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The Underpinning Principles of Constitutional Interpretation In India

Constitutional interpretation comprehends the methods or strategies available to people attempting to resolve disputes about the meaning or application of the Constitution.

The following are some of the key principles applied specially in interpreting the provisions of the constitution:
  1. Doctrine of Pith and Substance:
    • Pith means "true nature" or "essence" and substance means the essential nature underlying a phenomenon
    • Thus, the doctrine of pith and substance relates to finding out the true nature of a statute.
    • This doctrine is widely used when deciding whether a state is within its rights to create a statute that involves a subject mentioned in Union List of the Constitution.
    • The basic idea behind this principle is that an act or a provision created by the State is valid if the true nature of the act or the provision is about a subject that falls in the State list.

      1. State of Maharashtra v. F N Balsara
        • In this case, the State of Maharashtra passed Bombay Prohibition Act that prohibited the sale and storage of liquor
        • This affected the business of the appellant who used to import liquor.
        • He challenged the act on the ground that import and export are the subjects that belong in Union list and state is incapable of making any laws regarding it.
        • SC rejected this argument and held that the true nature of the act is prohibition of alcohol in the state and this subject belongs to the State list.
        • The court looks at the true character and nature of the act having regard to the purpose, scope, objective, and the effects of its provisions.
        • Therefore, the fact that the act superficially touches on import of alcohol does not make it invalid.
      2. State of West Bengal v. Kesoram Industries
        • The courts have to ignore the name given to the act by the legislature and must also disregard the incidental and superficial encroachments of the act and has to see where the impact of the legislation falls.
          It must then decide the constitutionality of the act.
  2. Doctrine of Colourable Legislation:
    • This doctrine is based on the principle that what cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly.
    • In other words, if the constitution does not permit certain provision of legislation, any provision that has the same effect indirect manner is also unconstitutional.
    • This doctrine is found on the wider doctrine of "fraud on the constitution".
    • A thing is Colourable when it seems to be one thing in the appearance but another thing underneath.

      1. K C Gajapati Narayan Deo v. State of Orissa
        • In this case, SC observed that the constitution has clearly distributed the legislative powers to various bodies, which have to act within their respective spheres.
        • These limitations are marked by specific legislatives entries or in some cases these limitations are imposed in the form of fundamental rights of the constitution.
        • Question may arise whether while enacting any provision such limits have been transgressed or not.
        • Such transgression may be patent, manifest or direct.
        • But it may also be covert, disguised, or indirect
        • It is to this later class of transgression that the doctrine of colourable legislation applies.
        • In this case, the validity of Orissa Agricultural Income Tax (Amendment) Act 1950 was in question.
        • The argument was that it was not a bona fide taxation law but a colourable legislation whose main motive was to artificially lower the income of the intermediaries so that the state has to pay less compensation to them under Orissa Estates Abolition Act, 1952.
        • SC held that it was not colourable legislation because the state was well within its power to set the taxes, no matter how unjust it was.
        • The state is also empowered to adopt any method of compensation.
        • The motive of the legislature in enacting a law is totally irrelevant.
      2. K T Moopil Nair v. State of Kerala
        • The state imposed a tax under Travancore Cochin Land Tax Act, 1955, which was so high that it was many times the annual income that the person was earning from the land.
        • The SC held the act as violative of Articles 14 and 19(1)(f) in view of the fact that in the disguise of tax a person's property was being confiscated.
      3. Balaji v. State of Mysore
        SC held that the order reserving 68% of the seats for students belonging to backward classes was violative of Article 14 in disguise of making a provision under Article 15(4).
  3. Principle of Incidental or Ancillary Powers:
    • This principle is an addition to the doctrine of Pith and Substance
    • What it means is that the power to legislate on a subject also includes power to legislate on ancillary matters that are reasonably connected to that subject.
    • It is not always sufficient to determine the constitutionality of an act by just looking at the pith and substance of the act.
    • In such cases, it has to be seen whether the matter referred in the act is essential to give effect to the main subject of the act.

      1. State of Rajasthan v. G Chawla
        • The power to legislate on a topic includes the power to legislate on an ancillary matter which can be said to be reasonably included in the topic.
      2. R M D Charbaugwala v. State of Mysore
        SC held that betting and gambling is a state subject as mentioned in Entry 34 of State list but it does not include power to impose taxes on betting and gambling because it exists as a separate item as Entry 62 in the same list.
  4. Doctrine of Repugnancy
    • Repugnancy means a contradiction between two laws which when applied to the same set of facts produce different results
    • It is used to describe inconsistency and incompatibility between the Central laws and State laws when applied in the concurrent field.
    • The situation of repugnancy arises when two laws are so inconsistent with each other that the application of any one of them would imply the violation of another.
    • The doctrine of repugnancy, in accordance to Article 254, states that if any part of State law is repugnant or conflicting to any part of a Central law which the Parliament is competent to enact, or to any part of a law of the matter of List III, then the Central law made by the Parliament shall prevail and the law made by the State legislature shall become void, to the extent of its repugnancy.
    • While considering this doctrine, whether the central law is passed before or after the State law is immaterial.
    • Hence, this is a principle to ascertain that when a state law becomes repugnant to the Central law.

