[op-ed of snap] The four phases of constitutional interpretation


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much.

Mains level: Paper 2- Evolutionary phases through which the interpretation of Constitution by judiciary passed.


The ways in which the Constitution of India is interpreted has undergone changes through four phases.

Constitution-An Ambitious political experiment

  • Indian Constitution was an ambitious political experiment for the following reasons-
    • Universal Adult Franchise: India began its journey with the universal adult franchise.
    • Federalism: Federalism in a region consisting of over 550 princely States.
    • The promise of Equality: The Constitution was a sort of social revolution in a deeply unequal society with the promise of equality.
    • Unique constitutional design: it was equally a unique achievement in terms of constitutional design.

The first phase of interpretation-Focus on text

  • A textualist approach-focusing on the plain meaning of the words: In its early years, the Supreme Court adopted a textualist approach, focusing on the plain meaning of the words used in the Constitution.
    • K. Gopalan v. State of Madras (1950) was one of the early decisions in which the Court was called upon to interpret the fundamental rights under Part III.
    • The leader of the Communist Party of India claimed that preventive detention legislation under which he was detained was inconsistent with Articles 19 (the right to freedom), 21 (the right to life) and 22 (the protection against arbitrary arrest and detention).
    • Fundamental rights separate from each other: The Supreme Court decided in A. K. Gopalan case that each of those articles covered entirely different subject matter, and were to be read as separate codes rather than being read together.
  • Unlimited Amendment Power: In its early years, the Court read the Constitution literally, concluding that there were no limitations on the Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution.

The second phase of interpretation-Focus on ‘basic structure’

  • Appeals to the structure and coherence: Appeals to the text of the Constitution were gradually overtaken by appeals to the Constitution’s overall structure and coherence.
    • Limited Amendment Power-Kesavananda Bharati case: In the leading case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala(1973), the Court concluded that Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution did not extend to altering its “basic structure”.
    • What is the “Basic Structure”: The basic structure is an open-ended list of features that lie within the exclusive control of the Court.
    • When Parliament attempted to overturn this decision by amending the Constitution yet again, the Court, relying on structuralist justifications, decisively rejected that attempt.
  • Key takeaways from Kesavananda Bharati case
    • Limited Amendment Power: In this case, the Court pronounced that Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution is not unlimited.
    • Fundamental rights as a cohesive bill of rights: In this phase, the Court also categorically rejected the Gopalan approach in favour of a structuralist one.
    • Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978):  Through decision, in this case, the Court conceived of the fundamental rights as a cohesive bill of rights rather than a miscellaneous grouping of constitutional guarantees.
    • Incremental interpretation of Right to Life: The right to life was incrementally interpreted to include a wide range of rights such as clean air, speedy trial, and free legal aid.
    • Courts playing role in governance: The incremental interpretation of Article 21 paved the way for the Supreme Court to play an unprecedented role in the governance of the nation.
  • What was common in the first two phases?
    • Interpretation done by Constitutional Benches: That significant decisions involving the interpretation of the Constitution were entrusted to Constitution Benches (comprising five or more judges of court) and were carefully (even if incorrectly) reasoned.
    • Little scope for precedential confusion: There was limited scope for precedential confusion, since matters which had been decided by Constitution Benches and which demanded reconsideration were referred to larger Constitution Benches.

Third Phase of interpretation-Eclecticism

  • Different opinions on the same issues: In the third phase the Supreme Court started to give different opinions on the same issues-i.e. it engaged in eclecticism.
    • Lesser reasoning: The Court often surrendered its responsibility of engaging in a thorough rights reasoning of the issues before it.
    • Two factors underpinned this institutional failure.
  • First-Change in the structure of the SC: The changing structure of the Court, which at its inception began with eight judges, grew to a sanctioned strength of 31; it is currently 34.
  • It began to sit in panels of two or three judges, effectively transforming it into a “polyvocal” group of about a dozen sub-Supreme Courts.
  • Second-expansion of own role by the SC-The Court began deciding cases based on a certain conception of its own role -whether as a sentinel of democracy or protector of the market economy.
  • The focus of the judgement on the result rather than reason: This unique decision-making process sidelined reason-giving in preference to arriving at outcomes that match the Court’s perception.
  • Consequences of the eclecticism
    • Rise of doctrinal incoherence and inconsistency: The failure to give reasons contributed not only to methodological incoherence but also to serious doctrinal incoherence and inconsistency across the law.
    • Conflicting decisions and interpretations: This approach can be best described as panchayati eclecticism, with different Benches adopting inconsistent interpretive approaches based on their conception of the Court’s role, and arriving at conclusions that were often in tension with one another.
    • Decision detached from precedents and established methods: The imagery that panchayati eclecticism is meant to invoke is that of a group of wise men and women (applying the analogy, sub-Supreme Courts), taking decisions based on notions of fairness that are detached from precedent, doctrine and established interpretive methods.

Fourth phase- based on the purpose

  • Purpose of enactment of the Constitution as critical: In the fourth phase, the Court has acknowledged as critical to its interpretive exercise the purpose for which the Constitution has been enacted.
  • The realisation of revolutionary and transformative potential: The Court is now beginning to interpret the Constitution in accordance with its revolutionary and transformative potential.
    • Renaissance in decisions: With about a dozen significant Constitution Bench decisions from the Supreme Court since September 2018, there has been a renaissance in decision-making by Constitution Benches.
    • The most important decisions of this period include-
    • Court’s decisions striking down Section 377 and the criminal offence of adultery.
    • And including the office of the Chief Justice of India within the scope of the Right to Information Act.


With the interpretation process entering in the fourth phase-realising the purpose of enactment of the Constitution- Indian judiciary is on the right track, however, facets of phase 3 continue to linger on it. The Supreme Court must avoid getting in phase three mode to in order to realise the purpose it was entrusted with.





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