This article explains 20 Landmark Cases on Human Rights that happened in the history of India

This article explains 20 Landmark Cases on Human Rights that happened in the history of India and also proved to be essential in adding core value to the concept of Human Rights. Human rights are actually basic rights and freedom that belong to every individual in the world from birth until death. Through various cases, it has been reflected that the life, liberty, privacy, and dignity of any individual must be given paramount significance.

The author admires the role of the judiciary in the protection as well as promotion of human rights. The apex court of our country has always utilized its power of interpretation with such perfection that definitely broadened the scope of rights and as such made it expedient for people to enjoy their human rights.

Human Rights: A brief introduction

The concept of human rights is a very basic concept that is known to all of us in some or the other way. Rights that all we humans possess are human rights and are subject to protection. Respecting human rights should be considered a responsibility towards each fellow human being. At the same time, we cannot overemphasize only the rights and ignore duties. The rights of the children imply corresponding duties of the parent; the rights of women imply corresponding duties of the men towards women folk; we should perceive them.

If everybody does his duty the question of rights will not arise at all. The education on human rights should be undertaken in this manner that instead of worrying about the rights, one must be careful of the duties that one is performing.

All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family, and each one of us is responsible for the misdeeds of all the others. I cannot detach myself from the wickedest soul. – Mahatma Gandhi

1. Ramlila Maidan Incident v. Union of India and Ors.[1]

This case dates back to 2011 wherein there was an organization named Bharat Swabhiman Trust that tried to organize a yoga training camp that was supposed to include around five thousand people in Delhi's Ramlila Maidan. However, the situation did not seem to be simple. Because of an anti-government agitation on the issue of corruption and black money, instead of five thousand people, nearly fifty thousand people gathered on the grounds and the police had to implement Section 144 of the CrPC prohibiting the crowd from further creating any ruckus.

After Section 144 got implemented, it didn't take much time for the police to move inside the Ramlila ground at midnight while everyone was asleep and started lathi-charge and forced the citizens to empty the ground. This led to further agitation among citizens as they started throwing bricks and further, the police retreated with tear gases.

The court held that there is a difference between restriction of a right and prohibition of a right where the prohibition of the right standard can only be applied to such cases where no lesser alternative would be adequate.

Court also said that Section 144 intended to serve the public purpose and this section could only be invoked when the authorities are satisfied that there is an immediate need for prevention of danger and damage to human life, and safety and there is a prima-facie disturbance. The court also heavily criticized the police for its act of entering the grounds at midnight and said that reasonable notice must be provided to the public before imposing such an order to allow the public to leave the concerned site.

Through this case, a very important right of right to privacy of the sleeping person from inclusion was protected and the code observed that privacy also prevails while a person is sleeping.

2. M.C Mehta v. Union Of India[2]

In 1985, there was a leakage of Oleum gas from one of the units of Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries in Delhi, belonging to Delhi Cloth Mill Ltd. In this leakage, hundreds of lives were taken. In this case, the issues were basically related to whether such hazardous industries should be allowed to be operated in such areas and if they are allowed, whether any regulating mechanism should be evolved.

However, if explored from the Human Rights angle, the court held that in Oleum Gas Leak Case, a Constitution Bench discussed this question at length and held thus:

"We are of the view that an enterprise which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the surrounding areas owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous nature of the activity which it has undertaken".

3. Lalita Kumari v. Government Of Uttar Pradesh & Ors.[3]

In this case, a minor girl was kidnapped and when the father of the girl approached the police station the police refused to register the FIR. The father then moved to the Supreme Court over the failure of the police to register the FIR and simultaneously it was registered on the order of the court. The petition filed by the father was that the court must direct the police to apprehend the suspects and recover the girl.

In this case, which was related to the duty of the police to mandatorily register an FIR for the commission of a cognizable offence when came to the final judgment, the court said that the registration of FIR is mandatory under section 154 of the Criminal Procedure Code, and if the offence is cognizable no preliminary inquiry is permissible in such situation as the scope of preliminary inquiry is not to cross-check the veracity of the information received but only to make sure whether the information reveals any cognizable offence.

Also, an important stance taken by the Court was that while ensuring the rights of the accused and the complainant, any inquiry which is done firsthand must be time-bound and should be completed within 7 days.

4. Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, 1985[4]

This case dated back to the year 1981, wherein, in the state of Maharashtra it was decided by the municipal corporation that the pavement dwellers and those residing in slums must be evicted. Simultaneously, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra made an announcement over the same, and not much later a writ petition in the High Court of Bombay for an order of injunction was filed. The issues involved in this case were related to the scope of the right to life under Article 21 of the constitution and the question was whether pavement dwellers are responses under the Indian Penal Code.

The exact words of the court were:

"No individual can trade the freedoms that are conferred on him by the Constitution. A concession made by him in a proceeding, whether by an error of law or otherwise, that he does not possess or assert a particular fundamental right, cannot create an estoppel against him in this proceeding or in any other subsequent procedure. Such a concession, if implemented, would run counter to the purpose of the Constitution."

The court said that the Right to Life which is protected under Article 21 is very far-reaching and it cannot be stated that life can be removed only in accordance with the procedure established by law; the right to livelihood is a very important aspect of the right to life as no one can live without means of subsistence at any given time.

5. Vishaka v. State Of Rajasthan, AIR 1997 SC 3011[5]

This was indeed a landmark case in the history of Human Rights when it comes to the working condition for women. In this case, the Supreme Court witnessed a PIL against the state of Rajasthan and the Union of India filed by Vishaka and a few other women. In this case, a social worker named Bhanwri Devi was brutally gang-raped while she was doing a noble cause of barring child marriage. However, due to insufficient evidence, the case was dismissed.

This case spread like fire among all the women workers and sexual harassment in the workplace which is violative of Fundamental Rights under Articles 14, 15, and 21 was questioned.

The court held that clearly there has been a violation of Articles 14, 15, and 19 (1) of the constitution and also violations of all the international conventions that India was a part of. Through this case, Vishaka guidelines were issued and the judgment also provided some basic definitions like that of 'sexual harassment at the workplace along with that, guidelines for protection were provided as well. (Read More about Vishaka v. State Of Rajasthan Here)

6. Shreya Singhal v. Union Of India[6]

In this case, two women posted some objectionable comments on Facebook regarding the 'bandh' (shutdown) announced in the city of Mumbai after the death of a political leader. They were arrested under section 66A of the Information Technology Act. However, they were released later on. This incident gained a lot of media attention and the issue concerned was whether it infringes the fundamental right to free speech and expression.

The petitioner argued that this section is unconstitutional as it encourages annoyance, danger, obstruction, and ill-will; and further, they said that this law has a 'chilling effect on the right to freedom of speech and expression. The court held that Section 66A is violative of the Fundamental Rights under Article 19(1)A of the constitution and therefore section 66A of the IT Act must be declared void. The court declined to address the petitioner's challenge of procedural unreasonableness as the law was already declared unconstitutional in the previous proceedings.

7. National Legal Service Authority (NALSA) v. Union Of India[7]

This was a very special case and probably the most important one in the history of Human Rights in India. Transgender, who also form a part of the population were not legally recognized as persons before this judgment. They faced inequalities in various walks of life and their human rights were often violated. This case was filed by the National Legal Service Authority of India with the view that transgender must be legally recognized as persons who do not fall in the category of either male or female but in a different category as the third gender.

In this case, along with recognizing a transgender as the third gender, there was a long and complex discussion over gender identity. The court recognized transgender as any other person have Fundamental Rights under both Constitution of India and International Laws. It was decided that transgender persons have all the rights including the right provided under Articles 14, 15, 16, 19(1) A and 21 of the constitution.

The apex court also referred to International Human Rights Treaties and the Yogyakarta Principles to recognize the Human Rights of transgender people. Along with recognition of their rights, it was ordered that they must be treated as minorities and for them, there must be reservations in jobs, education, and other sectors as and when the need arises.

8. Mohammed Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum[8]

In this case, the petitioner Shah Bano Begum was thrown out of the matrimonial home by her husband uttering 'talaq' three times. Her husband abandoned her from the maintenance of Rs. 200 which he was supposed to give. After pronouncing triple talaq, he hid under the veil, that he is not supposed to give any maintenance. The Local Court however directed Muhammad Ahmad to furnish Rupees 25 per month as maintenance to Shah Bano.

