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Doctrine of Harmonious Construction: A Comprehensive Analysis

The Doctrine of Harmonious Construction: The Parliament makes a separate set of statutes, rules and legislation as well as constitutional provisions under their well-defined powers. While the framing of these provisions has to be done very carefully, conflict still occurs sometimes due to overlapping in their enforcement.

This is because there are chances of certain gaps being left while framing of these provisions, which could not have been foreseen by legislators. To deal with such conflicts, certain doctrines and rules are propounded by courts that are used in the interpretation of statutes. One such rule of interpretation is the Doctrine of Harmonious Construction.

This article provides an overview of the doctrine along with case laws.

Meaning of the Doctrine of Harmonious Construction

The Doctrine of Harmonious Construction is regarded as the most essential rule to the rule of interpretation of statutes. The doctrine states:

"Whenever there is a case of conflict between two or more statutes or between two or more parts or provisions of a statute, then the statute has to be interpreted upon harmonious construction. It signifies that in case of inconsistencies, proper harmonization is to be done between the conflicting parts so that one part does not defeat the purpose of another."

The principle is premised on a fundamental legal idea that every statute was drafted with a particular purpose and intention in mind, and hence should be understood as a whole. The conventional assumption is that what Parliament has given with one hand will not be taken away with the other. The goal is to put both provisions into action. To avoid dispute, the statute's interpretation should be consistent with all of its provisions.

If it appears impossible to harmoniously construe or reconcile the parts/provisions, the matter is left to the judiciary to decide and render ultimate decision. The goal of the courts is to interpret in such a way that it resolves the disparity or disagreement between the sections and allows the statute to become consistent as a whole and read accordingly.

Origin of the Doctrine
The Doctrine of Harmonious Construction arose from court interpretations in a number of cases. The doctrine's genesis can be linked back to the very first amendment to the Indian Constitution, with the landmark judgement of Shankari Prasad v. Union of India. [1] The issue concerned a dispute between Part III (Fundamental Rights) and Part IV (Directive Principles of State Policy), both of which are fundamental components of the Indian Constitution.

The court adopted the rule of Harmonious Construction and determined that fundamental rights, which are rights granted against the state, might be revoked in specific circumstances and altered by Parliament to bring them into compliance with constitutional provisions. Both were prioritised, and it was agreed that FRs and DPSPs are merely two distinct sides of the same coin that must operate together for the public good.

This concept arose historically from the rule of conciliation, which was initially proposed in the case of C.P and Berar Act.[2] The court used this method of interpretation to prevent overlapping or disagreement between entries 24 and 25 of the State list and read them harmoniously by assessing the breadth of the subjects involved.

Applicability of the Doctrine
To quote the stance of courts on the application of the doctrine of harmonious construction:

"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."[3]

It is a well-settled principle that a statute must be read as a whole and in a manner that one part/provision of the act is harmoniously construed in reference to the other provisions of the same Act so as to provide a consistent enactment of the whole statute.[4]

There are five principles of this Doctrine as laid down by the apex court of India in the case of CIT v. Hindustan Bulk Carrier:
  1. While interpreting, the court has a duty to avoid a "head-on clash" at all cost between two sections of the same act
  2. The interpretation should be done such that the provision of one section doesn't defeat the purpose of another unless it is impossible to effect a reconciliation between them
  3. When it is impossible to reconcile the contradictory provisions, then courts must interpret in a way to give as much as possible effect to both provisions
  4. A Construction that reduces one of the provisions to a "useless lumber" or "dead letter" is not harmonious construction
  5. Lastly, to harmonize is not to destroy any other statutory provisions.[5]

The aforementioned concepts provide basic but simple explanations of how to apply the rule of Harmonious Construction when reading sections of any statute.

Furthermore, when two provisions of a legislation appear to be in conflict with each other, both should be interpreted in such a way that both are given effect, and no construction should be chosen that renders any of the provisions ineffective or inoperative except as a last resort. In the case of Raj Krushna v. Binod Kanungo,[6] the Supreme Court clearly demonstrated the application of this principle.

