Equality before Law

Introduction

Article 14 to 18 of the Constitution guarantees the right to equality to every citizen of India. Article 14 embodies the general principles of equality before law and prohibits unreasonable discrimination between persons. Article 14 declares that the ‘State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or protection of laws within the territory of India’. It uses two expressions ‘equality before law’ and ‘equal protection of laws’.

The expression ‘equality before law’ is of English origin and is a negative concept implying the absence of special privilege in favour of individuals and the equal subject of all classes to the ordinary law. The protection of Article 14 extends to both citizens and non-citizens and to natural person as well as to legal persons. The equality before law is guaranteed to all without regard to race, colour or nationality. Corporation being juristic persons are also entitled to the benefit of Article 14.

Equality before the law and the Rule of Law

The guarantee of equality before the law is an aspect of what Dicey calls the rule in England[1]. It means that no man is above the law and that every person, whatever be his rank and conditions, is subject to the jurisdiction of ordinary courts.  In Rubinder Singh v. Union of India[2] it was held that the rule of law requires that no person shall be subjected to harsh, uncivilized or discriminatory treatment even when the object is the securing the paramount exigencies of law and order.

Professor Dicey gave three meanings to Rule of Law thus –

  • Absence of Arbitrary Power or Supremacy of the Law –  it means the absolute supremacy of the law as opposed to arbitrary power of the Government.
  • Equality before the law- it means subjection of all classes to the ordinary law of the land administered by ordinary law courts.
  • The Constitution is the result of the ordinary law of the land – it means that the source of right of the individuals is not the written constitution but the rules as defined and enforced by the courts.

The first and second aspects apply to the Indian system but the third aspect of the Dicey’s rule of law of law does not apply to the Indian system as the source of rights of the individuals is the Constitution of India. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and all laws passed by the legislature must be consistent with the provisions of the Constitution.

The rule of law imposes a duty upon the State to take measure to prevent and punish brutality by public methodology as held in the case of Raghubir Singh v. State of Haryana[3]. In Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain[4] it was held that the rule of law embodied in Article 14 is the “basic feature” of the Indian Constitution and hence it cannot be destroyed even by an amendment of the Constitution under Article 368 of the Constitution.

Exceptions to the Rule of Law

  • Equality before the law does not mean that the powers of private citizens are the same as that of public officials.
  • The second exception is that rule of law does not prevent certain classes of persons being subject to special rules. Article 361 of the Indian Constitution affords immunity to the President of India and the State Governors.
  • Ministers and other executive bodies are given wide discretionary powers by the statutes.
  • Certain members of the society are governed by special rules in their professions, i.e. lawyers, doctor, nurses, members of armed forces and police. Such classes of people are treated differently from ordinary citizens.

The Constitution itself contains provisions which under certain circumstances limit the effectiveness of Article 14.

  • The scope of right to equality has been restricted by the 42nd Amendment Act, 1976. The new article 31 C added by the Amendment Act provides that the laws made by the State for implementing the Directive Principles contained in clause (b) or clause (c) of Article 39 cannot be challenged on the ground that they are violative of Article 14. It was held by the Supreme Court in Sanjeev Coke Mfg. Co. v. Bharat Coking Coal Ltd.[5], “where Article 31 C comes in Article 14 goes out.
  • Article 359(1) provides that where a proclamation of emergency is in operation the President may, by, order declare that the right to move to any court for the enforcement of such rights conferred by Part III (except Article 20 and 21) shall remain suspended. Where a proclamation of emergency is in operation, the enforcement of Article 14 may be suspended for the period during which the Proclamation is in force.
  • Under Article 361, the President and Governors are exempted from any criminal proceeding during the tenure of the office.
  • Under International Law, foreign sovereign and ambassadors enjoy full immunity from any judicial process. This is also available to enemy aliens for acts of war.

Conclusion  

The concept of equality does not mean absolute equality among human beings which is not possible to achieve. It is a concept implying absence of any special privilege by reason of birth, creed or the like in favour of any individual and also the equal subject of all individuals and classes to the ordinary law of the land.

References

Dr. J.N. Pandey, “Constitutional Law of India” (Central Law Agency 57th Edition 2020) 35

M. Laxmikanth, Indian Polity (Mc Graw Hill Education (India) Private Limted 6th Edition) 120


[1] Dicey – Law of Constitution, pp, 202-3 (10th edn.)

[2] AIR 1983 SC 65

[3] AIR 1980 SC 1087

[4] AIR 1975 SC 2299

[5] [1983] 1 SCC 147

Aishwarya Says:

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