The petitioner further took this case to the Supreme Court wherein, the judgment as pronounced by CJ Chandrachud was that section 125 (3) of the CrPC. solicited Muslims without any sort of discrimination. Supreme Court held that it is the responsibility of the husband towards the divorced wife to maintain her. In short, the Supreme Court specifically put pressure on the statement that triple talaq cannot take away the maintenance right of a divorced Muslim woman who is unable to maintain herself or her children.

This case particularly focused on the Human rights of a woman irrespective of her religion. This case proved to be a landmark judgment as based on it, many cases with similar issues were resolved. (Read More about this case Here)

9. Harvinder Kaur v. Harmandir Singh Chaudhary [9]

In this case, the petitioner was married to Harmandir Singh and both of them were employed. From the wedlock, they had a child and subsequently, the petitioner moved out with the child and the husband filed a case under section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act after which the petitioner filed this present case in the Delhi High Court challenging the constitutional validity of section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act.

The issue was whether Section 9 was constitutionally valid and whether or not the degree for restitution was against the right to life, equality, and privacy. The High Court while deciding the matter found that the trouble from the wife was intentional and without a reasonable cause and hence, the Delhi High Court dismissed the appeal. The court rejected the plaint that personal law was discriminatory towards gender inequality in India. It also said that the introduction of constitutional law into the home (pointing towards the personal laws) was most inappropriate in India.

10. Kesavanand Bharati v. State of Kerala [10]

This very famous case of 1973 was decided by the largest bench in the history of India which was 13 judges bench. The petitioner was the founder of 'Edneer Mutt' situated in Kerala and he challenged the Kerala government's attempt to impose restrictions on the management of its property.

Through this case, India was gifted with the Doctrine of Basic Structure. The court held that the doctrine of basic structure cannot be violated and accordingly the court outlined that the power to amend the basic structure is very very limited. It is to be noted that this case overruled the Golaknath case and the court specifically said that only because the Parliament has the power under Article 368 of the constitution, it cannot rewrite the whole constitution taking into view its power. (Read More about this case Here)

11. Habeas Corpus Case – ADM Jabalpur v. Shivakant Shukla [11]

This case came into existence at the time of emergency when Smt. Indira Gandhi's election to Lok Sabha was challenged before the Allahabad High Court and agitated from the same she declared an emergency on 26th November 1975 under which a lot of people including renowned politicians like Jai Prakash Narayan and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were arrested under (Maintenance of Internal Security) MISA Act. A lot of petitions throughout the country started rushing into the courts and petitioners started getting judgments in their favour as well.

The government became concerned with the High Court's order and therefore approached the Supreme Court in the case of ADM Jabalpur v. Shivakant Shukla. This case was a black spot in the Indian historical judgment led by five judges bench.

Justice H.R. Khanna gave a biased judgment which was heavily criticized. The constitutional validity of Section 16A (9) of the MISA Act was also upheld. Even Justice Bhagwati expressed his regret for siding with the majority by saying that he was wrong not to uphold the cause of individual liberty. But as soon as the emergency ended the Supreme Court changed its decision by giving Article 21 a permanent status and linking it with Articles 14 and 19. (Read More about this case Here)

12. Joseph Shine v. Union of India[12]

In this case, the petitioner Joseph Shine filed a PIL under section 32 of the Constitution challenging the constitutionality of the offence of Adultery mentioned in section 497 of the Indian Penal Code read with section 198 (2) of Cr.P.C.

In this case, the Supreme Court said that the husband is not a master of the wife and therefore adultery cannot be treated as a crime however it still is a reasonable ground for divorce and it will be considered criminal if it leads to abetment of suicide. Other than that, adultery is not a criminal act as it violates the dignity of a woman infringing Article 21 of the Constitution and ultimately the Human Rights. In July 2018, the Supreme Court struck down section 497 of the Indian Penal Code considering it violative of Articles 14 15, and 21 of the constitution.

13. Indian Young Lawyers Association and Ors. v. The State of Kerala and Ors.[13]

This case infamous as the Sabrimala case was an important judgment both in terms of human rights as well as busting the religion-related myths. The Sabrina temple located inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala restricted the entry of women between the age of 10 and 50 which is the menstruating age of women, from entering into the temple.

The Supreme Court received restrictions over the matter through Article 32 of the constitution of India and after a long led trial, it decided that the step of devotion to divinity is not subjected to the rigidity and orthodoxy of gender which as a result affects the dignity of women and degrades their status. The Supreme Court allowed the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple and upholding the principles of human rights, stated that devotion cannot be subjected to gender discrimination.

