Doctrine of Eclipse – Tool to Interpret the Constitution of India

INTRODUCTION

The literal meaning of “eclipse” refers to the occurrence when one object overshadows another. In reference to Constitutional law, the doctrine of eclipse is known to be applied in cases in which an act or law has the tendency to violate the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Indian Constitution.

In that scenario, the fundamental rights will overshadow the other act or law and make it unenforceable. The unenforceability of the overshadowed act or law is not void ab initio or null meaning they can be reinforced again if the earlier restrictions as posed by the Fundamental rights are taken away but the concept and scope of this doctrine are more than that.

Thus, any law prior to independence if it in Fundamental Right is in conflict with the Fundamental rights then it should be void up to that inconsistency. It doesn’t make the whole law void but that part of law which is inconsistent with Part-III of the Indian constitution will be void. The law is not dead but will be in moribund condition and is at disposal of parliament.

 DOCTRINE OF ECLIPSE

The Doctrine of Eclipse is a doctrinal principle that advocates the concept of fundamental rights being prospective. If any law made by the Legislature is inconsistent with Part III of the Constitution, then that law is invalid and inoperative to the extent of it being overshadowed by the Fundamental Rights. The laws are hidden by the relevant fundamental rights, and the Eclipse is said to be cast on it. The inconsistency of the eclipsed law can be removed only when the corresponding Fundamental Right is amended. The shadowing is then removed, and the law becomes automatically valid and operative again.

With the incorporation of Part III in the Indian constitution conferring Fundamental Rights, it got ineluctable that the validity of all laws in India would be tested on the benchmark of the Constitution. The Constitution-makers included an explicit guarantee of the justifiability of fundamental rights in Article 13, which has been invoked on numerous occasions for declaring laws contravening them void. Courts have evolved various doctrines and the Doctrine of Eclipse is one such principle, based on the premise that fundamental rights are prospective in nature. As a result of its operation, “an existing law inconsistent with a fundamental right, though it becomes inoperative Fundamental Right on the date of commencement of the Constitution, is not dead altogether.”[1] Hence, in short, the Doctrine seeks to reiterate that:

“If a law is declared null and void for violating a fundamental right, and then that Fundamental Right is itself amended such that the law is defenestrated of any inconsistency with it and the law need not to re-enacted, a Fundamental Rights, and it can revive automatically Fundamental Right on the date of the amendment In other words, what is the precise nature of the operation of the Doctrine in the face of the general rule that a Statute neither gets void for unconstitutionality is non-Est (non-existent) nor is “expressively annihilated” Fundamental Right on the Statute Book.  Inherent in the application of the Doctrine to such questions is the predicament of conflicting priorities. What is to be determined here is whether, for the purpose of avoiding the administrative difficulties and expenditure involved in re-enacting a law, a law which was held void on the very sensitive and potent ground of violation of fundamental rights should, under special circumstances be permitted to revive automatically. This also raises some profound questions about legislative competence and the interference of courts in law making.

In other words, a law that violates fundamental rights remains in a moribund condition. It becomes inoperative, unenforceable and takes the shape of a sleeping provision. It is not nullity or void ab initio. 

Salient features

The significant features and characteristics of the Doctrine are as follows:

  1. Applicability to Pre-Constitutional Laws

For the Doctrine to apply, the law must be valid at its inception and thus, can be invoked only in the cases of pre-constitutional laws that have become operational with the adoption of the Indian Constitution on 26th January 1950.

  • Non-Applicability to Post Constitutional Laws

They cannot apply to post-constitutional laws because they are invalid at their inception and thus, cannot be validated by any subsequent amendment. But there are certain exceptions to the same; non-citizens cannot take advantage of the voidness, as the violation does not affect them.

  • Conflict with the fundamental rights

The past law is supposed to be violating a fundamental right, only then can it be overshadowed and be termed as inoperative.

  • Inoperative

The Doctrine is based on the principle that the law which violates Fundamental Right is not nullity or void ab initio but only becomes defective and unenforceable. The law is overshadowed and hidden by the Fundamental Right that it violates. So, the law is not dead but is only sleeping.

  • Fundamental Right and Amendment

If there is an amendment to the relevant Fundamental right in future, it will automatically make the impugned law operative.

EVOLUTION OF DOCTRINE OF ECLIPSE

The development took place in three stages:

  1. Prospective/ Retrospective Nature of Article 13(1)

The case of Keshav had raised several challenging issues concerning the Doctrine, in response, is the retrospective and prospective nature of Article 13(1) and the meaning of the word ‘void’ in Article 13(1). In the landmark incident of Keshav Madhava Menon v. State of Bombay[2], the petitioner was prosecuted under the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act of 1931 for publishing a pamphlet without permission. The case was pending when the Constitution of India had commenced. 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. The Court further held that fundamental rights are prima facie prospective in nature and that the word ‘void’ did not mean repealing the statute or provision.

