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Doctrine of Reasonable Classification

Right To Equality

Equality is the essence of a democratic country, including that of India and hence the constitution of India guarantees the right to equality and protection of the same. The Indian Constitution, via, Article 14 says that, The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India. The provision consists of two phrases, 'equality before law' and 'equal protection of laws' which have their respective implications.

While equality before law implies that everyone will be treated fairly and equally before the judiciary of the country, equal protection of the laws implies that similar treatment will be given to people in the similar circumstances. It is highlighted that the inclusion of the phrase equality before law was inspired from the constitution of United Kingdom, while the phrase equal protection of laws was taken from the American constitution.

Equality before law is a negative connotation that indicates no special privilege for anyone, while Equal protection of laws is a positive connotation indicating equal treatment of those in alike situations.

The phrase equality before law is Rule of Law as held by Dicey which means that:
No man is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer in body or goods except for distinct breach of law and no man is above the law. [1]

Professor A.V. Dicey had extensively discussed about the paramount importance of Rule of law by giving three principles of the same:
  • Equality before law:
    There shouldn't be any discrimination amongst the rich, poor, minority & majority etc and neither can one be downgraded nor can one be upgraded.
  • Predominance of legal spirit:
    The courts of the country must protect the laws and the liberty of all residing in the nation.
  • Supremacy of law:
    Law is supreme and holds the top most position in the legal system, an individual/group of individuals cannot override the laws of the country.

Exception Under Article 14: Right To Equality

However, with that being said, the constitution does not mention the right to equality as an absolute right, meaning that this provision cannot be applied in a general perspective. The implication is that the same law cannot be applied each person similarly and equally, and hence the doctrine of reasonable classification comes into picture.

It is well known that application of a specific rule or law depends on various variables, including but not restricted to circumstances and variety of the case, place and the attainment as well. Distinct treatments are to be used while dealing with distinct situations.

For instance, Article 326:
The elections to the House of the People and to the Legislative Assembly of every State shall be on the basis of adult suffrage; that is to say, every person who is a citizen of India and who is not less than [eighteen years] of age on such date as may be fixed in that behalf by or under any law made by the appropriate Legislature and is not otherwise disqualified under this Constitution or any law made by the appropriate Legislature on the ground of non-residence, unsoundness of mind, crime or corrupt or illegal practice, shall be entitled to be registered as a voter at any such election talks about the right to vote conferred upon those above 18 years of age.

However, adults above the age of 18 years, who are prisoners cannot cast their vote, hence depriving their right of being able to elect representatives of their choice. Thus, although the Indian constitution provides the right to vote to every adult in the country, it is the same legal document that prohibits prisoners to participate in the process of elections. Therefore, law does apply distinctly in distinct circumstances and situations.

Doctrine Of Reasonable Classification

As aforementioned, though Article 14 is available to persons in India, it is not an absolute right, hence meaning that there are exceptions. The concept of Rule of Law prevails over everything in the country and equality is guaranteed by the same. The doctrine of reasonable classification makes its way into the legal system in order to facilitate breakthrough in the society. On various instances, the apex court of India, the Supreme Court seated at New Delhi, has adjudicated that Article 14 allows for reasonable classification.

It is a fact that not every individual born in this country is similar to one another, for instance some are born into the poor families whereas few are born in the wealthier families. To assume that all these are equal would be unfair, and hence the need to differentiate amongst prejudice with reason and prejudice without reason becomes important.

Therefore, to meet the requirements of people in various circumstances and eventually to govern the same in an effective and efficient matter, a reasonable classification must be made and the same reasons must be the stepping stone in order to draw the nexus between object to be achieved and the distinction made[2]. The doctrine of reasonable classification, is classification made by Sate, of groups, transactions or even objects in order to achieve particular ends that would eventually assist in the progression of the community.

The test of reasonable classification was laid down by S.R Das J. as:
In order to pass the test of permissible classification two conditions must be fulfilled viz.
  1. That the classification must be founded on an intelligible differentia which distinguishes those that are grouped together from others left out of the group, and
  2. That the differentia must have a rational relation to the objects sought to be achieved by the Act.