14. Navtej Singh Johar v. Union Of India[14]

In this case, the Supreme Court took Article 14 as the base of the judgment. The court said that criminalizing the consensual sex between two individuals only because they are homosexual is against the order of nature and is not a proper intelligible differential and has no rational nexus.

The Supreme Court also added that sex includes both biological sex plus sexual orientation which was earlier observed in the Naz Foundation case and said that it is the proper approach to steer this case as well.

Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said,

human sexuality cannot be narrowly defined and Article 19 gives the freedom of expression and includes expressing one on identity without any fear. Taking Article 21 into consideration the court said that the right to life and liberty includes privacy, dignity and autonomy for each individual. Section 377 cannot be put as a restriction before the individual to enjoy all the above-mentioned rights.

15. K. Basu, A.K Johri v. State of West Bengal[15]

This case is infamous as D.K. Basu case is one of the landmark cases that prima facie deals with custodial deaths but relates to human rights in terms of the arrest of a person. D.K. Basu was the executive chairman of the Legal Aid Service of West Bengal. He wrote a letter to the Supreme Court of India mentioning an incident of death in police custody and lockups. He requested the letter to be treated as a writ petition under Public Interest Litigation.

Upon the same being accepted, Mr. A.K. Johri wrote another letter to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court mentioning a man named Mahesh Bihari who died in police custody.

This Supreme Court held that prisoners should never be deprived of their fundamental rights guaranteed to every person under Article 21 and only reasonable restrictions could be imposed upon such rights without infringing them together. In the same case, the Supreme Court gave around 11 guidelines notwithstanding the constitutional provisions which were to be followed while making arrest and detainment upon failure of which department inquiry will be set up and also contempt of court proceedings in High Court will be taken up.

Human rights also extend to prisoners and detain is was the important principle that was revised in this case.

16. Shri Gurbaksh Singh Sibbia and Ors. v. State of Punjab[16]

In this case between Shri Gurbaksh Singh Sibbia and the State of Punjab, the Supreme Court of India held that the courts' discretion to provide anticipatory bail cannot be nearly restricted because the punishment for a specific crime is death or imprisonment. Gurbaksh Singh Sibbia was the Minister of Irrigation and Power in the state of Punjab under the Congress government. He, along with a few other persons was facing serious allegations of corruption.

The minister along with others applied for anticipatory bail under section 438 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and also prayed from the High Court to direct the appellants to get bail in the due course of arrest on the basis of the above-pressed charges. It didn't take much longer for the High Court to dismiss the application but on special leave to appeal the application was allowed by the Supreme Court.

Now, the question arises of how is it related to human rights. It indeed is because by restricting a person who is doubted to do some wrong we protect the innocent and on the other hand, sometimes the innocent are unnecessarily harassed for malafide purposes. In both circumstances, it becomes the moral duty of the courts to think from the perspective of Human Rights to arrive at a better conclusion.

17. Ritesh Sinha v. State of Uttar Pradesh and Ors. [17]

This case was a landmark case in Human Rights relating to the power of a magistrate to order an accused to give their voice samples to the police for comparison. In this case, during the investigation, the police wanted to collect the voice example of an accused to compare it with the recorded conversation which was evidence. However, the accused refrained from doing so and mentioned that there was no specific provision in the CrPC for the same, and neither did the magistrate possess any power to give such a direction to gather a voice sample.

Now the question arose whether Article 20 (3) of the Indian Constitution extends to protect such accused from being forced to give their voice sample during the interrogation.

The court said that in collecting such samples there are no specific provisions mentioned in the CrPC. however, there are provisions relating to the collection of DNA samples, handwriting samples, blood samples, etc, so taking voice samples would not be unfair, and coming on the privacy terms compelling a person to give a voice specimen does not become violative of their fundamental right to privacy; and to give an example, the court stated the famous case of K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India.

18. PUCL v. Union Of India[18]

What will you do if you get to know that your phone is being tapped? This indeed was a very interesting case relating to the burning topic of tapping of phone calls. The petitioner who was from a civil rights organization filed a PIL in the Supreme Court in which the authenticity of Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 was challenged.

