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Equality before Law and Equal Protection of the Laws (Article 14)

The concept of equality followed in Indian Constitution is egalitarian equality and not just formal equality concept. There is a difference between formal equality and egalitarian equality. Formal equality means that law treats everyone equal and does not favour anyone either because he belongs to the advantaged section of the society or to the disadvantaged section of the society. Egalitarian equality is proportional equality.

Concept of proportional equality expects the states to take affirmative action in favour of disadvantaged section of the society within the framework of liberal democracy. Proportional equality is equality in fact whereas formal equality is equality in law.[i] The article 14 provides equality before law and equal protection of the laws to any person within the territory of India. By bare reading, the terms equality before law and equal protection of the laws may seem similar but that is not the fact. The meaning of both these terms is different.

Equality before the Law

The first expression equality before the law contained in Article 14 is taken from English common law. Equality before the law is a declaration of equality of all persons within the territory of India, implying thereby the absence of any special privilege in favour of any individual. [ii] Article 14 of the constitution is both a negative and positive right. Negative in the sense that no one can be discriminated against anybody and everyone should be treated as equals.

The latter is the core and essence of the right to equality and the state has the obligation to take the necessary steps so that every individual is given equal respect and concern which he is entitled to as a human being. [iii]

The doctrine of equality is embodied not only in Article 14 but also in Articles 15 to 18 of Part III as well as in Articles 38, 39, 39A, 41 and 46 of Part IV. The doctrine of equality is a dynamic and evolving concept. [iv]

All that article 14 guarantees is a similarity of treatment and not identical treatment. The guarantee of equal protection of law and equality before the law does not prohibit reasonable classification. The state always has the power to have a classification on the basis of rational distinction relevant to the particular subject to be dealt with but such permissible classification must satisfy two conditions namely the classification to be founded on intelligible differentia which distinguishes persons or things that are grouped from others who are left out of the group and the differentia must have a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved by the legislation. [v] In other words there must be a nexus between the basis of classification and the object of legislation.

So long as the classification is based on rational basis and so long as all the persons falling in the same class are treated alike, there can be no question of violating the equality clause. If there is equality and uniformity within each group, the law cannot be condemned as discriminatory. [vi] Conferment of special benefits of protection or rights to a particular group of citizens for rational reasons is envisaged under Article 14 and is implicit in the concept of equality.

Equal Protection of the Laws

Equal protection means the right to equal treatment in similar circumstances, both in the privileges conferred and in the liabilities imposed.[vii] Implicit in the concept of equality is the concept that persons who are in fact unequally circumstanced cannot be treated on par.[viii] Equal protection of the laws means that amongst equals the law should be equal and should be equally administered and the likes should be treated alike. Thus, what it forbids is discrimination between persons who are substantially in similar circumstances or conditions. It does not forbid different treatment for unequals.[ix]

The amalgamation of two classes of people for reservation would be unreasonable as two different classes are treated similarly which is violation of the mandate of Article 14 of the Constitution which is to treat similar similarly and to treat different differently. It is well settled that to treat unequal as equals also violates Article 14. Equal protection requires the affirmative action by the state towards unequal by providing facilities and opportunities. [x] There should be no discrimination between one person and another if their position is same under the clause of equal protection of the laws.

  1. M. Nagraj v Union of India, (2006) 8 SCC 212
  2. D D Basu, The Shorter Constitution of India, Volume 1 (15th Edition)
  3. Amita v UOI, (2005) 13 SCC 721
  4. Indra Sawhney v UOI, AIR 1993 SC 477 (Paras 4-5)
  5. D D Basu, The Shorter Constitution of India, Volume 1 (15th Edition)
  6. K. R. Lakshman v Karnataka Electricity Board, (2001) 1 SCC 442
  7. D D Basu, The Shorter Constitution of India, Volume 1 (15th Edition).I
  8. T. M A. Pai Foundation v State of Karnataka, (2002) 8 SCC 481
  9. Amita v UOI, (2005) 13 SCC 721
  10. Panchayat Society v Haribhai Mevabhai, (1996) 10 SCC 320

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