Updated: Feb 26
The interpretational value of the Preamble can be studied in three dimensions:
Preamble as the Interpreter of the Constitution itself;
Preamble as a source of Interpretation of other statutes framed under the Constitution; and
International Documents/Conventions/ Declarations as Aid to Interpretation of the Preamble
Lets Discuss above function individually.
(a) Preamble as Interpreter of the Constitution
With the pronouncement of the Supreme Court in Kesavananda Bharti, Chandra Bhavan and Dharwad District PWD Literate Daily Wage Employees Association, it is trite that the Preamble may be invoked to determine the ambit, sweep and scope of Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy.
The Preamble of the Constitution furnishes the key to open the mind of the makers of the Constitution more so because the Constitution Assembly took great pains in its formation so that it may reflect the essential features and basic objectives of the Constitution.
The Preamble is a part of the Constitution but the Preamble can neither be regarded as the source of any substantive power nor as a source of any prohibition or limitation. The Preamble of a Constitution can be used to understand the object of any amendment.
The majority Judges in ‘Kesavananda and Minera Mills’ strongly relied on the Preamble in reaching the conclusion that power of amendment conferred by Article 368 was limited and did not enable Parliament to alter the basic structure or frameworks of the Constitution.
In ‘AIIMS Students’ Union V. AIIMS’ while striking down a reservation within reservation, not supported by the Constitution or constitutional principles, the Court pressed into service the Preamble to the Constitution.
The Court observed that the Preamble to the Constitution of India secures as one of its objects “fraternity” assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation to “we the people of India”.
Reservation unless protected by the Constitution itself, as given to us by the founding fathers and as adopted by the people of India, is subversion of fraternity, unity and integrity and dignity of the individual.
It is the Preamble which spells out the Constitution being the source of all powers derived from the people of India in whom vests the ultimate power and strength.
Chief Justice R.S. Pathak, speaking for the Constitution Bench, held in ‘Kehar Singh v. Union of India’ that the Constitution of India is a document, in keeping with modern constitutional practice, and fundamental to the governance of the country. The people of India have provided a constitutional policy consisting of certain primary organs, institutions and functionaries to exercise the powers provided in the Constitution.
All powers belong to the people, and it is entrusted by the intention of working out, maintaining and operating a constitutional order. This is spelled out from the significant recitals contained in the preambular statement of the Constitution.
Chief Justice S.M. Sikri, during the course of his judgment in ‘Kesavananda Bharati case’, by way of interlude to interpretation of the Constitution, observed that the Constitution had our history in the background and had to be interpreted in the light of our aspirations and hopes and other relevant circumstance.
No other Constitution combines under its wings such diverse peoples, numbering now more than 550 million, with different languages and religions and in different stages of economic development, into one nation, and no other nation is faced with such vast socio-economic problems.
The Constitution cannot be interpreted like an ordinary Statue but as a Constitution which apart from setting up a machinery for the Government has a noble and grand vision. The vision was put in words in the Preamble and carried out in part by conferring fundamental rights on the people.
The vision was directed to be further carried out by the application of Directive Principles (paras 14-15). Dissenting with In Re Berubari Union and the opinion of Justice Wanchoo, and Justice Bachawat, in Golak Nath case that the Preamble is not a part of the Constitution, C.J. Sikri opined in Kesavananda’s Bharati case that the Preamble was expressly voted to be a part of the Constitution.
The holding that the Preamble is not a source of power cannot be extended as regards prohibitions and limitations. There was ample authority available to show that limitations have been derived in certain cases from the Preamble. The Preamble to the Constitution does not prescribe any vague doctrine.
He concluded that the expression “amendment of this Constitution” in Article 368 means in addition or change in any of the provisions of the Constitution within the broad contours of the Preamble and the Constitution to carry out the objects in the Preamble and the Directive Principles.
Applied to Fundamental Rights it would mean that while Fundamental Rights cannot be abrogated, reasonable abridgement of Fundamental Rights can be effected in the public interst. The concept of amendment within the contours of the Preamble and the Constitution cannot be said to be a vague and unsatisfactory idea which parliamentarians and the public would not be able to understand.
Justice J.M. Shelat and Justice A.N. Grover, jointly recorded their opinion in Kesvananda Bharati case. According to them, the Preamble to the Constitution of India embodies the great purposes, objectives and the policy underlying its provisions apart from the basic character of the State which was to come into existence i.e. a Sovereign Democratic Republic.
Parts III and IV which embody the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy are the conscience of the Constitution. In addition to the historical background and the scheme of the Constitution, the use of the Preamble has always been made and is permissible if the word “amendment” has more than one meaning.
The Constitution-makers gave to the Preamble the pride of place. It contains all the ideals and aspirations for which the country had struggled during the British regime and a Constitution was sought to be enacted in accordance with the genius of the Indian people.
It certainly represented an amalgam of schemes and ideas adopted from the Constitution of other countries.But the constant strain which runs throughout each and every article of the Constitution is reflected in the Preamble which could and can be made sacrosanct.