According to the section, the government is authorized to intercept the phone for any specified reason. In the petition, it was mentioned that the power of interception was undefined and very arbitrary. The Supreme Court observed that section 5(2) did not mention any specific procedure according to which the interception should be exercised and yes it was arbitrary and not reasonable and fair. So, without declaring the section unconstitutional, the court set up procedural safeguards instead for those authorized for tapping phones.

19. State of Haryana and Ors. v. CH. Bhajanlal and Ors.[19]

In this case, the petitioner was a former Chief Minister of the state of Haryana and was accused by his political rival of gathering wealth that exceeded his income. Subsequently, an FIR was registered under the Indian Penal Code and Prevention of Corruption Act and the petitioner sought to quash the FIR. However, the High Court after discussing the allegations held, that allegations against the petitioner don't constitute and therefore there was no bias for the police to have registered FIR, and subsequently it was further challenged by the state before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that the High Court has the power to quash the FIR to protect an accused from malicious prosecution when a proceeding is instituted with the wrong intention of simply harassing a person the court can step in to cause the entire proceeding to meet the ends of justice. In this case, the Supreme Court issued seven guidelines to be followed by the court in the exercise of its inherent powers rested by section 482 of the CrPC.

20. Sarla Mudgal v. Union Of India[20]

In this case, there were various petitioners including Meena Mathur, Sunita Narula, alias Fatima, Geeta Rani, and Sushmita Ghosh. The issues that were raised in this case were whether a Hindu husband married under Hindu law by embracing Islam can solemnize the second marriage and whether such a marriage without dissolving the first marriage under the law would be a valid marriage also the question was whether the apostate husband would be guilty of the offence under section 494 of the IPC.

The court considered the practice of converting to another religion for the purpose of second marriage without dissolving the first marriage as invalid because it was against the principle of justice equity and good conscience. The court also stated that mere conversion from one religion to another does not dissolve the first marriage of a person and the only way to dissolve a marriage is by divorce obtained by the competent court.


There is a very famous shloka in the Hindu mythology that goes:

Sarve Bhavantu Sukhina, sarve santu niramayah

Sarve bhadrani pasyantu, ma kaschiddhu khabhagabhaveta

It means that may all sentient beings be at peace, may no one suffer from illness, May all see what is auspicious, may no one suffer. May we get peace, peace, and peace.

Although law has no religion except meeting the ends of justice, we can relate that Human Rights are based on the principle of well being of all, whether by granting justice to one or by reasonably restricting another. And as Mother Teresa said

" Human Rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being's entitlement by virtue of his humanity."


[1] Writ Petition (CRL.) No. 122 of 2011

[2] M.C. Mehta v. Union Of India 1987 AIR 1086, 1987 SCR (1) 819

[3] Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 68 OF 2008

[4] Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, 1986 AIR 180, 1985 SCR Supl. (2) 51

[5] Vishaka v. State Of Rajasthan, AIR 1997 SC 3011

[6] Writ Petition(Criminal) No.167 OF 2012

[7] Writ Petition (Civil) N0. 400 OF 2012

[8] 1985 AIR 945, 1985 SCR (3) 844

[9] AIR 1984 Delhi 66, ILR 1984 Delhi 546, 1984 RLR 187

[10] Writ Petition (Civil) 135 of 1970

[11] 1976 AIR 1207, 1976 SCR 172

[12] Writ Petition (Criminal) N0. 194 OF 2017

[13] 2018 SCC OnLine Ker 5802

[14] Writ Petition (Criminal) N0. 76 OF 2016

[15] Writ Petition ( CRL.) NO. 592 OF 1987

[16] 1980 AIR 1632

[17] Criminal Appeal N0. 2003 OF 2012

[18] AIR 1997 SC 568, JT 1997 (1) SC 288, 1996 (9) SCALE 318, (1997) 1 SCC 301, 1996 Supp 10 SCR 321, 1997 (1) UJ 187 SC

[19] 1992 AIR 604, 1990 SCR Supl. (3) 259

[20] 995 AIR 1531, 1995 SCC (3) 635

Updated On 16 Oct 2023 1:52 PM GMT
Aayushi Tiwari

Aayushi Tiwari

A Law Student and a lifetime humanitarian from the historically rich state, Bihar. Avid reader, writes to bring a difference and a public speaker to enlighten others.

Next Story