Article 21: right to life and personal liberty

Every person has the right to live a life on their own terms, without any interference from others. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to life and personal liberty. This article is considered as the heart and soul of the Indian Constitution.

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution states,

Protection of life and personal liberty – No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

This right is available only when a person is deprived of his/her ‘life’ or ‘personal liberty’ by the ‘State’ (defined under Article 12 of the Indian Constitution). It is not available if there is violation of right by the private individuals. It is available to every citizen as well as non-citizen. Various rights have been included within the ambit of this article by the way of judicial interpretations over the years.

The word ‘personal liberty’ for the first time was interpreted in the case of A.K. Gopalan vs State of Madras[1].

In this case, A.K. Gopalan (the petitioner) was a communist leader. He was detained under the Preventive Detention Act, 1950[2]. He claimed that his detention was illegal and it infringed his right of freedom of movement granted under Article 19(1)(d)[3] of the Indian Constitution and as a result his personal liberty mentioned under Article 21 was also violated.

It was held that personal liberty means liberty of the physical body and it does not include the rights given under Article 19(1) of the Constitution. Rights like the right to sleep and eat were considered to be part of personal liberty, whereas, right to move freely was minor and was not included in one’s personal liberty.

The following are the case laws which widened the definition of Article 21.

Kharak Singh vs The State of Uttar Pradesh[4]

In this case, Kharak Singh (petitioner), was accused of committing dacoity. But due to lack of evidence he was released. The Uttar Pradesh stated surveillance over him which included periodical enquiries, verification of movements etc. the petitioner filed a writ petition, in which he challenged the constitutional validity of the state action.

It was held that the right to personal liberty not only means the right to be free from restrictions placed on one’s movement but it also means free from encroachments on one’s private life. But, Right to Privacy was not held as a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution.

Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India[5]

In this case, Maneka Gandhi (the petitioner), was given a notice by the Regional Passport Office, New Delhi to surrender her newly made passport within 7 days because of a decision made by the Centre Government. The petitioner asked for the reason as to why she should deposit her passport. The Government of India replied that they could furnish the copy in the interest of the general public. Petitioner filed a writ petition which challenged the government’s decision to seize the passport and also not providing the reason for it, as well as not giving the chance to the petitioner to defend herself.

The Supreme Court held that the right to travel and go outside the country is included in the Right to Personal Liberty. It was observed that ‘personal liberty’ mentioned under article 21 had the widest scope and includes a variety of rights within it. The court stated that such a right could only be taken away by procedure established by law, which needs to be “fair, just and reasonable and not oppressive or arbitrary.” The Supreme Court was of the view that, firstly, the actions of the government were not justified as they had no valid ground to seize the passport of the petitioner and it resulted in violation of her fundamental right. Secondly, Principles of Natural Justice were violated as the petitioner was not given adequate opportunity to be heard.

Scope of Right to Life and Personal Liberty

Various Judgements have included a variety of rights under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

  • Right to live with Human Dignity

One of the most essential elements of life is to live a life with dignity and respect. It means having access to basic necessities of human life.

Occupational Health and Safety Association vs Union of India[6]

In this case, Occupational Health and Safety Association, a non-profit organization filed a writ petition to seek guidelines for occupational safety and health conditions in various industries. As the workers had to suffer from various diseases like skin problems, lung abnormalities etc. due to unhealthy working conditions.

It was held that it is the duty of the State to protect the workers from dangerous or unhygienic working conditions and asked the High Courts to check the issue of thermal power plants in their respective states.

  • Right to Livelihood

In order to survive it is very important that a person have access to financial and material resources to fulfil their own desires. Law recognizes that every person should have a right to livelihood so that they have necessary resources like food, shelter, clothes etc. No person should live a life in poverty.

Olga Tellis and Ors. Vs Bombay Municipal Corporation[7]

In this case, petitioners were slum and pavement dwellers living in Bombay. In the petition they challenged the decision of Maharashtra Government and Bombay Municipal Corporation, which forced the dweller to move out of that area. They challenged this decision on the ground that removing a person from his/her slum meant depriving him/her the right to livelihood.

The Court held that slum and pavement dwellers were deprived of their Right to Livelihood. But the government was justified in removing them because they were using public property for private purposes. However, the court held that they should not be considered as trespassers as they were living there because of poverty. The Court ordered that the person would evict the place only after the monsoon season and the people who were censused before 1976 would be entitled to resettlement. However, the people were not resettled, but it led to establishment of Right to Livelihood as part of the Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

  • Right to Privacy

For a very long time it was not considered as a separate right by the Government of India as it was not expressly mentioned by the framers of the Indian Constitution. But with the passage of time, through various judicial proceedings it has been considered as a fundamental right and included in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

R. Rajagopal vs State of Tamil Nadu[8]

It was one of the first cases in which Right to Privacy was mentioned. In this case, a person who was convicted of murder wrote his autobiography. In his autobiography he disclosed his relationship with a prison official. His wife sent his autobiography for publishing to ‘Nakkheeran’, a Tamil Magazine. But the prison official stopped the publication. The editor of the magazine filed a writ petition to restrain the government or the prison authorities from stopping them to publishing the autobiography.

It was held that the criminal had the right to do whatever he wanted to do with his private information. Thus, the magazine cannot be stopped from publishing the autobiography of the criminal.

It is to be kept in mind that Right to Privacy is not an absolute right, it is subject to certain reasonable restrictions. Mr. X vs Hospital Z [9]was one such case.

In this case, the petitioner was found to be HIV+ when his blood sample was tested. This information was disclosed by the Hospital to the other people without the petitioner’s consent. Due to this disclosure, the petitioner’s proposed marriage with Ms. Y was called off. The aggrieved person first approached the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission on the ground that there was a breach of confidentiality by the hospital. However, his petition was dismissed. The petitioner then approached the Supreme Court that his Right to Privacy was violated.   

It was held that since Right of Privacy is part of Right to life and right to life also includes right to health. Therefore, the doctors did not violate the right to privacy.

Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) vs Union of India[10], is one of the important cases that established the Right to Privacy as a Fundamental Right.

In this case, a retired Karnataka High Court judge, filed a petition challenging the government’s scheme of making Aadhaar card for all the citizens. He stated that it results in violation of Right to Privacy, and there are no data protection laws in India, which could result in misuse of a person’s personal information.

It was held that Right to Privacy was part of Right to Life granted under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and it includes the right to keep personal information private. But the court upheld the validity of the Aadhaar Card, but it struck down certain provisions of Aadhar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016[11].


Right to life and personal liberty is a fundamental right which is granted to every citizen of the country. If any person’s fundamental right is violated by a government or public official then that person can approach the Supreme Court or any other court. The scope of article 21 is quite wide and includes many rights within it like right to livelihood, right to privacy etc.

[1] AIR 1950 SC 27

[2] (Last Visited on 3rd August, 2021 at 11:15 AM)

[3] (Last Visited on 3rd August, 2021 at 11:30 AM)

[4] 1963 AIR 1295

[5] 1978 AIR 597

[6] AIR 2014 SCC 547

[7] 1986 AIR 180

[8] 1995 AIR 264

[9] AIR 1998 SCR 723

[10] AIR 2017 SC 461

[11] (Last Visited on 3rd August, 2021 at 4:45 PM)

Aishwarya Says:

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