Right to Equality is the first fundamental right assured to the people of India. Article 14-18 of the Constitution guarantees this right to every citizen of India. Equality is one of the magnificent corner-stones of the Indian democracy. “In other constitutions generally this right embodied in Article 14. As such this right was considered to be a negative right of an individual not to be discriminated in access to public offices or places or in public matters generally. It did not take account of the existing inequalities arising even from public policies and exercise of public powers. The makers of Indian Constitution were not satisfied with such type of undertaking. They knew of the widespread social and economic inequalities in the country sanctioned for thousands of years by public policies and exercise of public power supported by religion and other social norms and practices.”
They were of the opinion that only Article 14 would not be sufficient enough to deal with these inequalities so they introduced Articles 15-18 in the Constitution along with Article 14 which deals specifically in and expressly abolished and prohibited some of the existing inequalities. “Thus, the right to equality in the Constitution of India is not merely a negative right not to be discriminated against but also a positive right to be treated as an equal. Under the later aspect of the right, which is the essence and core of the right to equality, the State is under the obligation to take necessary steps so that every individual is given equal respect and concern which he is entitled to as a human being.”
Article 14 embodies the idea of equality expressed in the preamble. It lays down the general principles of equality before the law and prohibits unreasonable discrimination between the persons. The Succeeding Articles 15, 16, 17 and 18 lays down specific applications of the general rules laid down in Article 14. Article 14 is the equality clause because of its wide ambit and applicability. It applies to all persons while Article 15 and others cover only citizens. Article 15 relates to prohibition of discrimination on grounds of Religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 16 guarantees equality of opportunity in matters of public employment. Article 17 abolishes untouchability and Article 18 abolishes title.
ARTICLE 14: EQUALITY BEFORE LAW
“The state shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.”…………………………………………………. (Art. 14)
Article 14 guarantees to every person the right to equality before the law or the equal protection of laws. The first expression ‘equality before the Law’ which is taken from English Common Law, is somewhat a negative concept. It is a declaration of equality of all persons within the territory of India, implying thereby the absence of any special privilege in favor of any individual. Every person, whatever be his rank or position, is subject to the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts. It means no man is above law and that every person, high or low, is subject to the ordinary law of the land. Prof. Dicey in explaining the concept of legal equality, as operating in England, said: “With us, every official, from the Prime Minister down to a constable or collector of taxes, is under the same responsibility for every Act done without any legal justification as any other citizen.”
The second expression, “equal protection of laws”, which is rather a corollary of the first expression, and is based on the last clause of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment to the American Constitution, directs that equal protection shall be secured to all persons within the territorial jurisdiction of the Union in the enjoyment of their rights and privileges without favouritism or discrimination. It is a more positive concept (as it expects a positive action from the state) implying equality of treatment in the equal circumstances. In other words, all persons who are in the same circumstances will be governed by the same set of rules. It is a guarantee of equal treatment. An equal law should be applied with an equal hand to all persons who are the equals. The rule is that the like should be treated alike and not that unlike should be treated alike. The same or uniform treatment of unequals is as bad as unequal treatment of equals. It has been said that the equal protection of the law is a pledge of protection or guarantee of equal laws.
Thus, the two expressions in Article 14 make the concept of equal treatment a binding principle of State Action. In Sri Srinivasa Theatre v. Govt. of Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court explained that the two expressions equality before the law and equal protection of law do not mean the same thing even if there may be much in common between them. Equality before the law is a dynamic concept having many facets. One facet is that there shall be no privileged person or class and that none shall be above law. Another facet is the obligation upon the State to bring about, through the machinery of law, an equal society or, equality before the law can be predicated meaningfully only in equal society.
Article 14 uses the term ‘any person’, natural or artificial, whether he is a citizen or alien, is entitled to the protection under the provision.
EQUALITY BEFORE LAW
According to Dr. Jennings, “Equality before the law means that among equals the law should be equal and should be equally administered, that the like should be treated alike. The right to sue and be sued, to prosecute and to be prosecuted for the same kind of action should be same for all citizens of full age and understanding without distinctions of race, religion, wealth, social status or political influence.
