damages the principle of “free and fair elections”, a central principle of democracy. RC Poudyal v. Union held that a marginal distortion of the “one-person-one-vote” principle does not damage representative democracy. Kuldip Nayyar held that doing away with the requirement of domicile in the State of candidacy and secret ballot in Rajya Sabha elections would not damage representative democracy. It is the what – the concept in Bhatia’s and originally Dworkin’s words – and not the how – the “conception” – that courts recognise as part of the basic structure. In all these cases, Courts appear to repeatedly uphold elements of the structure and form of democratic government as part of the basic structure.

The form and structure of democratic government cannot be an end in itself, unless all citizens are a priori free and equal to each other. Indian society however possesses deep-seated inequality perpetuated by structures such as caste, and is thus fundamentally undemocratic. Democratic government was chosen as the means to achieve substantive democracy. Dr. Ambedkar reckoned with this reality as he defended the choice to place the working of the administrative services in the Constitution:

While everybody recognizes the necessity of the diffusion of Constitutional morality for the peaceful working of a democratic Constitution, there are two things interconnected with it which are not, unfortunately, generally recognized. One is that the form of administration has a close connection with the form of the Constitution. The form of the administration must be appropriate to and in the same sense as the form of the Constitution. The other is that it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing its form by merely changing the form of the administration and to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution. It follows that it is only where people are saturated with Constitutional morality such as the one described by Grote the historian that one can take the risk of omitting from the Constitution details of administration and leaving it for the Legislature to prescribe them. The question is, can we presume such a diffusion of Constitutional morality? Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.


If elements of the structure of democratic government (such as “free and fair elections”) are part of the basic structure of the Constitution, then the ends sought to be realized through the means of democratic government must also be part of the basic structure. In other words, the why of democracy must be equally central to the basic structure of the Indian Constitution as the how and the what of democracy.

The why of our democracy, as Ambedkar stated, is to realize equality of all persons, despite our deep social stratifications. For substantive democracy, remedying subordination by virtue of caste-membership is indispensable. The 10% reservation for upper-castes undoes this remedy, by cementing the representation of upper-caste persons based on individual criteria such as economic disadvantage. In other words, the 103rd Amendment cements the power of already well-represented groups to the detriment of protected groups. This is a fundamentally undemocratic outcome, taking us back to the status quo in 1950 which we sought to consciously progress from in promulgating the Constitution of India. Thus, the 10% reservation consciously damages substantive democracy which is a core aspect and basic feature of the Constitution of India.


In lieu of a conclusion, it bears mentioning that for my argument, it is irrelevant whether the 10% quota is provided over and above the 50% reservation, or within the 50% reservation such that SC/ST/OBCs are entitled only to 40%. Likewise, nothing turns on breaching the 50% rule either – which can easily be breached by a constitutional amendment so long as special provisions are seen as an emphatic restatement of the principle of equal opportunity. Instead, my argument is merely that cementing the representation of persons from upper-castes damages substantive democracy – upper castes being adequately represented in all social spaces, educational institutions, and in the services of the State. The remedy for upper-caste individuals set back by economic disadvantage lies elsewhere, but not in reservations.

Is the 103rd Amendment Unconstitutional?

Yesterday, the President assented to the Constitution (One Hundred and Third Amendment) Act, which introduces reservations based on economic criteria, into the Constitution. The swift passage of this amendment through both houses of Parliament (from start to finish, it took 48 hours) has raised serious questions about democratic accountability. The Amendment itself has been castigated (repeatedly) as an election gimmick, and contrary to the very purpose of providing reservations. However, this is now history: the Amendment is here, awaiting only to be notified by the Government. And so, to the only relevant legal question that remains: is the 103rd Amendment unconstitutional?

The Basic Structure



It is trite – but nonetheless important – to recall that, as the Constitution stands amended, the only constitutional challenge that remains is a basic structure challenge. It is also worthwhile to remember – in order to set the context – of how high a threshold that is. Contrary to the beliefs of basic structure critics, who see the doctrine as some kind of Damocles Sword that errant judges are always threatening to drop upon the neck of democracy, the Supreme Court has almost never used basic structure to invalidate constitutional amendments. The high-profile striking down of the NJAC notwithstanding, in the forty-five years since Kesavananda Bharati, the doctrine has been used on an average of once in a decade. And in the seventy-four constitutional amendments after Kesavananda, only five have been struck down on substantive basic structure grounds (a strike rate of around 7%).

It’s also interesting to note (by way of example) what the Supreme Court has allowed to stand in the teeth of a basic structure challenge: in Nagaraj, a whole-scale restructuring of Article 16 that would effectively breach the 50% Rule (more on that in a moment), and in Poudyal, a departure from the principle of one-person-one-vote (more on that shortly, as well). Even when the Court has invoked basic structure, it has elected to use the scalpel rather than the bludgeon: in Raj Narain and in Minerva Mills – two of the starkest cases of constitutional abuse in our history, both by Indira Gandhi – the Court only snipped away a clause (granting immunity to Indira Gandhi from electoral malpractice) and a phrase (effectively getting rid of the fundamental rights chapter altogether) respectively, while upholding the rest of the (abusive) Amendments under challenge.

This is the case because the Court – conscious of the legitimacy issues with striking down a constitutional amendment – has been very careful about the language that it uses. Kesavananda Bharati didn’t say “modify”, “tinker”, or “change” – it said that a constitutional amendment cannot “damage or destroy” the basic structure. Nagaraj refined this by introducing the “width and identity” tests, making it clear that a basic structure challenge would have to demonstrate that the constitutional amendment makes the Constitution virtually unrecognisable.

The Amendment 


Within this context, let us briefly examine the 103rd Amendment. The Amendment introduces Articles 15(6) and 16(6) into the Constitution. 15(6) allows for reservations for “economically weaker sections of citizens” other than the classes mentioned in Articles 15(4) and 15(5) (i.e. effectively, other than the SCs/STs/OBCs). Article 16(6) does the same for public employment. The quantum of reservation is fixed at 10% over and above the existing reservation for SCs/STs/OBCs. An Explanation states that “economic weakness” shall be decided on the basis of “family income” and other “indicators of economic disadvantage.”

I want to focus on three features that (in my view) can form the basis for a potentially credible basic structure challenge. The first is the “50% question.” The second is (what seems to be) the use of family income as the primary determinant of economic disadvantage. The third is potential arbitrariness.

The Challenge 

A. The 50% Rule

It has become almost an article of faith that reservations cannot cross the threshold of 50%. The roots of this stipulation lie in M.R. Balaji v State of Mysore, where the Supreme Court held that because Article 16(4) (reservations) was framed as an exception to Article 16(1) (equality of opportunity), anything more than 50% would imply that the exception was swallowing up the rule. In Indra Sawhney v Union of India, this judicial rule was affirmed once again, and a governmental notification providing for 10% reservations on the basis of economic disadvantage was struck down. However, neither Balaji nor Sawhney were concerned with the basic structure: they were considering a law and subordinate legislation, respectively.

So, is the 50% rule a part of the basic structure? In Nagaraj, the Court suggested that it is, when it noted that:

” … the ceiling-limit of 50%, the concept of creamy layer and the compelling reasons, namely, backwardness, inadequacy of representation and overall administrative efficiency are all constitutional requirements without which the structure of equality of opportunity in Article 16 would collapse.”

But is there any support for this observation? The only indication that the 50% limit is so crucial that it is to be deemed as inherent in the very “structure of equality of opportunity” is found in a speech by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar during the Constituent Assembly Debates in November 1948. Ambedkar observed that the purpose of Article 16 was to balance two competing principles – (formal) equality of opportunity, and compensation for inadequate representation in public employment. This balance was wrought by structuring Article 16 as it was (through 16(1) and 16(4)), and one example that Ambedkar specifically took to indicate what might upset this balance was a potential situation in which the quantum of reservation reached 70%.

There is, therefore, strong evidence to suggest that the 50% rule is baked into the scheme of Article 16, as its drafters intended (and as the Supreme Court later affirmed). However, it does not follow from that that an amendment to Article 16 that changes this scheme would be a basic structure violation. This is for two reasons. The first is that the basic structure is not reducible to a particular, concrete articulation of values, internal to a specific constitutional provision. It is open to Parliament – acting in its constituent capacity – to depart from the constitutional settlement that the framers encoded into Article 16. Parliament is entitled to believe that the social justice facet of 16 deserves greater importance than formal equality of opportunity, and to act upon that belief. Secondly – and more importantly – the “balancing” view of Article 16 is not even the only reasonable interpretation available. In N.M. Thomas, for example, a majority of four judges out of seven held that Article 16(4) is not an exception to 16(1), but a facet of it; in other words, 16(4) merely expresses, in explicit terms, a commitment to equality in terms of social justice that is already present in Article 16(1). Under this view, it is obvious that the 50% rule has no foundation, as that was predicated on 16(4) being an exception to 16(1).