The differentia which is the basis of the classification and the object of the Act are distinct and what is necessary is that there must be nexus between them.[3] Intelligible differentia in simple words relate to the capability of understanding the difference, here with respect to the classification being made.

While this being said, what is important to be noted is that though the courts of India have allowed for reasonable classification with special reference to Article 14, these are the same courts that have denied class legislation. Class legislation is irregular discrimination by providing privilege to a certain class selected inconsistently from a larger group that has a forward foot, which eventually results in an unreasonable classification amongst those classes. The Supreme Court in R.K Garg v Union of India [4]permitted for reasonable classification but laid down an outright prohibition of class legislation.

In order to make the application of the doctrine of reasonable classification even more clear, the Supreme court has on various occasions laid down the basic principles that determine the reasonability of any classification.

Principles of Reasonable classification laid down in Dalmia[5] Case:

  • Right to equality ensures that everyone in similar circumstances must be treated similarly in imposing liabilities and in bestowing privileges upon them
  • It is the State that has the power to determine who falls under a class, only for the objectives of legislation or matter of law, through the procedure of classification
  • A single person may be classified as a class solely based on reasons that can applicable to that person alone and not on others.
  • The constitutionality of the enactment will be favoured by the court and the individual who alleges violation of norms set by constitution carries the burden of proving the same.
  • The classification made needn't be scientifically or logically sound, the need for the classification being perfect does not arise.
  • In situations where there is no reason behind the classification, the assumption of constitutionality must not be stretched to an extent where it holds that the reasons are hid in respect of few individuals being subjected to discriminative legislation.
  • Degree of harm must be scrutinized by the legislature in order to limit itself to cases where the harm is minimum. Therefore, even if harm is recognized the classification must not be evasive, arbitrary or artificial.
Therefore, by fulfilment of these criteria while making any classification will render such classification reasonable, upon thorough scrutiny.

Case Laws Related To Doctrine Of Reasonable Classification

There are numerous Indian cases where the doctrine of reasonable classification had been debated, discussed and has been applied to the circumstances of the cases
  • State of Gujarat & Another v Shri Ambica Mills Ltd[6]:

    The Supreme Court held that the decision to decide whether a classification made under Article 14 is unreasonable or reasonable lies with an approach from the judiciary alone. Increase in complexities of the society increases the problems attached with it and hence the legislation focuses itself on the changes. Finally, the court held that the legislation faces towards the cruel world, rather than the clear and rational facsimile. Classification is innate in the legislation.
  • D.S. Nakara & Others v Union of India[7]:

    The facts of the case included a memorandum issued by the government where it stated that those retired post 31st March 1979 would be entitled to a liberalized pension. However the supreme court held this classification to be unreasonable since the distinction of those entitled on pensions solely based on the date they retired had no nexus with the objective that was aimed to be achieved. Hence, this was a violation of Article 14 and doctrine of reasonable classification could not be applied.
  • Madhu Limaye v The Superintendent, Tihar Jail[8]:

    In this case, the petitioners were Indian prisoners, who challenged the jail's decision to treat the European and Indian prisoners differently. In one place where the European prisoners were given a better nutritious diet, the Indian prisoners were deprived of this. The Supreme Court held that this behaviour was an outright violation of Article 14 and hence ordered the officials of the Jail to rectify their actions. The court ruled out any exceptions, including the usage of Doctrine of Reasonable Classification.

Rule Of Arbitrariness

While the doctrine of reasonable classification has been used in quite a few cases by the courts of the country to determine whether any legislation is in contradiction to Article 14, this doctrine was challenged in E.P Royappa v State of Tamil Nadu[9]. The judgment laid down in this case gave birth to a fresh equality concept.

It was held that equality is a strong aspect that has various dimensions attached to it and hence it cannot neither be confined, cribbed or cabined along with the conventional doctrine of reasonable classification. Arbitrariness and equality are polar opposites to each other and is also contradictory to Article 14 since it is uneven.

