Canons of interpretation that Judiciary adopts while interpreting the Indian Constitution


This article was written by Monika Bhakta a student of Lloyd Law College

Constitution as the Paramount law: The constitution of India is supreme and paramount law. The constitution is written to be understood by the voters. Its words and phrases are used in their normal and ordinary sense as distinguished from technical meaning. It the longest written Constitution of any sovereign country in the world. It lays down the framework defining fundamental political principles, procedures, powers and functions of the government institution and sets out the fundamental rights and directive principles and duties of the citizens.

A written constitution is to be interpreted and effect given to it as a paramount law to which all others must yield. It is equally obligatory on individual citizens and on all the departments of government, including the legislature and judiciary.

As per Justice Krishna Iyer, “A constitution is a documentation of the founding faiths of a nation and the foundational directions for their fulfillment. So much so, an organic, not pedantic, approach to interpretation, must guide the judicial process. The healing art of harmonious construction, not the tempting game of hair splitting promotes rhythm of the law.[1]

Constitution is a living and organic thing and must adopt itself to the changing situations and pattern in which it has to be interpreted. It has also to be borne in mind that where division of powers and jurisdiction in a federal constitution is the scheme, it is desirable to read the constitution in a harmonious way. It is also necessary that in deciding whether any particular enactment is within the purview of one legislature or the other. It is pith and substance of the legislation in question that has to be looked into. It is well settled that the various entries in the three lists of Indian constitution are not powers but fields of legislation.

Being a paramount law, a constitution is outside the purview of the courts, but a statute would be invalid, if is contravenes any express provision of the constitution or even if it is inhibited by the implied powers and restrains found in the constitution.

Applicability of Statutory construction: the constitution being essentially in the nature of a statute, the general rules governing the construction of the statutes apply to the construction of constitution as well. The fundamental rule of interpretation is the same, whether it is the provision of the constitution or an act of parliament, namely that the court will have to ascertain the intention gathered from the words in the constitution or the act as the case may be. And where two constructions are possible, that one should be adopted which would ensure a smooth and harmonious working of the constitution.

Following are the ways through which construction of statutes is applicable:

  1. Same rules irrespective of form of Government: it is not the form of government or the nature of the law making authority which governs the object underlying its laws. In the every form of government, the power to make laws vests in some authority or the other. Whether that authority is given to a federal or the unitary legislature or it is enjoyed by an absolute ruler immaterial for determining the intention underlying legislation.

In the federal written constitution judiciary interprets and construe the constitution but this is the inevitable consequences of all the written ruling instruments, be they federal or unitary, or something of lesser importance. The principle applied in the interpretation and construction of the written constitution is not different to those used in construing laws enacted by legislatures where the constitutions have not been reduced into writing. A written constitution is generally interpreted like any other statute by reference to its terms and without any consideration of the policy and the possibility of abuse of powers.

Interpretation of the constitution is the sole prerogative of the constitution courts and the stand taken by the executive in a particular case cannot determine the true interpretation of the constitution.

  1. Ascertainment of Intention: The fundamental principle of constitutional construction is to give effect to the intent of the framers of the law and of the people adopting it, that is, according to the intent that made it. Normally such intent is gathered from the language of the provision. But if words used in the provision are reasonably bear meaning more than one then it is legitimate for the court to go beyond and call in aid other well-recognized canons of constructions.

In the case of PA Inamdar v. State of Maharashtra[2] the question to determine was the extent to which the state can regulate the admission made by unaided ( minority or non minority) educational institutions. Can the state extent the influence of its policy of reservation on such admissions? Or appropriate to itself any quota in admission to such institutions? The Supreme Court held that when letter of the constitution is not clear it is permissible to take recourse to the spirit of the constitution, as spelt out by the scheme and structure of the constitution. The court opined that education, whether for charity or for profit is an occupation. Even so it does not cease to be a service to society, hence cannot be equated to trade or business. It held that the right to establish and administer an educational institution is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(g) and minority educational institutions receive additional protection in the form of Article 30. The court observed that the protection of Article 30 was aimed to ensure that minority educational institutions were protected from the impact legislations enacted.

The court held that in cases where the minority institutions receive aid from the states or apply for recognition, the state could impose certain restriction similar to those imposed on non-minority institutions. But this power is to two conditions. One, that the institution should not be denied recognition solely on the ground that the institution is a minority institution. Secondly, the regulation is not aimed at depriving the institution of its minority status. The court thus ruled that reservations could not be imposed upon private educational institutions and minority institutions complete autonomy in relation to admissions provided that such admission was made solely on the basis of merit.

