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Right ot Life and Personal Liberty

Right ot Life and Personal Liberty
Right ot Life and Personal Liberty


The interpretation of the "right to life and personal liberty" in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has seen significant expansion, leading to a diverse array of cases invoking this provision.

However, this expansion has resulted in a lack of normative coherence, making it challenging to discern a unified narrative around this right.

In attempting to analyse the development of the "right to life and personal liberty," there is a need to strike a balance between comprehensive coverage and critical examination.

While the right has been expanded in numerous directions, it is essential to critically evaluate the manner in which its content has been developed.

The reasonableness standard, often applied in cases involving difficult political, social, and economic questions, has sometimes led to the dilution of rights protection under Article 21.

Despite this, there have been instances where concepts like "dignity" and "life beyond animal existence" have been invoked to radically redefine the scope of rights protection under Article 21.

Given the broad spectrum of protections under Article 21, ranging from the prohibition against torture to the right to sleep, discussions on the hierarchy of rights become inevitable.

Additionally, there is a need to examine the inconsistent use of concepts like dignity and the "life-is-more-than-animal-existence" framework in reading in penumbral rights.


Articles 19 and 21: From Gopalan to Maneka Gandhi

The landmark case of Gopalan holds significance in shaping the discourse around the scope and interplay of Articles 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.

While primarily addressing Article 22 concerning preventive detention, Gopalan laid the groundwork for understanding the relationship between Articles 19 and 21.

Gopalan's Nuances and Majority Viewpoints

In Gopalan, Fazl Ali J. diverged from the majority opinion by suggesting the possibility of an overlap between Articles 19 and 21. He argued that preventive detention laws should satisfy both Article 21 and relevant freedoms under Article 19.

However, the majority view, represented by five judges, emphasised the exclusive domains of Articles 19 and 21, precluding any overlap.

Concepts of Personal Liberty and Auxiliary Rights

The opinions in Gopalan also reflected differing interpretations of personal liberty. Some judges, like Sastri and Mukherjea JJ., construed it narrowly, focusing on bodily restraint and coerced detention, while others, like Kania J., adopted a broader perspective, including rights to work, sleep, and play. Das J. introduced the concept of a hierarchy of rights, with Article 19 freedoms accorded a higher position.

RC Cooper and Maneka Gandhi: Reshaping the Debate

The ruling in RC Cooper marked a departure from Gopalan's exclusive approach, asserting that freedoms in Part III could be addressed by multiple provisions.

This stance was further solidified in Maneka Gandhi, where the court explicitly acknowledged certain freedoms falling under both Articles 19 and 21.

Post-Maneka Framework and Unresolved Issues

Post-Maneka, a two-tiered scheme emerged for analysing freedoms falling under both articles, but challenges remained.

Questions persisted regarding the protection of foundational rights vis-à-vis auxiliary rights, and the conflation of rights within Articles 14, 19, and 21 raised constitutional dilemmas.

While Gopalan and Maneka offered valuable insights, they also left unresolved issues, highlighting the complexity of balancing rights and state interests in India's constitutional framework.

Evolution of Rights during the Emergency and Beyond

During the tumultuous period of the Emergency, the Indian judiciary faced a critical question: did individuals retain inherent rights to life and personal liberty, even when Part III of the Constitution was suspended?

In ADM Jabalpur v Shivakant Shukla, a majority of judges contended that beyond Article 21, no such rights existed, validating the State's suspension of fundamental rights despite rampant abuses.

Expansion of Rights in Pre-Maneka Era

In the initial decades following independence, the judiciary grappled with issues of detention, arrest, and movement restrictions, gradually delving into the broader implications of 'personal liberty' and the 'right to life'. 

Landmark cases like Kharak Singh and Gobind paved the way for a more expansive interpretation of these rights. Kharak Singh affirmed the right to privacy within the ambit of personal liberty, rooted in the concept of dignity enshrined in the preamble.

Penumbral Rights and Judicial Interpretation

The concept of penumbral rights under Article 21 gained traction, particularly with the recognition of the right to privacy in Gobind. 

