Republishing a piece from May 26, 2018, based on an interview of Kesavananda Bharati by TOI’s K P Saikiran
His name will resound in posterity but he seems oblivious to it. Which perhaps befits his quest, which is basically spiritual. Kesavananda Bharati, now well into his 70s, resides in the remote northern
hamlet of Edneer in Kasaragod, almost in the middle of nowhere. As head of Edneer Mutt, which follows the teachings of Adi Shankaracharya, he leads a largely anonymous life.
After his usual morning pooja that begins at 5am, followed by a late breakfast, he spared some time to talk about his memories of the case still considered the greatest constitutional case in this country, one that settled a core dispute between Parliament and Supreme Court.
When the Kerala Land Reforms Act was enacted, Kesavananda Bharati challenged it on the grounds that it was against the
. He explains the logic behind approaching the court against the law: “I approached the court not because I lost my property, but due to the feeling that what the government did was not right. One has the right to earn. Whatever he earns may be in the form of cash, kind or property. When the government decided that properties beyond a limit will be taken away, we decided to approach the highest court”, he says.
From the very beginning, the case had serious political implications. That became clear when parliament’s amendment of fundamental rights affected the propertied class, mainly zamindars, sugar mill and coal mine owners in addition to former princes who were still wielding considerable political clout. There were several petitioners, but Kesavananda Bharati’s petition was listed at the top, as it challenged the Kerala Land Reforms Act.
The task of taking his petition to the highest court was undertaken by a prominent lawyer from his home district of Kasaragod, M K Nambiar, father of present attorney general K K Venugopal. “It was
M K Nambiar
who did all the formalities and engaged a team of lawyers in New Delhi. I never travelled for the purpose,” Bharati says. Kesavananda Bharati’s lawyer was none other than the legendary Nani A Palkhivala. “I have never met him. I heard that some major corporate firms joined the case. I did not pay any fee to Palkhivala as I could not afford it. I heard that the companies who joined the case bore the expenses,” he reveals.
Bharati says that the case followed him wherever he went, as people appreciated its cause. “In my travels across the country, people who had read about the case would ask if I was the same Kesavananda Bharati who initiated the case? They would praise me, though I was only an instrument in the delivery of such a historic verdict,” he recalls.
Some people felt it was contradictory that a man of his stature, who has supposedly given up all kinds of worldly belongings and material pleasures, should engage in a legal battle for property. “Once some law students asked me this question. But to such questions, I can give only one answer: We are only trying to help the needy fight for their fundamental right to own property. You can check our bank account and find it out for yourselves. When the government deprived us of our legal right to own properties, it was my duty to question it in spite of the fact that it is not my personal loss,” he explains.
The case was decided by the biggest ever bench of the Supreme Court with 13 members including the then chief justice
S M Sikri
who was about to retire at that time. The government did not follow the precedence of announcing the new chief justice, which apparently was to wait to know the outcome of the case. The court finally ruled that though Parliament has the power to amend the constitution, it cannot use that power to alter or destroy its basic structure.
Kesavananda Bharati could not regain his lost land, but he says he does not have any regrets. “We lost the land. But when I learnt what the outcome of the case was, how it contributed to democracy, it gave me utmost satisfaction,” he says.