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Article 21 of the Constitution of India – Right to Life and Personal Liberty

This Article throws light on Constitution of India with special Emphasis on Article 21.

Article 21 reads as:

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

This right has been held to be the heart of the Constitution, the most organic and progressive provision in our living constitution, the foundation of our laws.

Article 21 can only be claimed when a person is deprived of his life or personal liberty by the State as defined in Article 12. Violation of the right by private individuals is not within the preview of Article 21.
Article 21 uses three crucial expressions, those are listed below:

  1. Right to life, and
  2. Right to personal liberty.
  3. Procedure established by law

Meaning And Concept of Right To Life

Everyone in the world has the right to life, liberty and the security of person. This is the universal truth in the world and the right to life is undoubtedly the most fundamental of all rights. All other rights add quality to the life in question and depend on the pre-existence of life itself for their operation. As human rights can only attach to living beings, one might expect the right to life itself to be in some sense primary, since none of the other rights would not have any value or utility without it. There would have been no Fundamental Rights worth mentioning if Article 21 had been interpreted in its original sense. This Article will examine the right to life as interpreted and applied by the Supreme Court of India.

Article 21 applies to natural persons. The right is available to every person, citizen or alien. Thus, even a foreigner can claim this right. It, however, does not entitle a foreigner the right to reside and settle in India, as mentioned in Article 19

In the case of Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, the Supreme Court quoted and held that:
By the term life as here used something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body by amputation of an armored leg or the pulling out of an eye, or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with the outer world.

Right To Live with Human Dignity

In Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, the Supreme Court reiterated with the approval the above observations and held that the right to life included the right to lead a healthy life so as to enjoy all faculties of the human body in their prime conditions. It would even include the right to protection of a persons tradition, culture, heritage and all that gives meaning to a mans life. It includes the right to live in peace, to sleep in peace and the right to repose and health.

Right Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace

Art. 21 guarantees the right to life right to life with dignity. The court in this context has observed that:
The meaning and content of fundamental right guaranteed in the constitution of India are of sufficient amplitude to encompass all facets of gender equality including prevention of sexual harassment or abuse.
Sexual Harassment of women has been held by the Supreme Court to be violative of the most cherished of the fundamental rights, namely, the Right to Life contained in Art. 21.

In Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan[x], the Supreme Court has declared sexual harassment of a working woman at her work as amounting to the violation of rights of gender equality and rights to life and liberty which is a clear violation of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution. In the landmark judgment, the Supreme Court in the absence of enacted law to provide for effective enforcement of basic human rights of gender equality and guarantee against sexual harassment laid down the following guidelines:

  1. All employers or persons in charge of workplace whether in the public or private sector should take appropriate steps to prevent sexual harassment. Without prejudice to the generality of this obligation they should take the following steps:
  2. Express prohibition of sexual harassment as defined above at the workplace should be notified, published and circulated in appropriate ways.
  3. The Rules/Regulations of Government and Public Sector bodies relating to conduct and discipline should include rules/regulations prohibiting sexual harassment and provide for appropriate penalties in such rules against the offender.
  4. As regards private employers steps should be taken to include the aforesaid prohibitions in the standing orders under the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946.
  5. Appropriate work conditions should be provided in respect of work, leisure, health, and hygiene to further ensure that there is no hostile environment towards women at workplaces and no employee woman should have reasonable grounds to believe that she is

Disadvantaged in connection with her employment

  1. Where such conduct amounts to specific offenses under I.P.C, or under any other law, the employer shall initiate appropriate action in accordance with law by making a complaint with the appropriate authority.
  2. The victims of Sexual harassment should have the option to seek transfer of perpetrator or their own transfer.

Right to Reputation

Reputation is an important part of ones life. It is one of the finer graces of human civilization that makes life worth living. The Supreme Court referring to D.F. Marion v. Minnie Davis in Smt. Kiran Bedi v. Committee of Inquiry held that good reputation was an element of personal security and was protected by the Constitution, equally with the right to the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property. The court affirmed that the right to enjoyment of life, liberty, and property. The court affirmed that the right to enjoyment of private reputation was of ancient origin and was necessary to human society.