In State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar, the Court rightly observed that the second expression is the corollary of the first and it is difficult to imagine a situation in which the violation of equal protection of laws will not be the violation of the equality before the law. Thus, in substance, the two expressions mean one and the same thing.
In Re Special Courts Bill, 1978, Chandrachud, J., observed: “The underlying principle of the guarantee of Art. 14 was that all persons similarly circumstanced should be treated alike both in privileges conferred and liabilities imposed.”
Rule of law- the guarantee of equality before the law is an aspect of what Dicey calls the rule of Law in England. Rule of law requires that no person shall be subjected to harsh, uncivilized or discriminatory treatment even when the object is the securing of the paramount exigencies of law and order.
Prof. Dicey gave three meanings to Rule of Law, they are –
- The absence of Arbitrary Power or Supremacy of Law – in other words, a man may be punished for a breach of law but he can be punished for nothing else. It means the absolute supremacy of Law as opposed to the arbitrary power of the Government.
- Equality before the Law – it means subjection of all classes to the ordinary law of the land administered by ordinary law courts. This means that no one is above law with the sole exception of the monarch who can do no wrong.
- The Constitution is the result of the ordinary law of the land – it means that the source of the right of individuals is not the written Constitution but the rules as defined and enforced by the Courts.
The first and second aspects apply to the Indian system but the third aspect of the Dicey’s rule of law does not apply to Indian system as the source of rights of individuals is the Constitution of India. The Constitution is the supreme Law of the land and all laws passed by the legislature must be consistent with the provisions of the Constitution
EXCEPTION TO THE RULE OF EQUALITY
Under Art. 359, when the proclamation of emergency is in operation, the enforcement of Art. 14 may be suspended during that period. Art. 361 provides that president and governors shall not be answerable to any Court for the exercise and performance of the powers and duties of the office. They also enjoy immunity from criminal and civil proceedings until certain conditions are fulfilled.
Members of Parliament and of State Legislature are not liable in respect of anything done or said within the House (Arts. 105 and 194). Foreign Diplomats are immune from the jurisdiction of Courts. Art. 31 C forms an exception by excluding some laws [for implementing any of the directive principles specified in Art. 39(b) or (c)] from the purview of Art. 14.
EQUAL PROTECTION OF LAWS
It is a guarantee of equal treatment. An equal law should be applied with an equal hand to all persons who are the equals. The rule is that the like should be treated alike and not that unlike should be treated alike. The same or uniform treatment of unequals is as bad as unequal treatment of equals. It has been said that the equal protection of the law is a pledge of protection or guarantee of equal laws.
The rule of law imposes a duty upon the state to take special measure to prevent and punish brutality by police methodology. The Rule of Law embodied in Article 14 is the ‘basic feature’ of the Indian Constitution and hence it cannot be destroyed even by an amendment of the Constitution under Article 368 of the Constitution.
ARTICLE 14 PERMITS REASONABLE CLASSIFICATION BUT PROHIBITS CLASS LEGISLATION
Article 14 does not mean that all laws must be general in character or that the same laws should apply to all persons or that every law must have universal application, for, all persons are not, by nature, attainment or circumstances, in the same positions. The State can treat different persons differently if circumstances justify such treatment. In fact, identical treatment in unequal circumstances would amount to inequality. The legislature must possess the power to group persons, objects and transactions with a view to attaining specific aims. So, a reasonable classification is not permitted but necessary if society is to progress.
By the process of classification, the State had the power of determining who should be regarded as a class for purposes of legislation and in relation to a law enacted on a particular subject. Classification meant segregation in classes which had a systematic relation, usually found in common properties and characteristics. It postulated a rational basis and did not mean herding together of certain persons and classes arbitrarily
The class legislation is that which makes an improper discrimination by conferring particular privileges upon a class of persons arbitrarily selected. And no reasonable distinction can be found justifying the inclusion of one and exclusion of other from such privilege. While Art. 14 forbids class legislation, it permits reasonable classifications of persons, objects, and transactions by the legislature for the purpose of achieving specific ends. In other words, what Art. 14 prohibits is class legislation and not a classification for the purpose of the legislation.
