- Our Indian Constitution has given us some fundamental rights under Part III (Articles 12 to 35).
- Right to equality is one of the fundamental rights that serve as the most important of the rights that we have.
- Our concept of right to equality is largely influenced by the principle of Rule of Law introduced by Sir A. V. Dicey.
- Over the years, the concept evolved into one of the strongest pillars of the Indian Constitution. The Indian judiciary has played a major role in shaping the doctrine of equality in the country.
- The article has attempted to understand equality under Article 14 with reference to some of the important case laws.
Fundamental rights were designed with the intention of promoting political democracy. It puts a check on the misuse of powers by the government and protects citizens against arbitrary laws. Fundamental rights are justiciable in nature, that is, they are enforceable by the Courts in case of violation. Fundamental rights are enshrined in Part III of the Indian Constitution and are fondly regarded as the Magna Carta of India. Articles 12 to 35 of the Indian Constitution guarantee various rights to the citizens of India, and to some extent, also to foreigners.
As we all know, the prominent features of our Constitution was influenced by the laws of other countries. In the sense, the concept of fundamental rights was inspired from the Constitution of the United States of America (Bill of Rights). These rights are not absolutely positive in nature, and also have some negative rules. That is to say, besides giving some benefits to the people, it also restricts their behavior in a manner that helps in accomplishing the basic goal of the law. For instance, it guarantees the right to equality, which is a positive right, but at the same time, it also restricts people from discriminating against others on several grounds. This is a negative rule.
Of all the fundamental rights available to us, the most important is the right to equality as it restricts the government from being arbitrary while discharging their administrative functions. The right, guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution, is highly influenced from the doctrine of “Rule of Law”. We’ll be discussing the nature and significance of this right in detail in the subsequent headings, with reference to some landmark judgements.
RIGHT TO EQUALITY
Article 14 of the Constitution states that everyone is equal before the law and that every person must get equal protection of law. This right is available to all persons irrespective of whether they are Indian citizens or foreigners. It is also extended to legal persons, statutory corporations, companies, registered societies, associations, etc. Thus, the word “person” in Article 14 has a wider scope. The main aim of this right is to prevent arbitrariness and unreasonableness, and to encourage non-discrimination.
The principles of equality embodied under Article 14 can be best understood under two subheadings, that is, equality before law and equal protection of law. As seen already, fundamental rights have both positive and negative concepts. The same can also be witnessed in the right to equality under Article 14. The two concepts involved in Article 14, that is, equality before law and equal protection of law, are negative and positive in content, respectively. Let us understand them in detail.
1. Equality before Law
The basic principle behind this rule is that there is no special privilege given to any person in the country, and that everyone is equal before law. It implies that no person, whether rich or poor, is above the law. This provision is specifically based on the doctrine of Rule of Law. The concept was propounded by A. V. Dicey who gave three elements to it:
- Absence of arbitrary power, that means, no person can be punished except for a breach of law.
- Equality before law, that is, all citizens are equally subject to the ordinary law of the land administered by the ordinary law courts.
- The primacy of the rights of the individual, that is, the Constitution has been designed keeping in mind the rights of the individual as defined by the courts of law rather than the Constitution being the source of such rights.
The first two elements of Rule of Law are applicable in India. However, the third one is not recognised in our country because the Constitution is the source of our individual rights.
2. Equal Protection of Laws
This right postulates that application of the same laws without discrimination to all persons who are on similar situations. This means that equals should not be treated unlike and unequals should not be treated alike, and likes should be treated alike (Gauri Shankar vs. Union of India, 1995). Therefore, the Article recognizes reasonable classification of persons, objects and transactions by the law. It is expected that the classification should not be arbitrary, artificial or evasive. It should be rather based on an intelligible differentia and substantial distinction.
EXCEPTIONS TO ARTICLE 14
1. The President of India and the Governor of states have the following immunities as contemplated in Article 361 of the Constitution:
- He/she is not bound to be answerable to any court of law in India.
- No criminal or civil proceedings shall be instituted or continued against him/her in any court during his term in the office.
- No process for his/her arrest or imprisonment shall be issued from any court during his term of office.
2. The media is also immunized from arrest and detention to a reasonable extent (Article 361-A).
3. Members of the Parliament or State Legislatures shall not be held liable to court proceeding for anything said or in respect of any vote given by him in the Parliament or any committee thereof. (Articles 105 and 194).
4. Article 31-C is also an exception to Article 14.
ARTICLE 14 AND EQUALITY FROM THE EYES OF THE INDIAN COURTS
1) State of West Bengal vs. Anwar Ali Sarkar (1952): The West Bengal Special Courts Act, 1950 was enacted with the aim of speeding up the trial of certain offences. According to Section 3 of the Act, the State Government shall constitute Special Courts and according to Section 5, these Special Courts shall try such offences as directed by the State Government. The constitutional validity of Section 5 was challenged on the ground that there was no object for making such a classification between offences.
