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Right to Life and Personal Liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution

The inclusion of fundamental rights in the constitution stemmed from their recognition as indispensable for nurturing the development of individual personalities and safeguarding human dignity. The framers of the constitution deemed democracy futile without the acknowledgment and protection of civil liberties such as freedom of speech and religion by the State. The concept of the right to life is grounded in the belief that every human being possesses an inherent entitlement to life and should not be subjected to harm by others. This principle extends to debates surrounding issues like capital punishment, war, abortion, euthanasia, justifiable homicide, and public healthcare.

The right to life and personal liberty stands as the most precious, inviolable, and foundational of all citizen's fundamental rights. It constitutes a cornerstone of the human rights movement both domestically and internationally. Today, the right to life and personal liberty encompasses more than mere physical existence; it encompasses access to essential resources and conditions that contribute to a life of dignity and comfort. It entails an environment where individuals can grow physically and mentally without fear or constraints. The protection of this right ensures that individuals can lead a healthy life with dignity and honor, enjoying the faculties and limits that make life meaningful.

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to life, which is not merely a fundamental right but also a basic human right. Justice H.R. Khanna rightly pointed out that the sanctity of life and liberty was not a novel concept introduced by the Constitution; rather, it has been cherished throughout human evolution. Similarly, the principle of safeguarding life within the bounds of the law predated the Constitution, representing a necessary component of the concept of the sanctity of life and liberty.

The interpretation of the right to life has been broadened in the case of State of Himachal Pradesh v. Umed Ram, where it was emphasized that every individual is entitled to life as outlined in Article 21 of the Constitution. Additionally, it was asserted that access to roads in hilly areas is essential for ensuring the right to life itself. Hence, society has a constitutional obligation to provide reasonable road communication to residents of hilly regions, as denying this right would be tantamount to denying life.

K.K. Methew argued that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including access to food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services. Additionally, individuals have the right to security in situations such as unemployment, sickness, disability, old age, or other circumstances beyond their control.

The Meaning of Life under Article 21

Defining the right to life, which is the most fundamental of all rights, poses significant challenges. It cannot simply be limited to safeguarding against the loss of life; its scope must be broader. Referring to similar provisions in the 5th and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect against deprivation of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," Justice Field in Munn v. Illinois articulated the right to life as follows:

"The term 'life' encompasses more than mere animal existence. It extends to all those faculties and abilities through which life is enjoyed. This provision also prohibits the mutilation of the body, such as amputation of limbs or the destruction of any organ that connects the soul with the external world."

This statement, repeatedly endorsed by our Supreme Court, was further elaborated in Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi. In this case, it was affirmed that any action causing damage or interference with an individual's limbs or faculties, whether permanently or temporarily, falls within the scope of Article 21 of the Constitution. Justice Bhagwati emphasized:

"We believe that the right to life encompasses the right to live with human dignity, including access to basic necessities such as adequate nutrition, clothing, shelter, as well as the freedom to express oneself, move about freely, and interact with others."

The Meaning of Personal Liberty

The term 'liberty', originating from the Latin words liber and libertus, is described in the Encyclopedia Britannica as a 'state of freedom', particularly contrasting with political subjugation, confinement, or enslavement. It also denotes being free from captivity, imprisonment, slavery, or authoritarian control. Chamber's Twentieth Century Dictionary defines 'liberty' as 'the freedom to act as one desires, the unrestrained exercise of natural rights, the ability to make choices freely, privileges, exemptions, the relaxation of constraints, and the limits within which certain privileges are enjoyed, including freedom of speech and action beyond basic civility.

'Personal liberty' encompasses various freedoms such as the freedom of movement, freedom from physical confinement, freedom of speech, expression, and worship. It also entails the right to a livelihood and to reside in a healthy environment. The term 'right to life' is enshrined as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution, encompassing the right to access pollution-free water and air for a fulfilling life.

Justice Das, in A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, aptly defined 'personal liberty' as follows: "the Constitution in Article 21 refers to personal liberty with specific legal connotations. It doesn't solely imply the liberty of an individual but encompasses the rights attached to the person (jus personam)". Various interpretations have been offered for the term 'personal liberty'.