I have defended this interpretation elsewhere, but here, I am not concerned with whether it is right or wrong. The point is that it is a legitimate interpretation of Article 16, that has been affirmed by a seven-judge bench of the Court, and which has never – technically – been overruled. Consequently, it is certainly open to Parliament to take that view, and amend Article 16 to reflect that.

Lastly – and keeping everything else aside – I am not even sure that on its terms, the 103rd Amendment commits Parliament to increasing the quantum of reservation above 50%. The Amendment only provides reservation to the extent of 10%; however, existing Articles 15(4), 15(5), and 16(4) do not stipulate that existing reservations must necessarily be at 50% – that has been achieved through legislation. Consequently, how can a basic structure challenge to the Amendment even raise the 50% argument? That argument – if it has to be raised at all – must come in when Parliament enacts a law to give effect to the Amendment.

B. Individuals and Groups

There is, I think, a more persuasive basic structure argument against the Amendment. There is one feature that distinguishes the Amendment from the rest of the scheme of Articles 15 and 16: by using the “family income” as the primary determinant of economic disadvantage, the Amendment advances a philosophy of reservation that focuses on remedying individual disadvantage (by taking the family as the unit for determining who is disadvantaged). At a very fundamental level, this departs from the kind of equality that the Equality Code (Articles 14, 15, and 16) envisages. The scheme of Articles 14, 15 and 16 is one that acknowledges the historical fact that in India, group membership has been the primary basis of institutional and structural disadvantage. One’s access to opportunity and chances of social and economic mobility have been mediated by one’s group identity – and primary, that identity has been structured around caste. The logic of reservation in India – and this dates back to pre-Independence times – has, consequently, always been that while the right to equality is an individual right, the only method of achieving substantive equality at an individual level is to take into account the disadvantages and barriers that exist on account of groups (and specifically, caste groups).

As a variant of this argument, Madhav Khosla has argued that the reason why the 103rd Amendment must fail the basic structure test is because it essentially contains internally contradictory provisions: the logic of 15(4), (5) and 16(4) (group-determined, social and educational backwardness) is at war with the logic of the new Articles 15(6) and 16(6).

While I agree that the 103rd Amendment makes a logical mess of the scheme of Equality Code, when it comes to a basic structure challenge, however, I find myself running up against the same difficulty that was faced in assessing the 50% challenge. And that is that the argument accords to the basic structure a level of specificity that it does not have, and one that the Court has consistently refused to give it. It is true that economic reservation goes against the grain of how social justice and equality have always been conceptualised in India, at least in constitutional terms. It is true that it sets up a contradiction (in terms of legal logic) between the SC/ST/OBC reservation provisions, and economic reservation. However, once again – the basic structure does not bind Parliament to any particular conception of equality and social justice. The basic structure does not require that Parliament follow the same logic, even within the same constitutional provision. The basic structure does not mandate clean, coherent, and logical drafting. All it requires is that a basic feature – in this case, “equality” – not be “damaged or destroyed.” And for me, it is difficult to see how economic reservation “damages or destroys” the concept of equality, because as long as there exists a reasonable understanding of equality that can accommodate economic reservation – and surely there does – it will be immune from a basic structure challenge.

The distinction between the level of the “concept” (which is the level at which the basic structure operates) and the level of the “conception” (which is the level at which the Amendment operates) is made clear if we consider the case of R.C. Poudyal: in R.C. Poudyal, which dealt with the accession of Sikkim to the Indian Union, one of the challenges involved a departure from the one-person-one-vote principle when it came to elections within Sikkim. It was argued that this violated the basic structure, because it went against democracy. The Court upheld it, however, noting that there were many different forms of democracy that were consistent with the concept of democracy. Similarly, there are many visions of equality – many concrete manifestations – that remain consistent with the concept of equality. A basic structure challenge can succeed only if equality itself is abrogated – for example, if Article 14 is repealed altogether, or if a Bill of Attainder is passed (which was the issue in Raj Narain).


One last possible attack is on the grounds of arbitrariness – that is, the family income criteria has no relation with the goal of reservation. In other words – as many people have pointed out – reservation is not the remedy to the problem of poverty (reservation is about compensating for social and institutional barriers to representation). This makes mandating reservation on economic disadvantage arbitrary.

This raises a fascinating constitutional question, which is yet to be resolved: are there specific articles that are so important and crucial, that they themselves constitute basic features? In particular, are Articles 14, 19, and 21, standing alone, part of the basic structure, so that a constitutional amendment can be challenged, like an ordinary law, on the basis that it violates one of these articles?

The Supreme Court has hinted before that this might be the case; however, I am unpersuaded. It is one thing to say that if Parliament was to repeal Article 14, or 19, or 21 – taking away equality, freedom, and liberty altogether – then a basic structure challenge would lie. It is quite another to say that specific tests under 14, 19, and 21 should apply, mutatis mutandis, to a constitutional amendment.


There are powerful legal and constitutional arguments against economic reservation. However, what the above discussion has shown is that they operate at the level of the law: they would succeed were it the case that legislation was being tested against the basic structure.  However, it is far more difficult in the case of a constitutional amendment. Ironically, this is because of the precise reason that has given so much fodder to basic structure critics – the Court’s refusal to define it in concrete and specific terms. As long as economic reservation is defensible on a ground that is recognisable in terms of equality, the fact that it departs from how equality and social justice is presently understood in the Constitution, is no ground for striking it down. And that minimal threshold, in my view, is met by the 103rd Amendment. It is likely to survive a basic structure challenge.


Guest Post: A Pulpit or a Courtroom – Exclusion of Jurisdiction and the decision in Girish Kumar Suneja

(Previously on this blog, we have covered the serious constitutional issues arising out of the exclusion of the jurisdiction of the High Court in the ongoing “Coal Block” cases – see here and here. Yesterday, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld this exclusion. In a guest post, Abhinav Sekhri analyses the judgment. Cross-posted from the Proof Of Guilt blog with permission.)

On 13 July 2017, a three-judges bench of the Supreme Court dismissed the petitions clubbed together with Girish Kumar Suneja v. CBI [SLP (Crl.) 9503 of 2016, hereafter Suneja]. The preliminary issue raised in these petitions was a challenge to the Supreme Court’s order dated 25.07.2014, whereby aggrieved persons were confined to only approaching the Supreme Court with a “prayer for stay or impeding the progress in the investigation / trial“, and jurisdiction of High Courts was thus excluded. This Blog, on an earlier occasion, had considered the Petitioners’ case and argued that the impugned order of 25.07.2014 was bad, and readers may refer to that post for a recap. Here, I argue that the decision in Suneja does not offer any convincing justification for why the Court disagreed.

Excluding Jurisdiction: Missing the Forest for the Trees

In Suneja, the Court takes up three key arguments assailing the exclusion of jurisdiction caused by the order of 25.07.2014 and its effects – (1) Curtailment of the High Court’s power to entertain petitions under Sections 397 and 482 Cr.P.C; (2) Exclusion of writ jurisdiction under Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution; and (3) A violation of Article 14 caused by treating the ‘coal-block allocation scam’ cases under this special procedure. On all three counts, it disagreed with the Petitioners’ claims. On closer examination, one can see how the Court does so not by engaging with the argument, but by avoiding it altogether.

Sections 397 and 482 Cr.P.C.

On the first issue of curtailing statutory powers of entertaining revision petitions [Section 397 Cr.P.C.] and quashing petitions [Section 482 Cr.P.C.], the Court reminds us that these are not rights, such as appeals, but entitlements. A High Court may refuse to entertain these petitions. This characterisation was never in doubt – the issue, was whether it was unconstitutional to deprive the High Court of even this abilityto entertain such petitions. For this, the Court turns to the legislative history of Section 397(2) Cr.P.C. [which prevents revision petitions for challenging interlocutory orders] to elaborate that the scope of revision jurisdiction was restricted to prevent delay. But the Court does not conclude that the present petitions fall within this category, which renders these observations obiter. Perhaps proceeding with that assumption, the Court moves on to consider the scope of inherent jurisdiction under Section 482 Cr.P.C. Again, it talks of a ‘rarest of rare’ level for quashing petitions being entertained, implying that the issue must be very serious to warrant intervention. Still, no answers are offered to explain what warrants an exclusion of this jurisdiction altogether. One may then assume that the Court implies the exclusion was illegal, which is why it considers the tests for considering whether the present cases could have triggered an exercise of jurisdiction under these provisions.