  1. Harmonious Construction: one section of an Act cannot be held ultra-vires of another section of the Act. In a contingency of the kind, the only course open to court is to put a harmonious interpretation thereon. In determining the scope and ambit of the fundamental rights under the Indian constitution, the court may not entirely ignore the directive principles of state policy laid down in part IV of the constitution, but should attempt to give effect to both as much as possible.

In the case of Atam Prakash v. State of Hrayana[3]court said that the directive principles of state policy under the Indian Constitution are the set proximate goals and when it is the task of examining statutes against the constitution narrow interpretive rules which may have relevance when legislative enactments are interpreted may be misplaced. Whatever articles of the constitution it is that the court seeks to interpret, whatever statutes it is whose constitutional validity is sought to be questioned the court must strive to give such an interpretation as will promote the march and progress towards a socialistic democratic state.

In JP Unnikrishnan v. State of Andhra Pradesh[4]the Supreme Court has further expounded as under: Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles are supplementary and complementary o each other and that the provisions in part III should be interpreted having regard to the preamble and the Directive Principles of State Policy.

  1. Noscitur A Sociis: Noscere means to know and Sociis means association. Therefore noscitur a sociis means to know from the association.

In the words of Maxwell – “ Noscitur a sociis means that when two or more words which are susceptible of analogous meaning are coupled together they are understood to be in their cognate sense. They take it as it were their colour from each other, that is the meaning of the more general being restricted to a sense analogous to that if the less general.

The best mode of ascertaining the meaning affixed to any words or sentences by a deliberative body is by comparing it with the words and sentences with which it stands connected. The obscurity of any word may be removed, by the references to associated words. The meaning of a term may be enlarged or restricted by reference to the object of the whole in which it is used. Clauses of the constitution, which involves a conflict of governmental power, must be considered with references to the literal meaning of the words, their connection with other words and the general objects to be accomplished, and in case of ambiguity, report of the drafting committee of the constitutional assembly may be read.

Noscitur a scoiis is only a rule of construction and it cannot prevail in cases where it is clear that the wider words have been deliberately used in order to make the scope of the defined words correspondingly wider. It is only where the intention of the legislature in associating wider words with words of narrower significance is doubtful, or otherwise not clear that present rule of construction can be usefully applied.[5]

In case of Commissioners v. Savoy Hotel[6] while interpreting a Purchase Tax Act, which used the expression ‘manufactured beverages including fruit juices and bottled waters and syrups, etc’, it was held that the description ‘fruit-juices’ as occurring therein should be construed in the context of the preceding words and that orange juice unsweetened and freshly pressed was not within the description.

  1. Constitution must be interpreted in a Broad Way: in the case of Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. v. The Union of India,[7]speaking on behalf of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, Mudholkar J., pointed out that is must be borne in the mind that constitution must be interpreted in a broad way and not in narrow and pedantic sense. Certain rights have been enshrined in our constitution as fundamental and, therefore while considering the nature and the content of those rights the court must not be too astute interpret the language of the constitution in so literal a sense as to whittle them down. On the other hand, the court must interpret the constitution in a manner which would enable the citizen to enjoy the rights guaranteed by it in a fullest measure subject, of course, to permissible restrictions.

In Romesh Thaper v. State of Madras,[8] the Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution in a board way when it held that freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of propagation of ideas and that is freedom is ensured by the freedom of circulation.

In Raj Jagannath Baksh Nath Singh v. State of U.P. [9]the Supreme Court pointed out that the cardinal rule of interpreting words used by constitution in conferring legislative power was that they must receive the most liberal construction and if they are words of wide amplitude the construction must accord with it. If a general word was used it must be so construed as to extend the entire ancillary or subsidiary matters that can be reasonably included it. A constitution is living and organic thing, which of all instruments has the greatest claim to be construed broadly and liberally.