Blackstone emphasized freedom of movement as the core aspect of personal liberty, stating: "Personal liberty involves the ability to move, to change location, or to go wherever one's inclination directs". Conversely, Dicey posited that the right to personal liberty essentially means not being subject to imprisonment, arrest, or any form of physical coercion without legal justification. While Blackstone underscored freedom of movement as fundamental to personal liberty, Dicey argued that protection from imprisonment or physical coercion is essential for personal liberty. Lord Denning offered another perspective, defining personal freedom as "the freedom of every law-abiding citizen to think, speak, and travel without hindrance on lawful occasions".

Meaning and Scope of "person"

The usage of the term 'person' in Article 21 indicates that this fundamental right is extended not only to citizens but also to non-citizens, allowing even foreigners to assert this right. A review of the debates in the Constituent Assembly reinforces this perspective. The founding fathers deliberated on the issue of personal liberty, drafting the article to guarantee the right to life and personal liberty to all individuals. However, Article 21 pertains exclusively to natural persons.

This is evident from the use of terms such as 'his' and 'personal' within the article, rendering it inapplicable to corporate entities. Artificial persons, therefore, do not fall under the scope of Article 21. The dissolution of a corporation cannot be equated with the deprivation of life or personal liberty. Article 21 can only be invoked when an individual's 'Life' or 'Personal Liberty' is infringed upon by the 'State', as defined in Article 21. Violations of the right to personal liberty by private individuals do not fall within the purview of Article 21.

Procedure established by Law

The term "procedure established by law" refers to the process prescribed by statute or the law of the State. This entails three key aspects: firstly, there must be a valid law justifying interference with an individual's life or personal liberty; secondly, the law itself must be legitimate; and thirdly, the prescribed procedure must be strictly adhered to. In the absence of a legally prescribed procedure justifying the deprivation of personal liberty, executive authorities would violate Article 21 if they interfere with an individual's life or personal liberty.

Comparatively, the protection afforded by the American Constitution regarding personal liberty is broader than that under Indian law. Unlike India, the American Constitution does not qualify "liberty" with "personal", and it prohibits deprivation of liberty "without due process of law". The American Supreme Court has interpreted this guarantee to mean that laws must be examined to ensure they are just in both procedure and substance.

In A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, it was determined that the "procedure established by law" refers to the procedure enacted by a law made by the State. The Supreme Court rejected the interpretation that "law" in Article 21 encompassed principles of natural justice akin to "due process of law" as understood by the American Supreme Court. Consequently, Article 21 was construed as protection solely against executive actions, not legislative ones.

This interpretation was upheld in ADM, Jabalpur v. Shivakant Shukla, where it was ruled that Article 21 solely protected against illegal deprivation of life and personal liberty by the executive, and during a state of emergency, the Court could not question the legality of executive actions. However, this stance was reversed in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, where the Supreme Court established a fundamental connection between Articles 14, 19, and 21, granting the right in Article 21 a more comprehensive scope.

The relationship between Articles 19 and 21, as recognized by the minority in Kharak Singh and subsequently reaffirmed in Maneka Gandhi, underscores the interdependence of these constitutional provisions. Bhagwati, J., in his opinion in Maneka Gandhi, emphasized that any procedure under Article 21 must meet the standards of reasonableness, fairness, and natural justice, ensuring that it is not arbitrary or oppressive. Thus, procedures must adhere to principles of natural justice, and any violation of constitutional rights must be condemned as unfair and unjust.

From " Procedure established by Law" to "Due process of Law"

In the Maneka Gandhi case, Justice Bhagwati established the requirement for a reasonable procedure under Article 21, a standard that was subsequently echoed in other cases. This requirement of reasonableness in procedure has been found within Article 21 itself, particularly in the term "law". This interpretation effectively transforms "procedure established by law" into "due process of law" in the American sense, a conversion that the framers of the Constitution sought to avoid by replacing the latter expression with the former. In Maneka Gandhi, Justice Chandrachud emphasized that the procedure under Article 21 must be fair, just, and reasonable, free from any hint of arbitrariness, oppression, or fancifulness.