In doing so, the Court makes notable errors in law. For instance, in considering the interplay between revision and quashing the Court notes that “it is quite clear that the prohibition in Section 397 Cr.P.C. [of not proceeding against interlocutory orders] will govern Section 482 Cr.P.C. We endorse this view.” This means that for Court, Section 397 applies to all final and intermediate orders, while Section 482 applies to interlocutory orders. Such a reading ignores the notwithstanding that comes at the start of Section 482, which has led the Supreme Court to conclude on several occasions that the scope of Section 482 remains untrammelled by the terms of Section 397 – most recently clarified by another bench of three judges in Prabhu Chawla [Crl. Appeal No. 844 of 2016, decided on 05.09.2016]. Remember, all this is irrelevant, because the present cases actually involved a question of why recourse to this jurisdiction could be barred. The Court only engages with that issue in its terse refusal to consider the decision in Antulay [(1988) 2 SCC 602]Antulay was a decision by seven judges, but it is distinguished because the facts were different and it involved a trial before the High Court itself, and the impugned provision therein – Section 9 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1952 – in turn used the 1898 Cr.P.C. The facts, though different, led the seven judges in Antulay to consider why any court’s jurisdiction could not be ousted, which would nonetheless be relevant here. That the bench in Suneja even raises the second point about the Cr.P.C. is simply shocking, since the allegations in Antulay concerned a period after 1973 and by which time the 1952 Act was being read with the new Cr.P.C. [as required by Section 8 of the General Clauses Act 1897]. 

We are then left without any answers for the actual issue. For some reason the Court continues to miss the forest for the trees, and refuses to tell us why recourse to revision and quashing was made impermissible in the present batch of cases. It painfully continues to develop on the obiter by considering whether the batch of petitions met the standard of seriousness for interference under Section 482 Cr.P.C., and concludes that “challenge to orders of this non-substantive nature that can be agitated in a regular appeal is nothing but an abuse of the process of the Court.” The observation is entirely misplaced. The Petitioners raised issues of law, arguing that certain findings suffer from impropriety – express grounds for interference under Section 397. But if recourse to that provision is barred, then what? Should recourse to Section 482 still remain impermissible? The Court ignores the peculiarity in the present set of facts, which have come about by its own hand.

Article 226 and 227 of the Constitution

The conclusions on Article 226 and 227 also proceed on an assumption that the issues raised in the batch of petitions are ‘trifling’ and therefore would not warrant interference under writ jurisdiction. With due apologies for sounding repetitive, the bench again fails to explain how this jurisdiction can be ousted entirely. In fact, here, the bench expressly says “there can be no doubt that the jurisdiction of a High Court under Articles 226 and 227 cannot be curtailed, yet extraordinary situations may arise where it may be advisable for a High Court to decline to interfere.” This volte-face is completed at the end of this part of the decision, where the bench says that “there is nothing extraordinary if the High Court ought not to interfere and leave it to this Court to take a decision in the matter in larger public interest“. But this is not what has happened in the present case! In unequivocal terms, the High Court was barred from entertaining petitions. The Supreme Court is now attempting to portray the scenario as a willing refusal by High Court’s to entertain cases, when it is actually an exclusion of jurisdiction by the Supreme Court itself. It is fair to say that nobody is fooled.

Article 14 and Judicial Legislation

The argument under Article 14 in Suneja was twofold – the ‘coal block’ cases do not constitute an identifiable class, and even if they do this differentiation must be created through statute. The Court, expectedly, whips up the rhetoric to justify why the cases are an identifiable class in themselves. But the decision does not engage at all with the more pressing issue of how such classes can be created. It says that “the order passed by this Court does not amount to legislation in the classical mould but according special treatment to a class of cases for good and clear reason and in larger public interest as well as in the interest of the accused.” There are obvious legal issues in judicially created classes for perpetrating discrimination. Judicial orders are imprecise, are creations of un-elected persons thus unrepresentative of the democratic process, and finally cannot be subjected to a challenge under Part III leaving no recourse for those aggrieved. The Supreme Court attempts to conveniently sidestep all of this by resorting to verbiage. Since nobody really knows what the ‘classical mould’ of legislation is, this is doublespeak for “the Supreme Court can do whatever it wants” – a highlight of the Court’s White-Knight tendency in this arena of economic offences [previously discussed here].

Public Interest and the Rights of Accused Persons

There are three other heads of argument that are considered in Suneja – (1) violation of Article 21 by the procedure created by the impugned order, which is not established by ‘law’; (2) illegal use of Article 142 of the Constitution to curtail both Statutory and Fundamental Rights of the Petitioners, and; (3) Illegally preventing a stay of proceedings. Rather than consider each of these in turn, it is easier to attack the common thread underlying these strands – the idea that public interest is a satisfactory justification to proscribe rights of accused persons. With great vigour the bench notes that “it is now time for all of us including courts to balance the right of an accused person vis-a-vis the rights and interests of individual victims of a crime and society. Very often, public interest is lost sight of while dealing with an accused person and the rights of accused persons are given far greater importance than societal interests and more often than not greater importance than the rights of individual victims. … It is not as if the appellants have been denuded of their rights. It is only that their rights have been placed in the proper perspective and they have been enabled to exercise their rights before another forum. 

While the Court merely makes a cursory reference to Shahid Balwa [(2014) 2 SCC 687], the same issue reared its head on that occasion. Here, again, it uses the arguments of the Petitioners against them in observing that in pressing for a stay of proceedings it seems that the conclusion of the trial is not an objective for them. These are serious cases of corruption, the Court notes, and so a stay order cannot be given for the asking. Such logic is fit for the pulpit, not for the Supreme Court. At the most basic level, the bench ignores the practical realities that plague the judiciary. The present petitions were filed sometime around winter 2016, and have been decided in July 2017. For whatever it is worth, the Petitioners did allege severe illegalities in the trial, and by refusing to consider the issue of stay at the earliest the Court allowed a potentially illegal trial to continue for six months. Within that time most of the evidence has been completed in two sets of petitions [Y. Harish Chandra Prasad v. CBI (Crl. Appeal No. 1145 of 2017) and P. Trivikrama Prasad v. CBI (Crl. Appeal No. 1153-54 of 2017]. How is that fair, and how is that a correct utilisation of judicial time? At a deeper level, the Court is effectively denouncing a class of persons from seeking an enforcement of their fundamental rights for no better reason in law than because it thinks it is against public interest. It does not realise that such rhetoric ultimately trickles down to trial courts, where an accused is then painted as guilty simply for choosing to remain silent [a fundamental right] and is thus subjected to lengthy pre-trial detention.


On all counts, Suneja is a bad decision. We get no further answers to why is it fair to exclude the High Court as a forum for jurisdiction beyond the bench re-iterating that this is in public interest. For this, it could have merely expressed agreement with the previous decision of Shahid Balwa and saved time. When the bench does try to engage with the legal issues, it fails to grasp what was at stake and flounders. Ultimately, the decision may result only in compounding uncertainty by using previously unheard of tests and expressions to explain what is, essentially, another instance of abusing the vast discretion vested with the unelected judges of our Supreme Court.


(Disclaimer: The Author was engaged as a part of the team arguing for the Petitioners in Crl. Appeal No. 1145 of 2017)

Debating the NJAC: Round-Up and (Tentative) Conclusions

Over the last two weeks, on this blog, we have had an extensive debate about the various aspects of the National Judicial Appointments Case, where the validity of the 99th Amendment and the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act have been challenged. Recall, once again, that the 99th Amendment and the NJAC Act seek to remove the old system of judicial appointments, whereby the three senior-most judges of the Supreme Court (“the Collegium”) decided upon appointments to the Supreme Court, with (what was effectively) a nominally consultative role played by the Executive. Through a new Article 124A of the Constitution, they seek to bring into existence a National Judicial Commission, comprising of six members (the three senior-most judges of the Supreme Court, two “eminent persons”, and the Law Minister), the functioning of which is – per a new Article 124C – is to be regulated by law (which is the NJAC Act). Under a new Article 124B, the NJAC will recommend appointments to the higher judiciary. Articles 124A, B and C form the backbone of the 99th Amendment, and have been impugned as violating the basic structure by destroying the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers, and the rule of law. The Union has equally strenuously defended the 99th Amendment.

In a set of powerful essays, Vishwajith, Suhrith, Ritwika, Malavika and Faiza have responded to my arguments that the 99th Amendment should be struck down. I am almost convinced, but not quite. Let me briefly highlight some of the key issues that have emerged.

On Article 124A, which replaces the collegium with the NJAC, there is consensus on two issues: first, that judicial independence is part of the basic structure, and secondly, that the nine-judge Second Judges Case binds the present five-judge bench. The Union’s argument is that the Second Judges Case merely interpreted the text of the old Article 124 in a certain way – “consultation” to mean “concurrence”, which was the basis of the collegium. By the 99th Amendment, the Parliament has replaced that text, and with it, the Supreme Court’s interpretation. The petitioners, on the other hand, argue that in The Second Judges Case, the Court clearly held that it was judicial primacy – via the collegium – that was part of the basic structure. Which side of the issue you come down on, therefore, depends upon your reading of The Second Judges Case, and the cases before and after it, with respect to three questions:

(a) Is judicial independence affected by the nature or manner of judicial appointments?