Right To Livelihood

To begin with, the Supreme Court took the view that the right to life in Art. 21 would not include the right to livelihood. In ReSant Ram, a case which arose before Maneka Gandhi case, where the Supreme Court ruled that the right to livelihood would not fall within the expression life in Article 21. The court said curtly:
The right to livelihood would be included in the freedoms enumerated in Art.19, or even in Art.16, in a limited sense. But the language of Art.21 cannot be pressed into aid of the argument that the word life in Art. 21 includes livelihood also.

Right to Shelter

In Chameli Singh v. State of U.P., a Bench of three Judges of Supreme Court had considered and held that the right to shelter is a fundamental right available to every citizen and it was read into Article 21 of the Constitution of India as encompassing within its ambit, the right to shelter to make the right to life more meaningful.

The Court observed that:
Shelter for a human being, therefore, is not mere protection of his life and limb. It is however where he has opportunities to grow physically, mentally, intellectually and spiritually. Right to shelter, therefore, includes adequate living space, safe and decent structure, clean and decent surroundings, sufficient light, pure air and water, electricity, sanitation and other civic amenities like roads etc. so as to have easy access to his daily avocation. The right to shelter, therefore, does not mean a mere right to a roof over ones head but right to all the infrastructure necessary to enable them to live and develop as a human being.

Right to Medical Care

In Parmananda Katar v. Union of India, the Supreme Court has very specifically clarified that preservation of life is of paramount importance. The Apex Court stated that once life is lost, status quo ante cannot be restored. It was held that it is the professional obligation of all doctors (government or private) to extent medical aid to the injured immediately to preserve life without legal formalities to be complied with the police.

Article 21 casts the obligation on the state to preserve life. It is the obligation of those who are in charge of the health of the community to preserve life so that the innocent may be protected and the guilty may be punished. No law or state action can intervene to delay and discharge this paramount obligation of the members of the medical profession.

Right to Clean Environment

The Right to Life under Article 21 means a life of dignity to live in a proper environment free from the dangers of diseases and infection. Maintenance of health, preservation of the sanitation and environment have been held to fall within the purview of Article 21 as it adversely affects the life of the citizens and it amounts to slow poisoning and reducing the life of the citizens because of the hazards created if not checked.

The following are some of the well-known cases on the environment under Article 21:

  • In M.C. Mehta v. Union of Indi (1988), the Supreme Court ordered the closure of tanneries that were polluting water.
  • In M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1997), the Supreme Court issued several guidelines and directions for the protection of the Taj Mahal, an ancient monument, from environmental degradation.

Right to Know or Right to Be Informed

Holding that the right to life has reached new dimensions and urgency the Supreme Court in R.P. Ltd. v. Proprietors Indian Express Newspapers, Bombay Pvt. Ltd., observed that if democracy had to function effectively, people must have the right to know and to obtain the conduct of affairs of the State.

In Essar Oil Ltd. v. Halar Utkarsh Samiti, the Supreme Court said that there was a strong link between Art.21 and Right to know, particularly where secret government decisions may affect health, life, and livelihood.
Reiterating the above observations made in the instant case, the Apex Court in Reliance Petrochemicals Ltd. v. Proprietors of Indian Express Newspapers, ruled that the citizens who had been made responsible to protect the environment had a right to know the government proposal.

Right to Education

The right to education Flows directly from the right to Life, and the right to education being concomitant to the fundamental rights, the state is under a CONSTITUTIONAL mandate to provide educational institutions at all levels for the benefits of the citizens.
Mohini jain and the state of Karnataka.

Mohini Jain v. State of Karnataka, a 1989 Supreme Court of India case, occurred when the Government of Karnatak issued a notification that permitted the private medical colleges in the State of Karnatak to charge exorbitant tuition fees from the students admitted other than the 'Government seat quota'. The Supreme Court of Indi observed that mention of 'life and personal liberty' in Article 21 of the Constitution[1] automatically implies some other rights, those are necessary for the full development of the personality, though they are not enumerated in Part III of the Constitution. Education is one such factor responsible for overall development of an individual and therefore, right to education is integrated in Article 21 of the Constitution.

Personal Liberty

The meaning of the term personal liberty was considered by the Supreme Court in the Kharak Singhs case, which arose out of the challenge to Constitutional validity of the U. P. Police Regulations that provided for surveillance by way of domiciliary visits and secret picketing. Oddly enough both the majority and minority on the bench relied on the meaning given to the term personal liberty by an American judgment (per Field, J.,) in Munn v Illinois, which held the term life meant something more than mere animal existence. The prohibition against its deprivation extended to all those limits and faculties by which the life was enjoyed.