Similarly, Justice Krishna Iyer asserted that the "law" referred to in Article 21 must be reasonable, not just any enacted legislation. He further noted that although the Indian Constitution lacks a specific "due process clause," recent judicial interpretations have effectively achieved the same outcome as procedural due process in the United States.

In another case, Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, Justice Krishna Iyer remarked that Article 21 serves as the counterpart to procedural due process in the United States. Speaking for the majority of the Court in the same case, Justice Desai reiterated that the term "law" in the expression "procedure established by law" in Article 21 must be interpreted to mean that the law must be fair, just, and reasonable, without any trace of arbitrariness, fancifulness, or oppression.

In Jolly George Varghese v. Bank of Cochin, the Court, through Justice Krishna Iyer, hinted at the possibility of questioning the validity of certain provisions of the Civil Procedure Code under Article 21, particularly those authorizing the arrest and detention of judgment-debtors. While the Court did not rule on this matter in the specific case, it acknowledged the potential violation of Article 21 if the judgment-debtor lacked the means to pay the decree amount and did not evade payment through dishonest means or intentions.

Expanding horizons of Article 21

While most cases concerning the expansion of Article 21 have been discussed earlier, there are additional cases that do not fit neatly into the previous categories or have not received sufficient attention.

These cases can be categorized as follows:
  • Rights of Prisoners: In the case of Prabhakar Pandurang, the right of a detenu to publish a book written during detention was recognized. It's established that prisoners retain all their fundamental rights unless their liberty has been constitutionally restricted. Therefore, any significant punishment within the prison system must adhere to the procedural safeguards of Article 21, even though prisoners may not fully enjoy all fundamental rights due to their confinement. For example, solitary confinement imposed on a prisoner under a death sentence was deemed unacceptable in Sunil Batra v. Delhi Admn. Furthermore, certain restrictions, such as fetters, must be justified based on the prisoner's character and safety. However, prisoners do not have a fundamental right to escape from lawful custody.
  • Rights of Inmates of Protective Homes: Courts have issued directives to ensure suitable conditions in protective and remand homes for women and children, along with machinery to safeguard their interests.
  • Right to Legal Aid: The right to free legal aid for indigent accused persons is considered part of fair and reasonable procedure under Article 21. Failure to inform an accused of this right can invalidate the trial and any resulting conviction.
  • Right to Speedy Trial: The right to a speedy trial, especially for undertrials held in custody beyond the maximum sentence they could receive upon conviction, has been emphasized in various cases.
  • Right against Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Challenges to the constitutionality of death sentences have been addressed by the Supreme Court, which upheld the legality of such sentences if they adhere to due process.
  • Right of Release and Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour: Article 21, along with relevant Directive Principles and legislation, obliges the state to identify, release, and rehabilitate bonded laborers.
  • Right to Compensation: Several cases have recognized the right to claim compensation for violations of rights under Article 21.
  • Right to Know: The right to information has been acknowledged as essential for participatory democracy.
  • Right to Fair Trial: While not expressly mentioned in the Constitution, the right to a fair trial is considered a crucial aspect of life and liberty protected under Article 21. Courts have emphasized the importance of not only adhering to legal formalities but also ensuring the just application of legal principles to prevent miscarriages of justice.
In conclusion, the Indian judiciary has offered profound insights into the right to life and personal liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the constitution. The Supreme Court has not only elucidated the inherent human qualities protected by Article 21 but has also established procedures for their implementation. This enhances the magnificence and significance of the Rule of Law. Each interpretation and procedural framework established regarding Article 21 is geared towards achieving the justice outlined in the Preamble, fostering the holistic development of citizens, and preserving their dignity.

The noble and dignified interpretations provided by the Supreme Court of India regarding the right to life and personal liberty are unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Unlike some other jurisdictions, the Indian concept of these rights extends beyond mere physical existence, emphasizing the pursuit of comprehensive personal development and the triumph of justice.

  • Mahendra Pal Singh, Constitution of India by V.N. Shukla, (Eastern Book Company, 13 ed., 2019).
  • Dr. Sakuntala Gouda, "Right to Life and Personal Liberty under the Perspective of Indian Constitution: An Analysis of Judicial Activism," 7 JCIL 56 (2024).

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