(b) If yes, then did the Second Judges Case hold that judicial primacy in appointments is part of the basic structure, because it preserves judicial independence?

(c) If yes, then did the Second Judges Case also hold that judicial primacy in appointments is a necessary requirement for the protection of judicial independence?

In my submission, the answer to all three questions is yes, leaving the present Constitution Bench with no option but to strike down Article 124A. Let me stress once again that this is not a defence of the collegium. I am in complete agreement with Suhrith, that the Court ought to have referred the matter to an eleven-judge bench, to decide without being constrained by The Second Judges Case. But it didn’t. And I would submit that it ought not now to compound an error by overturning precedent, and going against the grain of stare decisis.

With respect to Article 124C, I argued that by delegating the framing of regulations governing the functioning of the NJAC to Parliament through its ordinary law-making process, the 99th Amendment has transformed constituent power into legislative power, and this is a violation of the separation of powers. Two arguments were made in response: first, that the separation of powers exists horizontally (i.e., you cannot take power away from one State wing and transfer it to another, as was being done in the case of tribunals (judiciary to executive)), and secondly, a history of the constitutional scheme indicates that parliamentary control over judicial appointments is consistent with the separation of powers.

With respect to the first argument, I would contend that the verticality of the separation of powers is a necessary consequence of its more familiar, horizontal understanding. As I argued in my essay, the constitutional scheme distributes power among the three state organs – the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary – while at the same time, it retains certain powers within the Constitution. Just as the powers of one of the three wings of State cannot be aggrandised by redistributing inter se, by the same logic, it cannot be aggrandised by taking from the Constitution and giving it to that wing. To put it in less jargon-y terms: until now, the procedure for judicial appointment was located within the Constitution. Any change could be made only through a constitutional amendment – i.e., by Parliament exercising its constituent power through a super-majority. A good example of this is the 99th Amendment itself. But what Article 124C effectively does it to exercise a one-time constituent power of amendment, in order to delegate all future changes to the parliament through its ordinary law-making process. Thus, it takes from the constitutional scheme and gives to the Parliament, thereby aggrandising the power of the Parliament at the relative expense of the judiciary and the executive. To take a concrete example – suppose that tomorrow, Parliament amends the NJAC Act and establishes a quorum of three members, or gives the Law Minister a permanent veto? I’m not necessarily arguing that this is unconstitutional – but I am arguing that it has to be done through an amendment, not through law.

The second point – that Parliamentary control over appointments is part of the constitutional scheme – is harder to answer, because if true, it undermines my entire argument. Admittedly, there is no rigid separation of powers under the Indian Constitution. We have a flexible scheme, which is accommodative of a little tinkering around the edges. If Parliamentary control is structurally consistent with the constitutional scheme, then clearly, the manner in which the 99th Amendment redistributes power cannot be held to violate the separation of powers. It merely redistributes power within permissible contours.

I would maintain, however, that the old Article 124 was very clear on the point. Appointments were to be made through a consultative process between the executive (President) and the judiciary. The 99th Amendment transforms that entirely, making the Parliament supreme, by giving it law-making powers in a way that can completely erase the judiciary’s role (e.g., under Article 124C, framing a law that gives the law minister a veto). My analogy with Articles 53 and 54 – imagining a hypothetical where the parliament amends the provisions for electing the President, abolishes the electoral college, and delegates the issue to parliamentary law – substantiates the contention. For these reasons, I think that my argument on the separation of powers holds, although I admit it is a very close question. I still think that the Supreme Court ought to strike down 124A on the basis of the binding ratio of The Second Judges Case, and Article 124C on the basis of the separation of powers, but I do not think that a contrary, well-reasoned judgment would leave much to complain about.

There have also been conflicting views on the issue of whether, if the Supreme Court were to strike down the 99th Amendment, the 99th Amendment would revive. One argument is that by failing to specifically refer the issue to a larger bench in The Property Owners Case, the question has impliedly been settled in favour of revival. As against this, it has been argued that the question requires adjudication, since the Property Owners Case – so far – has been silent it; and that in any event, the question of revival in the case of Article 31C, which merely allowed an immunity to Parliament (and is the subject of the Property Owners Case), is very different from the question of revival in this case, where an entire constitutional apparatus has been replaced.

Will the Court go that far, however? My own feeling is that the Supreme Court will not do something as (politically) bold and risky as striking down the 99th Amendment altogether. I suspect it will strike down the NJAC Act, while reading in guidelines into Article 124A on the lines suggested by Chintan, in his essay: maybe a veto power for the CJI, further specifications for the “eminent persons”, and/or the requirement of written reasons for rejecting a nominee. I personally think that this would amount to an illegitimate rewriting of a Constitutional amendment, but as the last twenty years have shown, the Courts’ power to issue guidelines is more or less untrammeled. Of course, I am speculating in the dark – the Court might actually strike down the Amendment, just as it may well uphold everything.

The struggle between the judiciary and the executive/legislature has marked much of India’s political history after over the last forty-five years. Whatever the Supreme Court decides now, it will have important ramifications in the years to come; and whatever it decides, I doubt whether we will have heard the last of it!


A thematic list of all the essays debating the NJAC case on this blog is as follows:

The Second Judges Case

1. Akhil’s essay, arguing that the Second Judges Case was wrongly decided, and that the collegium is unconstitutional

Article 124A

2. My essay arguing that Article 124A violates the basic structure because of the Second Judges Case (Parts One and Two)

3. Vishwajith’s response, arguing that Article 124A is constitutional, on a contrary reading of the Second Judges Case (Parts One and Two)

4. Suhrith’s response, arguing that 124A is constitutional, because judicial primacy is not part of the basic structure

5. Ritwika’s essay on the “eminent persons” to be appointed to the NJAC

Article 124C

6. My essay arguing that Article 124C amounts to impermissible delegation of constituent power, violates the separation of powers, and should be struck down.

7. Malavika and Vishwajith’s response, arguing in favour of Article 124C on the basis of separation of powers

8. Ritwika and Faiza’s response, arguing that parliamentary control over judicial appointments does not violate the basic structure (Parts One and Two)


9. Chintan and Rahul, arguing (separately) about the remedy the Court might craft, and the possible implications.


10.  Sarangan’s essay, arguing that the collegium will revive if the SC strikes down the 99th Amendment

11. Vasujith’s response, arguing that the question of revival must be separately adjudicated

12. Sanjay Jain’s essay on the philosophy of revival

My thanks to all those who took their time out and contributed to the debate. Hopefully we can make this a regular thing for big cases!

Debating the NJAC: The Philosophy of Revival (Guest Post)

(In the final substantive essay of our two-week long debate on the NJAC, Professor Sanjay Jain examines the issue of revival from a jurisprudential perspective.

A round-up post will follow tomorrow)

The question as to whether the doctrine of revival can be applied to deal with unconstitutional constitutional amendments is still res-integra. This question does not only involve the relationship between legislature and judiciary, but it also has a bearing on the doctrine of separation of powers. In terms of Hartian jurisprudence, this debate can be characterized as involving the clash between rule of adjudication and rule of change.

Can the judiciary, by resorting to the rule of adjudication, unilaterally effect a change in the law, in the absence of participation from legislature via the rule of change? In my submission, the position in India is extremely inconsistent. Let me illustrate. In Minerva mills, Supreme Court declared the 42nd amendment of the Constitution, that extended immunity to laws promoting all directive principles against the challenge of violation of fundamental rights guaranteed by articles 13,14, 19 and 21 to be unconstitutional and it confined the scope of the immunity to the promotion of articles 39 (b) & (c).

What is the reality now? Look at the text of the constitution. It shows that legislature has not taken cognizance of this decision and that the language of article 31C is the same as it was after the 42nd amendment and prior to the Minerva mills judgment. In other words, the legislature has not translated the law laid down in Minerva in article 31C. Nevertheless, it is argued in some quarters that, with the decision of Minerva, amended article 31C was voided and pre-amended article 31 C got revived. But this is far from clear. The Court has not conclusively dealt with the doctrine of revival. Besides, the impact of the amendment in the Constitution made by the parliament, on the pre-amended text is also to be examined. Is it possible to argue that by resorting to rule of adjudication, court both invalidated the amendment and revived the earlier text? Would it not amount to arrogation of legislative power by the court unto itself? One possible answer to these questions may be that, the court has not revived the pre-amended text, rather it has merely adhered to the interpretation of Article 31C placed on it by 13 Judge Bench of Supreme Court in Kesavananda Bharthi case. This argument can be defended on the rationale that the width of the powers of parliament is not absolute and is subject to constitutional limitations including that of basic structure and hence any exercise of power exceeding this limitation is non-est and would not have any impact on the previous interpretation of the court. Going by this logic, since the exercise of power in amending article 31C by way of the 42nd amendment was infructuous, there is no question of any revival and the old law (i.e. pre-amendment law) would govern the field.

Let us analyze whether the same logic would govern the case of the 99th amendment of the Constitution and NJAC Act.