In R.D Shetty v International Airport Authority [10], Justice P.N Bhagwati was of the opinion that Right to Equality afflicts arbitrariness because all such inconsistent actions compulsorily include denial of fairness. It is important to highlight that the doctrine of reasonable classification was neither included as a paraphrase of Right to Equality nor was it implied to be the conclusion of that article.

It is rather the actions of either the executive or the legislation that is being questioned since it is arbitrary in nature which denies right to equality. However, this new doctrine of arbitrariness has been strongly criticised by renowned Indian jurists including H.M Seervai who opposed this new rule for three reasons : doctrine of arbitrariness is on a cliff hanger, all that violates equality may not compulsorily be arbitrary in nature but all the arbitrary actions compulsorily end up contradicting the fundamentals of equality and that the cancellation of the previous doctrine of reasonable classification does not make sense.

Personal Stance
Right to Equality is a fundamental right guaranteed to all persons residing in the territory of India and hence becomes quintessential for the state to protect the same. However, with that being said, it is also fair to acknowledge that not all persons in the country are at the same footing, and there will be situations where a distinction must be made in order to protect the ones who need the protection.

Though the application of the doctrine of reasonable classification might sound like an easy task for the commoners, it is in fact a very difficult decision to make. The legislation must ensure that any decision they make which concerns the right to equality, must not violate the rights of those who are left out of the classified group. Like how a coin has two sides, there are contradictory opinions to whether the doctrine of reasonable classification must be applied or not.

While Justice P.N. Bhagwati argues that this doctrine is not practically viable since there will be people who oppose such classification, H.M. Seervai on the other hand favours the application of this doctrine. The argument laid down by him, that I personally agree too is that there is nothing unpractical about a doctrine which effectively secures equal protection of law to persons by declaring the law based on impermissible classification to be void while leaving to the State a wide field for making laws based on permissible classification. [11]

It is but obvious that I personally agree with the statement made by H.M. Seervai, for it is essential to cater the needs of ALL groups of people residing in the country, and if doctrine of reasonable classification is being used to the same, it shouldn't be treated as an exception to Article 14.

Further, the study has also helped reach an understanding that the test of reasonable classification indeed has the elements of non-arbitrariness included in it. The conflict whether the ancient doctrine of reasonable classification or the modern doctrine of non-arbitrariness must be applied in reality fails to oversee that the former is actually imbibed in the latter. To wrap up the topic, doctrine of reasonable classification must be looked not as an exception to Right to Equality, but rather a means of protecting the same.

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution guarantees equal protection of laws and equality before law, two very essential concepts, to all the persons in the territory of India. Due to the social, political and economical imbalance, a distinction had to be made in quite a few cases in the courts of the country to suit the needs of those who need the protection.

Though the doctrine of reasonable classification was introduced by various jurists in the past, with evolution of time, a new rule of arbitrariness evolved in the society. Both have the same implication, that the classification made must be reasonable and not arbitrary in nature. Although the doctrine of reasonable classification has not been widely used by the courts in the recent past and has in fact been rejected by various jurists, there is no absolute eviction of the same.

  1. Introduction to Law of Constitution (1885) by Professor A.V. Dicey
  2. State of West Bengal v Anwar Ali Sarkar, 1952 AIR 75
  3. State of West Bengal v Anwar Ali Sarkar, 1952 AIR 75
  4. 4 SCC 675, 1981 1 SCR 947
  5. Ram Krishan Dalmia v Justice S.R Tendolkar, AIR 1958 SC 538
  6. 1974 AIR 1300, 1974 SCR (3) 760
  7. 1983 AIR 130, 1983 SCR (2) 165
  8. 1975 AIR 105, 1975 SCR (3) 582
  9. 1974 AIR 555, 1974 SCR (2) 348
  10. 1979 AIR 1628, 1979 SCR (3) 1014
  11. H.M. Seervai, Advocate General of Maharashtra from 1957-74 and Jagdish Swaroop, former Solicitor General of India, commentaries on Constitution of India

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