Case Summary: Maneka Gandhi v Union of India (1978)

By | December 14, 2020
Maneka Gandhi v Union of India (1978)

This case summary attempts to analyse the judgement of the Supreme Court in the historical decision of Maneka Gandhi v Union of India reported in AIR 1978 SC 597 which expanded the scope of Article 21 of the Constitution and changed the face of Indian polity and law.

This case is regarded as one of the best judgements delivered by the apex court as it was instrumental in restoring people’s faith in the judiciary and constitutional values. It was in this case that the “Golden triangle” rule was firmly established by the SC and the court firmly cemented its seat as the watchdog of democracy.

I. Introduction

Delivered by a 7-judge bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court on 25th January 1978, this decision [1], marked the development of a new era with respect to the interpretation of fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. This decision altered the very face of the Indian Constitution and marked a new era of development in the concept of “personal liberty”. The decision stands as a beacon-light adding new dimensions to the interpretation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution.

Being one of the progressive decisions of the SC, the principles laid down, in this case, are relevant to date. It marked the judiciary’s transformation from a pedantic to a purposive approach in construing the sweep of the right to life under the Constitution. While analysing the present decision, attention must always be paid to the decision of the apex court in A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras [2], as it departed from the law laid down by the majority in that case and instead adopted the dissenting judgement of Fazal Ali, J that the “procedure established by law” must adhere to principles of natural justice, i.e., should be just, fair and reasonable.

A look at the background of the case reveals that this decision was preceded by the judgement of the SC in the case of Satwant Singh v. Assistant Passport Officer, Government of India [3], in which it was held that right to travel abroad is well within the ambit of Article 21 and said that a passport cannot be denied/impounded in the absence of a law properly regulating it. As a consequence, the Parliament passed the Passports Act, 1967 to manage how passports would be issued, refused, impounded and/or revoked—matters on which comprehensive legislation did not exist earlier.

II. Facts of Maneka Gandhi v Union of India

The petitioner, Maneka Gandhi was a journalist whose passport was issued on June 1, 1976, under the Passport Act 1967. The regional passport officer, New Delhi issued a letter dated July 7, 1977, addressed to Maneka Gandhi in which she was asked to surrender her passport under section 10(3)(c) [4] of the Act in the public interest within 7 days from the date of receipt of the letter. As soon as the petitioner got the notice of such impound, she responded to the authorities asking for specific detailed reasons as to why her passport shall be impounded as provided in Section 10(5) [5] of the Passport Act.

The authorities, however, answered that the reasons are not to be specified in the “interest of the general public”. In response, the petitioner filed a writ petition under Art 32 for violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution alleging that Section 10(3)(c) of the Act was ultra vires the constitution. [6]

III. Issues before the Court

  1. Are the provisions under Articles 21, 14 and 19 connected with each other or are they mutually exclusive?
  2. What is the scope of the phrase “Procedure established by law” in Article 21?
  3. Whether the right to travel abroad resides in Article 21?
  4. Is a legislative law that snatches away the right to life reasonable?

Arguments advanced by the Petitioner

  • Through the administrative order that seized the passport on 4th July 1977, the State has infringed upon the Petitioner’s Fundamental Rights of freedom of speech & expression, right to life & personal liberty, right to travel abroad and the right to freedom of movement.
  • The provisions of Article 14, 19 & 21 are to be read in synchronization and they are not mutually exclusive. These provisions in itself though not explicitly constitutes in itself principles of natural justice. A combined reading of the three provisions will give effect to the spirit of the constitution and constitution-makers.
  • Even though India has not adopted American “due process of law” in its constitution, the procedure established by law must be reasonable, fair & just free from any sort of arbitrariness.
  • Section 10(3)(c) of the Passport Act violates Article 21 insofar as it violates the right to life & personal liberty guaranteed by this Article.
  • Audi Alteram Partem. the opportunity of being heard is invariably acknowledged as a vital component of the principles of natural justice. Even if these principles of natural justice are not expressly mentioned in any of the provisions of the Constitution, the idea behind the spirit of Fundamental Rights embodies the very crux of these principles.

Arguments advanced by the Respondent

  • The respondent stated before the court that the passport was confiscated since the petitioner had to appear before a government committee for a hearing.
  • The respondent asserted that the word ‘law’ under Article 21 can’t be understood as reflected in the fundamental rules of natural justice, emphasising the principle laid down in the A K Gopalan case.
  • Article 21 contains the phrase “procedure established by law” & such procedure does not have to pass the test of reasonability and need not necessarily be in consonance with the Articles 14 & 19.
  • The framers of our Constitution had long debates on the American “due process of law” versus the British “procedure established by law”. The marked absence of the due process of law from the provisions of the Indian Constitution clearly indicates the constitution-makers’ intentions.

