Polity

Golak Nath Case: Historical Background and the Aftermath

Golak Nath Case

In the previous blog, Keshwananda Bharati Case: The Case that saved our constitution, we discussed the most significant judgment by the Supreme Court that saved our Democracy and Constitution, which stated that the basic structure of our constitution cannot be amended or abrogated by the Parliament. Surely this judgment has a big historical background, from land reform policies to numerous other cases that eventually led to this judgment. And the Golak Nath case was undoubtedly one of its major contributors. So, in this article, we’ll be discussing the Golak Nath Case, 1967.

Golak Nath Case
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Golak Nath Case: Historical Background

Right to Property

The Indian Constitution initially provided us with seven fundamental rights-

  • Right to Equality
  • Right to Freedom
  • Right against Exploitation
  • Right to Freedom of Religion
  • Right to Minorities(Cultural and Educational Rights)
  • Right to Constitutional Remedies
  • Right to Property

However, The status of the Right to Property was reduced to a Legal Right by the 44th Constitutional Amendment in 1978.

Golak Nath Case
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The Right to property was initially provided in Article 19(1) which granted citizens the right to acquire, hold and dispose property. It also granted every person, whether a citizen or a non-citizen, the right against deprivation of his property.
However, it also empowered the state to acquire the property of an individual in two conditions-

  • It should be for the public purpose
  • It should provide for payment of compensation to the owner.

However, this right created a lot of hurdles in the welfare and land reform policies adopted by the state. With the land reform policies, the government tried to eliminate zamindari and undertake land redistribution and land ceiling (putting a cap on the maximum area of agriculture/rural land an individual can hold) policies aimed at reducing income inequality. But many zamindars and individuals holding large areas of land firmly opposed these policies taken by the government. They moved to the Supreme Court and asserted that their property was forcefully acquired by the government, which is curtailing their fundamental right.

Most of the judgments, initially, went in favor of the petitioner, like the Golak Nath case. This led to a series of conflicts between the Government and the Supreme Court. And the Government, in retaliation, made several Constitutional Amendments to curtail the powers of the Supreme Court in this regard, like the First Constitutional Amendment, and the 24th Constitutional Amendment, which eventually repealed and nullified the judgment of the Golak Nath case.

Golak Nath Case
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Finally, with the 44th Constitutional Amendment, the status of a fundamental right was removed from the Right to Property. Article 300(A) was added in the constitution which stated that no person shall be deprived of his property save by the authority of law. Right to Property is no longer a fundamental right which means that it can be changed and modified by the Parliament, and is not included in the basic structure of our constitution.

1st Constitutional Amendment, 1951 

The First Constitutional Amendment, 1951, was the first measure to curtail the powers of the Supreme Court in the matters of Land Reforms and dilute the Right to Property.

First Amendment added a new clause, Article 31(A) which stated that if an individual’s property is seized under the land reform policies, then the provisions of Article 31 (Right to Property) shall not be applicable to this seizure. This amendment curtailed the powers of the Supreme Court as an individual cannot challenge the policies of land reforms such as Land Ceiling and Land Redistribution in the Supreme Court on the grounds of Right to Property.

Keshwananda Bharati Case
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It also added the ninth schedule in the constitution (initially eight) which stated that any acts passed by the Central and State Legislative assemblies, would not be eligible for Judicial Review by the Supreme Court.
*Judicial Review- A process by which the Judiciary checks whether the actions of the Legislative, Executive, and Administrative are compatible with the constitution i.e. whether the action is justified by the constitution. And if the judiciary finds the action to be incompatible, then it has the power to nullify the action.

The Shankari Prasad Case, 1951

Shankari Prasad moved to the Supreme Court challenging the 1st Constitutional Amendment. In his argument, he stated that the 1st C.A. is unconstitutional because it limits the Fundamental Right (Right to Property). And according to Article 13(2) of the constitution, any law made by the legislature (state or center) that limits our fundamental rights shall be nullified.

The Government argued that Article 368( Which deals with the powers and procedures of the parliament to amend the constitution) is independent of Article 13. Hence, the provisions of Article 13 cannot be applied to Article 368. So, Article 13 cannot limit the powers of the Parliament to amend the constitution.

