In May 1951, the Jawaharlal Nehru-led Congress party proposed the first amendment, which made the following modifications to the fundamental rights: Article 19 was amended to expand the grounds on which the State could restrict free speech “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality.” Article 15 was amended to allow the State to reserve seats in educational institutions for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Finally, Article 31A was inserted, creating the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution. Laws contained in this Ninth Schedule would be shielded from judicial review to prevent the courts from striking down laws intended to abolish the Zamindari system as unconstitutional. 

 

 This post briefly engages with two pieces of scholarship on the political history of the first amendment: Tripurdaman Singh’s recent Sixteen Stormy Days and and Granville Austin’s Working a Democratic Constitution

 

Singh’s characterization of this amendment is unflattering: he argues that by abridging important fundamental rights, the first amendment was the “slippery slope” which laid the foundation for successive governments’ disdain for civil liberties. Singh focuses more on the expansion of the grounds under which “reasonable” restrictions could be imposed on the right to free speech under Article 19. Scant attention is paid to the social impact of the amendments to the right against discrimination and to property. 

 

On the other hand, Austin’s book – which is the successor to his study of the Indian constitution-making process – does not view the first amendment as an inherently negative event. He instead examines the amendment as a conflict between the written legal text and the constitutional value of ‘justice’, a conflict that he viewed as natural given India’s diversity and social hierarchy. In doing so, he focuses primarily on the amendment to Article 15, which allowed the State to reserve seats in educational institutions for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.  

 

It is widely acknowledged that the first amendment was enacted to overcome judicial interpretations of the fundamental rights. On multiple occasions, the courts had strictly interpreted the fundamental rights and invalidated legislations intended to further socio-economic equality as a result. At the same time, the courts also overturned laws which made unconstitutional restrictions on the right to free speech. The question of how to view the first amendment – which simultaneously curbed civil liberties while ensuring equality for oppressed classes – remains a complex one.