In order to deal with this issue, it has to be first ascertained whether the analogy between article 31C and articles 124A, B, and C of the 99th Amendment, and the NJAC Act, is appropriate. It is possible to argue that the analogy is misplaced because in a Hohfeldian sense, article 31C is merely an immunity-conferring provision. As a consequence of this provision, the parliament and the state legislatures have only acquired immunity for some of their actions against a challenge based on certain fundamental rights; whereas after the 99th amendment, Article 124A, B and C along with NJAC act has resulted in the creation of a set of complex and radically different power conferring rules. It has not only nullified the collegium system, which was read into article 124 by way of interpretation in Judges 2 and 3 cases by the Supreme Court, but it has also introduced an entirely new machinery to appoint new judges. Thus, upon a bare perusal of these provisions, it is evident that Articles 124A, B, C and NJAC Act are a set of power conferring rules and have made qualitative changes in the constitutional process of appointment of judges. Indeed these changes are both procedural and substantive. More importantly, the NJAC act by introducing a national Judicial Appointments Commission, has not only discarded the collegium system all together, but through this enactment, the parliament has also seriously eroded the judicial domination in the process of appointment of judges by doing away with the element of judicial primacy in case of difference of opinion between the members of the newly created NJAC. In such a scenario, it would be stretching the imagination to imply that upon voiding of 99th amendment and NJAC Act, the pre-amendment law would revive. As a matter of fact, pre amendment law died with the parliamentary enactment of 99th amendment and NJAC act. Although the court has the power by way of judicial review to invalidate any constitutional amendments and legislations alike, from where would it derive the power to fill the vacuum created by the void as a result of its own decision?

However, it is an altogether different ball game when it comes to Article 31C. Article 31C did not create any new machinery, nor did it provide any additional powers to the parliament or state legislatures. It merely made the exercise of legislative power for promotion of certain directive principles immune from the challenge of certain fundamental rights. As a result, if Article 31C is struck down, it would only result in doing away with the immunity provided to the parliament and state legislatures against the challenge of certain fundamental rights in respect of exercise of legislative power by them to promote certain directive principles. Thus, it would neither discount the powers of the legislature nor, would it do away with any machinery. This is in sharp contrast with the voiding of Articles 124A, B, C and NJAC act which would not only result in doing away with the existing machinery but, would also take away the legislative powers of the parliament. On the other hand, even in the absence of Article 31C, a mere immunity, parliament and state legislatures would still be able to promote directive principles by making laws in the light of explicit mandate of Article 37 of the Constitution of India; whereas, it would become impossible for the state to make appointment of judges in absence of any machinery as the existing machinery would have been voided by the court and machinery prior to the present amendment, has already been done away with by the amending body and parliament, by way of amendment and NJAC act. This would be a case of constitutional vacuum vis-à-vis appointment of judges.

However, it is equally possible to argue against the so called constitutional vacuum. It is too banal a proposition to dispute the law making authority of the Supreme Court. In numerous cases, including the Vishakha judgment, Supreme Court has evolved guidelines as ad-hoc mechanisms to fill in the legislative void and the present scenario is not any different from the earlier cases. As a custodian of ‘constituent power’ and guardian of ‘basic structure’ of the constitution, it is plausible for the Supreme Court not only to void ‘unconstitutional constitutional amendments’ but also to put in place ad-hoc norms to fill the legislative vacuum resulting from the invalidation of the amendments.

To sum up, it is possible to argue on both sides of the debate, however it would be appropriate if judiciary and legislature collaborate in the deployment of rule of adjudication and rule of change respectively. It would lead to stability if the Supreme Court takes a call on doctrine of revival and parliament clarifies its position on article 31C by making appropriate amendments. Overuse of both, implication and the device of reasoning by analogy, would adversely affect the stability of the legal system and also create room for unwarranted speculations and conjectures. However, till the judiciary and parliament act, the anxiety continues and as observers we have to merely keep on guessing.

Debating the NJAC: Framing a Remedy (Guest Post)

(What is the Supreme Court finds that the 99th Amendment and the National Judicial Appointments Commission, in their present form, are constitutionally unsatisfactory, but also does not wish to strike them down? In the first part of this guest post, Chintan Chandrachud explores what the Court might do to bring the 99th Amendment in line with the Constitution. In the second part, Rahul Bajaj discusses the interaction between Court guidelines and Article 124C of the 99th Amendment.)

After thirty-one days of argument, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court has reserved judgment in amongst the most significant constitutional cases before the Court in recent years. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Second Judges Case in 1993, appointments to the Court have been made through what has come to be known as the ‘collegium’ system – in which the three senior most judges of the Court play a decisive role in the appointments process. The collegium system suffered increasing criticism, and Parliament attempted to replace it with an appointments process led by a ‘National Judicial Appointments Commission’ (NJAC) through a constitutional amendment and a statute that gives effect to the amendment. The amendment provides that the NJAC will consist of six people – the Chief Justice of India, the two senior most judges of the Supreme Court, the Law Minister, and two ‘eminent persons’. These eminent persons are to be nominated for three-year terms by a committee consisting of the Chief Justice, the Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and are not eligible for renomination. The Supreme Court has been called upon to decide to constitutionality of the amendment and the statute.

This post will not consider the constitutionality or the merits of the collegium system and the NJAC. Although that is a most significant matter, it has been considered elsewhere (see, for example, here and here on this blog). It will explore a different, less studied, aspect of the case – the remedies available to the Supreme Court. As with the NJAC case, on most occasions on which law is challenged on the basis that it is unconstitutional, the challenge is conceived in terms of a binary – whether to strike down or not to strike down the law. The matrix of remedies available to the court is far more complex than this. In fact, although I have not come across any empirical data on this issue in India (see evidence from the UK here), the most common response to a finding of unconstitutionality is not to strike down the unconstitutional law, but to interpret it in a way that is consistent with constitutional requirements.

Therefore, it is highly problematic to take the premise that: (i) the court finds the constitutional amendment unconstitutional, to mean that (ii) the court will strike down the amendment. Instead, the Supreme Court has several intermediate options falling short of the strike down power before it. In this post, I consider three such options – although this should not be taken to mean that these options are mutually exclusive, or, for that matter, collectively exhaustive. These interpretive possibilities can be divided based on whether they address the composition of the NJAC or the functioning of the NJAC, and it is in this sequence that they will be considered.

1.Composition of the NJAC

Defining ‘eminent persons’ more narrowly

Amongst the arguments that the petitioners have made is that the constitutional amendment makes no attempt to define who the two eminent persons on the NJAC will be. This, it is argued, can give rise to two sets of problems. The first is a ‘malice’ based argument – that the executive could seek to nominate people with favorable political leanings. The second is more of a ‘recklessness’ based argument – that the executive could seek to nominate people who clearly lack the credentials to judge the performance of candidates. The Supreme Court could seek to eschew these concerns by specifying a set of criteria – or qualifications – that eminent persons would need to hold. Conversely, the Court could prescribe a set of disqualifications – for instance, that those who are charged with serious criminal offences will not be considered ‘eminent’.

Modifying the ‘eminent persons’ appointments process

 The constitutional amendment provides that the eminent persons on NJAC are to be appointed by a Committee consisting of the Chief Justice, the Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. The argument here is that the politicians could combine to nominate a person who, in the opinion of the Chief Justice, lacks the credentials to be part of the NJAC. One way in which the Supreme Court may seek to avoid this situation is by interpreting the provisions to the effect that the Chief Justice has a veto power in the appointment of eminent persons. This would mean that the Chief Justice would always need to be in the majority, and a 2-1 decision, with a dissenting note from the Chief Justice, would not result in an appointment.

2. Functioning of the NJAC

An exclusive veto power for the judges

 Neither the constitutional amendment nor the statute giving effect to the amendment make it clear how the six-member NJAC is expected to take its decisions. The ideal scenario, presumably, is for decisions to be made by consensus. But where consensus is not possible, the alternative is likely to be a majority decision procedure. The statute specifies that no person shall be recommended for appointment to the Supreme Court if any two members disagree with the appointment. The argument against this requirement is that both sides – the judges and the non-judges – have a veto power over appointments. Arguably, the Law Minister together with one or more of the eminent persons could exercise their veto against independent-minded candidates. In order to grant the judges a degree of primacy in the process, the Supreme Court could read down this provision as applying only to the judges. This would, in other words, mean that assuming that all six members of the NJAC participate and vote, a successful appointment would require the concurrence of at least two of the three judges on the Commission.

There are many reasons for which the middle road – constitutional rights-compliant interpretation – seems intuitively appealing. It would probably enable all sides to claim victory. The government could claim that its amendment secured the Court’s stamp of approval, the petitioners could claim that they succeeded in having important safeguards infused into the appointments process, and the Court could send the message that it has effectively protected constitutional rights without thwarting the democratic will. A legislative sequel or pushback from Parliament would be much less likely in the event of an interpretive solution than if the constitutional amendment were struck down.

