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Article 21-The procedural Magna Carta Protective of Life and Liberty in India

Constitution of India is the longest constitution in the world, it has 470 articles.

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution deals with Protection of one's Life and Personal Liberty. It states that:
No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.

Article 21 is known to be the heart of fundamental rights [1]. It is included in Part-III of the Indian Constitution and is a fundamental right. All Indian citizens and non-citizens can enjoy this right alike. It cannot be suspended during an emergency. Justice Bhagwati stated that Article 21 embodies a constitutional value of supreme importance in a democratic society.
  • Francis Coralie Mullin V. The Administrator (1981) [2]

    This is a landmark case for determination of the distinction between the preventive detention with putative detention under the range of Article 21.

    Facts: The petitioner, a British citizen was detained and kept in the Tihar Jail under section 3 of Conservation of Foreign Exchange & Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act. 1947 (COFEPOSA) for attempting to smuggle Hashish out of the country. She went to the court with a writ of Habeas Corpus against her detention but her writ was dismissed.

    During her detention, she faced, she had difficulties in contacting her lawyer and family members. Her sessions with her lawyer were so important for her defense, yet they could not take place because of the cumbersome procedures as laid in section 3(b) (i). The petitioner challenged that being arbitrary and unreasonable, these provisions are violating Article 14 & 21 of the Indian Constitution.

    Court held that section 3 (b) (i) regulating the rights of a captive to have interview with the legal adviser of his/her own choice is unconstitutional as it violates Article 14 & 21. It was stated that it is possible for a convict to ask for a meeting with his/her attorney at any rational time of the day after taking a prior appointment from the Jailer which can be given without any delay. It is also not compulsory for the interview to take place in front of a state officer.

Article 21 secures 2 rights, they are:

  1. The Right to life
  2. The Right to personal liberty

It forbids the loss of the aforementioned rights unless a legal procedure is followed. Article 21 corresponds to the Magna Carta of 1215, the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Article 40(4) of Ireland's 1937 Constitution, and Article XXXI of Japan's 1946 Constitution.

It is also essential to democracy because it applies to all people, not just citizens. Every person, whether a citizen or an alien, has this right. As a result, anyone, including a foreigner, can claim this right. However, as stated in Article 19 (1), it does not grant a foreigner the right to remain and establish in India (e).

This article serves as a summary of Article 21. The first section will explain what the term "right to life" means and how the judiciary interprets it. The piece will also explain how many abuses of the body, reputation, and equality have been interpreted and placed under the ambit of the right to life and the right to live with dignity.

Right to Life under Article 21

"Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person" [3]
The right to live is without a doubt the most basic of all rights. All other rights enhance the quality of life in question and rely on the presence of life itself to function. Because human rights can only be attached to living beings, one may anticipate the right to life to be primary because without it, none of the other rights would have any worth or utility.

If Article 21 had been interpreted in its original sense, there would have been no Fundamental Rights worth noting. This section will look at how the Supreme Court of India interprets and applies the right to life.

Meaning of life in Article 21 does not stop at mere existence, it also involves right to live with human dignity, right to livelihood, right to health, etc.

The right to life is vital to our basic existence; without it, we would not be able to live as humans. It encompasses all parts of life that make a man's life meaningful, complete, and worthwhile. It is the only provision of the Constitution that has been given the broadest interpretation conceivable. Thus, from the core notion of the right to life, the bare necessities, minimum and basic requirements for a person.
  • Kharak Singh VS State of Uttar Pradesh [4]

    Kharak Singh, the petitioner, was charged with violent robbery in 1941 as part of an armed gang. He was discharged owing to a lack of proof, but under the Uttar Pradesh Police Regulations, a 'history sheet' was opened in his name. For habitual offenders or persons who are likely to become criminals, these regulations called for surveillance powers, including domiciliary visits.

    The police would frequently visit Singh's house at strange hours, waking him up when he was asleep, based on these rules. The petitioner claimed that the laws infringed on his right to a dignified existence, which includes the right to privacy, as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. He further claimed that the regulations infringed on Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees personal liberty.

    The Supreme Court's six-judge bench reached a unanimous decision, declaring the relevant portions of the Uttar Pradesh Police Regulations illegal.
  • Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India [5]

    The landmark judgement in Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India, which stands as a bulwark of Article 21 of the Constitution's Right to Personal Liberty, began when the petitioner's passport was detained by the airport authorities under the provisions of the Passport Act.

    Facts: Maneka Gandhi's passport was issued on June 1, 1976, in accordance with the Passport Act of 1967. The Regional Passport Office (New Delhi) ordered her to sanction her passport on July 2, 1977. The petitioner did not get any explanation for the External Affairs Ministry's arbitrary and unilateral decision, which was based on public interest. A writ was filed by the petitioner in the Supreme Court, claiming that the State's impoundment of her passport was a clear violation of her right to personal liberty as protected by Article 21.

    In Satwant Singh Sawhney v. Ramarathnam, the Supreme Court found that the right to travel abroad is well within the scope of Article 21, albeit the extent to which the Passport Act diminished this particular right was unclear.

