Doctrine of Harmonious Construction

What is the Doctrine of Harmonious Construction?

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Law has a very important place as an agent for social evolution. In a democratic system of governance, there are numerous intersections among social evolution and legal order. The law has its source in legislation is called Statute law. It is quickly made, definite and does not have to wait for recognition by the courts. The courts recognize a statute because it is law, not law merely because the courts recognize it.

The word ‘Law’ in the context of Article 300-A of the Constitution must mean an Act of Parliament or of a State Legislature, a rule, or a statutory order, having the force of law, that is positive or State-made law.i In the United Motors case, when the Supreme Court construed Article 286(1) of the Constitution, their interpretation was deemed to be the correct interpretation of that article from the day itself. The consequential effects flowing from the law so laid down should necessarily follow the subject of course to the law of limitation or special rules such as res judicata in civil cases or autre fois acquit or convict in criminal cases provided in the special statutes.ii Statutes are not always rational (change this word to direct/literal) and it may not be within the province of the court to import rationality in an enactment under the guise of interpretation.iii This is where interpretation becomes crucial. The enacted law must be seen as an attempt to reconcile, to harmonize, to adjust the overlapping and often conflicting claims and demands, so that the sacrifice of the conflicting provisions is seldom made.iv

Now, one of the most important doctrines for the interpretation of statutes, which is also the topic for this article will be discussed in detail.


This rule is used to avoid any inconsistency and repugnancy within a section or between a section and other parts of a statute. The rule follows a very simple premise that every statute has a purpose and intent as per law, and should be read as a whole. The interpretation which is consistent with all the provisions and makes the enactment consistent shall prevail. The doctrine follows a settled rule that an interpretation that results in injustice, hardship, inconvenience, and anomaly should be avoided. The interpretation with the closest conformity to justice must be picked.v

The Supreme Court laid down 5 main principles of the ‘Doctrine of Harmonious Construction’-

  • The courts must avoid a ‘head of clash’ of contradictory provisions and they must construe the contradictory provisions so as to harmonize
  • When it is not possible to completely reconcile the differences in contradictory provisions, the court must interpret them in such a way so as to give effect to both provisions as much as possible.vii
  • Courts must keep in mind that the interpretation which reduces one provision to a useless standing is against the essence of ‘Harmonious Construction’.viii
  • To harmonize the provisions is not to render them fruitless or destroy any statutory provision.ix
  • The provision of one section cannot be used to render useless the other provision, unless the court, despite all its efforts, finds a way to reconcile the differences.

The approach that is mostly used by the courts is to find out which provision is more general in nature so as to construe the more general provision and exclude the specific one.x The maxims Generalia Specialibus Non-Derogant, and Generalia Specialibus Derogant catches the essence of the doctrine. The former means that general things do not derogate from special things, and the latter means that special things derogate from general things.xi

Further, this principle is also used to resolve conflicts between two separate actsxii and in the making of statutory ordersxiii and rules.xiv But if a person has two remedies, one being general and the other being specific, they continue to hold good for the concerned person until he elects one of them.xv


In M.S.M. Sharma v. Krishna Sinhaxvi, the doctrine was applied to resolve the conflict between Articles 19(1)(a) and Article 194(3) of the Constitution and it was held that the right to freedom of speech as guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) is to be read as subjects of powers and privileges of the House of the Legislature which is similar to those of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom as declared under Article 194(3).

But, after the above judgment, in Special Reference No. 1 of 1964xvii, it was decided that Article 194(3) was subordinate to Articles 21, 32, 211, and 226. This conclusion was also reached through the recourse of Harmonious Construction.

Furthermore, in the case of Venkataramana Devaru v. the State of Mysorexviii, the Supreme Court applied the doctrine in resolving a conflict between Articles 25(2)(b) and 26(b) of the Constitution and it was held that the right of every religious denomination or any section thereof to manage its own affairs in matters of religion [Article 26(b)] is subject to provisions made by the State providing for social welfare and reform or opening of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus [Article 25(2)(b)].

The principle of ‘Harmonious Construction’ is also applicable in the case of construction of provisions relating to subordinate legislation.

In the landmark judgment of Sirsilk Ltd. v. Govt. of Andhra Pradeshxix, a very important question was answered. Various disputes arose between the employer and the workmen and it was further referred to an industrial tribunal. After the adjudication was over, the government sent its award to the government for publication. However, before the publication of the award, the parties to the dispute came to a settlement, and wrote a letter to the government jointly, that the dispute has been settled and the award shall not be published. The government refused to withhold the publication and in turn, the parties further moved the High Court. The High Court rejected the writ petition. The parties further moved the Supreme Court through a special leave petition.

The main premise of the appellants was that Section 17 of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 was directory in nature and not mandatory.xx

Ordinarily, the words ‘shall’ and ‘must’ are mandatory, and the word ‘may’ is a directory, although using them interchangeably in legislation is common.xxi

Section 17(1) of the Act states, ‘‘Every award shall within a period of thirty days from the date of its receipt by the appropriate government be published in such manner as the appropriate government thinks fit.” The court read the Section 17 and 17A and declared that the duty cast on the government to publish the award is mandatory and not a directory. Thus, the contention of the appellants did not hold good.