The Court interpreted the scope of Article 14 and said that it was designed to prevent a person or class of persons for being singled out as a special subject of discrimination and hostile legislation. It was held that equality of right is a “principle of republicanism” and the Article enunciates this principle in the administration of justice. With respect to the concept of equal protection of law, the Court observed that the rule manifests that the same rule must be applicable to everyone in similar circumstances.
2) Budhan Choudhry and Ors vs. The State of Bihar (1954): The Court made a detailed analysis on the concert of reasonable classification under Article 14. It was held that Article 14 forbids class legislation, but does not forbid reasonable classification for the purposes of legislation. A reasonable and permissible classification must be: (i) based on intelligible differentia that distinguishes persons or things that are grouped together from others who are left out of the group; and (ii) have a rational relation to the object aimed to be achieved by the Act in question.
3) BashesharNath vs. C. I. T. (1959): It was held that there can be no waiver of fundamental rights enshrined in Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
4) Western U.P. Electric Power & Ors. vs. State Of U.P. &Anr. (1970): It was held that Article 14 ensures equality among equals, that is to say, it aims to protect persons who are similarly placed against discriminatory treatment. Therefore, it prohibits rational classification. The Court also laid out the criteria for seeking remedy for unequal treatment by law: 1) that between persons similarly circumstanced, some were treated to their prejudice and 2) that the differential treatment had no reasonable relation to the object sought to be achieved by the law.
5) Kesavananda Bharati vs. State of Kerala (1973): In this case, the petitioner Keshavanand Bharti challenged the validity of the 24th, 25th, 26th and 29th Constitutional Amendment Acts. In brief, the case raised the question of whether the Parliament had the power to amend the Constitution in its entirety, especially the Fundamental Rights. The Supreme Court held that the Parliament has the authority to amend every provision of the Constitution except the basic structure. The Court formulated the basic structure doctrine for this purpose. At present, it includes various principles of law, including the principle of Rule of Law which is the major source of designing Article 14.
6) E.P. Royappa vs. State of Tamil Nadu (1974): This is one of the landmark cases pertaining to the scope of Article 14 of the Constitution. The case dealt with the arbitrary and malafide classification and the concept of abuse of power. The Court held that Articles 14 and 16 are against arbitrariness in State action and ensure fairness and equality of treatment. They require that State action must be based on relevant principles applicable alike to all persons similarly situated, and it must not be guided by any extraneous or irrelevant considerations because then that would be denial of equality. Where the operative reasons for State action are not legitimate and relevant but extraneous and outside the area of permissible considerations, that would amount to mala fide exercise of power and is hit by Articles 14 and 16. With respect to the relationship between Article 14 and Article 16, the Court opined that while Article 14 is the genus, Article 16 is a species. The two are connected by the principle of equality and inhibition against discrimination.
7) Indira Gandhi vs. Raj Narain (1975): Equality is the faith and creed of our democratic republic and without it, neither the Constitution nor the laws made under it could reflect the common conscience of those who owe allegiance to them.
8) Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India (1978): The Court held that when a law deprives a person of his personal liberty by virtue of its power under Article 21 of the Constitution, the same must be tested with reference to Article 14 thereof. Such reference must not be made in a narrow or pedantic manner because the right under this Article is the pillar on which the foundation of our democratic republic rests. It was also observed that Article 14 has a versatile quality, and is equalitarian in its soul and is allergic to discrimination.
9) Air India vs.Nargesh Meerza (1978):The state-owned Air India company came up with the rules of retirement for female attendants that listed three grounds of retirement: (1) completion of 35 years of age, (2) marriage, and (3) first pregnancy. The rules were, however, not applicable to male attendants. The Court held these requirements as arbitrary and discriminatory against Article 14.
10) Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab (1982): It was held that if a law is arbitrary or irrational, then it would be against Article 14 and is liable to be struck down as void. Similarly, a law which confers discretionary powers on an authority to select persons or things, without any guidance or policy or principle, then that law is violative of Article 14. It was further affirmed that the burden of proving such violation is on the petitioner because there is always a presumption in favour of the legislation.
11) Sri Srinivasa Theatre vs. Government of Tamil Nadu (1992): In this case, the Supreme Court held that the expressions “equality before law” and “equal protection of law” do not mean the same thing even though they seem common in many aspects. This is because of the Court’s difference in the interpretation of the word “law” in the two phrases. It was observed that the word law in “equality before law” is used in a generic sense whereas in “equal protection of law”, the term covers only specific laws in force. The Court also stated that the concept of “equality before law” is a dynamic concept having various facets. One of the most widely acknowledged facets is that there shall be no privileged person or class that shall be above law.
12) IndraSawhney vs. Union of India (1992): The Supreme Court again stated that the concepts of “equality before law” and “equal protection of law” are different. Equality before law aims at minimizing inequalities in income; eliminating inequalities in status, facilities, and opportunity; securing adequate means of livelihood; promoting with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections; and to protect the weaker sections from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. The Court stated that equality is one of the magnificent cornerstones of Indian democracy. In this case, the Court interpreted the relationship between Article 14 and Article 16 of the Constitution. It was held that just as Article 14 permits reasonable classification, so does Article 16(1) recognize the same. Both the articles must be harmoniously interpreted to ensure the sustenance of the principle of equality.
