Kesavananda Bharati Swamiji, the seer of Edneer Mutt in neighbouring Kasargod district of Kerala and the petitioner in the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court on fundamental rights, passed away in the Mutt in the early hours of Sunday. He was 80.
It was on April 24, 1973 that the Constitutional Bench headed by then Chief Justice S.M. Sikri delivered the judgment in the His Holiness Kesavananda Bharati Sripadagalvaru and Ors. Vs. State of Kerala and others case which held that that Parliament could amend any part of the Constitution so long as it did not alter or amend “the basic structure or essential features of the Constitution.” The SC verdict on April 24, 1973 said, “The basic structure of the Constitution is inviolable, and cannot be amended by Parliament”. The court had ruled that the Parliament cannot use its amending power to alter the basic structure or the essential features of the Constitution.
Swami Kesavananda Bharati had moved the Supreme Court on March 21, 1970, challenging the Kerala government’s takeover of land owned by the mutt as per the state’s revolutionary land reforms act of 1969. The seer realised that it would be difficult to run the mutt once its property, source of income for running it, was acquired by the government. Post enactment of the law, the mutt had lost its property. It had been gasping for financial resources to run the mutt and its charitable activities. Faced with reduced income and mounting expenses, Bharati decided to opt for legal recourse.
The initial advice came from veteran barrister M K Nambair, a native of Kasaragod, and father of K K Venugopal, who is the Attorney General of India. It was Nambiar who introduced ace jurist Nani Palkhivala to the seer. Palkhivala had then persuaded Swami to file a petition in the Supreme Court.
Keshvananda Bharti moved the Supreme Court for enforcement of his rights guaranteed under Article 25 (Right to practice and propagate religion), Article 26 (Right to manage religious affairs), Article 14 (Right to equality), Article 19(1) (f) (freedom to acquire property), Article 31 (Compulsory Acquisition of Property).
Swami prayed that the provisions of the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963 (Act 1 of 1964), as amended by the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act 1969 (Act 35 of 1969), be declared unconstitutional, ultra vires and void. During the pendency of the writ petition, the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act 1971 was passed, which received the assent of the President on August 7, 1971.
The petition was heard by a 13-member bench, the largest ever bench in the history of the SC, for 68 working days from October 31, 1972, to March 23, 1973.
Although the verdict cemented his name in the legal history, the swami was dispassionate about his victory. He had never felt it as his personal victory, but a win of the mutt. A few years back, Swami had reportedly told in an interview that he believed the SC verdict was God’s decision. He was of the opinion that he was successful in protecting the property of the mutt. He had felt happy that many persons benefited from the verdict in their fight for justice.
Under Keshavanandan Bharati, the mutt emerged as a seat of art and learning. Swami was passionate about Carnatic music and was in the forefront of promoting Yakshagana, a theatre form popular in Kasaragod and coastal Karnataka. He had directed Yakshagana plays and used to hold musical concerts in mutt. To encourage Kannada, the mutt had launched educational institutions in Kannada medium.