It is not without significance that the Preamble was passed only after draft articles of the Constitution had been adopted with such modifications as were approved by the Constituent Assembly. The Preamble was, therefore, meant to embody in a very few and well-defined words the key to the understanding of the Constitution.
The learned Judges noticed the explanation offered by the President of the Constitution Assembly for putting the Preamble last. It was done to see that the Preamble was in conformity with the Constitution as accepted. Various amendments suggested in the draft text of the Constitution were rejected. One of the amendments suggested was to insert into it the words, “In the name of God.”
That was rejected on the ground that it was inconsistent with the freedom of faith which was not only promised in the Preamble itself but was also guaranteed as a fundamental right.
An amendment which would have made it clear beyond all doubt that sovereignty vested in the people was not accepted on the short ground that the Preamble as drafted could convey no other meaning than that the Constitution emanated from the people and sovereignty to make this Constitution vested in them.
Justice Khanna, set out two utilities of the Preamble from the point of view of interpretation of the Constitution or Statutes:
Reference can be made to the Preamble for the purpose of construing when the words of a Statute or the Constitution are ambiguous and are admitted;
The Preamble can also be used to shed light on and clarify obscurity in the language of a statutory or constitutional provision.
When, however, the language of a Section or Article is plain and suffers from no ambiguity or obscurity, no gloss can be put on the words of the section or Article by invoking the Preamble.
Justice Jaganmohan Ready, speaking of the source and force behind the Constitution observed that the fact that the Preamble professed in unambiguous term that it is the people of India who have adopted, enacted and “given to themselves this Constitution”, that the Constitution is being acted upon unquestioned for the last over twenty-three years and every power and authority is purported to be exercised under the Constitution;
and that the vast majority of the people have, acting under the Constitution, elected their representatives to Parliament and the State Legislatures in general elections, makes the proposition indisputable that the source and the binding force of the Constitution is the sovereign will of the people of India.
In his opinion the Preamble to the Constitution finally settled by the Founding Fathers after the Constitution was framed so as to conform to the ideals and aspirations of the people embodied in that instrument. The Preamble declares in a ringing tone the purpose and objectives which the Constitution was intended to subserve.
In the opinion of Justice Jagnamohan Ready, the utility of the Preamble in interpreting the Constitution though a subject of depth yet it is clear from the opinion of jurists that
the Preamble is a key to open the mind of the makers as to the mischiefs, which are to be remedied;
that it is properly resorted to, where doubts or ambiguities arise upon the words of the enacting part;
even where the words are clear and unambiguous, it can be used to prevent an obvious absurdity.
there is every season to believe that the intentions of the framers as stated in the preamble, found expression in fundmental law or the constitution.
the Preamble can never be resorted to, to enlarge the powers expressly given, nor to substantively create any power or to imply a power which is otherwise withdrawn from the Constitution; its true function is to expound the nature, extent and application of the powers actually conferred by the Constitution.
The American concept is that the Preamble may not be resorted to as a source of federal authority but the value and use of the Preamble is to ascertain the essential concepts underlying the Constitution.
English cases show that the Preamble can be resorted to as a means to discover the legislative intent of which one may be cited. The gist of the English view is that:
(a) the Preamble cannot enable going further than what the enacting words indicate;
(b) the Preamble cannot be pressed into service for finding out the meaning of the enacting words when the meaning of the Preamble itself is in doubt.
Having referred to other authorities Justice Jaganmohan Ready concluded by holding that statute where the words are ambiguous or even where the words are unambiguous to aid a construction which will not lead to an absurdity.
Where the Preamble conveys a clear and definite meaning, it would prevail over the enacting words which are relatively obscure or indefinite or if the words are capable of more than one constitution, the construction which fits the Preamble may be preferred.
Discussing the utility of the Preamble as a guide to the interpretation of the constitutional provisions, Justice Chandrachud, discarded the argument that the Preamble could be read as placing implied limitations or immunities from amendment.
He concluded that every part and every provision of the Constitution was within the purview of wide and unfettered power of amendment of the Constitution conferred by Article 368. No inherent limitations on the amending power could be spelled out so as to develop a theory of keeping the essential features or the fundamental principles of the Constitution beyond the power of amendment.
(b) Preamble as a source of interpretation of other Statutes framed under the Constitution.
Whether it is the Constitution that is expounded or the constitutional validity of a Statute that is considered, a cardinal rule is to look to the Preamble Constitution as the guiding light and to the Directive Principles of State Policy and as the book of interpretation of the constitution.
The Preamble embodies and expresses the hopes and aspirations of the people. The Directive Principles set out proximate goals. When we go about the task of examining statutes against the Constitution, it is through these glasses that we must look, distant vision or near vision.
The Constitution being sui generis, where constitutional issues are under consideration, narrow interpretative rules which may have relevance when legislative enactments are interpreted may be displaced.
Originally the Preamble to the Constitution proclaimed the resolution of the people of India to constitute India into “a Sovereign Democratic Republic” and set forth “Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”, the very rights mentioned in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man as our hopes and aspirations. That was in 1950 when we had just emerged from the colonial-feudal rule. Time passed.
