The concept of separation of powers finds its origin in the political philosophies of Locke and Montesquieu. As Montesquieu notes in The Spirit of Laws (1748), “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates.” This core idea evolved into the doctrine of separation of powers, which asserts that the major institutions of state – legislative, executive, and judicial – should be functionally independent.
Foundation of the Doctrine
Montesquieu’s doctrine rests on two basic principles:
- To prevent arbitrary rule and safeguard individual liberties, governmental powers must be separated and balances amongst various institutions.
The Supreme Court in State of West Bengal v. Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (2010) held that the essence of this doctrine lies in having checks and balances to protect individuals from potential excesses by any one institution.
- Each organ of the government must be confined to the exercise of its own function and not allowed to encroach upon the functions of other organs.
As noted in Ram Jawaya v. State of Punjab (1955), the Indian Constitution does not recognize rigid separation of powers but broadly demarcates them to ensure smooth governance. Still, encroachment by one organ on the domain of another is forbidden.
Also Read: Notes on Administrative Law
Three Rules of Separation
Montesquieu structured separation across three rules:
- One organ should not interfere with the working of another organ. This promotes specialization and efficiency in governance.
- One organ must not exercise functions belonging to another. In Government of A.P. v. P. Laxmi Devi (2008), the Supreme Court held that judicial functions cannot be exercised by the legislature or executive.
- The same person should not form part of more than one organ. This prevents conflict of interest and abuse of power.
Benefits of the Doctrine
- Montesquieu envisioned several benefits from separating functions, including:
- Preventing tyranny and safeguarding individual freedom
- Promoting specialization of roles across institutions
- Ensuring accountability as one check on the other
- Improving efficiency in governance
As the Supreme Court noted in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973), this doctrine protects against “unfettered social control” by any one institution.
Modifications for Practical Governance
While the core principles hold merit, some modifications have been required in practice:
The Council of Ministers is drawn from the legislature, deviating from the rule against belonging to multiple organs. As Granville Austin notes, the Indian Constitution creates a “blurred separation of powers.“
The executive is accountable to the Parliament and its acts can be questioned there.
Delegated legislation allows the executive to exercise limited legislative powers. Similarly, in exercising quasi-judicial functions the executive applies judicial expertise over specialized subjects.
As the Supreme Court held in In re Delhi Laws Act (1951), some overlap of functions is permitted out of “necessities and convenience” of administration. Complete separation is neither possible nor prudent. A harmony between the organs allows “community of action” for effective governance.
In conclusion, Montesquieu’s doctrine retains high relevance as it sets a principled foundation for efficient and accountable governance. However, pragmatic modifications permit constructive overlap where strictly bifurcated roles would hamper coordinated functioning across organs. Our Constitution incorporates a balanced separation of powers, upholding liberty while also supporting good governance.