    This landmark decision was handed down on January 25, 1978, and it forever changed the Indian Constitution. This decision greatly expanded the scope of Article 21, achieving the Preamble's goal of making India a welfare state. A seven-judge panel reached a unanimous decision.

It covers topics like:
  1. Right to live life with Humane Dignity
  2. Right against sexual harassment at workplace
  3. Right to reputation
  4. Right to livelihood
  5. Right to shelter
  6. Right to social security & protection of family
  7. Right to health & medical care
  8. Right to get clean environment
  9. Right to know

No Right to Die

While Article 21 guarantees a person the right to live a decent life, does it also guarantee the right to die? If that's the case, what will happen to Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (1860), which punishes someone who attempts suicide? There has been debate over whether or not this rule should be kept on the books.

In State of Maharashtra v. Maruti Sripati Dubal[6], the High Court of Bombay considered this subject for the first time. The Bombay High Court ruled in this case that Article 21 guarantees the right to life, which includes the right to die. The Hon'ble High Court ruled that Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which punishes a person for attempting suicide, is unconstitutional.

A two-judge Division Bench of the Supreme Court examined the relationship/contradiction between Section 309 IPC and Article 21 in P. Rathinam v. Union of India[7]. The Court agreed with the High Court of Bombay's decision in Maruti Sripati Dubal's case, which stated that the right to life inherent in Article 21 also included a right not to be forced to live a life to his harm, disadvantage, or dislike.

The Court argued that the term life in Article 21 refers to the right to live with dignity and does not simply imply prolonged toil. As a result, the Court determined that Article 21's right to life could include the right not to live a forced life. The Court went on to say that:
Attempt at suicide is, in truth, a plea for help, not for punishment.

Euthanasia and Right to Life

Euthanasia is the deliberate ending of a person's life who is terminally sick or in a vegetative condition. The Supreme Court made a distinction between euthanasia and attempting suicide in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab[8].

The Court ruled that death as a result of the termination of natural life is certain and imminent, and that the natural death process has begun. As a result, these are not situations of life extinction, but rather of hastening the end of a natural dying process that has already begun.

The Court went on to say that this could be covered by the right to live with dignity to the end of one's natural life. This could include a dying man's right to die with dignity as his life ebbs away. This, however, must not be confused with the right to die an unnatural death that shortens one's life duration.

Personal Liberty under Article 21

Personal liberty of a person is one of the oldest and most important notion which should be protected by the judicial system.

The Supreme Court reviewed the interpretation of the term 'personal liberty' in Kharak Singh's case, which grew out of a challenge to the constitutional legitimacy of the U. P. Police Regulations, which allowed for monitoring through domiciliary visits and secret picketing.

Surprisingly, both the majority and minority on the bench relied on an American decision (per Field, J.) in Munn v Illinois[9], which concluded that the term 'life' meant more than mere animal existence. The prohibition against its deprivation extended to all the boundaries and faculties that allowed people to enjoy life.

The mutilation of the body, the amputation of an arm or leg, the implantation of an eye, or the destruction of any other part of the body through which the soul connected with the outside world were all prohibited by this clause. The majority found that the U. P. Police Regulations authorizing domiciliary visits [by police personnel at night as a form of surveillance] were unlawful because they constituted a deprivation of liberty.

The right to personal liberty is defined in the Indian Constitution as an individual's right to be free from limits or encroachments on his person, whether they are directly imposed or indirectly brought about by calculated measures, according to the Court.

Even legitimate detention, according to the Supreme Court, does not imply the loss of all fundamental rights. A prisoner retains all of the rights that a free citizen does, with the exception of those that are 'necessarily' lost as a result of imprisonment.

Article 21 & the Emergency

If the presidential order suspends the right to file a writ petition in any court to vindicate that right under Article 359, the detainee will be unable to challenge the legality of his incarceration.
  • ADM Jabalpur v/s Shukla [10]
    This is one of the most criticized judgements as the 5-judge bench consisting of justice Ajoy Nath Ray, justice Hans Raj Khanna, justice Mirza Hameedullah Beg, justice Y.V. Chandrachud and justice P.N. Bhagwati said that during a national emergency, one's right to life will not be imposed by any High Court under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution.
    As a result, Article 359's broad interpretation deprived residents of their prized right to personal liberty. People's fundamental freedom had lost all meaning during the emergence of 1975, according to experience.


Article 21 can be called the procedural Magna Carta Protective of Life and Liberty. To make the article of better understanding many sub-rights have also been added. Right to life is very useful in tackling many injustices. Lack of legislation on many issues are being made up for by Rights like right to life, right to liberty, right to shelter etc. Article 21 is rightly said to be the heart of fundamental rights by many judges as it is used by the courts to protect the rights of the people in many cases.

  2. 1981 AIR 746
  4. 1963 AIR 1295
  5. 1978 AIR 597
  6. SCR 358
  7. 1994 AIR 1844, 1994 SCC (3) 394
  8. 1996 AIR 946
  9. 94 U.S. 113 (1876)
  10. 1976 AIR 1207

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