  • Nexus between Article 13(1) and Pre-Constitutional Laws:

Behram Khurshid Pesikaka v. State of Bombay[3] 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[4], 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 held that the onus to prove citizenship and violative nature of the provision lies on the accused.

  • The Genesis and Evolution of the Doctrine of Eclipse

The concept, principle and applicability of this Doctrine were polished in the case of Bhikaji Narain Dhakras v. State of Madhya Pradesh[5]. In this case, the Consumer Protection and Berar Motor Vehicles Amendment Act of 1947 which had authorized the State Government to regulate and take up all of the motor transport businesses, was challenged because it was violative of Article 19(1)(g) of Part III. This Amendment Act was a pre-constitutional law, and therefore, the Doctrine of Eclipse applied, and the provisions of this legislative Act were made inoperative. Soon, in the year 1951, Article 19(1)(g) was amended by the first Constitutional Amendment Act overturning the Eclipse and making the law enforceable against citizens as well as non-citizens. The Supreme Court opined that “the effect of the amendment was to remove the shadow and to make the impugned Act Fundamental Right on all blemish or infirmity”[6]. The Court also observed that it will still be enforceable against non-citizens.

SCOPE AND APPLICABILITY OF THE DOCTRINE

There has always been a legal struggle concerning the applicability of the Doctrine. Does the Doctrine apply to Article 13(1), i.e., Pre-Constitutional Laws or Article 13(2), i.e., Post-Constitutional Laws? This struggle has been the crux of the issue that has been argued in several cases. The same was settled in the case of Bhikaji Narain and Deep Chand.

In Deep Chand v. State of Uttar Pradesh[7], the Supreme Court very meticulously observed that the Doctrine applies only to pre-constitutional laws as given under Article 13(1). It does not apply to any post-constitutional law as under Article 13(2) because the post-constitutional laws in violation of fundamental rights are void ab initio and stillborn.

The judgment of Bhikaji and Deep Chand was upheld in the case of State of Gujarat v. Ambica Mills[8], Mahendra Lal Jain v. State of Uttar Pradesh[9]and Sagir Ahmed v. State of Uttar Pradesh[10].

  1. Doctrine of Eclipse and article 368

The debate on the validity and absoluteness of Article 368 started with the case of Golaknath. In I. C. Golaknath v. State of Punjab[11], the Punjab Security and Land Tenures Act of 1953 was challenged on the ground that this legislative Act had violated the Fundamental Right to hold and acquire property and practice any profession. The judgment left the Parliament Legislature with no power to break the fundamental rights and provided them with restrictive amending powers under Article 368. Therefore, Article 368 was eclipsed.

The judgment of I. C. Golaknath was overturned in the legendary case of Keshavananda Bharti v. Union of India[12], which stated that the Parliament could amend the fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution but without changing the basic structure of the Constitution and thus, removed the Eclipse Fundamental Right on Article 368.

  • Doctrine of Eclipse and section 309

The Doctrine is seen to extend to the provisions under the Indian Penal Code, as observed in the cases of Rathinam and Gian Kaur. In the case of Rathinam v. Union of India[13], Section 309 of IPC that criminalizes attempt to suicide was challenged. The Court drew a parallel between Article 19 and Article 21 and observed that Article 21 holds right to live, so it also induces right not to live and holds Section 309 to be unconstitutional, and therefore it was eclipsed. After two years, a five-judge constitutional bench in the case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab[14]reversed the Judgment of Rathinam case and upheld the validity of Section 309. Thus, the Eclipse on Section 309 was removed and became operational again.

CONCLUSION

The Doctrine of Eclipse is one of the fairly subtle principles of the rule of law that has helped the pre-constitutional laws Fundamental Right on being wiped out altogether. It is imperative to mention here that the applicability of this doctrine to post-constitutional laws is still somewhat of a grey area. However, this doctrine has been effective in harmonizing the pre-constitutional and post-constitutional positions with respect to various laws, such harmonization has ensured the triumph of constitutionalism in every sense of the word.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BOOK REFERENCES

  • Pandey, J.N., The Constitution of India (Central Law Agency, Allahabad, 45th ed, 2008).
  • Prof. T. Bhattacharya, The Interpretation of Statutes (Central Law Agency, Allahabad, 11th ed, 2020)

WEB REFERNECES


[1] The Constitution of India, Art. 13.

[2] AIR 1951 SCC 128.

[3] AIR 1955 SC 123.

[4] AIR 1951 SC 318.

[5] AIR 1955 SC 781.

[6] Bhikaji Narain Vs State of Madhya Pradesh AIR 1955 SC 781.

[7] AIR 1980 SC 633.

[8] AIR 1974 SC 1300.

[9] AIR 1963 SCC 1019.

[10] AIR 1955 SC 728.

[11] AIR 1967 SCC 1643.

[12] AIR 1973 SC 225.

[13] AIR 1994 SC 1844.

[14] AIR1996 SC 946.

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