THE FOUR STAGES OF CONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATION IN INDIA
*By Vedansh Gupta, 2nd Year Student at National law University Odisha
The constitution of India came into force on 26th January, 1950. It is known as the “supreme organic law” of the state which empowers the citizens of India to hold various basic fundamental rights. It is from the constitution only that the three pillars of Indian democracy source and extract their powers. Also, various constitutional, financial, administrative and legislative commissions have been set up since the commencement of the constitution of the country. These commissions also exercise their powers through the constitution of India.
However, duties follow rights and, restrictions follow power. These constitutional committees and commission can be set up to do any work and act freely unless the act is prohibited by any law in force in the country which derives its powers from the constitution of the country.
In India, power has been expressly conferred upon the legislature by the constitution itself to make any law on any subject specified in the Union list given in the 7th Schedule of the constitution. The legislature also has powers to impose reasonable restrictions on the fundamental rights guaranteed to each and every citizen of India. However, the power to determine the reasonableness of the actions and restrictions imposed by the legislature lies with the Indian judiciary through ‘judicial review’.
Certifying an act as reasonable or unreasonable requires a thorough and complete understanding of the Indian constitution. However, the constitution was made and enacted 70 years ago, and it is flexible in nature due to the presence of constitutional amendments. Hence, interpretation of the constitution is very essential and the judiciary should try its best to interpret the constitution so as to correctly check the validity of an amendment, act or restriction.
Since the enactment of the constitution, the three pillars and their practices have evolved a lot. The evolution of Indian Judiciary can be understood by understanding the ways in which it interpreted the constitution of the country from the past till the present. Thus, it brings us to the following stages of constitutional interpretation:
It is the first phase of constitutional interpretation used in the early years of democratic India. It is the view that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its original meaning or the text should be interpreted according to its literal meaning. In earlier times, the major questions were regarding the constitutionalism of the government in its amending powers, especially fundamental rights.
Shankari Prasad Singh v UOI and Sajjan Singh v State of Rajasthan are two prominent cases in which the Supreme Court used the theory of Originalism to interpret the constitution. However, a literal meaning of the text resulted in the conclusion that there were no limitations of the government to amend the fundamental rights of citizens.
A literal meaning of the text endangered the power of basic rights given to the lawful citizens of the country. Therefore, the apex court came up with the concept of a basic structure of the constitution which cannot be amended under any circumstances. Some of the features of the constitution were regarded as basic in the case of Kesavananda Bharti v State of Kerala.
However, the structural interpretation was more strengthened in the case of Minerva Mills Limited v UOI. The apex court said that it is the function of the judges to pronounce upon the validity of any law. The structural interpretation means that the features of the constitution defined as basic cannot be amended and of any attempt has been made to amend them then such amendment will fall under the purview of judicial review.
It is due to the structural interpretation only that the scope of the Right to Life has been increased continuously. This was made possible because the fundamental rights were free from any amendment.
- Living Constitutionalism:
The term “Living Constitution” compares the Constitution with a living organism which grows and changes in response to its environment. This theory of constitutional interpretation suggests that the judges should try to interpret the constitution in accordance with the changes in the contemporary society.
This is only possible when there is a meeting of diverse minds. The biggest factor which brought about this change was the increase in the number of judges from 8 to 34. The judges then started to sit in groups of two or three which helped them in taking decisions based on notions of fairness that are detached from doctrine, precedent and established interpretive methods.
A living constitution is one that evolves alongside the needs of the society. The Living Originalism theory believes in the theory of the constitution as a “living document” which adapts itself according to the needs of the people in the society. It has also helped the judges to bring forth the idea of ‘independence of the judiciary’ with the independence of thoughts and ideas of the judges in their decisions.
- Transformative Constitutionalism:
We are currently in the center of the transition from the third stage of constitutional definition to the fourth. The constitution of India, since its very enactment, was meant to be transformative and revolutionary in its character. It was intended to positively change the relationship between the state and individuals by recognizing and securing each and every individual’s rights.
The court has now started to interpret the constitution according to its potential. However, the real transformation can only be achieved if due importance is given to the fundamental rights given to the country’s people like the ‘right to freedom’, ‘right to equality’ and the ‘right to life and personal liberty’. The nation has seen certain historic and landmark cases for the past 2-3 years where more importance has been given to the rights of citizens.
Lifting the ban on entry of women between 10-50 years of age into the Sabrimala temple, decriminalizing Section 377 (Homosexuality) of the Indian Penal Code, finding Section 497 (Adultery) of the Indian Penal Code to be unconstitutional, putting the office of the Chief Justice of India under the Right to Information Act and the Supreme Court’s live streaming are some of the most relevant steps that have been taken by the independent judiciary to bring about social change in the judicial and the constitutional sector.
The Conclusion: The constitution is an organic document which is growing in its scope and interpretation. There cannot be a total shift from one phase of interpretation to the other. A constitution is a dynamic document which requires different methods of interpretation while reading different articles or parts. Sometimes, two or more interpretative techniques might be required to clearly understand the meaning of the constitution. A correct understanding of the constitution is necessary because the primary motive of the Indian judiciary is to provide justice to the seekers and an incorrect reading or interpretation of the text can lead the seeker far away from justice to injustice. Hence, the Indian judiciary evolves itself according to the needs of the people and the society to distribute justice and equality to the citizen of the country and the various phases of constitutional interpretation is one big example of judicial evolution.