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Doctrine of Reasonable Classification: An Exception to the Right to Equality

Equality is one of the most important goals provided in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution, which is an integral part of the Indian Constitution, established in the case of Kesavananda Bharti v. State of Kerela, 1973.[1]

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution provides for 'equality before law', i.e., the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth[2]. However, Article 14 does not purport or mean that every law must have universal application. Thus, comes the principle of "like should be treated alike and unlike should be treated differently".

The doctrine of reasonable classification also known as the 'Nexus test' or 'Doctrine of Nexus' thus acts as the exception to Article 14. It allows for distinction to exist between different classes of people, subject to certain conditions. There are two main conditions that are to be kept in mind when considering permissible classification: firstly, 'intelligible differentia' and secondly, 'nexus with an object sought to be achieved[3].

The former condition requires that the distinction a law draws between persons or things grouped together as opposed to others left out of the group must be logical, rational and not arbitrary in nature. And that there must a real connection which is direct and not remote between the distinction drawn and the object that is sought to be achieved by the law drawing the distinction concerned.

For example: Under Section 11 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872, a minor does not have the capacity to enter into a contract. This requirement provided by Section 11 classifies persons into two categories, i.e., adults and minors. The basis of the classification is age. Thus, for the law to not be violative of Article 14 it has to have a permissible classification based on age which in this case is present as age has a relation to the object of the legislation, i.e., capacity to enter into a contract.[4]

The debate on doctrine of reasonable classification dates back to 1950. This principle has been reaffirmed and used in various cases and at various levels of the judicial discourse. The first case that the honourable Supreme Court decided in reference to doctrine of reasonable classification was of Chiranjit Lal Chowdhuri v. Union of India (1950).[5] The question that the court considered in this case was whether a manufacturing company could be singled out for adverse treatment.[6] The Supreme Court in this case held that firstly, a single person or entity can form a class and secondly, that the onus to establish facts or circumstances to support the charge of unreasonableness is on the person who assails the legislation.

This was followed by a landmark case, State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar.[7] The issue at hand in this case was whether the West Bengal Special Courts Act was unconstitutional by virtue of being violative of Article 14. The Supreme Court held that the act was indeed unconstitutional as it violated the principles of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. According to the court's reasoning, the law concerned was arbitrary as the act neither laid down any policies or guidelines for the exercise of discretion to classify the cases or offences nor a procedure to be followed for trial of such offences.

This was followed by another landmark case of Kathi Raning Rawat v. State of Saurashtra.[8] The issue in this case was similar to the one above as the question of law was on the impugned ordinance amendments in the Saurashtra State Public Safety Measures Ordinance that were made to maintain public order and preservation of peace of tranquillity.

The appellant claimed that there was discriminatory classification of offences and the special treatment of such offences in special courts. The issue thus was whether the said Act was violative of Article 14 and hence, unconstitutional. The Supreme Court in this case ruled that the Act was not violative of Article 14 and thus, constitutional. It gave the reasoning that the State Government did not refer individual cases but offences of certain kind in certain areas, thus there is legislative differentiation and not discriminatory.

Along with which , the act was supported by presumption of constitutionality. The said Act was compared by the West Bengal Special Courts Act and it was observed that it didn't have disputable provisions.
Two decades later the Supreme Court in the case of E.P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu[9] held that essence of the rule of equality lies in the anti-arbitrariness. Justice Bhagwati stated that "Equality is a dynamic concept with many aspects and it cannot be 'cribbed, cabined and confined' within the traditional and doctrinaire limits. From the positivistic point of view equality is antithetic to arbitrariness. In fact, equality and arbitrariness are sworn enemies.... Where an act is arbitrary, it is implicit in it that it is unequal both according to political logic and constitutional law and is therefore violative of Article 14...."[10]

Subsequent to this, in the case of Ajay Hasia v. Khalid Mujid Sehravardi[11] the same was reiterated and it was pointed out that reasonable classification was not a paraphrase of equality and that it was only one of the means whereby a judge could decide whether there was an element of arbitrariness or not.

Post this, there were cases that discussed the doctrine of reasonable classification in different contexts. In the case of Air India v. Nergesh Meerza[12] the Supreme Court invalidated a regulation which proceeded that an air hostess would lose her job on her first pregnancy amongst other conditions. This was invalidated by the Supreme Court for being arbitrary and violative of Article 14.

In the case of Madhu Limaye v. Supt, Tihar Jail, Delhi[13], there was an issue that the Indian and European prisoners were treated differently. The court held that this differentiation violated Article 14 of Indian prisoners. They were all prisoners and thus, must be treated equally.

In 1983, in the case of D.S. Nakara v. Union of India[14] the court dealt with an office memorandum issued by the government announcing a liberalised pension scheme for retired government servants but made it applicable to those who had retired after 31 March 1979. The court held that the fixing of cut-off date was discriminatory as violating Article 14. This was because the division was based on date of retirement which was not a rational principle and thus, arbitrary.

In the case of A.L. Kalra v. P& P Corporation of India Ltd[15], Mr. Kalra was removed from his job, his only fault was he had taken some loan from the Corporation for certain purposes which he failed to utilise properly. The Supreme Court intervened under Article 14 on the ground that the punishment inflicted on Mr. Kalra was highly disproportionate, harsh and arbitrary. According to the court's reasoning the action was arbitrary and was denied by law itself.