      1. Hoechst Pharma ltd. v. State of Bihar
        • It was observed that the assent of the President for a state law which is repugnant to a Central law for a matter related to a concurrent subject is important as it results in the prevailing of the State law in that particular State, thereby, overriding the application of the Central law in that state only.
      2. Mati Lal Shah v Chandra Kanta Sarkar
        • A conflict arose between Section 20 and Section 34 of the Bengal Agricultural Debtors Act, 1936, and Section 31 of the Presidency Small Causes Courts Act, 1882 which is an existing Indian law in force.
        • The former required that the service of a notice shall stay for the execution of certain decrees against the agricultural debtors while the latter required that the execution shall take place through other courts, if necessary.
        • The Court held the provisions of the Bengal Act void due to repugnancy.
      3. M. Karunanidhi v. Union of India
        • In this case, a constitutional bench of the Apex court considered the question of repugnancy between a law made by the Parliament and a law made by the State legislature.
        • It was observed that the following conditions should be satisfied for the application of the doctrine of repugnancy:
          1. A direct inconsistency between the Central Act and the State Act.
          2. The inconsistency must be irreconcilable.

            The inconsistency between the provisions of the two Acts should be of such nature as to bring the two Acts into direct collision with each other and a situation should be reached where it is impossible to obey the one without disobeying the other.
  5. Doctrine of Occupied Field
    • There is a very thin of line of difference between doctrine of Repugnancy and Doctrine of Occupied Field
    • Doctrine of Occupied Field has nothing to do with the conflict of laws between the state and the centre.
    • It is merely concerned with the �existence of legislative power� whereas repugnance is concerned with the �exercise of legislative power� that is shown to exist. Doctrine of Occupied Field comes into picture even before the Union Law or the State Law has commenced.
    • Under Article 254, as soon as a Union law receives assent of the President, it is said to be a law made by the Parliament.
    • Actual commencement of the law is not important for the purpose of attracting doctrine of Occupied Field.

      1. State of Kerala & Ors v. M/S. Mar Appraem Kuri Co.Ltd. & Anr.
        • The Centre enacted the Chit Funds Act (Central Act).
        • For the Law to become operative in any state, the Central Government would have to issue a notification under Section 3 of the Central Act.
        • In the meantime, the State of Kerala enacted a separate act on �Chit Funds� called as Kerala Chitties Act.
        • However, the Central Act did not get notified in Kerala resulting into a situation wherein there was only one Act in force in the State of Kerala i.e. the Kerala Chitties Act.
          It was contended that the Kerala Chitties Act was repugnant to the un-Notified Central Act. The Supreme Court held that even an un-notified Central law attracts art 254.
  6. Doctrine of Terrirotial Nexus
    • Article 245 (2) of the Constitution of India makes it amply clear that:
      No law made by Parliament shall be deemed to be invalid on the ground that it would have extra-territorial operation.
    • Thus a legislation cannot be questioned on the ground that it has extra-territorial operation.
    • It is well-established that the Courts of our country must enforce the law with the machinery available to them; and they are not entitled to question the authority of the
    • Legislature in making a law which is extraterritorial.
    • Thus, the Doctrine of Territorial Nexus has been applied to the States as well.
    • There are two conditions that have been laid down in this respect:
      1. The Connection (nexus) must be real and not illusory.
      2. The liability sought to be imposed must be pertinent to that connection.
    • If the above two conditions are satisfied, any further examination of the sufficiency of Nexus cannot be a matter of consideration before the courts.

      1. State of Bombay vs RMDC
        • The Respondent was not residing in Bombay but he conducted Competitions with prize money through a newspaper printed and published from Banglore having a wide circulation in Bombay.
        • All the essential activities like filling up of the forms, entry fees etc for the competition took place in Bombay.
        • The state govt. sought to levy tax the respondent for carrying on business in the state.
        • The question for decision before the Supreme Court was if the respondent, the organizer of the competition, who was outside the state of Bombay, could be validly taxed under the Act.
        • It was held that as all the activities which the competitor is ordinarily expected to undertake took place most, if not in entirety, within Bombay. These circumstances constituted a sufficient territorial nexus which the entitled state of Bombay to impose a tax on the respondent.
      2. Tata Iron And Steel Company vs. Bihar State
        • The state of Bihar passed a Sales Tax Act for levy of sales tax.
        • The question before the court was whether the sale was concluded within the state or outside if the goods were produced, found and manufactured in the state.
        • The court held there was sufficient territorial nexus and upheld the Act as valid.
        • Whether there is sufficient nexus between the law and the object sought to be taxed will depend upon the facts and circumstances of a particular case.
        • It was pointed out that sufficiency of the territorial connection involved consideration of two elements:
          1. the connection must be real and not illusory
          2. the liability sought to be imposed must be pertinent to that connection.
      3. State of Bihar vs Charusila Dasi
        • Bihar legislature enacted the Bihar Hindu Religious Trusts Act, 1950, for the protection and preservation of properties appertaining to the Hindu religious trusts
        • The Act applied to all trusts any part of which was situated in the state of Bihar.
        • The Respondent created a trust deed of her properties of several houses and land in Bihar and Calcutta.
        • The trust being situated in Bihar.
        • The main question for decision was whether the Act apply to trust properties which are situated outside the state of Bihar
        • Can the legislature of Bihar make a law with respect to such a trust situated in Bihar and other properties appertaining to such trust which is situated outside Bihar?
        • Applying the doctrine of territorial nexus, the Supreme Court held that the Act could affect the trust property situated outside Bihar, but appertaining to a trust situated in Bihar where the trustees functioned.
        • The Act aims to provide for the better administration of Hindu religious trusts in the state of Bihar.
The trust is situated in Bihar the state has legislative power over it and also over its trustees or their servants and agents who must be in Bihar to administer the trust.

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