The Doctrine of Harmonious Construction: The Parliament makes a separate set
of statutes, rules and legislation as well as constitutional provisions under
their well-defined powers. While the framing of these provisions has to be done
very carefully, conflict still occurs sometimes due to overlapping in their
This is because there are chances of certain gaps being left while framing of
these provisions, which could not have been foreseen by legislators. To deal
with such conflicts, certain doctrines and rules are propounded by courts that
are used in the interpretation of statutes. One such rule of interpretation is
the Doctrine of Harmonious Construction.
This article provides an overview of the doctrine along with case laws.
Meaning of the Doctrine of Harmonious Construction
The Doctrine of Harmonious Construction is regarded as the most essential rule
to the rule of interpretation of statutes. The doctrine states:
"Whenever there is a case of conflict between two or more statutes or between
two or more parts or provisions of a statute, then the statute has to be
interpreted upon harmonious construction. It signifies that in case of
inconsistencies, proper harmonization is to be done between the conflicting
parts so that one part does not defeat the purpose of another."
The principle is premised on a fundamental legal idea that every statute was
drafted with a particular purpose and intention in mind, and hence should be
understood as a whole. The conventional assumption is that what Parliament has
given with one hand will not be taken away with the other. The goal is to put
both provisions into action. To avoid dispute, the statute's interpretation
should be consistent with all of its provisions.
If it appears impossible to harmoniously construe or reconcile the
parts/provisions, the matter is left to the judiciary to decide and render
ultimate decision. The goal of the courts is to interpret in such a way that it
resolves the disparity or disagreement between the sections and allows the
statute to become consistent as a whole and read accordingly.
Origin of the Doctrine
The Doctrine of Harmonious Construction arose from court interpretations in a
number of cases. The doctrine's genesis can be linked back to the very first
amendment to the Indian Constitution, with the landmark judgement of Shankari
Prasad v. Union of India.  The issue concerned a dispute between Part III
(Fundamental Rights) and Part IV (Directive Principles of State Policy), both of
which are fundamental components of the Indian Constitution.
The court adopted the rule of Harmonious Construction and determined that
fundamental rights, which are rights granted against the state, might be revoked
in specific circumstances and altered by Parliament to bring them into
compliance with constitutional provisions. Both were prioritised, and it was
agreed that FRs and DPSPs are merely two distinct sides of the same coin that
must operate together for the public good.
This concept arose historically from the rule of conciliation, which was
initially proposed in the case of C.P and Berar Act. The court used this
method of interpretation to prevent overlapping or disagreement between entries
24 and 25 of the State list and read them harmoniously by assessing the breadth
of the subjects involved.
Applicability of the Doctrine
To quote the stance of courts on the application of the doctrine of harmonious
"When there are in an enactment two provisions which cannot be reconciled with
each other, they should be so interpreted that; if possible, the effect should
be given to both."
It is a well-settled principle that a statute must be read as a whole and in a
manner that one part/provision of the act is harmoniously construed in reference
to the other provisions of the same Act so as to provide a consistent enactment
of the whole statute.
There are five principles of this Doctrine as laid down by the apex court of
India in the case of CIT v. Hindustan Bulk Carrier:
- While interpreting, the court has a duty to avoid a "head-on clash" at
all cost between two sections of the same act
- The interpretation should be done such that the provision of one section
doesn't defeat the purpose of another unless it is impossible to effect a
reconciliation between them
- When it is impossible to reconcile the contradictory provisions, then
courts must interpret in a way to give as much as possible effect to both
- A Construction that reduces one of the provisions to a "useless lumber"
or "dead letter" is not harmonious construction
- Lastly, to harmonize is not to destroy any other statutory
The aforementioned concepts provide basic but simple explanations of how to
apply the rule of Harmonious Construction when reading sections of any statute.