However, this expansion relied on a broad interpretation of the 'right to life', often referencing foreign jurisprudence without contextual clarity. Despite the lack of textual basis, judicial precedent, such as Munn v Illinois, influenced the delineation of the 'right to life and personal liberty'.

Shifting Perspectives: From Kharak Singh to Maneka

Kharak Singh and Gobind viewed Article 21 as a residual provision for personal liberties, contrasting with Gopalan's perspective of Article 21 encompassing rights from which Article 19 freedoms were derived.

However, Maneka introduced a nuanced framework for determining unenumerated rights, emphasising their intrinsic connection to named fundamental rights.


Implied Fundamental Rights under Article 21

In recent judicial trends, the Supreme Court has adopted an expansive approach to interpreting the provisions of Part III of the Constitution, emphasising the broadening of fundamental rights rather than their attenuation.

This activist interpretation has transformed fundamental rights, especially those under Articles 14, 19(1)(a), and 21, into a regime of positive human rights, previously unseen in constitutional discourse.

Broadening Scope of Fundamental Rights

Fundamental rights are not confined to specific articles; even unmentioned rights integral to named fundamental rights or sharing their basic nature are protected.

This approach broadens the ambit of rights, with Article 21 serving as a residuary provision encompassing various personal liberties beyond those in Article 19.

Expanding the Realm of Article 21

The expression 'personal liberty' under Article 21 is construed liberally to encompass a wide array of rights beyond those in Article 19.

This expansive interpretation has led to the recognition of numerous implied fundamental rights, such as the right to speedy trial, right to travel abroad, right to dignity, right to privacy, right to clean environment, right to livelihood, right to education, right to marriage, right against torture, right against bondage, right to legal aid, and right to food.

Unspecified Fundamental Rights

Freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) extends to include the right to know, right to information, right to reply, and freedom of the press. Additionally, certain rights like anticipatory bail and the right to vote are recognized as statutory rather than fundamental/common law rights.

Limitations and Exclusions

However, the right to life under Article 21 does not include the right to die (suicide) or the right to be killed (mercy-killing or euthanasia). Similarly, certain rights, while implied, are subject to limitations, such as the right to vote for prisoners/undertrials.

Interpretation by the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has interpreted the rights under Article 21 expansively, including rights to dignity, privacy, clean environment, livelihood, education, marriage, health and medical care, and legal aid.

Personal liberty under Article 21 encompasses rights to speedy trial, travel abroad, freedom from bondage, and access to legal aid, among others.

Socio-Economic Rights under Article 21

1. Right to Education

The Court's stance on the right to education is significant for its early recognition of positive rights under Article 21.

While Mohini Jain emphasised the State's obligation to provide educational institutions at all levels, Unni Krishnan broadened this to include free and compulsory education until the age of fourteen.

However, subsequent cases saw dilution, particularly regarding minority institutions' exemption from certain provisions, highlighting challenges in balancing minority rights with broader socio-economic goals.

2. Right to Health

Interpretations of the right to health have focused on access to medical facilities and ensuring a healthy life.

While the Court has mandated immediate treatment for emergency cases and emphasised the State's obligation to provide medical facilities, there's a lack of clarity on the extent of these obligations.

Cases like Sahara House and Social Jurists underscore the need for universal access to healthcare, especially for marginalised groups, but the Court's ability to design comprehensive frameworks considering financial and infrastructural constraints remains uncertain.

3. Right to Shelter and Housing

In contrast to other socio-economic rights, the Court has taken a conservative approach to the right to housing. While recognizing its importance for human dignity, the Court has been hesitant to intervene in eviction cases, citing concerns about budgetary constraints and potential abuse of judicial processes.

This reluctance highlights a gap between rhetorical acknowledgment of dignity harms and practical remedies for homelessness.

4. The Right to Food (Security)

The right to food exemplifies the Court's transition from recognizing and enforcing rights to converting them into statutory provisions. Initially addressing food scarcity through government schemes, the Court expanded its focus to systemic issues affecting hunger and starvation.

