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Article 21 and Constitutional validity of Right to Die

Written by: Nikhil Kumar Nath - Student from Department of Law,Assam University
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The Constitution of India provides a long list of fundamental rights under Part-III. Article 21 of our Constitution is one of the important fundamental rights among those rights. This article 21 of our constitution deals with “Protection of Life and Personal Liberty.”

The Article 21 reads as follows:

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

According to this article right to life means the right to lead meaningful, complete and dignified life. It does not have restricted meaning. The object of the fundamental right under Article 21 is to prevent any restriction by the State to a person upon his personal liberty and deprivation of life except according to procedure established by law.

The meaning of the words “personal liberty” came up for consideration of the Supreme Court for the first time in A.K. Gopalan v. Union of India. The scope of Article 21 was a bit narrow at that time. In this case the Supreme Court held that the word deprivation was construed in a narrow sense and it was held that the deprivation does not restrict upon the right to move freely which came under Article 19 (1) (d). Finally, in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, the Supreme Court has overruled Gopalan’s case and widens the scope of the words “personal liberty”,

Which is as follows:
“The expression personal liberty in Article 21 is of widest in nature and it covers a bundle of rights which go to constitute the personal liberty of man and some of them have raised to the status of distinct fundamental rights and given additional protection under Article 19”.

Constitutional validity of Right to Die

Now, the question arises whether right to life under Article 21 includes right to die or not. This question came for consideration for first time before the High Court of Bombay in State of Maharashtra v. Maruti Sripati Dubal. In this case the Bombay High Court held that the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 includes right to die, and the hon’ble High Court struck down section 309 IPC which provides punishment for attempt to commit suicide by a person as unconstitutional.

In P Rathinam v. Union of India a Division Bench of the Supreme Court supporting the decision of the High Court of Bombay in. Maruti Sripati Dubal case held that under Article 21 right to life also include right to die and laid down that section 309 of Indian Penal Court which deals with ‘ attempt to commit suicide is a penal offence’ unconstitutional.

This issue again raised before the court in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab. In this case a five judge Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court overruled the P. Ratinam’s case and held that “Right to Life” under Article 21 of the Constitution does not include “Right to die” or “Right to be killed” and there is no ground to hold that the section 309, IPC is constitutionally invalid. To true meaning of the word ‘life’ in Article 21 means life with human dignity. Any aspect of life which makes life dignified may be include in it but not that which extinguishes it. The ‘Right to Die’ if any, is inherently inconsistent with the “Right to Life” as is “death” with “Life”.

A question may arise, in case of a dying man, who is, seriously ill or has been suffering from virulent and incurable form of disease he may be permitted to terminate it by a premature extinction of his life in those circumstances. This category of cases may fall within the ambit of ‘Right to Die’ with dignity as a part of life with dignity. According to the court these are not cases of extinguishing life but only of accelerating the process of natural death which has already commenced.

1. A.K. Gopalan v. Union of India AIR 1950 SC 27
2. Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India AIR 1978 SC 597
3. State of Maharashtra v. Maruti Sripati Dubal AIR 1987 CrLJ 549
4. P Rathinam v. Union of India (1994) SCC 394
5. Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (1996) SCC 648
6. Article 21 of The Constitution

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