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Keshavan Madhava Menon v/s The State of Bombay

The petitioner, who held the position of Secretary at People's Publishing House India Ltd., was subject to prosecution for the alleged dissemination of a pamphlet entitled 'Railway Mazdooron ke khilaaf nai Zazish' in Bombay in September 1949. It was contended that the pamphlet contravened the stipulations set forth in sections 15(1) and 18(1) of the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931.

While the legal proceedings pertaining to this case were underway, the Constitution of India came into effect on January 26. Subsequently, on March 3, 1950, the petitioner submitted a written statement contesting the constitutionality of the 'news sheet' definition under the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931. The petitioner asserted that this definition was ultra vires and null and void under Article 19(1)(a) in conjunction with Article 13 of the Constitution.

The petitioner sought a suspension of the legal proceedings until the High Court could adjudicate upon this matter of law. Accordingly, a petition was lodged in the High Court on March 7, 1950, requesting a declaration that sections 15(1) and 18(1) of the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931 were devoid of legal effect in light of Articles 13 and 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

However, on March 23, 1950, charges were formally brought against the petitioner by the Chief Presidency Magistrate under section 18 of the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931. During the hearing of the petition in the High Court on April 12, 1950, it was determined that the term 'void' in Article 13 should be construed as 'repealed,' in accordance with section 6 of the General Clauses Act.

Consequently, the High Court concluded that the legal proceedings governed by the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931 remained unaffected, even if the Act conflicted with the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, and accordingly, dismissed the petitioner's application. Following this, the petitioner lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court based on the High Court's certificate issued under Article 132(1) of the Constitution.

  • Is it in accordance with India's Constitution, which was enacted during the trial's pendency, to engage in retrospective prosecution for violations of the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931?
  • Should all laws that are incongruent with the recently established Constitution of India be declared null and void from their inception (void-ab-initio)?
  • What are the consequences on ongoing legal proceedings when an Act is repealed or a temporary statute expires?
  • Constitution of India
  • Press and Registration of Books Act (XXV of 1867)
  • Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931
  • General Clauses Act, 1897
  • Interpretation Act, 1889 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom

The petitioner in this case asserted that the pamphlet in question should be categorized as a 'book' as defined by the Press and Registration of Books Act (1867). They contended that all the provisions of the Act had been diligently adhered to and argued that the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931, was an oppressive legislation imposed by a foreign government to suppress the freedom of Indian citizens, particularly the freedom of the press.

Additionally, the petitioner emphasized that the Constitution, which was formulated by the people of India, guaranteed fundamental rights to its citizens. Article 13 of the Constitution aimed to eliminate any vestiges of subjugation to oppressive foreign laws and deemed any laws inconsistent with the Constitution as void, as if they had never been enacted or existed.

Consequently, the petitioner contended that a prosecution grounded in such an antiquated law was incongruous with the ethos of the Constitution. On the contrary, the respondent argued that the pamphlet in question fell within the definition of a 'news sheet' as outlined in the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931.

They maintained that the pamphlet had been published without the requisite authorization specified in the Act, rendering it subject to punishment under the same Act. These conflicting contentions were presented before the court for its deliberation and ultimate resolution.

The judges conducted a thorough analysis of the implications of Article 13(1) of the Constitution. They reached the conclusion that Article 13(1) was not intended to have a retrospective effect, nor did it grant such a retroactive application. They underscored that fundamental rights were bestowed upon Indian citizens solely after the commencement of the Constitution on January 26, 1950.

Consequently, considerations regarding the inconsistency of pre-existing laws could only be entertained from that date onward. Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan specifically noted that in September 1949, when the alleged offense occurred, the appellant did not possess the entitlement to freedom of speech and expression. In legal terms, fundamental rights must be vested in individuals before they can seek protection through the judicial system. As a result, claims for rights that did not exist at the time in question could not be pursued.

Justices Saiyid Fazal Ali and B.K. Mukherjea concurred that Article 13(1) did not have a retrospective scope but held that it did have implications for matters in progress and pending legal proceedings at the time of the Constitution's enactment. They maintained that if a law had been rendered void under Article 13(1) of the Constitution, it could not be applied to ongoing cases. The primary focus should be on the state of the law at the time when the question arose as to whether an offense had been committed.

If the law that criminalized an act had become entirely ineffectual and without legal force, then neither could charges be framed nor could the accused be convicted. The judges underscored the principle that, unless expressly stated otherwise, the repeal of a law or the expiration of a temporary statute should be regarded as if it had never existed.

They referred to the term 'void' as employed in Article 13(1) and other constitutional articles, signifying that it denotes null and void, lacking legal force or binding effect. The precision in the language used by the framers of the Constitution clearly indicated their intent that laws inconsistent with constitutional provisions should be rendered entirely void and without legal effect.

These judicial opinions offer a comprehensive interpretation of Article 13(1) and its ramifications concerning retrospective application, the rights possessed by individuals, and the consequences of repealing laws or temporary statutes.

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