TEST OF REASONABLE CLASSIFICATION
Article 14 forbids class legislation; it does not forbid reasonable classification of persons, objects, and transactions by the Legislature for the purpose of achieving specific ends. Classification to be reasonable should fulfill the following two tests:
- It should not be arbitrary, artificial or evasive. It should be based on an intelligible differentia, some real and substantial distinction, which distinguishes persons or things grouped together in the class from another left out of it.
- The differentia adopted as the basis of classification must have a rational or reasonable nexus with the object sought to be achieved by the statute in question.
In Re Special Courts Bill, the Supreme Court has however warned against over-emphasis on classification. The Court has explained that ‘the doctrine of classification is only a subsidiary rule evolved by the courts to give practical content to the doctrine of equality, over-emphasis on the doctrine of classification or anxious or sustained attempt to discover some basis for classification may gradually and imperceptibly erode the profound potency of the glorious content of equity enshrined in Art. 14 of the Constitution. The over-emphasis of classification would inevitably result in the substitution of the doctrine of classification for the doctrine of equality.
If there are two laws covering a situation, one more drastic than the other, there is the danger of discrimination if the Administration has the discretion to apply any of these laws in a given case. Of the two persons placed in a similar situation, one may be dealt with under the drastic law and the other under the softer law. To minimize any chance of such discrimination, the court insists that the drastic law should lay down some rational and reasonable principle or policy to regulate administrative discretion as to its application. If the drastic law fails to do so, then it will be void under Art. 14.
This proposition was applied by the Supreme Court in Northern India Caterers V. State of Punjab. To evict a person from the unauthorized occupation of public premises, a Punjab Act provided for a Summary procedure. The collector had two choices; he could either himself order eviction under the special law, or could file an ordinary suit in a court for eviction under the general law. The Punjab law was declared void under Art. 14 because being a drastic law it laid down no policy to guide the collector’s choice as to which law to follow in what cases; the matter was left to his unguided discretion and so there could be discrimination within the same class inter se, viz., unauthorized occupants of public premises.
In Maganlal Chhagganlal V. Greater Municipality, the validity of certain provisions of Bombay Municipal Corporation Act, which conferred powers on the authorities to initiate special eviction proceedings against unauthorized occupants of Corporation and government premises was challenged. Following the N.I. Caterers case, it was argued that the availability of two procedures, one under the CPC and other under the two Acts of which the former was onerous and harsher than the latter, the former was hit by Article 14 in the absence of any guidelines as to which procedure might be adopted. The majority did not agree with the N.I. Caterers case.
Analysing the whole line of cases on the subject he drew a distinction between the statutes which themselves make a classification and those which authorize the executive to make the classification. While in the first case the statute will be invalid if it fails to satisfy the requirements of Article 14 (reasonable classification), in the second case the statute is valid so as it provides guidance to the executive about the exercise of its discretion in making the classification. Such guidance need not be provided expressly and specifically in the provisions of the statute; it may be gathered either from the preamble and other surrounding circumstances and facts which necessitated the enactment of the statute or from the general object or policy or the statute gathered from other operative provisions applicable to analogous or of the statue gathered from other operative provisions applicable to analogous or comparable situations. If such guidance is missing then only the statute will be invalid. Otherwise only the act of classification by the executive will be examined. In that case, if the classification fails to satisfy the requirements of Article 14 it will be ultra vires not only the Constitution but also the statute under which it is undertaken.
The Court observed that it was inevitable that when a special procedure is prescribed for a defined class of persons, such as occupiers of municipal or government premises, discretion which is guided and controlled by the underlying policy and purpose of the legislation has necessarily to be vested in the administrative authority to select occupiers of municipal or government premises for bringing them within the operation of the special procedure.
In State of West Bengal V. Anwar Ali Sarkar, was involved a Bengal law permitting setting up of special courts for the ‘speedier trial’ of such ‘offence’, or ‘classes of offences’ or ‘cases’, or ‘classes of cases’, as the State Government might direct by a general or special order. These courts were to follow a procedure less advantageous to the accused in defending himself than the procedure followed by the ordinary criminal courts.