Sections 33(2) and 123(8) of the ROPA of 1951 appeared to be in contradiction. Whereas section 33(2) refers to a government servant's ability to nominate or second a candidate in an election, section 123(8) states that a government servant could only help a candidate in an election by voting.[7] The court read both articles coherently, holding that a government employee has the right to nominate or second a candidate but is not permitted to assist in any other way, as well as the right to vote.

Relevant Case Laws
To have a thorough understanding of the concept of this interpretation rule, we must examine its practical application in significant case law.

The first is M.S.M Sharma v. Krishna Sinha,[8] a pivotal case in Indian constitutional history. Facts: The Petitioner in the case was charged with violating the speaker's privileges by publicising a speech delivered by the member. The Petitioner was served with a show-cause notice, which required him to explain why action should not be taken against him.

Issue of the case: Whether the privileges under Art. 194(3) override the fundamental right under Art. 19 (1)(a).

Petitioner's Contention: The Committee's decision and the notice provided violate his fundamental rights under Art. 19 (1)(a) and Art. 21. However, because the respondent relied on Art. 194(3), the rule of interpretation was applied to determine which law should take precedence.

Held: The Supreme Court applied the rule of harmonious construction and found that, while Art. 194 (3) is subordinate to Art. 21, the Indian Constitution is the supreme law in the country, and so a person can be barred from publishing the Assembly's official records. This is not an absolute limitation on that person's FR.

Furthermore, in M. Nanavati vs. State of Bombay,[9] the issue was the power bestowed on the Governor under Art 161, and the court had to interpret the meaning of Art 161 and Art 142 (1) of the constitution. In the current case, the Bombay High Court sentenced the accused.

The petitioner then approached the Governor, who issued a suspension order against the Bombay High Court's sentence. When the matter came before the Hon'ble Supreme Court, the court implemented the rule of Harmonious Construction and held that the Governor's absolute power to grant suspension under Art 161 is absolved when the matter becomes sub judice. In such cases, Art 142 allows for complete interference with the judicial power of the court.

In the recent case of Department of Customs vs Sharad Gandhi, [10] the Hon'ble Supreme Court used the principle of Harmonious construction to settle a conflict between the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 and the Customs Act, 1962.

The Bench noted the "inconsistency" found in Article 254 of the Indian Constitution between laws enacted by Parliament and state legislatures, which states: If the law enacted by the state is repugnant to the law enacted by Parliament, the law enacted by Parliament shall prevail to the extent of repugnance. [11]However, in this case, the court remarked that both of the aforementioned acts were enacted by Parliament.

It is evident that there is usually the risk of ambiguity or loopholes in legislation enacted by the legislature. To address those gaps, harmonious construction as a guideline of interpretation of legislation plays a significant role in giving the statutory provisions full effect. Today, the rule is regarded as a key weapon in the hands of our judiciary, assisting two opposing laws to work together amicably in providing justice to society at large.

  1. Shankari Prasad v. Union of India, AIR (1951) SC 455.
  2. Re C.P. and Bera Act, AIR (1939) FC 1.
  3. Venkataramana Devaru v. State of Mysore, 1958 AIR 255.
  4. Justice GP Singh, Principles of Statutory Interpretation, 9th edn (2004) 131.
  5. CIT v. Hindustan Bulk Carriers (2003) 3 SCC 57.
  6. Raj Krushna Bose v. Binod Kanungo & ors, 1954 AIR 202.
  7. Representation of People Act, 1951 Section 33(2) & 123(8).
  8. M.S.M. Sharma v. Krishna Sinha, AIR (1959) SC 395.
  9. K.M. Nanavati v. State of Bombay, AIR 1961 SC 112.
  10. Department of Customs vs. Sharad Gandhi, SLP (Crl.) No. 174 of 2019.
  11. INDIA CONST. art. 254.
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