The distinctions in constitutional structure between India and Pakistan—not to mention their differences in political culture—are as sharp as they are numerous. To name but a few, India is a federal state tending toward decentralization in a parliamentary system whose constitution proclaims its commitment to secular democracy. In contrast, Pakistan is a federal state with centralizing tendencies organized around a semi-presidential system which aspires to a model of Islamic democracy.
But India and Pakistan also share a number of constitutional similarities. One in particular is their constitutional grant of plenary power to the national legislature to amend the text of the constitution. As long as the legislature musters the requisite majorities, neither section 368 of the Indian Constitution nor section 239 of the Pakistani Constitution appears to impose any substantive limitation on the content of constitutional amendments in India and Pakistan, respectively.
Constitutional comparativists will know that the Indian Supreme Court has effectively overridden this plenary grant of power by interpreting the Indian Constitution as held together by a “basic structure” whose constituent elements are forever immune to formal constitutional amendment. According to the High Court, the Indian Constitution folds within itself a number of unalterable principles, including constitutional supremacy, republicanism, federalism, secularism, and the separation of powers. As a consequence, Indian courts may invoke—and indeed have in the past invoked, most notably in Minerva Mills Ltd. v. Union of India, AIR 1980 SC 1789—this “basic structure” doctrine to invalidate duly-passed constitutional amendments.
We may be witnessing the emergence of a similar doctrine in Pakistan.
In a recent case, the Supreme Court of Pakistan invalidated an amnesty that shielded Pakistani politicians and other public officials from criminal and civil prosecution. (For helpful background of this case, I recommend the short briefing materials here at the Jurist.)
This is a significant judgment whose impact may reverberate in far-reaching ways for years to come.
But what may perhaps be most interesting for constitutional comparativists is a very short passage in the opinion. Near the end of its decision at page 14, the Pakistani Supreme Court wrote matter-of-factly that “salient features of the Constitution i.e. Independence of Judiciary, Federalism, Parliamentary form of Government blended with Islamic provisions, now have become integral part of the Constitution and no change in the basic features of the Constitution, is possible through amendment … .”
It is too soon to know whether the Pakistani Supreme Court intended to lay the foundation for something approximating the Indian basic structure doctrine. But that is certainly one plausible reading of this judgment—a judgment which could prove to be a pivotal moment in the constitutional evolution of Pakistan.
With that, let me thank Tom for inviting me to participate in this blog on comparative constitutionalism. It is an honor and a pleasure to join the team of scholars here, and I look forward to contributing to the conversation.