This article on ‘The doctrine of Eclipse under the Indian Constitution: All you need to know‘ was written by Risha Sharma, an intern at Legal Upanishad.
To safeguard the fundamental rights of the citizens, several checks and balances are in place. The doctrine of eclipse is one such measure that guards the people against infringement of their fundamental rights. This article delves into the application of the doctrine of eclipse under Article 13 of the Constitution. Though now well-settled, the doctrine’s application in the post-constitutional era was plagued by unclarity, which is where the Courts stepped in. This has been elucidated upon by discussing the inception of the doctrine in the Indian legal system, the scope of Article 13, and how the doctrine has evolved. This is followed by listing down the implications of the same by relying upon a few case laws.
The Doctrine of Eclipse: An Overview
With the genesis of the Constitution and the fundamental rights contained therein, the validity of laws being challenged and tested as constitutional was a possibility that was bound to happen naturally. Through Article 13, the founding fathers of the Constitution ensured that fundamental rights are realized and justiciable. This provision has been invoked several times in the past to declare void any such law which was found to violate fundamental rights. To implement this Article, the courts have set up many precedents and devised other legal tools. The doctrine of eclipse falls in line with the same.
With the enforcement of the Constitution, the fundamental rights provided for in Part III breathed life. It was significant to ensure that the laws in place aligned with fundamental rights by scrutinizing the constitutionality of laws. But certain pieces of legislation came into existence before the enforcement of the Constitution which made them inconsistent with Part III. To eliminate this inconsistency, the doctrine of eclipse acted as the watchdog, ensuring that no fundamental right is being infringed upon by pre-constitutional laws. The result of the doctrine is such that “an existing law inconsistent with a fundamental right, though it becomes inoperative from the date of commencement of the Constitution, is not dead altogether.”
Article 13: Meaning and Scope
The Parliament cannot bring into existence a law that infringes or deprives people of their fundamental rights. Article 13 deals with any such law which conflicts with fundamental rights. Article 13(1) takes into consideration the validity of pre-constitutional laws contrary to the fundamental rights after the Constitution’s enforcement.
The Article states that any such law is deemed void so far as the inconsistency is concerned. Article 13(2) states that any law violating fundamental rights is not valid from its very inception to the extent of the violation. The wording used in the Constitution further emphasizes that no existing law gets struck down entirely but appears to be veiled as far as the inconsistency is concerned.
The Doctrine of Eclipse: Origin and Development
The doctrine of eclipse found its footing in the Indian legal system through several judicial decisions, some of which have been discussed:
- Keshava Madavan Case
This 1951 case was where the Supreme Court first utilized the doctrine in principle. A pamphlet, titled ‘Railway Mazdooron ke Khilaf Nai Zazish’, published by the Secretary of the People’s Publishing House Ltd. (the appellant) was under scrutiny for having violated S.15(1) and S.18(1) of the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931. With the enforcement of the Constitution, the petitioner approached the Bombay High Court (HC) under Article 228 to decide on the question of law. The contention was that the aforementioned provisions infringed upon the rights guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) and thus, be declared void and inoperative. Thus, two main issues arose before the Bombay HC:
- Whether sections 15 (1) and 18 (1) read with the definitions contained in sections 2 (6) and 2 (.10) of the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act, 1931, were inconsistent with article 19 (1) (a) read with clause (2) of that article? and
- Assuming that they were inconsistent, whether the proceedings commenced under section 18 (1) of that Act before the commencement of the Constitution could nevertheless proceed?
The High Court did not deem it necessary to provide any opinion concerning the first issue. The HC however simply dealt with and disposed of the petition solely on the basis of the second issue raised in this case. The HC opined that the term “void” as used in A.13 was synonymous with “repealed” and attracted held that the proceedings under the Act which were ongoing when the Constitution came into force were in no way affected despite an inconsistency between the Act and the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The HC thus dismissed the petitioner’s application, aggrieved by which, the petitioner approached the Supreme Court (SC).
The SC in its decision emphasized that A.13 (1) can have “no retrospective effect but is wholly prospective in its operation,” and since the phrasing of A.13(1) did not indicate any retrospective application, it cannot be assumed to be retrospective. Dismissing the appeal, the Bench observed that “…so far as the past acts are concerned, the law exists, notwithstanding that it does not exist concerning the future exercise of fundamental rights.” Thus, the Court set forth the precedent that fundamental rights have prospective application, which helped clear up the ambiguity with respect to conflicting laws that were pre-constitutional. The case further laid down the foundation for the incorporation of the doctrine in the country’s legal system.