The Act was held invalid as it made no reasonable classification, laid down “no yardstick or measure for the grouping either of persons or of cases or of offenses” so as to distinguish them from others outside the purviews of the Act. The government had the power to pick out a case of a person and hand it over to the special tribunal while leaving the case of another person similarly situated to be tried by the ordinary criminal courts. It gave ‘uncontrolled authority’ to the executive ‘to discriminate’. The necessity of ‘speedier trial’ was held to be too vague, uncertain and indefinite criterion to form the basis of a valid and reasonable classification.
On the other hand, in Kathi Ranining Rawat V. Saurashtra, a provision practically similar to the one involved in the Anwar Ali Case, was held valid because the Court found that a policy was stated in the preamble to the Act and that the government was expected to select such offences, classes of offences and classes of cases for trial in special courts as were calculated to affect public safety, maintenance of public order, etc.
Comparing the above two cases, it would appear that the main difference in the terms of the statutes, which resulted in different judicial verdicts as to their validity, was that the preamble in the Saurashtra Act was more elaborately worded than that to the Bengal Act. While the term ‘speedier trial’ used in the Bengal Act to set up special courts was held to be indefinite, the words ‘public safety, etc.’ in the preamble to the Saurashtra Act were held to be more definite and as giving a guiding principle to control administrative discretion.
In essence, therefore the difference would appear to be more of a drafting nature than of substance. For sometimes, a new orientation is being given to Art. 14. As has been explained by Bhagwati, J., in Bachan Singh V. State of Punjab, Rule of law which permeates the entire fabric of the Indian Constitution excludes arbitrariness. “Whenever we find arbitrariness or unreasonableness there is the denial of rule of law”. Art. 14 enacts primarily a guarantee against arbitrariness and inhibits state action, whether legislative or executive, which suffers from the vice of arbitrariness. “Every state action must be non-arbitrary and reasonable. Otherwise, the court would strike it down as invalid.”
This new dimension of Art. 14 transcends the classificatory principle. Art. 14 is no longer to be equated with the principle of classification. It is primarily a guarantee against arbitrariness in state action and the doctrine of classification has been evolved only as a subsidiary rule for testing whether a particular state action is arbitrary or not. It a law is arbitrary or irrational it would fall foul of Art. 14.
A common tendency in modern democracies is to confer a discretionary power on the government or administrative officers. In order to ensure that discretion is properly exercised, it is necessary that the statute in question lays down some norms or principles according to which the administrator has to exercise the discretion. Many a time the statutes do not do this and leave the administrator free to exercise his power according to his judgment. This creates the danger of official arbitrariness which is subversive of the doctrine of equality. To mitigate this danger, the courts have invoked Art. 14. In course of time, Art. 14 has evolved into a very meaningful guarantee against any action of the Administration which may be arbitrary, discriminatory or unequal.
In Air India V. Nargesh Meerza, a regulation made by Air India International, a statutory corporation, providing for termination of service of an air hostess on her first pregnancy has been held to be arbitrary and abhorrent to the notions of a civilized society. The regulation also fixed the normal age of retirement of air hostess at 35 years but authorized the managing directors to extend the same to 45 years at his option subject to other conditions being satisfied. The regulation was held bad as it armed the managing director with uncanalized and unguided discretion to extend the age of retirement of an air hostess. No guidelines, principles or norms were laid down subject to which the power was to be exercised. Nor was there any procedural safeguards available to an air hostess who was denied the extension.
In J. Jayalalitha V. Union of India, Section 3 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, empowers the State Government to appoint as many special Judges as may be necessary “for such case or group of cases” as may be specified in the notification. The validity of this provision was challenged under the Art. 14 on the grounds that confer unfettered, unguided and absolute discretion on the Government and is thus capable of leading to abuse of power by the Government.
The Supreme Court has however upheld the validity of this provision. The court has agreed with the proposition that conferment of discretionary power on the executive which in the absence of any policy or guidelines permits it to pick and choose it unconstitutional. But, in the instant case, the court has ruled that S. 3(1) does not confer unfettered or unguided power because the object of the Act and S. 3 indicate when and under what circumstances, the power conferred by S. 3 has to be exercised. The policy can be gathered from the preamble, the provisions of the enactment and other surrounding circumstances.