But on further observation by the court, Section 18 was scrutinized. Section 18 (1) provides that a settlement arrived at by agreement between the employer and the workmen otherwise than in the course of conciliation proceeding shall be binding on the parties to the agreement.

The Supreme Court observed that in the present case, the duty of the government under Section 17 of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 and settlement under Section 18 are in conflict with each other. Finally, it was held that where a settlement has been arrived at between the parties before the tribunal after the award has been submitted to the government but before its publication, no dispute is left to be resolved. So, the government should refrain from publishing the award.xxii

Thus, in the above case, Harmonious Construction was employed. This is a fine example of how enforcement of one provision can be implemented without rendering the other provision useless or dead.


After analyzing various case laws, the Courts have devised certain steps for the better applicability of the said doctrine-

  • Giving full effect to both the provisions and reducing the contrary nature and/or conflict between them.
  • Both the provisions that are conflicting in nature or are repugnant to each other are to be read as a whole and the entire enactment in question must be considered.
  • Of the two conflicting provisions, choose the one that is wider in scope.
  • Compare the wider provision with the narrow provision and then try to interpret the wider provision to see further consequence. If the consequence is as reasonable as to harmonize both the provisions, and it gives their full effect separately, no further inquiry is needed. One important aspect to be kept in mind is that the legislature while framing the provisions was fully aware of the situation which they entered to cover and therefore all provisions enacted require to be given their full effect on scope.xxiii
  • When one section of an Act takes away powers conferred by another Act, a non-obstante clause must be used.xxiv
  • It is imperative that the Court must try to find out the extent to which the legislature has intended to give one provision an overriding power over another provision. In the case of Eastbourne Corporation v. Fortes Ltd.xxv, it was held that if two contradictory sessions cannot be reconciled, then the last section must prevail. Though this is not a universal rule.


Every court is assigned a task of statutory interpretation and it should be performed with utmost care and caution. The court can always interpret legislation in its own way and the responsibility to understand the intent of the legislature while applying the doctrine also stands solely with the court. The interpretation of different statutes differ in nature and it is imperative that the interpretation comes out in a clear and unambiguous way. But, if both the provisions are unclear, there will be no interpretation. They will only interpret when the words are clear and in the case of any ambiguity the court will look into enacting provisions of the statute. The court here will only apply the Literal interpretation and apply the popular meaning. Regarding the law, every word has a meaning and the interpretation will become the scope and beyond the reach of objectives and reasons for which the statute was enacted in the legislature. Hence, the court should understand the importance of the ‘Doctrine of Harmonious Construction’ and interpretation of statutes in general with its ever increasing scope in the present times.

End Notes

iM/s. Bishamber Dayal Chandra Mohan v. State of U.P., AIR 1982 SC pp.32, 48.


iiiLakshmi Ammal v. Ramchandra, AIR 1960 Mad, pp.568, 570.

ivRoscoe Pound – Jurisprudence, Ibid, p. 324.

vUnion of India v. B.S. Aggarwal AIR 1998 S.C. 1537.

viCIT v. Hindustan Bulk Carriers, (2003) 3 SCC 57, p. 74.

viiSultana Begum v. Premchand Jain, AIR 1997 SC 1006, pp. 1009, 1010.

viiiCIT v. Hindustan Bulk Carriers, (2003) 3 SCC 57, p. 74.


xState of U.P. v. Renusagar Power Co., AIR 1988 SC 1737, p. 1751.

xiOSBORN’S Law Dictionary.

xiiIridium India Telecom Ltd. v. Motorola Inc, (2005) 2 SCC 145, pp. 163, 164.

xiiiJagdish Singh v. Lt. Governor, Delhi, AIR 1997 SC 2239, p. 2242.

xivJ.K. Cotton Spinning and Weaving Mills Ltd. v. State of U.P., AIR 1961 SC 1170.

xvBihar State Co-operative Marketing Union Ltd. v. Uma Shankar Saran, AIR 1993 SC 1222, p. 1224.

xviAIR 1959 SC 395, p. 410.

xviiAIR 1965 SC 745, p. 761 (para 36).

xviiiAIR 1958 SC 255.

xixAIR 1964 SC 160.


xxi Manufacturers’ Exhibition Building Co. v. Landay, 219 III. 168, 76 N.E. 146.



xxivA.G. Varadarajulu v. State of Tamil Nadu, AIR 1998 SC 1388.

xxv(1959) 2 All ER 102 CA.

Yug sinha

Yug Sinha


Yug is a policy enthusiast who loves reading commentaries on various laws than fiction. He loves debating and enjoys writing research papers, articles and case commentaries. You can always find him in the library diving into the books. For any clarifications, feedback, and advice, you can reach him at

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