Supreme Court gave the judgment in the favor of the Government and recognized the government’s argument, that the provisions of Article 13 cannot limit the powers of Article 368.

Golak Nath Case
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However, this judgment was quite controversial, as it stated that the government can formulate any laws it pleased, even if it curtails the powers of the Supreme Court, even if it limits, or even abrogates our fundamental rights. And this power, given to the government by Article 368, and recognized by the Supreme Court in the Shankari Prasad judgment, could very well be misused by the government.

But this judgment was repealed by the Supreme Court in the Golak Nath case.

Golak Nath case, 1967

In various states, even after prolonged efforts by the government, and limited intervention by the Supreme Court, it was still difficult to seize the land of zamindars and elites under the land reform policies of the respective states, like Punjab. So, before his death, Jawaharlal Nehruji passed the 17th Constitutional Amendment Act in 1964, which included certain acts related to land reforms of various states like Punjab in the Ninth Schedule.

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In Punjab, the Golak Nath family held 500 acres of agricultural land in Jalandhar. But the Punjab Security and Land Tenures Act stated that after partition, the brothers (Henry and William Golak Nath) can claim only 30 acres of land each (land ceiling) and the rest would go to the State Government.

The Golak Nath family opposed this seizure and went to the Supreme Court challenging the 17th Constitutional Amendment. The argument was the same as the Shankari Prasad case, claiming that the state cannot limit their fundamental right (Right to Property). This argument also challenged the judgment of the Supreme Court which stated that Article 368 is independent of Article 13.

The 11 Judge Bench, with a majority of 6:5, gave the judgment in favor of the Golak Nath Family and stated that Article 368 is not independent of Article 13. This judgment ultimately nullified the past judgment of the Supreme Court.
The Eleven Judge Bench consisted of Judges-

  • K. Subbarao (Chief Justice)
  • Kailas Nath Wanchoo
  • M. Hidayatullah
  • J.C. Shah
  • S.M. Sikri
  • R.S. Bachawat
  • V. Ramaswami
  • J.M. Shelat
  • Vasishtha Bhargava
  • G.K. Mitter
  • C.A. Vaidyialingam

However, this judgment could’ve created chaos and hurt the land reform policies undertaken by the government in the past. To prevent this disarray from happening, the Supreme Court clarified that this judgment was not retrospective in nature.

Aftermath 

This judgment, as you can assume, would’ve surely had major consequences for the policies of the government such as the Bank Nationalization, Insurance Companies Nationalization, and enhanced Land Ceiling policies. The Bank Nationalization act was challenged in the Supreme Court by R.C Cooper, who held stakes in the Bank of Baroda and Union Bank of India. And the Supreme Court, with the majority of 10:1, again gave the judgment against the government and nullified the act.

Image by- Times of India

Hence, the government, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi had to find a solution, to undertake their policies, even if it curtails the powers of the Supreme Court. So, Indira Gandhi, after forming the government with an absolute majority (352 seats) in 1971, had the power to take strong decisions and make the required amendments.

So, the Parliament passed the 24th Constitutional Amendment Act,1971, which eventually nullified the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Golak Nath case.

24th Constitutional Amendment 

24th Constitutional Amendment added Clause 4 to Article 13 and Clause 3 to Article 368, and mentioned the same thing in both the clauses-

  • 13(4)- Nothing in this Article shall apply to any amendment of the constitution made under Article 368.
  • 368(3)- Nothing in Article 13 shall apply to any amendment of the constitution made under this article.

So, the 24th Constitutional Amendment ultimately repealed the Supreme Cout’s judgment on the Golak Nath case and clarified that Article 368 is independent of Article 13. This gave the Parliament the powers to formulate any laws it pleased, even if it curtailed the Fundamental Rights.

However, this Constitutional Amendment gave unlimited powers to the government to limit our fundamental rights, and even repeal the Basic Structure of our constitution. And giving unlimited powers in the hands of the Parliament means going in the path of authoritarian society. 

Keshwananda Bharati Case
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But then came the Keshwananda Bharati case, which saved our Democracy and the Basic Structure of our Constitution-

Keshwananda Bharati Case: The Case that saved our constitution

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