One of the objects of the Act is to provide speedy trial for cases of corruption. This is the policy of the Act and, therefore, while exercising the power under S. 3, the Government shall have to be guided by the said policy. The Legislature could not have anticipated as to how many special Judges would be needed in an area. Therefore, the Legislature could not have laid down any fixed rule or guidelines. It had to leave this matter to the discretion of the State Government as it would be in a better position to know the requirement. This is why discretion has been conferred on the State Government to appoint as many special Judges as may be necessary.
The situation where the statute itself does not suffer from any such vice, but the administrative authority may implement it in a discriminatory manner, or may not follow the policy or principle laid down in the Act to regulate its discretion. In such a case, the charge of violation of equal protection may be laid against the Administrative and its action quashed under Art. 14.
Every action of the state must be informed by reason and guided by public interest. Actions uninformed by reason may be questioned as arbitrary. Whenever there is arbitrariness in state action, Art. 14 springs to life and judicial review strikes such an action down. Arbitrariness is the antithesis of Art. 14 Equality and arbitrariness are sworn, enemies. Art. 14 strikes at arbitrariness in state action and ensures fairness and equity of treatment.
Statute based on a reasonable classification does not become invalid merely because the class to which it applies consists of only one person. A single body or institute may form a class. A legislation specifically directed to a named person or body would be valid if, on account of some special circumstances, or reasons applicable to that person, and not applicable to others, the single persons could be treated as a class by himself. The Act may, however, be bad if there are no special circumstances differentiating the person concerned from the rest, or if other having the same attributes are not covered by the Act.
In Chiranjit Lal Chawdhary V. Union of India, the petitioner approached the Supreme Court for the protection against the enforcement of a Central Act, the Sholapur Spinning and Weaving Co. (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1950. The petitioner was an ordinary shareholder of the Sholapur Spinning and Weaving Co. Ltd. On Account of mismanagement and neglect of the affairs of the Company, a situation had arisen that brought about the closing down of the mill. The action of the company prejudicially affected the production of an essential commodity, apart from causing serious unemployment amongst certain sections of the community. The Central Government thereupon issued an Ordinance which was later replaced by the above-mentioned Act. By this Act, the management and administration of the assets of the Company were placed under the control of the directors appointed by the government. As regards the shareholders, the Act declared that they could neither appoint a new director not could they take proceedings for the winding up of the Company. The contention of the petitioner was that the impugned Act infringed the rule of equal protection of the laws embodied in Article 14 because a single company and its shareholders were being subjected to disabilities vis-à-vis other companies and held the legislation validly.
In Ameerunnisa Case, a dispute between two rival parties regarding succession to the estate of a deceased Nawab was pending and after several vicissitudes for which the Nizam himself or his legal advisers were primarily responsible, a report was prepared by the legal advisers of the State in a particular way which, contrary to the opinion given by an earlier special commission, negatived the claim of one party, i.e. of two ladies and their children. To give effect to the report, the Nizam, who at that time exercised the powers of the Hyderabad Legislature, passed an Act, the Wali-ud-Dowla Succession Act, 1950. By this Act, the claim of the two ladies was dismissed and the property adjudged to the other party. Obviously, the effect of the Act was that the two ladies and their children were deprived of the right to enforce their claim in a court of law in accordance with the Mohammedan Law. They, in fact, were discriminated against the rest of the community in respect of a valuable right which the law secures to all, namely, the right of free access to the court.
The discrimination made against the two ladies could only be valid if there were some reasonable ground for the differentiation made by the law. Two reasons were put in justification of the classification or differentiation made by the Act. First, that there was an adverse report against them by the State legal advisers and, second, that the dispute was of a long standing. The Supreme Court held that neither of these grounds could serve as a reasonable basis for the differentiation made by the law. As regards the first, the dispute regarding succession to the estate of the Nawab was a legal dispute, and without determination of the points in issue by a properly constituted tribunal of law, a legislation based upon the reports of a non-judicial authority and made applicable to specific individuals, who were deprived thereby of valuable rights, which were enjoyed by all other persons occupying the same position, did plainly come within the constitutional inhibition of Article 14.