IV. Judgement of the Court [7]

  • The petitioner’s plea that the impugned provision, S. 10(3)(c) of the Act was violative of Article 14 was rejected by the SC as the term “interests of the general public” is not at all vague. But on the other hand, the Government is the best judge on assessing the interest must have the discretion to impound a passport on this ground. However, the Court held that impounding the passport without a hearing was not valid. But in the Court’s view, a post-decisional hearing would satisfy the requirements of justice.
  • With respect to the violation of Article 19, the court held that the impugned order was not violative of either Article 19(1)(a) or 19(1)(g). The court recognised the extraterritorial application of Article 19 and held that these rights were conceived by the Constitution makers not in a narrow-limited sense but in their widest sweep. On the question, if the right of free speech and expression can be effective only if the right to travel abroad is ensured, the court held that a guarantee for a fundamental right does never mean that every activity which facilitates the exercise of that fundamental right could also be guaranteed. A contrary position would lead to absurd results upsetting the entire scheme of Article 19(1). Therefore, the right to go abroad could not ‘in all circumstances’ be regarded as included in the freedom of speech and expression. Section 10(3)(c) of the Act, which authorised the imposition of restrictions on the right to go abroad by impounding of passport, could not, therefore, be held to be void as offending Article 19(1) (a) or (g) as its direct and inevitable impact was on the right to go abroad and not on the right of free speech and expression or the right to carry on trade, business, profession or calling.
  • With regards to Article 21, the court held even though the phrase used in Article 21 is “procedure established by law” instead of “due process of law” as found in the American constitution, the procedure must be free from arbitrariness and irrationality.
  • Even though the Constitution makers must be respected, but they never intended to plant such a self – a destructive bomb in the heart of the Constitution. They were never of the mind that the procedure need not necessarily be reasonable, just and fair. They drafted this Constitution for the protection of the “people of India” and such interpretation of Article 21 will be counter-productive to the protection offered by the Constitution.
  • The court overruled AK Gopalan case in the most indubitable and vivid manner and has declared in unmistakable terms for the first time that legislation, as well as an executive act, must meet the new due process requirements in Article 21. Moreover, it overruled the position in Gopalan case that the fundamental rights under Article 19 and 21 are standing separately and mutually exclusive to each other. In the present case, it was held that there is a unique relationship between the provisions of Article 14, 19 & 21 and every law must pass the tests of the said provisions. Justice Bhagwati held that even if there is a law prescribing a procedure for depriving a person of “personal liberty” that law has to meet the challenge of Article 19 and the procedure established by law in Article 21 must answer the requirement of Article 14.

According to Justice Krishna Iyer, “no Article in Part III is an island”. He pointed out that as a man is not dissectible into separate limbs, cardinal rights in an organic constitution have a synthesis. His indubitable proposition is that Article 21 does not exclude Article 19 if both rights are breached

  • The court widened the scope of “personal liberty” clause under Article 21. It was held that the scope of “personal liberty” is not be construed in a narrow and stricter sense. The court said that personal liberty has to be understood in the broader and liberal sense. Therefore, Article 21 was given an expansive interpretation. The court obligated the future courts to expand the horizons of Article 21 to cover all the Fundamental Rights and avoid construing it in a narrower sense.
  • It was held that Section 10(3)(c) was not violative of Article 21 as the procedure established by law complied with the principles of natural justice. Justice Bhagwati held that a post-decision hearing would do justice in the case under scrutiny. But Justice Beg had a different view and held that prior opportunity should have been given to the passport holder. Different from what other judges did he quashed the impounding order and directed the return of the impounded passport to the petitioner.
  • The right to travel abroad as held in Satwant Singh is within the scope of guarantees mentioned under Article 21.
  • The court held that Section 10(3)(c) & 10(5) is an administrative order, therefore, open to challenge on the grounds of mala fide, unreasonable, denial of natural justice and ultra vires.
  • The court also suggested the government to ordinarily provide reasons in every case and should rarely use the prerogative of Section 10(5) of the 1967 act.

V. Conclusion

This decision restored the people’s faith in the judicial system and a guarantee that their fundamental rights will be protected. The court departed from its earlier position in the AK Gopalan case which held that right to life and personal liberty can be restricted by the procedure established by law even if it is not fair and reasonable. In this case, this regressive view was discarded by the court and held that that procedure established by law meant procedure that eventually was reasonable fair and just.

This decision rendered void the plain and simple meaning of ‘procedure established by law’ and introduced for the first time the concept of ‘due process of law’ into the Indian constitution. The court also accepted that Right to Travel Abroad as a very important component of Right to Liberty, if this right is not granted, liberty is distorted. By this judgement, the court increased the scope of Article 21 of the Constitution and made it the duty to interpret Article 21 in a manner which serves the people’s interest at most.

The ruling also created an interrelation between Article 14, 19 and 21, popularly known as the “Golden Triangle test” providing that a law “depriving a person of ‘personal liberty” has not only to stand the test of Article 21, but it must stand the test of Article 19 and Article 14 of the Constitution as well. The speciality of the Maneka Gandhi judgement is that it is a very balanced decision which expanded the scope of the fundamental rights all the while retaining the provisions of the Passport Act, thereby savouring the power given to the Parliament by Constitution.


References

[1] AIR 1978 SC 597

[2] AIR 1950 SC27

[3] AIR 1967 SC 1836

[4] Refer Section 10(3)(c), Passport Act, 1967

[5] Refer Section 10(5), Passport Act, 1967

[6] See https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1766147/

[7] Supra note 5


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Author: Fathima Mehendi

5th Year law student at National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS), Kochi

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