Furthermore, when two provisions of a legislation appear to be in conflict with
each other, both should be interpreted in such a way that both are given effect,
and no construction should be chosen that renders any of the provisions
ineffective or inoperative except as a last resort. In the case of Raj
Krushna v. Binod Kanungo
, the Supreme Court clearly demonstrated the
application of this principle.
Sections 33(2) and 123(8) of the ROPA of 1951 appeared to be in contradiction.
Whereas section 33(2) refers to a government servant's ability to nominate or
second a candidate in an election, section 123(8) states that a government
servant could only help a candidate in an election by voting. The court read
both articles coherently, holding that a government employee has the right to
nominate or second a candidate but is not permitted to assist in any other way,
as well as the right to vote.
Relevant Case Laws
To have a thorough understanding of the concept of this interpretation rule, we
must examine its practical application in significant case law.
The first is M.S.M Sharma v. Krishna Sinha,
 a pivotal case in Indian
constitutional history. Facts: The Petitioner in the case was charged with
violating the speaker's privileges by publicising a speech delivered by the
member. The Petitioner was served with a show-cause notice, which required him
to explain why action should not be taken against him.
Issue of the case:
Whether the privileges under Art. 194(3) override the
fundamental right under Art. 19 (1)(a).
The Committee's decision and the notice provided
violate his fundamental rights under Art. 19 (1)(a) and Art. 21. However,
because the respondent relied on Art. 194(3), the rule of interpretation was
applied to determine which law should take precedence.
The Supreme Court applied the rule of harmonious construction and
found that, while Art. 194 (3) is subordinate to Art. 21, the Indian
Constitution is the supreme law in the country, and so a person can be barred
from publishing the Assembly's official records. This is not an absolute
limitation on that person's FR.
Furthermore, in M. Nanavati vs. State of Bombay,
 the issue was the
power bestowed on the Governor under Art 161, and the court had to interpret the
meaning of Art 161 and Art 142 (1) of the constitution. In the current case, the
Bombay High Court sentenced the accused.
The petitioner then approached the Governor, who issued a suspension order
against the Bombay High Court's sentence. When the matter came before the
Hon'ble Supreme Court, the court implemented the rule of Harmonious Construction
and held that the Governor's absolute power to grant suspension under Art 161 is
absolved when the matter becomes sub judice. In such cases, Art 142 allows for
complete interference with the judicial power of the court.
In the recent case of Department of Customs vs Sharad Gandhi,
Hon'ble Supreme Court used the principle of Harmonious construction to settle a
conflict between the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 and the Customs
The Bench noted the "inconsistency" found in Article 254 of the Indian
Constitution between laws enacted by Parliament and state legislatures, which
states: If the law enacted by the state is repugnant to the law enacted by
Parliament, the law enacted by Parliament shall prevail to the extent of
repugnance. However, in this case, the court remarked that both of the
aforementioned acts were enacted by Parliament.
It is evident that there is usually the risk of ambiguity or loopholes in
legislation enacted by the legislature. To address those gaps, harmonious
construction as a guideline of interpretation of legislation plays a significant
role in giving the statutory provisions full effect. Today, the rule is regarded
as a key weapon in the hands of our judiciary, assisting two opposing laws to
work together amicably in providing justice to society at large.
- Shankari Prasad v. Union of India, AIR (1951) SC 455.
- Re C.P. and Bera Act, AIR (1939) FC 1.
- Venkataramana Devaru v. State of Mysore, 1958 AIR 255.
- Justice GP Singh, Principles of Statutory Interpretation, 9th edn (2004)
- CIT v. Hindustan Bulk Carriers (2003) 3 SCC 57.
- Raj Krushna Bose v. Binod Kanungo & ors, 1954 AIR 202.
- Representation of People Act, 1951 Section 33(2) & 123(8).
- M.S.M. Sharma v. Krishna Sinha, AIR (1959) SC 395.
- K.M. Nanavati v. State of Bombay, AIR 1961 SC 112.
- Department of Customs vs. Sharad Gandhi, SLP (Crl.) No. 174 of 2019.
- INDIA CONST. art. 254.