If the legislature makes the report of the legal adviser as the ground on which it deprives one specific person of his rights to have his say in a court of law, that law would be arbitrary and unreasonable. The second ground put in support of the classification was also rejected. The Court pointed out that the continuance of a dispute even for a long period of time between two sets of rival claimants to the property of a private person is not a circumstance of such an unusual nature as would invest a case with special or exceptional features and made it a class by itself justifying its differentiation from all other cases for succession disputes. Thus there was nothing to distinguish the dispute between the parties under the Wali-ud-Dowla Act which is not found in any other dispute between private parties.
In Ram Prasad V. State of Bihar, the two appellants had obtained a settlement of land in Bihar which at that time was under the management of the Court of Wards on behalf of the disqualified proprietress. The lands were settled at the prevailing rate or rent but the salami or premium was fixed at the half of the usual rate as a concession to the appellants who happened to be distant relations of the proprietress. For some reasons, there was an agitation amongst the tenants of the locality against the lease held by the appellants. The matter was brought to the notice of the Congress Working Committee which found the settlement illegal and against the public interest. The lessees, therefore, were asked to vacate the land which they refused. Thereupon the Bihar State Legislature passed the impugned Act.
The Act terminated the contract of lease and directed the lessees to quit the land immediately. The lessees contended the Act was unconstitutional because it denied o them the equal protection of laws. The Supreme Court accepted the appellants’ contention and held the Act ultra vires the Bihar Legislature because it appeared that there were numerous persons occupying the same position as the Alternatively, the dispute being between private parties, it was a matter for determination by duly constituted courts in accordance with the normal procedure. But what the legislature had done was to single out the two individuals and denied them the right which every Indian Citizen possesses to have his rights adjudicated in accordance with the laws. The reasons given for the extraordinary procedure were indeed remarkable for ‘their disturbing implications’.
It was said that the agitation amongst the tenancy of the locality and opposition on the part of persons living in the locality against the appellants’ possession of the land had led to the breach of peace and institution of criminal cases. This could not be a rational basis to discriminate against the two named individuals. When on the face of a statute there is no classification at all and no attempt has been made to select any individual or group with reference to any differentiating attribute peculiar to that individual or group and not possessed by other, this presumption is of little or no assistance.
These and some other cases seem to establish that except in Charanjit Lal case, the singling out of the individuals has never been seen with favor, particularly when such singling out has been done for the purpose of hostile discrimination. As a matter, of course, single person laws are prima facie violative of Article 14 because they do not make a classification on the basis of some general or particular characteristics which may be found in any individual or class of individuals now or in future; rather they make one individual their target excluding every possibility of bringing any other person within their reach even if that other person also depicts those characteristics.
By – Monika Sharma
 V.N. Shukla, Constitution of India, 10th Ed. , p. 37
 V.N. Shukla, Constitution of India, 10th Ed. , p. 37
 Dicey: Law of Constitution, 10th Edn. , p. 193
 Jennings: Law of Constitution, p.94
 All India Sainik Schools Employees’ Assn. v. Sainik Schools Society, 1989 Supp (1) SCC 205,212
 (1992) 2 SCC 643
 Chiranjit Lal Chawdhary v. Union of India, AIR 1951 SC 51
 Dr. Jennings, Law of Constitution, (3rd Edn.), p. 49
 AIR 1952 SC 75
 AIR 1979 SC 478
 Dicey- Law of Constitution, pp. 202-3 (10th Ed.)
 Rubinder Singh v. Union of India, AIR 1983 SC 65
 Jennings: Law of Constitution, p.94
 All India Sainik Schools Employees’ Assn. v. Sainik Schools Society, 1989 Supp (1) SCC 205,212
 Raghubir Singh v. State of Haryana, AIR 1980 SC 1087
 Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain, AIR 1975 SC 2299
 Re Special Courts Bill, 1978 AIR 1979 SC 478
 State of A.P. v. N.R. Reddi (2001) 7 SCC 708
 1978(AIR 1979 SC 478)
 AIR 1967 SC 1581
 AIR 1974 SC 2009
 AIR 1952 SC 75
 AIR 1952 SC 123
 AIR 1980 SC 898
 AIR 1981 SC 1829
 AIR 1950 SC 41
 Ameerunnisa Begum v. Mahboob, AIR 1953 SC 91
 AIR 1953 SC 215