Nevertheless, the Court should be conscious of the risks associated with radically modifying the effect of the constitutional amendment. A fairly recent attempt at modifying the effect of a law (in which the provisions for appointment of Information Commissioners under the Right to Information Act 2005 were recast) came under severe criticism, following which the Supreme Court stepped back from its judgment in a review petition (for analysis, see here). Most importantly, some of the interpretive possibilities articulated here may produce an appointments process that closely resembles the existing collegium system. Thus, the NJAC could become the collegium in disguise – in which case, the Supreme Court would have successfully struck down the amendment without being transparent about doing so.

(Chintan Chandrachud is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge)

(The second part is by Rahul Bajaj)


It is submitted that the Supreme Court can address all the arguments against the 99th Amendment in a cogent manner without striking down the entire framework as unconstitutional and thereby avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Let us examine how it can assuage the unease of those who question the constitutionality of the new dispensation.

First, with respect to the first argument, the Court can read into Article 124A a specific set of guidelines in accordance with which the eminence of persons to be appointed to the NJAC can be judged. More specifically, by delineating a set of factors which would be indicative of the persons’ vast knowledge of the law, impeachable integrity, lack of political affiliations and sustained and enduring commitment to public service and justice, the Court can effectively put to rest the fear that the appointment process would be dictated by extraneous political considerations, ulterior motives or the whims and fancies of the 3-member committee.

Similarly, with respect to the second argument, there are at least 2 conceivable solutions that the Court can adopt to bring the exercise of veto power in line with the values of the Constitution. First, it can set out the parameters in accordance with which the veto power can be exercised, such as the need for those exercising that power to put forth cogent evidence that can bring into question the integrity and competence of the potential appointee in support of their stance. Second, in order to preserve judicial primacy, the court can give the CJI, as the chairman of the NJAC, the power to overrule the veto in exceptional cases by putting forth cogent and compelling reasons for the same.

Finally, it is submitted that if the working of the NJAC is altered in the ways mentioned above, the argument that it undermines the independence of the judiciary would not pass muster for two reasons. First, as the first two Judges’ Cases unequivocally indicate, the focus of the judiciary has always been on highlighting the centrality of the role of consultation in the appointment process. Not only would the new framework institutionalize that desire in a far more well-structured and cohesive manner than has ever been done before, but the inbuilt checks in the new regime would enhance, as opposed to undermining, the independence of the judiciary. Second, the alterations that I have suggested would help create a robust bulwark against the arbitrary use of power which is the only way in which the avowed objective of judicial independence can be achieved.

Possible Constitutional Impediments to the Implementation of the Proposed Solution

In order to implement this solution, the judiciary would have to structure its scope and contours in such a way as to bring it in line with Article 124C of the Constitution. Article 124C reads as follows: “Parliament may, by law, regulate the procedure for the appointment of Chief Justice of India and other Judges of the Supreme Court and Chief Justices and other Judges of High Courts and empower the Commission to lay down by regulations the procedure for the discharge of its functions, the manner of selection of persons for appointment and such other matters as may be considered necessary by it.” As Article 124C expressly authorizes Parliament and Parliament alone to delegate to the NJAC the power to determine the procedures and parameters governing its functioning, the argument goes, the issuance of judicial guidelines on these issues would not only run counter to the express mandate of Article 124C, but would leave Parliament with no meaningful power to structure the working of the NJAC. I would submit that such an argument would not hold water for at least 2 reasons. First, while it is true that Article 124C authorizes Parliament to structure the working of the NJAC in exercise of which Parliament enacted the NJAC Act, the issuance of the guidelines that I propose would be nothing more than an interim measure aimed at filling the vacuum that Parliament has created by failing to put in place any objective parameters to govern either the appointment of eminent persons or the exercise of veto power. Put differently, these guidelines would be issued by the judiciary in furtherance of its bounden duty to construe any legislative action harmoniously with the Constitution and would not, in any way, deprive the Parliament of the power expressly granted to it under Article 124C. Ergo, Parliament would be free to incorporate, at any time of its choosing, the guidelines pertaining to the determination of eminent persons issued by the judiciary into Article 124A and the guidelines with respect to the exercise of veto power into the NJAC Act. It would also be free to modify those guidelines or put in place other safeguards in order to attain the fundamental objective of making the process of selection of eminent persons and the exercise of veto power less arbitrary and unfair. The power of the Supreme Court to issue guidelines in the existence of a legislative vacuum despite express constitutional provisions authorizing the Parliament alone to frame laws on the issues in question is best epitomized by its decision in the celebrated case of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan where the Court issued a set of concrete guidelines for the protection of working women from sexual harassment at the workplace. Even though Article 51(c), Article 253 and entry 14 of the Union List in the 7th Schedule exclusively empower Parliament to frame laws to give effect to India’s commitments under international treaties, the Court decided to give effect to those commitments through the issuance of its guidelines to fill the void created by Parliament. Second, Article 141 and 144 impose a mandatory obligation on all authorities, civil or judicial, to follow the directions issued by the Supreme Court. Therefore, I would submit that the NJAC would be bound by the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court until Parliament makes express provisions to regulate the election of eminent persons or the exercise of veto power. If the 99th amendment or the NJAC Act had contained express provisions to address these two issues in a manner inconsistent with the Constitution and the judiciary had then issued guidelines to bring those provisions in line with the Constitution, the argument that such a step by the judiciary amounts to rewriting express statutory or Constitutional provisions may have passed muster, but since the two acts are completely silent about the parameters governing the exercise of veto power or the selection of eminent persons, the judiciary would be merely discharging its constitutional obligation in construing the new regime in a manner consistent with the Constitution. This would be a mere exercise of judicial pragmatism or, at most, a form of judicial activism actuated by the twin goals of preventing a constitutional crisis and ensuring that the process of judicial appointments does not suffer from the vice of arbitrariness.

In sum, it is a widely accepted proposition that the collegium system entirely failed to achieve the objectives that it was set up for because of lack of transparency, absence of valid parameters for the appointment of members of the collegium as well as absence of objective criteria for the appointment of judges. This being the case, it would be in the fitness of things for the judiciary to imbue the consultative and transparent framework that the legislature, in its collective wisdom, has sought to institutionalize for the appointment of judges with the values that would bring it in line with the Indian Constitution.

(Rahul Bajaj is an intern at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy)

Debating the NJAC – Article 124C, Excessive Delegation, and the Separation of Powers: A Response – III (Guest Post)

(Rounding off our debate about Article 124C of the Constitution, in this second part of their two-part essay, Ritwika Sharma and Faiza Rahman defend its constitutionality.)

In the first part of our defence of Article 124C, we argued that the said provision is neither violative of the principle of separation of powers nor vests a process which was hitherto enumerated under the Constitution within the contours of a law enacted by Parliament. In the second part of our defence, we argue that Article 124C cannot be challenged for suffering from the vice of excessive delegation insofar it delegates the power to frame regulations on the NJAC. The petitioners had, on occasions more than one, challenged Section 12 of the NJAC Act for conferring the NJAC with the power to frame regulations on a wide range of aspects pertaining to the functioning of the NJAC. An extensive discussion on the contours of delegated legislation has already taken place on this blog. Our defence of Article 124C, as well as the NJAC Act, is premised on certain specific aspects, as following:

First, the NJAC does not have unguided power to frame regulations under the scheme of the NJAC Act. It was specifically averred by the petitioners that the NJAC Act empowers the NJAC to formulate regulations in respect of criteria of suitability, other procedure and conditions for selection and appointment of judges to the higher judiciary. It has been rightly contended that one of the underlying principles for valid delegation of legislative power is that the legislature cannot delegate its essential legislative function. An equally important principle with regard to delegation of legislative principle was laid by the Supreme Court in Agricultural Market Committee v. Shalimar Chemical Works Ltd., (1997) 5 SCC 516:

The principle which, therefore, emerges out is that the essential legislative function consists of the determination of the legislative policy and the legislature cannot abdicate essential legislative function in favour of another. Power to make subsidiary legislation may be entrusted by the legislature to another body of its choice but the legislature should, before delegating, enunciate either expressly or by implication, the policy and the principles for the guidance of the delegates…” [para 26]

Similarly, the Supreme Court held in K.T. Plantation Pvt. Ltd. v. State of Karnataka, (2011) 9 SCC 1:

Law is settled that the court shall not invalidate a legislation on the ground of delegation of essential legislative functions or on the ground of conferring unguided, uncontrolled and vague powers upon the delegate without taking into account the Preamble of the Act as also other provisions of the statute in the event they provide good means of finding out the meaning of the offending statute. The question whether any particular legislation suffered from excessive delegation, has to be determined by the court having regard to the subject-matter, the scheme, the provisions of the statute including its Preamble and the facts and circumstances and the background on which the statute is enacted. See Bhatnagars & Co. Ltd. v. Union of India [AIR 1957 SC 478] and Mohmedalli v. Union of India [AIR 1964 SC 980]” [para 60]