13) M.G. Badappanavar vs. State of Karnataka (2001): Equality is a basic feature of the Indian Constitution, and therefore, any treatment of equals unequally or the unequals equally will be a violation of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution.
14) Ashutosh Gupta vs. State of Rajasthan (2002): “The doctrine of equality before the law is a necessary corollary to the concept of Rule of Law accepted by the Indian Constitution”.
15) Union of India & Anr. vs. International Trading Co. &Anr. (2003): “The basic requirement of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution is fairness in action by the State, and non-arbitrariness in essence and substance is the heartbeat of fair play.” In this case, the Court observed that Article 14 applies to Government policies, so if any policy or Act fails to satisfy the test of reasonableness, then such policy or Act would be unconstitutional.
16) Reliance Energy Ltd. vs. Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation Ltd. (2007): Article 14 of the Constitution manifests the principle of non-discrimination but it is not a free standing provision. The Article must be read in conjunction with Article 21 that incarnates several aspects of life. It was held that Article 14 extends also to government policies.
17) M. Nagaraj vs. Union of India (2006): The Court opined that the essence of Article 14 is that it necessitates equality of treatment. It confers a personal right by enacting an absolute prohibition. It is a rule that mandates the law to operate equally on all persons under similar situations. A question as to whether Article 14 is within the ambit of the principle of equality that is listed as a basic structure was raised in this case. It was held that since Article 14 is the essence of democracy, it is a part of the basic structure doctrine.
18) NALSA vs. Union of India (2014): This case dealt with the rights of the transgender community as the third gender. It was argued that their non-recognition as a third gender is preventing them from availing the benefits under the Article 14. It was held that the word “person” under Article 14 does not have a narrow meaning and is not just confined to male and female. It, thus, also covers transgender people within its ambit, and therefore, they must be entitled to legal protection of laws in all spheres of State activity, including employment, healthcare, education as well as equal civil and citizenship rights, as enjoyed by any other citizen of this country.
19) Shayara Bano vs. Union of India (2017): The practice of triple talaq that enables men to effect irrevocable divorce, without the wife’s consent, by pronouncing the word ‘talaq’ three times at once in any relevant form, was quashed and held as violative of several constitutional principles, including Article 14. Manifest arbitrariness must be something done by the legislature capriciously, irrationally, without any adequate determining principle. Similarly, when something is done excessively and disproportionately, then such legislation would be manifestly arbitrary. Such statutes or laws can be invalidated for being against Article 14.
20) Joseph Shine vs. Union of India (2018): In this landmark case, the Supreme Court struck down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. It was held that the said Section is also violative of Article 14. It was stated that Article 14 is a facet of equality of status and opportunity.
21) Navtej Singh Johar vs. Union of India (2018): In this yet another landmark case, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was challenged to be against Article 14 on the ground that it was vague and lacked the application of intelligible differentia or reasonable classification between natural and unnatural sex. The Supreme Court quashed the Section holding that the discrimination and unequal treatment of the LGBT community as a separate class of people is unconstitutional for being violative of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
22) Indian Young Lawyers Association vs. State Of Kerala (2018): This is another important case of Article 14. Here, the practice of preventing women between the ages of 10 to 50 years based on menstruation, from entering the Sabarimala Temple, was challenged for violating Article 14 of the Constitution of India. It was argued that such a classification does not have a constitutional object. The Supreme Court, accordingly, held the restriction as unconstitutional.
23) Harsh Mander vs. Union of India (2018): In this case, the validity of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 was challenged and the Court, relying on the observations in the Shayara Banocase, held Sections 4, 5, and 6 as unconstitutional for being violative of Article 14 on the ground that it contained manifestly arbitrary provisions.
24) NHAI & Ors. vs. Madhukar Kumar & Ors. (2021): A suit was filed to restrain the construction of a toll plaza at 194 km of NH30 on the ground that it violated Rule 8 of the National Highways Fee Rules, 2008. It was also argued that the decision is arbitrary in nature. The Court analysed the meaning of arbitrariness and opined that an arbitrary decision is that which is bereft of any rationale or which is capriciously wrong, and it can be something which merely is an erroneous decision. Accordingly, it set aside the previous judgement that restricted the construction, and held that the decision to construct toll plaza at 194 km is not arbitrary enough to violate Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. The Court, nonetheless, also stated that every action of the State must be fair, the failing of which, would make it fall foul of the mandates of Article 14.
Before concluding the topic, it is important to know that these are just a few drops in the vast ocean of cases that have dealt with the scope and applicability of Article 14. The above analysis makes it clear to understand that the concept of equality as interpreted in Article 14 is very vast. One may not easily understand the subject in its entirety. However, in brief, we can define equality as contemplated in Article 14 as that principle that encourages justice in equal treatment. If the rich and poor are treated equally in all aspects, there are high chances of manipulation. This is what the doctrine of equality emphasizes on. It mandates that equal treatment should be given to persons standing in the same line, and the right is not general and vague, in the sense that it encourages reasonable classification, and by virtue of this, it tries to reduce the gap between the haves and the have nots.