  1. Doctrine of Pith and Substance: It is likely to happen from time to time that enactment though purporting to deal with a subject in one list of Schedule VIIth touches also on a subject in another list and prime facie looks as if one legislature is impinging on the legislative field of another legislature. This may result in large number of statutes being declared unconstitutional because the legislature enacting the law may appear to have legislated in a field reserved for the other legislature. In order to examine its truthfulness, the courts have evolved the doctrine of ‘pith and substance’ for the purpose of determining whether it is legislation with the respect to matters in one list or the other, regard is to be had to the (i)enactment as a whole,  (ii) its main objects, and  (iii) scope and effect of its provisions. If the substance of an enactment falls within the Union list, then the incidental encroachment by the enactment on the state list would not make it invalid.[10]

 The doctrine of ‘pith and substances’ means that if an enactment substantially falls within the legislative powers of a legislature, expressly conferred by the constitution, the enactment cannot be held to be invalid, merely because it incidentally encroaches on matters assigned to another legislature.[11]To determine the constitutional validity of an Act, its pith and substance should be considered[12]. Where the law is impugned as ultra vires it is true character of the legislation that has to be ascertained. That is, it must be ascertained whether the impugned legislation is directly in respect of the subject covered by any particular article of the Constitution or touches the said article only incidentally or directly.

In the case of Bennett Coleman v. Union of India[13], court observed the test of pith and substance of the subject-matter and of direct and of incidental effect of the legislature are relevant to questions of legislative competence but they are irrelevant to the question of infringement of fundamental rights. This is a sound and correct approach to interpretation of legislative measure and state action in relation to fundamental rights.

  1. Liberal Interpretation: It is fundamental cannon of construction that a Constitution should receive a liberal interpretation in favor of citizen, especially with respect to those provisions which were designed to safeguard the liberty and security of the citizen in regard to both person and property.

It will be remembered that the Constitution as the declaration of the will of people should be interpreted liberally and not in any narrow or doctrinaire spirit. It must be interpreted according to its true and intent as disclosed by the phraseology in its natural significance in the light of its setting and its dynamic character which is intended to fulfill the aspiration of the people without doing violence to the language used. A constitutional provision should evidence s fair, liberal and progressive construction so that its object might be promoted.

According to this doctrine liberal interpretation, the ambit of a particular power of a legislature has to be determined with reference to the ‘purpose’ for that power was conferred on that legislature and the entry should receive such interpretation as would best effectuate that purpose rather than restrict or defeat it.

The doctrine of ‘liberal interpretation’ has special application in interpreting the ambit of the various entries in the legislative lists included in schedule VII of Constitution. None of the items in the lists is to be read in narrow or restricted sense. Each word should be held to extend to all ancillary or subsidiary matters, which can fairly and reasonably be said to be comprehended in it.

In the case of State of Mysore v. Cawasji[14], SC held that legislative power normally includes all incidental and subsidiary powers, but the power to tax is neither incidental nor subsidiary to the power to legislate on matter or topic.

  1. Doctrine of Eclipse: when a law is valid when it is made but it rendered invalid for certain purposes by a supervening constitutional inconsistency may receive after the constitutional inconsistency is removed an amendment. The statute or the rule is over -shadowed by the fundamental right and remains dormant but is not dead. With the amendment in the constitution the impugned Act or Rule began to operate once again from the date of such amendment.

In Bhikaji Narain Dhakras v. The State of Madhya Pradesh,[15] this doctrine was laid down in the following words:

“The true effect of article 13(1) is to render an Act inconsistent with the fundamental right inoperative to extent of the inconsistency. It is over shadowed by the fundamental right and remains dormant but is not dead. With the amendment made in clause (6) of article 19 by First Amendment Act, the provisions of the impugned act began to operate once again from the date of such amendment with this difference that, unlike amended clause (2) of article 19 which was expressly made retrospective, no rights and obligations could be founded on the provisions of the impugned Act from the date of commencement the Constitution till the date of the amendment.”