However, the National Food Security Act 2013 has been criticised for prioritising food entitlements over broader food security considerations, such as nutrition, livelihood protection, and resource control.


Right to Die and Article 21

The question of whether an individual possesses the autonomy to determine the conclusion of their own life has been a matter of significant debate. In the case of State of Maharashtra v Maruti Sripati Dubai (1987, Cr.L.J. 549), before the Bombay High Court, the concept of the right to die was deliberated upon. 

The court, affirming that the right to life as guaranteed by Article 21 also encompasses the right to die, acknowledged that the inclination towards death, while uncommon, is not inherently unnatural.

Various circumstances, such as illness, intolerable living conditions, feelings of shame, or disillusionment with life, were cited as potential reasons for such a desire. The court underscored the importance of individuals having the liberty to determine the course of their lives as they see fit.

In Rathinam v Union of India (1994) 2 SCALE VOL II No. 7674, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals have the right to decide the fate of their own lives and deemed Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which penalizes attempted suicide, as unconstitutional.

This recognition posited that the right to life under Article 21 encompasses the right to choose not to live, indicating an individual's autonomy over their own existence. 

The court elucidated that the act of suicide does not transgress religious, moral, or societal norms and does not inflict harm upon others, thus negating the necessity for state intervention in personal matters.

However, the court declined the advocacy for legalising euthanasia, drawing a clear distinction between self-inflicted actions and external interference in terminating another's life.

Contrarily, in Gian Kaur v State of Punjab (1996) 2 SCC 648, a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court overturned the decision in P Rathinam’s case, asserting that the 'right to life' under Article 21 does not encompass the 'right to die' or 'right to be killed.' 

It emphasised the inherent contradiction between the notions of 'right to life' and 'right to die,' contending that the latter undermines the sanctity and continuity of life. 

Consequently, it upheld Section 309 of the IPC as not infringing upon Article 21, asserting that any consideration for change regarding the statute rests within the purview of legislative deliberation.

The court elucidated, "Any aspect of life that enhances its dignity may be interpreted within the framework of Article 21, but not that which extinguishes it, as it is incompatible with the essence of the right itself." 

The distinction between the 'right to life' and 'right to die' was emphasised, emphasising that while individuals possess the right to a dignified life until its natural conclusion, this does not equate to a right to unnatural termination or curtailment of life.

This sentiment was echoed in the court's rejection of euthanasia advocates' arguments, emphasising the preservation of human dignity and the natural course of life.

In reflection, the notion of a 'right to die' finds no legal footing and should not be sanctioned. Every individual possesses an inherent 'right to live,' regardless of circumstances, until the final thread of hope is extinguished.

Though life's burdens may at times seem insurmountable, the act of suicide is not a plea for punishment but a cry for assistance, highlighting the need for compassion and support in times of distress.

Right to Life in Environmental Cases

Right to Clean Environment: The Court has recognized the implicit right to a clean environment under Article 21. Cases like Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action and Oleum Gas Leak emphasise the State's duty to regulate pollution and establish liability for hazardous activities.

Sustainable Development: The Court has interpreted sustainable development as a holistic concept balancing ecological concerns with development imperatives.

In Vellore Citizens’ Welfare Forum and MC Mehta v Kamal Nath, it incorporated the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle into sustainable development.

Additionally, the public trust doctrine holds the State accountable as a trustee of natural resources.

Judicial Activism vs. Restraint: The Court has displayed activism in enforcing environmental regulations and reviewing executive decisions affecting ecology. Cases like Vedanta illustrate the Court's intervention to protect environmental interests.

However, in cases involving development projects like the Tehri Hydroelectric Project and Sardar Sarovar Dam, the Court has shown restraint, citing technical expertise and legislative policymaking as areas beyond its purview.

Challenges and Confusion: Despite its interventions, confusion remains regarding the coherence and normative limits of sustainable development.

The lack of a clear framework for sustainable development raises questions about which interests should be prioritised and how to weigh them.

This ambiguity can lead to perceived conflicts between development goals and environmental protection, potentially undermining other fundamental rights.


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