From the resolution of contentious issues regarding distribution of legislative powers by the courts, ‘Principle of Federal Supremacy’ and ‘Harmonious Construction’ have emerged. Explain. (10 Marks)

Mentors Comments:

  • The nature of the question here is analytical and it is not straight forward.
  • You have to explain how, through judicial interpretation and judgements, over the years, the legislative powers have been devolved and federal supremacy has been upheld and Doctrine of Harmonious construction have evolved.
  • In the introduction, define the doctrine of federal supremacy and harmonious construction. 
  • In the main body, you have to discuss how the principle of federal supremacy was upheld and how harmonious construction has emerged.
  • The most important aspect will be the discussion on the five principles laid down by the on the rule of Harmonious Construction in the case of CIT v Hindustan Bulk Carriers.
  • To drive home your point, you can give examples of how some state laws were quashed which were ultra vires or against federal laws recently. 
  • Conclude with summarizing the whole discussion.


Interpretation means the art of finding out the true sense of enactment by giving the words of the enactment their natural and ordinary meaning. It is the process of ascertaining the true meaning of the words used in a statute. The Court is not expected to interpret arbitrarily and therefore there have been certain principles which have evolved out of the continuous exercise by the Courts. “Principle of Federal Supremacy” and “Harmonious Construction” have emerged from various such interpretations by various courts.

Harmonious Construction:

  • When there is a conflict between two or more statues or two or more parts of a statute then the rule of harmonious construction needs to be adopted. 
  • The rule follows a very simple premise that every statute has a purpose and intent as per law and should be read as a whole. 
  • The interpretation consistent of all the provisions of the statute should be adopted. 
  • In the case in which it shall be impossible to harmonize both the provisions, the court’s decision regarding the provision shall prevail.
  • The rule of harmonious construction is the thumb rule to the interpretation of any statute. 
  • The Courts should avoid “a head-on clash”, in the words of the Supreme Court, between the different parts of enactment and conflict between the various provisions should be sought to be harmonized. 
  • The normal presumption should be consistency and it should not be assumed that what is given with one hand by the legislature is sought to be taken away by the other. 
  • The rule of harmonious construction has been tersely explained by the Supreme Court thus, “When there are, in an enactment two provisions which cannot be reconciled with each other, they should be so interpreted, that if possible, the effect should be given to both”. 
  • A construction which makes one portion of the enactment a dead letter should be avoided since harmonization is not equivalent to destruction.

The Supreme Court laid down five principles of rule of Harmonious Construction in the landmark case of CIT v Hindustan Bulk Carriers:

  • The courts must avoid a head-on clash of seemingly contradicting provisions and they must construe the contradictory provisions so as to harmonize them.
  • The provision of one section cannot be used to defeat the provision contained in another unless the court, despite all its effort, is unable to find a way to reconcile their differences. 
  • When it is impossible to completely reconcile the differences in contradictory provisions, the courts must interpret them in such a way so that effect is given to both the provisions as much as possible.
  • Courts must also keep in mind that interpretation that reduces one provision to a useless number or dead is not harmonious construction.
  • To harmonize is not to destroy any statutory provision or to render it fruitless.

Principle of Federal Supremacy:

  • The system of distribution of administrative powers between union and states is followed in the Constitution of India in various administrative fields. 
  • In addition to the array of subject allotted in the VII Schedule of Constitution, even in normal time parliament can under certain circumstances, assume legislative power over a subject falling within the sphere exclusively reserved for the states. 
  • Besides the power to legislate on a very wide field, the Constitution confers in the Union Parliament, the constituent power or the power to initiate amendment of the Constitution.
  • In the West Bengal case of 1963, it was the first time where this issue was discussed at length by the Apex Court. 
  • The main issue involved in this case was the exercise of sovereign powers by the Indian states. 
  • The legislative competence of the Parliament to enact a law for compulsory acquisition by the Union of land and other properties vested in or owned by the state and the sovereign authority of states as distinct entities were also examined.
  • The Supreme Court held that both the legislative and executive power of the States are subject to the respective supreme powers of the Union.
  • The court concluded that the structure of the Indian Union as provided by the Constitution one is centralized, with the States occupying a secondary position vis-à-vis the Centre, hence the Centre possessed the requisite powers to acquire properties belonging to States.
  • The crux of the majority judgment, in this case, is that even though both the Union and the States in India derive legislative powers from the same Constitution, the States would have no legal rights as against the overriding powers of the Union, because of a general theory of paramountcy or superiority of the Union.

Harmonious construction is only applied where there is a conflict between the meaning coming out of two different sections and the meaning land the courts in a dubious situation of which section to apply. According to the principle of federal supremacy, even though both the Union and the States in India derive legislative powers from the same Constitution, the States would have no legal rights as against the overriding powers of the Union, because of a general theory of paramountcy or superiority of the Union. Therefore the rule of Harmonious Construction and Principle of Federal Supremacy both play an important role in the interpretation of statutes and are two important rules of interpretation.


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