This provision equally prohibited the mutilation of the body or the amputation of an arm or leg or the putting of an eye or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicated with the outer world. The majority held that the U. P. Police Regulations authorizing domiciliary visits [at night by police officers as a form of surveillance, constituted a deprivation of liberty and thus] unconstitutional. The Court observed that the right to personal liberty in the Indian Constitution is the right of an individual to be free from restrictions or encroachments on his person, whether they are directly imposed or indirectly brought about by calculated measures. necessarily lost as an incident of imprisonment.

The Supreme Court has held that even lawful imprisonment does not spell farewell to all fundamental rights. A prisoner retains all the rights enjoyed by a free citizen except only those.

Right to Privacy

As per Blacks Law Dictionary, privacy means right to be let alone; the right of a person to be free from unwarranted publicity; and the right to live without unwarranted interference by the public in matters with which the public is not necessarily concerned.
Although not specifically referenced in the Constitution, the right to privacy is considered a penumbral right under the Constitution, i.e. a right that has been declared by the Supreme Court as integral to the fundamental right to life and liberty. Right to privacy has been culled by the Supreme Court from Art. 21 and several other provisions of the constitution read with the Directive Principles of State Policy. Although no single statute confers a crosscutting horizontal right to privacy; various statutes contain provisions that either implicitly or explicitly preserve this right.

For the first time in Kharak Singh v. State of U.P question whether the right to privacy could be implied from the existing fundamental rights such as Art. 19(1)(d), 19(1)(e) and 21, came before the court. Surveillance under Chapter XX of the U.P. Police Regulations constituted an infringement of any of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution. Regulation 236(b), which permitted surveillance by domiciliary visits at night, was held to be in violation of Article 21.

A seven-judge bench held that:
the meanings of the expressions life and personal liberty in Article 21 were considered by this court in Kharak Singhs case. Although the majority found that the Constitution contained no explicit guarantee of a right to privacy, it read the right to personal liberty expansively to include a right to dignity. It held that an unauthorized intrusion into a persons home and the disturbance caused to him thereby, is as it were the violation of a common law right of a man -an ultimate essential of ordered liberty, if not of the very concept of civilization

Right to Free Legal Aid & Right to Appeal

In M.H. Hoskot v. State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court said while holding free legal aid as an integral part of fair procedure the Court explained that  the two important ingredients of the right of appeal are; firstly, service of a copy of a judgement to the prisoner in time to enable him to file an appeal and secondly, provision of free legal service to the prisoner who is indigent or otherwise disabled from securing legal assistance. This right to free legal aid is the duty of the government and is an implicit aspect of Article 21 in ensuring fairness and reasonableness; this cannot be termed as government charity.

In other words, an accused person at lease where the charge is of an offense punishable with imprisonment is entitled to be offered legal aid, if he is too poor to afford counsel. Counsel for the accused must be given sufficient time and facility for preparing his defense. Breach of these safeguards of a fair trial would invalidate the trial and conviction.

Right to Speedy Trial

In Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar, it was brought to the notice of the Supreme Court that an alarming number of men, women, and children were kept in prisons for years awaiting trial in courts of law. The Court took a serious note of the situation and observed that it was carrying a shame on the judicial system that permitted incarceration of men and women for such long periods of time without trials.

The Court held that detention of under-trial prisoners, in jail for a period longer than what they would have been sentenced if convicted, was illegal as being in violation of Article of 21. The Court, thus, ordered the release from jail of all those under-trial prisoners, who had been in jail for a longer period than what they could have been sentenced had they been convicted

Procedure Established By Law
The expression procedure established by law has been the subject matter of interpretation in a catena of cases. A survey of these cases reveals that courts in the process of judicial interpretation have enlarged the scope of the expression. The Supreme Court took the view that procedure established by law in Article 21 means procedure prescribed by law as enacted by the state and rejected to equate it with the American due process of law.

But, in Maneka Gandhi v Union of India the Supreme Court observed that the procedure prescribed by law for depriving a person of his life and personal liberty must be right, just and fair and not arbitrary, fanciful and oppressive, otherwise it would be no procedure at all and the requirement of Article 21 would not be satisfied. Thus, the procedure established by law has acquired the same significance in India as the due process of law clause in America.

Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, speaking in Sunil Batra v Delhi Administration has said that though our Constitution has no due process clause but after Maneka Gandhis case the consequence is the same, and as much as such Article 21 may be treated as counterpart of the due process clause in American Constitution.

Recently the Supreme Court has dealt with an increasing number of people sentenced to death for bride-burning. In December 1985 the Rajasthan High Court sentenced a man, Jagdish Kumar, and a woman, Lichma Devi, to death for two separate cases of killing two young women by setting them on fire. In an unprecedented move, the court ordered both prisoners to be publicly executed.

In a response to a review petition by the Attorney General against this judgment, the Supreme Court in December 1985 stayed the public hangings, observing that a barbaric crime does not have to be met with a barbaric penalty. The Court observed that the execution of death sentence by public hanging is a violation of Article 21, which mandates the observance of a just, fair and reasonable procedure.

Thus, an order passed by the High Court of Rajasthan for public hanging was set aside by the Supreme Court on the ground inter alia, that it was violative of article 21. In Sher Singh v State of Punjab, the Supreme Court held that unjustifiable delay in execution of death sentence violates art 21.

The Supreme Court has taken the view that this article read as a whole is concerned with the fullest development of an individual and ensuring his dignity through the rule of law. Every procedure must seem to be reasonable, fair and just. The right to life and personal liberty has been interpreted widely to include the right to livelihood, health, education, environment and all those matters that contributed to life with dignity.

The test of procedural fairness has been deemed to be one that is commensurate to protecting such rights. Thus, where workers have been deemed to have the right to public employment and its concomitant right to livelihood, a hire-fire clause in favor of the State is not reasonable, fair and just even though the State cannot affirmatively provide a livelihood for all.

Under this doctrine, the Court will not just examine whether the procedure itself is reasonable, fair and just, but also whether it has been operated in a fair, just and reasonable manner. This has meant, for example, the right to speedy trial and legal aid is part of any reasonable, fair and just procedure. The process clause is comprehensive and applicable in all areas of State action covering civil, criminal and administrative action.

The Supreme Court of India in one of the landmark decision in the case of Murli S. Deora v. Union of India observed that the fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India provides that none shall be deprived of his life without due process of law. The Court observed that smoking in public places is an indirect deprivation of life of non-smokers without any process of law. Taking into consideration the adverse effect of smoking on smokers and passive smokers, the Supreme Court directed the prohibition of smoking in public places.

It issued directions to the Union of India, State Governments and the Union Territories to take effective steps to ensure prohibition of smoking in public places such as auditoriums, hospital buildings, health institutions etc. In this manner, the Supreme Court gave a liberal interpretation to Article 21 of the Constitution and expanded its horizon to include the rights of non-smokers.

Further, when there is an inordinate delay in the investigation – it affects the right of the accused, as he is kept in tenterhooks and suspense about the outcome of the case. If the investigating authority pursues the investigation as per the provisions of the Code, there can be no cause of action. But, if the case is kept alive without any progress in any investigation, then the provisions of Article 21 are attracted and the right is not only against actual proceedings in court but also against police investigation.

The Supreme Court has widened the scope of procedure established by law and held that merely a procedure has been established by law a person cannot be deprived of his life and liberty unless the procedure is just, fair and reasonable. It is thus now well established that the procedure established by law to deprive a person of his life and personal liberty, must be just, fair and reasonable and that it must not be arbitrary, fanciful or oppressive, that the procedure to be valid must comply with the principles of natural justice.

Indian judiciary provided excellent elucidation to right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the constitution. The Supreme Court not only explained the instinctive human qualities of the Article 21 but also established certain procedure to implement them. This makes the Rule of Law magnificent and meaningful. Each interpretation or the procedure laid down with regard to Article 21 is particularly aimed to achieve justice mentioned in the Preamble through all round development of the citizens. Each explanation provided attempts to fulfil the basic needs of the human being while safeguarding ones dignity.

It is difficult to find such noble, lofty, dignified illustrations and interpretations as provided by the Supreme Court of India to the concept of right to life and personal liberty elsewhere in the world. The Indian concept did not confine the right of life and personal liberty only to ones physical entity. It means to strive for all round development of a person so that justice shall triumph.

Written by Alefiya Kurabarwala of Seventh Semester, Student at Mohanlal Sukhadiya University College Of Law, Udaipur, Rajasthan.

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