Doctrine of Eclipse – Constitutional Law

Article 13, the power of Judicial Review, falls under the purview of Fundamental Rights and is intricately connected to the doctrine. Judicial Review is the power of Courts to pronounce upon the constitutionality of legislative and executive acts of the government which fall within their normal jurisdiction. 

What is Doctrine of Eclipse?

Doctrine of Eclipse is a doctrinal principle that advocates the concept of fundamental rights being prospective and applies to or can be invoked only in the case of Article 13(1) dealing with pre-constitutional laws, which states, “all laws in force in the territory of India immediately before the commencement of this Constitution in so far as they are inconsistent with the provisions of this Part, i.e. Part III, shall, to the extent of such inconsistency, be void.”

As per the literal definition of Eclipse, it is a process when one object overshadows the other object, thus as the name hints, this doctrine is invoked when any law contradicts the features of a fundamental right granted by the constitution of India, in such a case the fundamental rights would overshadow the other law inconsistent with such fundamental rights. In such a process of overcasting, the fundamental rights would prevail, and the other law would be considered void ab initio. 

Developments began trickling for the evolution of Doctrine of Eclipse in the case of Keshavan Madhava Menon V. State of Bombay, where several issues were raised challenging the doctrine, in response to its retrospective and prospective nature of Article 13(1). In the landmark judgment, the petitioner was prosecuted under the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act of 1931 for publishing a pamphlet without permission. The main issue raised was if the provisions of the Act violated Article 19(1) (a). The Court held the relevant regulations to be violating Article 19 (1)(a), and that they are ‘void’ to the extent of its inconsistency. It further held that fundamental rights are prima facie prospective in nature and the word ‘void’ did not mean repealing the statute or provision.

A pre-constitutional law or an existing law that is inconsistent with the fundamental rights granted as per India’s constitution, though it becomes imperative from the date of commencement of the constitution, is not dead altogether. It is just eclipsed by the fundamental rights but remains alive in a dormant state.

The law is a good law if a question arises for the fate of rights and obligations arising from the pre-constitutional laws or existing laws and the determination of rights of persons deprived of fundamental rights or who have not been given fundamental rights by the constitution. Thus the Supreme Court held that doctrine of Eclipse should apply to pre-constitutional laws. 

Behram Khurshid Pesikaka V. State of Bombay was one of the earliest cases that explained the reasonable nexus between Article 13(1) and the pre-constitutional laws. In this case, the appellant was accused under Section 66(b) of the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949. Previously, Section 13(b) of the same Act was declared void in the case of F. N. Balsara, because it was violative of Article 19(1)(f). The appellant took the example of F.N. Balsara as a precedent. Then Section 66(b) was held inoperative and unenforceable. The Court said that the part of the law would be unconstitutional and not the whole law. Further, it held that the onus to prove citizenship and violative nature of the provision lies on the accused.

According to the Supreme Court, an existing law remains eclipsed or overshadowed to the extent it is inconsistent with any fundamental right provided by the constitution. However, the overshadowed part of the law becomes alive and operative again if the prohibition brought about by the fundamental right is removed by a constitutional amendment. 

In the case of Bhikaji Narain Dhakras v. State of M.P., the Central Provinces and Berar Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Act, 1947 was passed, and it amended Sec. 43 of the Motor Vehicle Act, 1939, and both these laws were pre-constitutional laws. The new amendment was violative of Article 19(1)(g) as it empowered the provincial government to take up the entire Motor Transport Business. Through a constitutional amendment of Article 19(1)(g), the Union government empowered the provincial government to carry on such business. The honorable Supreme Court of India held that the impugned law becomes, for the time being, overshadowed by fundamental rights. The Constitutional Amendment Act, 1951 removed the shadow and made the impugned act free from infirmity and restrictions.

The doctrine of Eclipse was once supposed to apply only to the pre-constitutional or existing laws; however, in the case of State of Gujrat v. Ambica Mills Ltd, the Supreme Court held that the doctrine of Eclipse holds good to pre as well as post-constitutional laws. However, this doctrine is only concerned with the citizens of India, as they are the primary subjects of the fundamental rights; if a law which abridges or violates the rights of a person who is not provided with the fundamental rights by the constitution of India, in any such case the said law would not come under the ambit of the doctrine of Eclipse.

Application of the Doctrine of Eclipse

In the case of Golaknath v. State of Punjab where a petition was filed under Article 32 of the Constitution challenging the Punjab Act, 1953 as in violation of constitutional rights of the petitioner under Article 14 and Article 19 (f) (g). The Supreme Court held that the parliament does not have the power to curtail the guaranteed fundamental rights in the constitution and any amendment to Fundamental Rights needs to be constitutional and thus Article 368 was eclipsed.

Conclusion

The Doctrine of Eclipse exemplifies a subtle, nuanced aspect of the theory of Constitutionalism and the rule of law. It safeguards the pre-constitutional laws in the country from being completely wiped out from statute books in terms of their applicability. Schedule IX—Article 31B, Immune to judicial scrutiny, allows for putting law under Schedule and Doctrine of Eclipse could be used. All laws put under this could be verified for basic structure.

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