The people’s hopes and aspirations grew. In 1977, the Forty-Second Amendment proclaimed India as a Socialist Republic. The word “Socialist” was introduced into the Preamble to the Constitution. The implication of the introduction of the word “Socialist”, which has now become the centre of the hopes and aspiration of the people — a beacon to guide and inspire all that is enshrined in the Articles of the Constitution — is clearly to set up a “vibrant throbbing socialist welfare society” in the place of “feudal exploited society”.
Whatever Article of the Constitution it is that we seek to interpret, whatever Statute it is whose constitutional validity is sought to be questioned, we must strive to give such an interpretation as will promote the march and progress towards a socialistic democratic State.
For example, when we consider the question whether a Statute offends Article 14 of the Constitution we must also consider whether a classification that the legislature may have made is consistent with the socialist goals set out in the Preamble and the Directive Principles enumerated in Part IV of the Constitution. A classification which is not in tune with the Constitution is per se unreasonable and cannot be permitted.
The Preamble to the Constitution has relevance and significance in the interpretation of other laws. That the Preamble acts as beacon light guiding the interpretation of other law is a rule recognised in ‘Kesavananda Bharti’ case.
According to Kelsen: “Preamble serves to give a Constitution a greater dignity and efficacy.” Initially the Preamble was utilised by courts in interpreting social legislations. And later, the net widened.
The validity of the Kerala Fisherman Welfare Fund Act, 1985 was upheld in ‘Kolutbara Exports Ltd. v. State of Kerala’ on the grounds that the aim of law
was to provide social security and welfare to the Kerala fisherman and that this was justified as it was in accordance with the objectives contained in the Preamble.
The Supreme Court has also used the concept of equality as found in the Preamble in the interpretation of tax laws. In ‘Sri Srinivasa Tbeatre v. Govt. of T.N.’ the Court said that Parliament has been given more freedom in the case of taxing statutes in order to decide who should pay more taxes, to remove the inequalities that prevail in this country, as per the goal of equality as envisaged in the Preamble.
In a more recent decision, P.Ramachandra Rao v. State of Karnataka, the Court has reiterated the right to speedy trial as a fundamental right under Article 21, and has used the concept of justice as found in the Preamble to the Constitution to strengthen this right.
In the field of labour and company law, the Court, in the case of ‘National Textile ‘Workers’ Union v. P.R. Ramakrishanan’, used the right of justice as assured in the Preamble to the Constitution to give workers of a company a right to be heard in a winding-up petition.
In ‘Randhir Singh v. Union of India’ the Supreme Court construed Articles 14 and 16 in the light of the Preamble and Article 39(d) of the Constitution.
In ‘D.S. Nakara v. Union of India’ the Court observed the Preamble to the Constitution is the floodlight which illuminates the path to be pursued by the State to set up a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular and Democratic Republic, and decided the case in favour of the pensioners who had been denied the enhanced pensionary benefits under an order issued by the Central Government.
In ‘Sanjit Roy v. State of Rajasthan’, the Court held that when a person is forced to work on wages less than what is prescribed as minimum is “forced labour” under Article 23 and basically contrary to the principle laid down in the Preamble.
In ‘Sanjeev Coke Mfg. Co. v. Bharat Coking Coal Ltd.’, the Court relied on the Preamble and Article 39(b) for upholding the validity of the Coking Coal Mines (Nationalistaion) Act, 1972 and observed that the Act was designed to achieve the egalitarian principle of social and anomic justice for all. Justice Chinnappa Reddy, observed—
“Scale of justice are just not designed to weigh competing social and economic factors. In such matters legislative wisdom must prevail and judicial review must abstain.”
(c) International Documents/Treaties Conventions/Declarations as aid to Interpretation of the Preamble.
The Judges in India have referred to international legal documents and treaties in order to do justice in the absence of any law or authority available on the point. In Madhu Kishwar v. State of Bihar the Court made use of the Vienna Convention on the Elimination of all Froms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) ratified by UNO on 18-12-1979 to uphold the right of succession for tribal woman over which there was some amount of legal controversy.
The concept of justice and equality spoken of in the Preamble was given a new dimension by the Supreme Court observing that Article 2(3) of CEDAW enjoins the Supreme Court to breathe life into the dry bones of the Constitution, International Conventions and the Declaration Human Rights act, to prevent gender-based discrimination and to effectuate right to life including empowerment of economic, social and cultural rights. Women are half of the lowest of the low.
It is mandatory to render them socio-economic justice so as to ensure their dignity of person, so that they be brought into the mainstream of the national life.
In Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan the Supreme Court laid down guidelines on sexual harassment of woman in the work place on the basis of CEDAW in search of gender justice flowing from “justice” and “equality” as employed in the Preamble. In ‘Kirloskar Brotbers Ltd. v. ESI Corpn.’ , the Court used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to reaffirm the duty of the State as regards its welfare role.