In the case of Central Inland Water Transport Corpn. v. Brojo Nath Ganguly[16] the Supreme Court invalidated a rule of the Corporation which authorised the Corporation to terminate services of any person in the employment by giving three months' notice or three months' salary in lieu of notice. The court held that the differentiation was invalid as it influenced the gravity of consequences that the rule entailed, i.e., a person could lose his/her livelihood.

In the case of Sanaboina Satyanarayan v. Govt. of A.P.[17] the issue was whether the scheme formulated by the State government for prevention of crime against women violative of A. 14. According to the scheme, in prisons and prisoners were classified into two major categories: firstly, those guilty of crime against women and secondly, those not guilty of crimes against women. The prisoners claimed their right to equality was being violated by this scheme. But the Court held that there is reasonable classification because there is an objective that is being achieved by the said scheme and hence, it was not violative of A. 14.

This was followed by the case of Saurabh Chaudhari (Dr.) v. Union of India[18] the Supreme Court held that the classification must be found on intelligible differentia and the classification must have a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved. These two conditions are distinct of each other, the important fact is that there must be relation between the basis of classification and the object. When there is no reasonable basis for the classification then the legislation in question would be discriminatory and arbitrary.

The Supreme Court In Several Cases Established Important Principles Regarding The Scope Of Permissible Classification:
  1. A law may be constitutional even though it relates to a single individual if, on account of some special circumstances, or reasons applicable to him and not applicable to others, that single individual may be treated as a class by himself. But such laws are seen with suspicion, especially when they affect private rights of an individual.
  2. There is always presumption in favour of constitutionality of an enactment and the burden is upon him who attacks it to show that there has been a clear transgression of the constitutional principles. The person, therefore who pleads that A. 14 has been violated, must make out that not only he has been treated differently from other, but he has also been treated differently from persons similarly circumstanced without reasonable basis and such differential treatment has been unjustifiably made.
  3. It must be presumed that the legislature understands and correctly appreciates the need of its own people, that its laws are directed to problems made manifest by experience and that its differential treatment is based on adequate grounds.
  4. The legislature is free to recognise the degrees of harm and may confine its restriction to those cases where the need is deemed to be the clearest.
  5. In order to sustain the presumption of constitutionality, the court may take into consideration matters of common knowledge, matters of common report, the history of the times and may assume every state of facts which can be conceives existing at the time of the legislation.
  6. While good faith and knowledge of the existing conditions on the part of the legislature are to be presumed, the presumption of constitutionality cannot be carried to the extent of always holding that there must be some undisclosed and unknown reasons for subjecting certain individuals or corporations to hostile or discriminatory legislation.
  7. A classification need not be scientifically perfect or logically complete.
  8. The validity of a rule has to be judged by assessing its overall effect and not by picking up exceptional cases. What the court has to see is 'whether after taking all aspects into consideration, the classification is just'.
  9. The court must look beyond the ostensible classification and to the purpose of the law and apply the test of "palpable arbitrariness" in the context of the felt needs of the times and societal exigencies informed by experience to determine reasonableness of classification.
  10. There is not right to equality in illegal acts. Discrimination cannot be alleged n the ground that somebody has obtained an illegal benefit or advantage which he could not avail of.
  11. The right to equality is available in the grant of favours as well as the imposition of burdens.[19]

Recently the discussion on A. 14 came up when the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 came up. The main issue was that the three distinctions made: firstly between Muslims and non-Muslims of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, secondly, migrants from these three countries and the other countries and lastly, between the migrants migrating due to religious persecution and due to other reasons � were arbitrary and did not qualify as reasonable classifications.

In conclusion, the discourse on Article 14's exception of reasonable classification has a long history and the discussions continue till date. But there now exist a set of basic principles that have ruled on by the Supreme Court which must be taken into consideration when determining the validity of a classification with regard to Article 14.

  1. Kesavananda Bharti v State of Kerela [1973] 4 SCC 225
  2. Indian Const. art. 14.
  3. V. N. Shukla, Constitution of India in Dr. Mahendra Pal Singh (eds). (13th ed. 2017)
  4. Ibid.
  5. Chiranjit Lal Chowdhuri v. Union of India [1950] AIR 1951 SC 41
  6. Sheela Rai. Right to Equality � Reasonable Classification Rule Versus Rule Against Arbitrariness Under the Indian Constitution (2019)
  7. State of W.B. v. Anwar Ali Sarkar. 1952 SCR 284
  8. Kathi Raning Rawat v. State of Saurashtra. 1952 SCR 435
  9. E. P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu [1974] 4 SCC 3
  10. ibid
  11. Ajay Hasia v. Khalid Mujid Sehravardi [1981] 1 SCC 722
  12. Air India v. Nergesh Meerza [1981] 4 SCC 335
  13. Madhu Limaye v. Supt, Tihar Jail, Delhi [1975] 1 SCC 525
  14. D.S. Nakara v. Union of India [1983] 1 SCC 305
  15. A. L. Kalra v. Project & Equipment Corpn. [1984] 3 SCC 316
  16. Central Inland Water Transport Corpn. v. Brojo Nath Ganguly [1986] 3 SCC 156
  17. Sanaboina Satyanarayan v. Govt. of A.P [2003] 10 SCC 78
  18. Saurabh Chaudhari (Dr.) v. Union of India [2004] 5 SCC 618
  19. V. N. Shukla, Constitution of India in Dr. Mahendra Pal Singh (eds). (13th ed. 2017)
Written By: Lakshita Bhati, B.A. LLB (Hons.) - O.P. Jindal Global (Law School) University

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