  1. Doctrine of Colorable Legislation: the doctrine of colorable legislation postulates that though the letter of the law is within the limits of powers of the legislature, in substances, the law has transgressed those powers and by doing so, it has taken the precautions of concealing its real purpose under the cover of apparently legitimate and reasonable provisions. The doctrine of colorable legislations implies that though a legislature is not fettered in the sphere of its power, it cannot under the guise or the pretence, or in the form of an exercise of its power, carry out an object which is beyond its power, or trespass on the exclusive powers of the other. In other words a legislature cannot under the colorable exercise of its powers, enact a law which does not fall within its sphere or nullify expressly or by implication, statues which it could not enact. If the Act is within legislative competence, no question of colorable legislation arises. What cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly.
  2. Rule of Ejusdem Generis: the ejusdem generis rule is applicable where as wide or general term has to be cut down with reference to the genus of the particular terms which precede the general words. This rule has hardly any application where certain specific categories are ‘included’ in the definition. The ejusdem generis rule may be applicable to the general words ‘other similar grant’ which would take their colour from the particular categories, ‘jagir, inam, or muafi’, which precede them, but the word ‘inam’ is not subject to the same rule to the rule, in article 31A(2)(a) of the Constitution. Once it is held that inams of any kind were included, it makes little difference if the inams were of lands and not of whole villages.[16] The principle of ejusdem generis is not applicable in article 12 where it uses the words ‘other authorities’. To invoke the application of ejusdem generis rule must be a distinct genus or category running through the bodies already named.[17] In article 12 of the constitution, the bodies specifically named are the Executive Government of the Union and the States, and the local authorities. The Supreme Court was unable to find any common genus running through these named bodies. It could not place these bodies in one single category on any rational basis. The doctrine of ejusdem generis could not, therefore, be applied to interpretation of the expression of ‘other authorities’.

Conclusion: It is well established fact that in the Constitutional scheme, judge made law becomes a part of Constitution. The Supreme Court of India developed a vast jurisprudence in interpretation of constitutional provisions and other statutes. The judiciary has adopted various canons of interpretation while interpreting Indian constitution which has been already explained by the author. All the above-mentioned doctrines are used in several situations as the judiciary may deem fit in the light of facts and circumstances of the question of law being raised under the ambit of Constitution. Our constitution makers have laid down a master-piece in the form of Constitution of India which does not need any material amendment even after 65 years of its adoption. Judiciary only needs to interpret and construct the intention of constitution makers which almost solves the problem of today’s generation. These doctrines are the tools of Judges which help them to give judgments effectively and efficiently. The need of the hour is to follow the well established principles of law in order to exercise the powers vested in the hands of judges to render decisions that demands the fulfillment of question of law in the interest of public at large. These principles grant vide power to decision-makers but they can exercise it under a well defined circle so as to curb the abuse of power. By and large, Judiciary knows its powers as well as the limitations of its potential. They never overpower themselves since they are aware of the severe after-effects of it. Though it is said by many that justice delayed is justice denied but critics must be ready to accept the fact that justice hurried is justice worried. And if it’s really worried then forget about justice, it’ll be worse than that. The principle of audi alteram partem is the outcry of common public and as aspiring young lawyers if we know the intricacies of legal system we are mostly contented with the judicial fairness and equity laws practiced by interpreters of law our in our country.

[1] R.N. Mittal (Mr. Justice) (Retd.) v. Government Of The NCT Of Delhi on 1 March, 1999

[2] (20r05) 6 SCC 537.

[3]AIR 1986 SC 859.

[4] AIR 1993 SC 2/78.

[5] State of Bombay v. Hospital Mazdoor Sabha AIR 1960 SC 610, pp 613-614.

[6] [1966]2 AII ER 299.

[7] Sakal Papers (P) v. U.O.I., AIR 1962 SC 305: (1962) 3 SCR 842: 1962 (2) SCJ 400; See also Goodyear India Ltd. v. State of Haryana, AIR 1990 SC 781.

[8] (1950) SCR 594; see also Life Insurance Corporation of India v. Prof. Manubhai D. Shah, AIR 1993 SC 171.

[9] (1963) 1 SCR 220: AIR 1962 SC 1563: (1962) 2 SCA 679.

[10] Bharat Hydro Power Corp. Ltd. v. State of Assam, (2004)2 SCC 553: AIR 2004 SC3173: 2004 AIR SCW 2308; E. V. Chnnaiah v. State of Andhra Pradesh, (2005) 1 SCC 394: AIR 2005 SC 162: 2004 AIR SCW 6419.

[11] State of Bombay v. Balasara (1951)2 SCR 682.

[12] Sajjan Singh v. State of Rajasthan AIR 1965 SC 1.

[13] [(1972)2 SCC 788].

[14] (AIR 1971 SC 152).

[15] [1955]2 SCR 589:  AIR 1955 SC 781: 1956 SCJ 48.

[16] Mahant Sankarshan Ramanuja Das Goswami v. State of Orissa, (1962)3 SCR 250: AIR 1967 SC 59: 28 Cut LT 95.

[17] Rajasthan State Electricity Board, Jaipur v. Mohan Lal, (1967)3 SCR 377: AIR 1967 SC 1857: 1968 1 SCJ 461.

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