Thus, the lack of guidance to the NJAC to frame regulations is a pertinent factor while addressing the contention on excessive delegation. It is firmly argued that the NJAC’s power to frame regulations under Section 12 of the NJAC Act is not unguided or arbitrary. Under sub-clause (c) of the newly inserted Article 124B of the Constitution, the NJAC is under a duty to “ensure that the person recommended is of ability and integrity”. Under Section 5(2), the NJAC shall recommend a candidate for appointment as a Judge of the Supreme Court on the basis of “ability, merit and any other criteria”. Sections 6(1) and 6(3) of the NJAC Act prescribe similar guidance for appointment of the Chief Justice and other judges of the High Courts. Correspondingly, Sections 12(2)(a) and (c) of the NJAC Act empower the NJAC to frame regulations for the criteria of suitability with respect to appointments, and other procedure and conditions for selection and appointment of Judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts. Under Section 12(2)(a) and (c), the NJAC can frame regulations with respect to criteria of suitability with respect to appointment of a Judge of the Supreme Court, and the High Court, respectively. In light of the principle of ejusdem generis, it can be safely argued that the power of the NJAC to frame regulations with regard to criteria of suitability is not unguided or unfettered. The Supreme Court in Kavalappara Kottarathil Kochuni v. State of Madras, AIR 1960 SC 1080 explained the principle of ejusdem generis in the following words:

…The rule is that when general words follow particular and specific words of the same nature, the general words must be confined to the things of the same kind as those specified…” [para 52]

The criteria of ability and merit, which find mention in Sections 5(2), and Sections 6(1) and 6(3) belong to a genus and are indicative of qualities that are essential for performing the task of a judge. The NJAC is to draw guidance from these words and specify “any other criteria” of a nature akin to the criteria specified by Parliament. Upon application of the rule of ejusdem generis, the phrase “any other criteria” would take colour from “ability” and “merit”. This would act as a safeguard against the NJAC laying down arbitrary criteria for appointment of judges. By virtue of the application of the principle of ejusdem generis, it is argued that Section 5(2), Sections 6(1) and 6(3) and Sections 12(2)(a) and (c) of the NJAC Act do not suffer from the vice of excessive delegation. Section 12 of the NJAC Act is not an instance of the Parliament having abdicated its essential legislative function to the NJAC. Parliament has laid down its policy with sufficient clarity, on the basis of which the NJAC is expected to operate.

Secondly, the approach adopted by the NJAC Act is in line with international best practice with regard to appointment of judges. Even the Constitutional Reform Act, 2005 (CRA 2005) of the United Kingdom, does not lay down any detailed suitability criteria for appointment of judges to the Supreme Court. Quite like the originally enacted Article 124, Section 25 of the CRA 2005 lays down eligibility criteria for appointment of a person as a judge of the Supreme Court (which includes criteria such as having held a judicial office for a period of at least 2 years, been a qualified practitioner for a period of at least 15 years, etc.). The selection process for appointments finds enunciation under Section 27 of the CRA 2005 which, in its sub-section (5), mandates that “Selection must be made on merit.” Evidently, CRA 2005 has only enumerated eligibility criteria for appointment of judges of the Supreme Court and it leaves wide discretion to the selection commission to assess the merit of a candidate by not enumerating the indicators of merit. In fact, the Supreme Court selection commission had by itself devised an “Information Pack” which enumerated the criteria for appointment of judges. In Part I of our defence of Article 124C, we had presented a similar position with regard to the original Article 124 which only laid down eligibility criteria for appointment of judges while leaving the assessment of suitability largely to the Memoranda of Procedure.

Similar has been the experience in the Republic of South Africa which also envisages a commission for the selection of Chief Justice of its Constitutional Court and the President and Deputy President of its Supreme Court of Appeal (the appointing body is called the Judicial Service Commission). This Commission also nominates the names of individuals who are considered for appointment as other judges of the Constitutional Court. Article 178(6) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa states:

The Judicial Service Commission may determine its own procedure, but decisions of the Commission must be supported by a majority of its members.

Evidently, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, like the CRA 2005 does not lay down any specific criteria pertaining to assessment of the suitability of a candidate for appointment and the Judicial Service Commission is given wide discretion in formulating its procedure vis-a-vis the appointment and selection process adopted by them. The illustrative experiences of the UK and South Africa clearly indicate that wide discretion is given to their appointment commissions as regards the criteria for suitability for appointment of judges. Hence, the authority to determine the suitability criteria which has been given to the NJAC under Sections 5, 6 and 12 of the NJAC Act lies in sync with international best practices pertaining to judicial appointment commissions.

Lastly, Article 124C only confers such regulation-making power on the NJAC as is necessary to carry out its procedure. The delegation of power to formulate rules/regulations prescribing procedural matters has been well-recognised. For instance, in Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Education v. Paritosh Bhupesh Kumar Sheth (1984) 4 SCC 27, the Supreme Court held:

So long as the body entrusted with the task of framing the rules or regulations acts within the scope of the authority conferred on it, in the sense that the rules or regulations made by it have a rational acts within the object and purpose of the Statute, the court should not concern itself with the wisdom or efficaciousness of such rules or regulations. It is exclusively within the province of the legislature and its delegate to determine, as a matter of policy, how the provisions of the Statute can best be implemented and what measures, substantive as well as procedural would have to be incorporated in the rules or regulations for the efficacious achievement of the objects and purposes of the Act….” [para 14]

In this regard, one of the provisions that the petitioners specifically challenged the validity of was Section 10(2) of the NJAC Act which lays down that the NJAC shall observe such rules of procedure, including the quorum at its meeting, as it may specify by regulations (under Section 12(2)(i)). The contentious issue was whether the NJAC can determine its own quorum by means of regulations. Quite unsurprisingly, the NJAC Act is not the only statute which comprises such a provision. Section 10(1) of the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority, 1999, Section 8(1) of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, 1997 and Section 7(1) of the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992 are just some of the various statutes that envisage the body being constituted by these Acts as also the entity which lays down the quorum. Yet again, the NJAC Act does not create a legislative innovation in this regard.

It also deserves mention that laying down of voting requirements lies within the province of specifying procedure and the even the Parliament is well within its authority to lay down specifications with regard to the same by means of Parliamentary law. In any event, it is well-recognised that the requirement with regard to voting majorities is procedural, as evident from Kihoto Hollohon v. Zachilhu, 1992 Supp (2) SCC 651:

The amending power under Article 368 is subject to the substantive limitation in that the basic structure cannot be altered or the basic features of the Constitution destroyed. The limitation requiring a special majority is a procedural one…..” [para 65]

Thus, a provision such as Section 6(6), or the second proviso to Section 5(2), which lay down the voting requirements to be followed in the NJAC, are perfectly within the competence of the Parliament and cannot be challenged as an instance of excessive delegation.


The policy with regard to the NJAC Act is abundantly clear. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the NJAC Act explicitly contemplates “a broad based National Judicial Appointments Commission should be established for making recommendations for appointments of Judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts. The said Commission would provide a meaningful role for the judiciary, the executive and eminent persons to present their view points and make the participants accountable, while also introducing transparency in the selection process.” With the policy in place, the NJAC by means of regulations would only fill in relevant details with regard to the procedure to be followed by it. By no stretch of imagination can such regulation-making be challenged for being an excessive delegation of power. Hence, a challenge to Article 124C insofar it delegates the regulation making on the NJAC is misplaced.

Debating the NJAC: Article 124C, Excessive Delegation and the Separation of Powers: A Response – II (Guest Post)

(In a two-part series, Ritwika Sharma and Faiza Rahman respond to my essay on Article 124C, arguing that the provision is entirely constitutional)

Among the many contentious issues that engaged the attention of the Supreme Court in the NJAC case was Article 124C which has been alleged to be violative of the basic feature of the independence of the judiciary. It has also been attacked for entrusting the Parliament with a function that, till now, formed part of the Constitution.

On close scrutiny, it becomes evident that Article 124C empowers the Parliament in two respects: it commences with vesting Parliament with the legislative competence to regulate the procedure for appointment of Supreme Court and High Court judges. Thereafter, it provides the legal basis for the Parliament to empower the NJAC to lay down by regulations the procedure for discharge of its functions, manner of selection of persons and other matters considered necessary.

In Part I of our defence of Article 124C, it is argued that Article 124C cannot be held to be violative of the independence of the judiciary on the following grounds:

First, independence of the judiciary does not connote independence from Parliamentary law. In fact, this was a proposition that was expressly rejected by the framers of the Constitution. Due regard must be had to Article 50 in this context. Article 50, which is one of the Directive Principles of State Policy, states that “The State shall take steps to separate the judiciary from the executive in the public services of the State.

