Article 14 of the Indian constitution
“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”
Every citizen in India has been granted the right to equality under Articles 14 to 18 of the Indian constitution. Article 14 of the Constitution provides the basic standards of equality under the law that has to be maintained in India and it even extends to non-citizens. The concept of equality does not imply that each and everyone has to be equal. This would imply that everyone has the same amount of resources and it is quite impracticable and utopian. However, the fundamental right to equality under the law means that each and every citizen in India gets equal protection under the laws in India unless the state justifies a special right or privilege on a rational basis.
Under Article 14 the State of India cannot deny any person equality before the law. This expression “equality before the law” is a negative concept and it requires the state to do away with any notion of discrimination. This also means that the state has to bar any kind of special privilege or access to justice to be given to a particular group of people and subject everyone equally to the various provisions of law present in India unless the state provides some rational data for it. Thus no one is above the law in India, and everyone will be dealt with equally under the law.
This concept of “equal protection before the law” has been borrowed by the drafters of the Indian Constitution from the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution. The 14th amendment of the United States Constitution provides that the legislators in the United States cannot make a law that takes away the privileges of the citizens of the United States. It also states that states cannot deprive citizens a sense of their life, liberty, or property unless there is a due process of law that is followed. It also provides that states have to provide everyone under their jurisdiction equal protection under the laws that are existent. This statement that is equal treatment under the laws is a positive concept and it makes it a duty for the State in India to provide equal treatment under the laws to every citizen.
In the case of Srinivas Theatre vs. The Government of Tamil Nadu (1992), the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India provided clarification to both these expressions and ruled that they may appear the same but are different in their meaning. In this context let us understand what equality before the law is and equal protection of the law is.
- What is Equality before the law?
Equality before the law is a concept that everyone has to be treated equally under the laws that are present in India and like persons are to be treated in an alike manner. This implies that everyone should have a right to sue and be sued for any wrongdoing. This right to legal remedies should be available to everyone regardless of their religion, sex, or caste.
This term equality before the law is indeed a natural consequence of the term equal protections before the laws. In the case of State of West Bengal vs. Anwar Ali Sarkar (1952), the Supreme Court ruled that the term “equal protection of the law” is a consequence of the term “equality before the law”, and it is difficult to point out circumstances in which there is a violation of equal protection of law but there is no violation of equality before the law. This proves that they have different meanings, but both these terms are quite similar in nature.
There are some exceptions to equality before the law. This is provided under Article 105 and 194 of the Indian Constitution. These articles state that members of the parliament and state legislatures are not liable for anything that they say within the house. The other exception to Article 14 has been provided under Article 359. Under Article 359 the state can declare an emergency and fundamental rights in India can be suspended. If there is a violation of Article 14 during the proclamation of an emergency, then a person in India cannot approach the courts after the emergency is ended. The third exception to Article 14 has been provided under Article 361 of the Constitution. Article 361 provides that the president and the governors of Indian states cannot be held liable under any law for the duties that they perform under their office.
- What is Equal protection of laws?
Equal protection of the laws means that there is a duty on the state to ensure that every person in India is guaranteed equal access to justice and the law. Under this rule persons who are like are to be treated alike and unlike people should not be treated alike. Thus, it rules that if every person regardless of their position is afforded equal protection, then those that are underprivileged may not be treated with equality.
- What is Reasonable classification under Article 14?
Every person in India is not alike and there are differences between different groups of people. Some groups of people are underprivileged and are unequal to other groups of people factors due to historical reasons. In such circumstances, if unequal groups of people treated equally then it would not be beneficial. Thus, this reasonable classification is necessary to make laws for those groups of people that are underprivileged.
However, any such classification that provides special rights or privileges cannot be done arbitrarily by the state. A special privilege or right under the law has to be done on a rational basis to empower those that are underprivileged and to help achieve equality.
Since the drafting of the constitution, the Indian Supreme Court has constantly dealt with questions regarding Article 14. In the case of Air India vs. Nargees Meerza (1981), the Supreme Court struck down-regulation of the Indian airlines that forced-air hostesses to retire early. The regulation stated that an air hostess had to retire if they attained the age of 35 or if they were married within four years of their service or first pregnancy. The court stated that this termination of service on grounds of pregnancy was blatant discrimination, and it was violative of Article 14. In the case of D.S. Nakara vs. Union of India (1982), the Supreme Court struck down Rule 34 of the Central Services Rules. The rule had made a classification between a group of pensioners on the basis of date of retirement. The Supreme Court ruled that such a classification was arbitrary and was violated of Article 14. In the case of Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab (1980), Supreme Court ruled that arbitrariness is strictly prohibited under article 14. The court stated that if there is any arbitrariness, then there is a denial of the rule of law.
Article 14 of the Indian constitution provides a right of equality under the laws to everyone in India. The scope of article 14 has been constantly questioned in the Supreme Court and its scope has been expanded by the Supreme Court over the years. The maintenance of rule of law, equal protection of laws, and equality of the law are the most important aspects of Article 14.