Tryst for Democracy: Celebrating 45 years of Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain

“This action is totally within our constitutional framework and it was undertaken in order not to destroy the constitution but to preserve the constitution and safeguard our democracy”.

– Indira Gandhi to the Lok Sabha on 22nd July, 1975

INTRODUCTION

Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain (“Indira Gandhi’s case”)[1] is widely renowned to be the scapegoat for the political debacle that took place in the mid 70’s. It was the immediate, though not the real cause of the ensuing revolution. The country fell in a slumber on the night which began on 26th of June 1975 and ended on 21st of March 1977, with a resounding defeat of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and her Congress party, at the polls. This started when Raj Narain, who had contested elections against Indira Gandhi from Rae Bareilly, cried foul after the results of the elections were declared. He claimed that Indira Gandhi won due to corrupt practices and due to her clout as the Prime Minister. He also alleged that Mrs. Gandhi used her position to take undue advantage from government servants and the Air Force.

The Allahabad High Court held for Raj Narain, and Mrs. Indira Gandhi was barred from contesting elections for 6 years. This was seen as a serious challenge for Mrs. Gandhi’s power in the Indian political scenario. This was appealed in the Supreme Court and in the meantime the draconian 39th Constitutional Amendment was passed. This amendment barred the Apex Court’s intervention in matters related to the election of the Prime Minister, President, Vice-President and the Speaker of Lok Sabha. The constitutionality of this amendment was hence, challenged in the appeal as well. The court applied the Basic Structure doctrine laid down in the Kesavananda Bharti v. State of Kerala[2] for the first time and rightly struck down this amendment. The principles of Free and fair elections were upheld in this judgement.

AFTERMATH

In this case, the Apex Court struck down the 39th Amendment to the Constitution on grounds of violating the Basic Structure doctrine. This decision caused discomfort to the legislature. In light of the same, the Parliament passed the 42nd Amendment Act in 1976 (“42nd Amendment”). §55 of the 42nd Amendment[3] inserted two additional clauses (4) and (5) in Article 368 which highlighted that no amendment to the constitution made by the legislature can be open to judicial review. This also gave unlimited constituent power to the parliament to amend the provisions of the Constitution. This act of the Parliament had nullified the demarcation made between the Legislature and Judiciary by the Principle of Separation of Powers and thus, the courts lost their power of judicial review with respect to any amendment to the Constitution. Rightly so, this amendment was struck down in Minerva Mills v. Union of India[4] on grounds of violating the Basic Structure doctrine of Principle of Separation of Powers and affecting the right to legal remedy which is the essence of democracy. 

CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE

The impact of Indira Gandhi’s case is felt even in the present times. Courts have relied upon the principles laid down in this case in various legal facets.

The principle of Separation of Powers was propounded and strengthened by this case. There are instances of courts and counsels referring to this judgement in order to further their arguments with relation to Separation of Powers being an integral part of the Basic Structure of the constitution. One such instance can be seen in Madras Bar Association v. Union of India.[5] The constitutional validity of the National Tax Tribunal Act, 2005 was challenged along with §46 of the Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) act, 1976[6] and Article 323-B of the Constitution. It was contended that §46 was ultra vires the Basic Structure of the Constitution. It was argued that the jurisdiction of the High court is being taken away and is being given to the tribunals. The court relied on Indira Gandhi’s case, and opined that the Indian Constitution recognises Separation of Powers without any rigidity. The Constitution has a Basic Structure comprising of 3 organs: Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. Neither of these organs can take over the other’s functions. However, it is important to note that no constitution can survive without a conscious adherence to checks and balances. Just as the courts ought not to enter in the ‘Political Thicket’, the Parliament should also respect the preserve of the courts. The court also said that Separation of Powers is more like a Principle of Restraint. Hence, by relying on Indira Gandhi’s case, the Supreme Court declared the National Tax Tribunal Act, 2005 to be unconstitutional.

Additionally, the Supreme Court in Mahmadhusen Abdulrahim Kalkota v. Union of India[7] had also delved into the Principle of Separation of Powers. The question posed before the Supreme Court was whether removal of judicial review from trial courts which is the concept behind §321 of the Code of Civil Procedure[8] by Prevention of Terrorism (Repeal) Act 2004 (“POTA (Repeal) Act 2004”) violates the Principle of Separation of Powers. The Court, to determine the said issue drew a parallel with Indira Gandhi’s case where Article 329A (4) was declared as unconstitutional, as it was devoid of the concept of judicial review. However, POTA (Repeal) Act 2004, by barring the jurisdiction of trial courts does not entirely eradicate judicial power. Judicial Review is still available under Article 226 of the Constitution. Hence, the Court drew an inference that POTA (Repeal) Act, 2004 does not violate the Principle of Separation of Powers.

In the case of Dr. B.K. Naik v. State of Karnataka,[9] the constitutionality of the ‘Karnataka Private Aided Educational Institutions Employees (Regulation of Pay, Pension and other Benefits) Act, 2014’ was challenged before the Karnataka High Court. This Act was given a retrospective application.  The Petitioners in this case had contended that §87 of the Karnataka Education Act, 1983 provides for the same parameters in terms of pay for both types of employees. However, the same has been whittled down by the Amending Act which was applied retrospectively resulting in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution.  The question that firstly came before the Court was whether State could give such a legislation a retrospective application for which the Court relied on the principles laid down by Chief Justice Ajoy Nath Ray in Indira Gandhi’s case which stated that ‘Rendering ineffective of judgements by courts by changing their basis by a legislation is a well-known pattern for all validating Acts. Such legislations which removes the cause for invalidity of actions or proceedings does not amount to encroachment on judicial power.’  Thus, the Court inferred that the legislature can at any time exercise its plenary power under Article 245[10] and 246[11] to render a judicial decision ineffective by enacting a valid law.

CONCLUSION

The year 1975 had witnessed mesmerising developments in the judicial arena. It is rightly said that Indira Gandhi’s case had shaken the entire nation, and the ripples are felt even today. There were far reaching consequences of this judgement. This laid down the benchmark which clearly proved, that whenever the Parliament would be greedy, the Judiciary would show that democracy always prevails. The essence of the judgement is present even today, as courts continue to rely on the principles which have been elucidated in the case. 

[1] Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Shri Raj Narain & Anr. 1976 (2) SCR 347.

[2] (1973) 4 SCC 225.

[3] Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976, s. 55.

[4] AIR 1980 SC 1789.

[5] (2010) 11 SCC.

[6] Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976, s. 46.

[7] (2009) 2 SCC 1.

[8] Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (Act 5 of 1908), s. 321.

[9] ILR 2015 KAR 5236.

[10] The Constitution of India, 1950, art. 245.

[11] Ibid., art. 246.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Anshika Sharma

Anshika Sharma image

Anshika is a final year student studying in  ILS Law College Pune. Her areas of interest cover corporate laws, dispute resolution, constitutional  law and labour laws. 

Jay Kakani

Jay Kakani image

Jay is a final year student studying in ILS Law College, Pune. His areas of interest include Corporate Laws, dispute resolution, constitutional law and taxation laws.

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