A brief glimpse into the drafting history of this Article would reveal that an amendment proposed by Prof. KT Shah which sought independence of the judiciary from Parliament as well, was expressly rejected by the Constituent Assembly. Prof. KT Shah moved the following amendment in the Constituent Assembly Debate dated 23rd May 1949 (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VIII, Book 3, p. 218):

Sir, I move:

That under Chapter IV of Part V, the following new article be added:-

“102-A. Subject to this constitution the Judiciary in India shall be completely separate from and wholly independent of the Executive or the Legislature.”

Prof. K.T Shah while proposing Article 102-A stated-

“In this amendment: it is not merely the separation of judiciary from the Executive, but also its independence, and I want it to be also separate from the legislature and the executive.

However, Prof. KT Shah’s proposed amendment was decisively rejected by the Constituent Assembly. Shri KM Munshi on 23rd May 1949 (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VIII, Book 3, p. 220-221) opposed the inclusion of Article 102A stating that:

“This Constitution is based on an entirely different principle, adopting the British Model. We have invested the Judiciary with as much independence as is possessed by the Privy Council in England and to large extent, by the Supreme Court of America; but any water-tight compartment of powers have been rejected. That is with regard to separation of powers.

Evidently, the framers of the Constitution did not envisage the inclusion of a standalone article which would have enforced a strict separation of powers between the three branches of government. A construction of judicial independence which seeks independence from Parliament, or Parliamentary law would anyway be an anomaly given the framework of our Constitution. In fact, the scheme of the Constitution itself reveals that certain pertinent aspects pertaining to judicial functioning are regulated by Parliamentary law. Some illustrative examples of such laws are:

1. The Judges (Inquiry) Act, 1968 which regulates the procedure of investigation during the impeachment proceedings against a judge. This legislation emanates from the enabling Article 124(5) by virtue of which Parliament is empowered by law to regulate the procedure for the presentation of an address and for the investigation and proof of the misbehavior or incapacity of a Judge under clause (4). An observation was made in this regard in Sarojini Ramaswami v. Union of India, (1992) 4 SCC 506 this Hon’ble Court:

Article 124(5) mandates enactment of a parliamentary law to regulate the investigation and proof of misbehaviour or incapacity of a Judge under Clause (4) and pursuant to it the Judges (Inquiry) Act, 1968 has been enacted by the Parliament….” [para 24]

2. Similarly, Parliament has enacted the Supreme Court Judges (Salaries and Conditions of Service) Act, 1958 and the High Court Judges (Salaries and Conditions of Service) Act, 1954. The powers to enact both these laws can be respectively traced to Articles 125 and 221 of the Constitution. These provisions allow the Parliament to enact laws determining the salaries, pension and other privileges of Judges of Supreme Court (Article 125), and of the High Court (Article 221).

3. Under Article 138, Parliament may by law confer on the Supreme Court such further jurisdiction and powers with respect to any of the matters in the Union List. Consequently, Parliament has widened the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court by means of the Supreme Court (Enlargement of Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction) Act, 1970.

Similar provisions pertaining to other aspects of judicial functioning exist throughout Chapter IV of Part V (the Union Judiciary) and Chapter V of Part VI (the High Courts in the States) of the Constitution. Essentially, Article 124C empowers the Parliament to enact a law regulating the procedure for appointment of judges of the Supreme Court and High Court, something which is entirely within its legislative competence. It would be anybody’s case that the method to remove judges as well fixation of their salaries and conditions of service are aspects vital to the independence of the judiciary. These laws cited above are just as vulnerable to amendment by the Parliament as provisions of the NJAC Act would be. The framers of the Constitution could not have intended to compromise with the independence of the judiciary by vesting Parliament with the power to enact such laws. In fact, such provisions are reinforcement of the wisdom of the Parliament to enact laws which are not prejudicial to judicial independence. Clearly, regulation of certain facets of judicial functioning by means of Parliamentary law is not an innovation devised by Article 124C.

Secondly, it argued that Articles 124 and 217, as they originally stood, did not lay down the entire procedure for appointment of judges. The first limb of this argument hinges upon the crucial distinction between “eligibility” and “suitability”. Articles 124 and 217 only laid down “eligibility” criteria for appointment of judges which, at the most, are the minimum threshold criteria for filtering prospective candidates. The difference between “eligibility” and “suitability” was discussed in Mahesh Chandra Gupta v. Union of India, (2009) 8 SCC 273:

At this stage, we may state that, there is a basic difference between “eligibility” and “suitability”. The process of judging the fitness of a person to be appointed as a High Court Judge falls in the realm of suitability. Similarly, the process of consultation falls in the realm of suitability. On the other hand, eligibility at the threshold stage comes under Article 217(2)(b). This dichotomy between suitability and eligibility finds place in Article 217(1) in juxtaposition to Article 217(2)….” [para 39]

The Supreme Court further held in Mahesh Chandra Gupta

The appointment of a Judge is an executive function of the President. Article 217(1) prescribes the constitutional requirement of “consultation”. Fitness of a person to be appointed a Judge of the High Court is evaluated in the consultation process (see Basu’s Commentary on the Constitution of India, 6th Edn., p. 234). Once this dichotomy is kept in mind, then, it becomes clear that evaluation of the worth and merit of a person is a matter entirely different from eligibility of a candidate for elevation. Article 217(2), therefore, prescribes a threshold limit or an entry point for a person to become qualified to be a High Court Judge whereas Article 217(1) provides for a procedure to be followed before a person could be appointed as a High Court Judge, which procedure is designed to test the fitness of a person to be so appointed: his character, his integrity, his competence, his knowledge and the like.” [para 41]

Articles 124(3) and 217(2) must be viewed against the backdrop of the distinction between “eligibility” and “suitability”, as enunciated upon in Mahesh Chandra Gupta. When Article 124(3) mandates that a person shall not be qualified for appointment as a Judge of the Supreme Court unless he is a citizen of India and (a) has been for at least five years a Judge of a High Court or of two or more High Courts in succession; or (b) has been for at least ten years an advocate of a High Court or of two or more High Courts in succession; or (c) is a distinguished jurist, in the opinion of the President, it only lays down the minimum eligibility criteria that need to be fulfilled for a person to be considered for appointment. Similarly, Article 217(2) lays down minimum eligibility criteria for appointment of a person as a judge of a High Court. Clearly, the framers of the Constitution found sufficient to only enumerate the “eligibility criteria” within the four corners of the Constitution. “Suitability criteria” would have to be located somewhere else.

The second limb of this argument addresses the issue of “suitability criteria”. Such criteria which are meant to assess the fitness of prospective candidates are considered in accordance with the Memorandum Showing the Procedure for Appointment of the Chief Justice of India and Judges of the Supreme Court of India as well as the Memorandum Showing the Procedure for Appointment and Transfer of Chief Justices and Judges of High Courts, documents which have been agreed to jointly by the Chief Justice of India and the Ministry of Law and Justice. Considerations such as inter se seniority of puisne judges, and conditions such as medical fitness are some of the aspects which are to be considered under these Memoranda. For instance, for appointment of the Chief Justice of India, the Memorandum of Procedure for the Supreme Court lays down that:

Appointment to the office of the Chief Justice of India should be of the seniormost Judge of the Supreme Court considered fit to hold the office. The Union Minister of Law, Justice and Company Affairs would, at the appropriate time, seek the recommendation of the outgoing Chief Justice of India for the appointment of the next Chief Justice of India.” [para 2]

In the Memorandum for High Courts also, seniority is considered to be a determining factor:

For purposes of elevation as Chief Justices the inter-se seniority of puisne Judges will be reckoned on the basis of their seniority in their own High Courts and they will be considered for appointment as Chief Justices in other High Courts when their turn would normally have come for being considered for such appointment in their own High Courts.” [para 3]

Hence, seniority is used as one of the criteria to determine suitability of a candidate under the Memoranda. The Memoranda, for both the Supreme Court and the High Courts lay down the procedure to be followed for appointment of the Chief Justice, Acting Chief Justice, permanent judges, additional judges, ad hoc judges and acting judges, as and when applicable. The Memorandum of Procedure for the High Courts also specifically lays down the procedure for transfer of a Judge from one High Court to another High Court. Keeping in view the framework of Articles 124 and 217, and the Memoranda of Procedure, it can be inferred that the framers of the Constitution did not find it imperative to include suitability criteria within the provisions of the Constitution. In fact, thus far, the task of laying down suitability criteria is being performed by the executive by means of these memoranda of procedure. It is difficult to imagine how the independence of the judiciary would be violated if this task is now entrusted to the Parliament under Article 124C.

In light of the above, it is submitted that Article 124C is not violative of the independence of the judiciary. In fact, it is an attempt to put flesh and blood into the skeletal structure that the 99th Amendment seeks to create. In the second part of this essay, we would proceed to argue that Article 124C is not an instance of excessive delegation, and falls within the permissible limits of delegated legislation.