Right to Life and Personal Liberty in India

Introduction

By term ‘life’ as here used, something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body by the amputation of an arm or leg, or the putting out of an eye, or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with the outer world.”[1]

Above definition, although incepted in United States of America, aptly defines what right to life means in India and has been incorporated in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.[2] This definition of life was further expanded in upcoming cases by the Supreme Court of India and various other facets were added to the term ‘life’ used in Article 21. It includes right to live with dignity, free from exploitation[3], right to clean environment[4], right to reasonable accommodation[5], right to shelter[6], right to self-preservation[7] as well as the right to reputation[8].

While right to life is an ever-expandable right and encloses almost everything within its ambit, personal liberty has been construed rather narrowly under Indian jurisprudence. The 5th and the 14th Amendment of USA ensures that liberty means all the freedoms necessary for human existence. However, its India counterpart is attached to the term ‘personal’ which restricts the liberty enjoyed by individuals in India. However, it has also developed over time.

Development of meaning of Personal Liberty in India

A.K. Gopalan v State of Madras[9]

 This was one of the earlies cases in India where the court was faced with interpreting the term personal liberty as it appears in Article 21. The court here took a rather narrow approach and held that personal liberty would not mean freedom from detention.

Kharak Singh v State of U.P.[10]

In this case, a former accused was put under police surveillance without any statutory basis. The surveillance included secret picketing of the house, domiciliary visits at night as well as monitoring each and every movement of the individual. In this case Ayyangar J held that the term personal liberty was not confined to ”freedom from physical restraint or freedom from confinement within the bounds of the prison.” In this case, the court also held that ‘Right to privacy’ is an essential part of ‘Right to personal liberty’.

Satwant Singh Sawhney v Passport Officer[11]

In this case, the court of law held that personal liberty includes an individual’s right to go abroad. Following this, impounding passport without any proper reason was held to be violation of personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Procedure Established by Law

It is important to note that neither right to life nor personal liberty is absolute in India and can be violated if the procedure established by law is followed. This is the ground for validation of various issues such as detention, house arrest as well as capital punishment in India. Procedure established by law here implies:

  • There must be a law enacted by the Parliament allowing for interference with life and personal liberty of an individual.
  • The law should be constitutionally valid.
  • The procedure decided by the Parliament must be being followed by the executing authorities.

If these three elements are present, life and liberty can be restricted. The “procedure established by law” is quite different from “due process of law” which is followed in United State of America. A due process of law must be just, fair and reasonable along with having a fixed valid procedure. However, a “procedure established by law” has the chances of being unfair or oppressive but will be sustainable as long as it has been passed by the Parliament.

While it may appear that phrase included in Article 21, “procedure established by law” can be abused by the Legislature for the subjugation of judiciary. Nor can it be denied that there have been incidences of same. However, an insight into Constituent Assembly debate shows that framers of the Constitution had a valid reason for adopting the same.

The Legislature is the chosen representative of the people of India. Whereas, whether or not a law is just, fair and reasonable will be decided by the court of law. The representative of people sitting in the parliament is one of them and people put their faith in them. However, in court, a division bench or five-judge bench who are appointed by a process in which the ordinary masses take no part in and decision produced by them is often based on higher, legal thinking which cannot be usually comprehended by the people of common knowledge. Comparing the two scenarios, if each and every law has to follow due process of law, which in turn will be decided by the judiciary, it will result in greater undermining of democracy and tyranny of judges.

Following this debate, the Constituent Assembly decided to adopt “procedure established by law” instead of “due process of law.”

Maneka Gandhi v Union of India[12]

Maneka Gandhi v Union of India remains to be one of the most celebrated judgements in India. This case overturned A.K. Gopalan v Union of India and established a new dimension of “procedure established by law” as understood in India. In this case the court propounded the term ‘golden triangle’ which refers to Articles 14,19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution and whenever, one of them is being violated, the other two are affected inevitably.

Article 14 which is against unreasonableness and arbitrariness has been read into Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which provides a safeguard against the Legislature, preserving the well-being of democracy in India.

Conclusion

Right to Life and personal liberty can be understood as pre- Maneka Gandhi and post- Maneka Gandhi judgement era. After the decision of court in Maneka Gandhi v Union of India, the situation in India and USA have become more or less same. Right to life and personal liberty although still not absolute cannot be taken away by an unreasonable, arbitrary law.

There are various other issues pertaining to operation of Article 21 as it has a very wide area of operation. For example, certain practises relating to personal laws such has Section 9, of Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 is often considered to be violative of right to privacy and personal liberty which have been incorporated in Article 21. Similarly, the practise of Nikah Halala is considered against the ‘Right to live with dignity.’ There are multiple PILs pending in court relating to these practises and Article 21 remains to be still vastly unexplored and ever-evolving.


[1] Munn v Illinois 24 L Ed 77

[2] Francis Coralie Mullin v UT of Delhi (1981) 1 SCC 608

[3] Bandhua Mukti Morcha v Union of India (1984) 3 SCC 161

[4] MC Mehta v Union of India (2004) 12 SCC 118

[5] Shantistar Builders v Narayan Khimalal Totame (1990) 1 SCC 520

[6] Gauri Shanker v Union of India (1994) 6 SCC 349

[7] Surjit Singh v State of Punjab (1996) 2 SCC 336

[8] State of Bihar v Lal Krishna Advani (2003) 8 SCC 1

[9] AIR 1950 SC 27

[10] AIR 1963 SC 1295

[11] AIR 1967 SC 1836

[12] (1978) 1 SCC 248

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