Article 21 of Indian Constitution: Protection of life and personal liberty

Original Text of Article 21 of Indian Constitution:

Article 21 of Indian Constitution: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.

Explanation of Article 21 of Indian Constitution:

Article 21of Indian Consitution – Right to Life deals with the protection of life and personal liberty.

  • There is only one exception:e. if the Right to life and personal liberty is taken away, it should be according to the procedure established by law.
  • The objective behind providing the Right to life: The Right to life in the Indian Constitution does not mean animal existence. It guarantees the Right to a dignified life.

Some rights that the Supreme Court of India has declared under Article 21 include:

  1. Right to live with human dignity.
  2. Right to a decent environment and protection
  3. against hazardous industries.
  4. Right to privacy.
  5. Right to livelihood.
  6. Right to health.
  7. Right to shelter.
  8. Right to free education up to 14 years of age.
  9. Right to a speedy trial.
  10. Right against solitary confinement.
  11. Right to free legal aid.
  12. Right against handcuffing
  13. Right against inhuman treatment.
  14. Right against delayed execution.
  15. Right to travel abroad.
  16. Right against bonded labour.
  17. Right against custodial harassment.
  18. Right to a fair trial.
  19. Right to medical treatment in a government hospital.
  20. Right of the prisoner to have necessities of life
  21. Right to emergency medical aid.
  22. Right of not to be driven out of a state.
  23. Right of women to be treated with dignity and decency.
  24. Right against public hanging.
  25. Right to information.
  26. Right to hearing.
  27. Right to sleep.
  28. Right of appeal from a judgment of conviction.
  29. Right to social protection and security of the family.
  30. Right to economic and social justice and empowerment.
  31. Right to electricity.
  32. Right to appropriate life insurance policy.
  33. Right to reputation.
  34. Right to freedom from noise pollution
  35. Right against bar fetters.

Meaning of Procedure established by Law:

The procedure established by law: Article 21 mentions the expression “Procedure established by Law”, which means the State can only deprive the Right to life and liberty as per a valid law-in-force.

  • Thus, if a law is passed by valid procedures, it will be lawful even if it violates liberty. For example, a person can be arrested, i.e. deprived of personal liberty, but that arrest must happen according to the law.
  • “Procedure established by law” essentially implies that no one is above the law. It is closely related to the concept of “Rule of Law” itself.
  • The ‘Procedure established by law’ is a British concept. In Britain, Parliament is sovereign, and there is no written constitution. Whatever the Parliament passes as the law itself is the constitution. Thus, the British Parliament is empowered to make any law without limitation. No authority (including the Judiciary) can question the law.

However, what if the law violates the principles set out in the Constitution? This question came to the Supreme Court.

AK Gopalan Case, 1951:

  • Initially, the Supreme Court ruled that since the Indian constitution follows the Principle of “Procedure established by law”, the Indian Parliament is competent to make any legislative action.
  • It interpreted Article 21 narrowly: It said that the protection under Article 21 is available not from arbitrary legislative action but only against arbitrary executive action.
  • It means that the State can make laws that take the rights of a person available in Article 21 based on a law (Procedure established by law).

But the question now arises: is Parliament free to pass any legislation? Can legislation arbitrarily take the right to freedom in an unjustified manner?

Due process of Law

The American constitution provides the concept of “due process of law”, by which there is a possibility of Judicial Review of any legislative action, which acts as a safeguard against arbitrary action of the Legislature. The American Supreme Court can, therefore, declare any law void if it is found to be unfair or unjust.

This concept has not been explicitly mentioned in the Indian constitution. Thus, it was thought that there was no protection against any arbitrary law passed by the Parliament. For example, if the Parliament amends the constitution to take away fundamental rights in an unfair and unjust manner, the Parliament must be competent to do so.

However, the “procedure established by law” principle was challenged by the Supreme Court.

Maneka Gandhi Case (1978):

In 1978, Maneka Gandhi’s freedom of movement was restricted by the government, which was challenged in the Supreme Court. Here, the court took the liberty to review the concept of “Procedure established by law” as read in Article 21.  It concluded that Article 21 cannot be read in isolation and must be read in the context of Article 19.

  • What does Article 19 say? That there are certain freedoms awarded to everyone, which are qualified by some “reasonable restrictions”.
  • Therefore, if the Parliament restricts freedoms, these restrictions must be reasonable, i.e. fair and Just.
  • The Supreme Court implicitly recognised “due process of law” when it ruled that the procedure prescribed by law to deprive the Right to life and liberty should be “fair, just and reasonable”.
  • Thus, the “Procedure established by law” should also be fair.

The procedure established by law v/s Due Process of Law.

  The procedure established by Law Due Process of Law
Origin British Concept American Concept
Theme Parliamentary Sovereignty Judicial Supremacy
Restriction Only against arbitrary executive action Against arbitrary executive as well as Legislative action
Basis in India As given in the Constitution in Article 21 Derived through the joint reading of Article 19 with Article 21
Philosophical Basis Principle of Legal Positivism – Written laws and rules act as the primary source of law. Principle of Natural Justice – that law must be fair, just and reasonable

Concluding Remark:

The Indian Judiciary has offered a comprehensive interpretation of the Right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has not only explained the instinctive human qualities of Article 21 but also set up specific procedures for their enforcement. This makes the rule of law both splendid and significant. Every interpretation or procedure related to Article 21 is specifically designed to realise the Justice outlined in the preamble through the holistic development of citizens. Each clarification given strives to meet the fundamental needs of individuals while preserving their dignity.

The Supreme Court of India’s interpretation of the Right to life and personal liberty is unparalleled in its nobility, loftiness, and dignity. The Indian perspective extends beyond mere physical existence when considering these rights. It aims for the comprehensive development of an individual, ensuring the triumph of Justice.

For further Reference:

Read the Constitution of India

Read the Fundamental Rights.


Other Related Links:

Indian Constitution: All Articles and schedules Article 1 of Indian Constitution
Article 2 of Indian Constitution Article 3 of Indian Constitution
Article 4 of indian Constitution Article 5 of Indian Constitution
Fundamental Rights DPSP
Fundamental Duties Amendments of the Indian Constitution
Article 20 of Indian Constitution Article 22 of Indian Constitution

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