- Bhikaji Narain Case
The doctrine was formally realized by the SC in the landmark judgment of Bhikaji Narain Dhakras v. State of Madhya Pradesh, while dealing with the constitutionality of a pre-constitutional law, i.e., the C.P. & Berar Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 1947. The amendment granted the Provincial Government the authority to run the province’s motor transport business in its totality in pursuance of the nationalisation of road transport business policy.
Though the Act was valid initially, the provisions introduced by the amendment were found to violate A.19(1)(g) of the Constitution. Soon after the first amendment of the Constitution, A.19(6) was amended which allowed the monopolization of any business by the government. The SC observed that the outcome associated with the Constitution’s amendment was the removal of the shadow and “to make the impugned Act free from all blemish or infirmity“.
In the aforementioned judgment, the Court opined that the term “void” as used in Article 13 meant “void to the extent of inconsistency with fundamental rights.” The Court further observed that the entirety of the Act does not come to a halt but instead, the Act is rendered paralyzed in a sense, till the inconsistency is fixed. Resultantly, the Act is merely “overshadowed by the fundamental right and remains dormant, but is not dead.” This stems as a consequence of the doctrine of eclipse. This case helped solidify the doctrine’s application in India.
Applicability to Post-Constitutional Laws
The Supreme Court decided on the matter of applicability of the doctrine to laws conceived post the Constitution came into the picture in the case of Deep Chand v State of Uttar Pradesh, 1959. The Court remarked that per Article 13, any post-constitutional law violating fundamental rights is a “stillborn law” and null from the very outset, i.e., void-ab-initio. The doctrine thus only extends to pre-constitutional law.
This was reiterated by the SC while demarcating the distinction in the language and scope of clauses 1 and 2 of Article 13 by stating: “unlike a law covered by Article 13(1) which was valid when made, the law made in contravention of the prohibition contained in Article 13(2) is a stillborn law either wholly or partially depending upon the extent of the contravention.”
This take was however slightly altered in State of Gujarat v. Shri Ambica Mills wherein the SC stated that a post-constitutional law contrary to the fundamental rights could still be valid about those whose rights are not affected, for instance, non-citizens remain untouched by effects of violation of Article 19.
The doctrine’s application as initially accepted was limited to pre-constitutional laws but has now slightly widened its ambit to include post-constitutional laws. Such an approach can lead to further diversified and contradictory decisions, which was why the doctrine’s application must be limited to pre-constitutional laws only.
Thus, it can be inferred that the doctrine of eclipse generally applies to those laws which originated before the Constitution came into being. The doctrine helps revive a law that was found to be inconsistent with the fundamental rights after the Constitution’s enforcement. There is a limited scope of this doctrine’s application to post-constitutional laws because it is not possible to revive a law that did not have a valid existence since its initiation. The doctrine has been utilized in our system to harmonize the pre-constitutional laws to meet the current constitutional goals and ideations.
- Sushila Rao. “The Doctrine of Eclipse in Constitutional Law: A Critical Reappraisal of Its Contemporary Scope and Relevance.” 18 Student Bar Review, 2006.
- Bhikaji Narain Dhakras & Ors.v. State of Madhya Pradesh, AIR 1955 SC 781
- Deep Chand v State of Uttar Pradesh, AIR 1959 SC 648
- Keshava Madavan Menon v. State of Bombay, AIR 1951 SC 128
- Mahendra Lal Jaini v. State of U.P., AIR 1963 SC 1019
- The Constitution of India, 1950
- The C.P. and Berar Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 1947
- Ansruta Debnath (2022, March 9). Doctrine of eclipse: a comprehensive analysis, available at: https://blog.ipleaders.in/doctrine-of-eclipse-a-comprehensive-analysis/ (last visited on Sept 28, 2022)
- Disha Chowdary (2016, November 27). Doctrine of Eclipse and Post-Constitutional Laws, available at: http://racolblegal.com/doctrine-of-eclipse-and-post-constitutional-laws/ (last visited on Sept 28, 2022)
- Sofia Bhambri (2021, March 13). Doctrine of Eclipse, available at: https://www.sbhambriadvocates.com/post/doctrine-of-eclipse (last visited on Sept 28, 2022)