Attributing ‘Personhood’ To Non-human Creatures: A Brief Discussion On The Ramifications

A person is, any being to whom the law regards as capable of rights and duties. Any being that is so capable is a person, whether a human being or not and no being that is not so capable is a person, even though he be a human.”



The term person has been taken from the Latin word ‘persona’ which refers to those who are recognised by law as being capable of having legal rights and duties. According to Gray, “A person is an entity to which rights and duties may be attributed”. It clearly depicts that the domain of personhood is merely not confined to human-beings, rather it embraces those all who may possess certain legal rights of their own. According to certain schools of Jurisprudence, even all the human beings may not be tagged as ‘persons’. And certainly, some of the non-human beings may be accepted as legal persons, such as deity of different religions. Though, they may not sue the concerned defendant for the enforcement of their rights directly, still they are entitled to execute their dues through their representatives. The present analysis is centred around the issue of attributing personhood to non-human creatures in general, and animals in particular.


Section 3(42) of the General Clauses Act, 1897 says that, “a person includes any company or association or body of individuals, whether incorporated or not”. The Indian Penal Code, 1860 defines it in the exact way as the General Clauses Act. The ordinary, popular and natural meaning of the word ‘person’ is ‘a specific individual human being’. But in law the word ‘person’ has a slightly different connotation and refers to any entity that is recognised by law as having the rights and duties of a human being. Thus, the word ‘person’, in law, unless otherwise intended, refers not only to a natural person, but also any legal person that is an entity that is recognised by law as having or capable of having rights and duties.

In Union Bank of India v. Khader International Construction & Others,1 it was held that “any juristic person such as a company or idol can maintain a suit. These persons can be either decree-holders or judgment-debtors. The definition of the term ‘person’ is given in the General Clauses Act according to which such term shall include any company or association or body of individuals whether incorporated or not. The said definition provides that the word ‘person’ would include both natural and artificial persons. Further in Karnataka Bank Ltd v. State of Andhra Pradesh & Others,2 the Apex Court observed, “the definition of person in Section 3(42) of the General Clauses Act is undoubtedly illustrative and not exhaustive. The well-known rule of interpretation regarding such inclusive definitions has always been to treat the other entities, who would not otherwise have come strictly within the definition, to be a part thereof, because of illustrative enactment of such definitions.”


Various others creatures and idol are widely being regarded as capable of holding rights and to sue for their violations. Though, they cannot exercise their rights like human beings, yet they are given the liberty to be represented by individuals. Following are the discussions about certain non-human persons.

1. Deity/Idol being regarded as ‘legal person’

According to the observations of the Highest Court in Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, Amritsar v. Shri Somnath Dass & Others,3 the concept of ‘Juristic Person’ arose out of necessities in human development. Recognition of an entity as juristic person is for subserving the needs and faith of society. The very words ‘Juristic Person’ connote recognition of an entity to be in law a person which otherwise is not.4 A Hindu idol is, according to long established authority, founded upon the religious customs of the Hindus, and the recognition thereof by Courts of law, a juristic entity.5 It has a juridical status with power of suing and being sued.6 The deity is conceived as a living being.7 Hindu idol is a juristic entity, having rights and liabilities.8 In Ram Jankijee Deities & Others v. State of Bihar & Others,9 the Hon’ble Supreme Court was of the opinion that deity/idol are the juridical person entitled to hold property. Where a property is dedicated to an idol for the object of performing its Puja and other necessary ceremonies, the idol being a juristic person is capable of holding such property.10

2. Animals are exalted to the position of a ‘legal person’

The judiciary in India has played the most pivotal role in recognising the rights of animals. From time to time, it has affirmed the vital position of these creatures in maintaining an equilibrium and balance in the biodiversity. In Animal Welfare Board of India v. A. Nagaraja & Others,11 their Lordships of the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that animal welfare laws have to be interpreted keeping in mind the welfare of animals and species best interest subject to just exceptions out of human necessity. They also expressed that there are internationally recognized freedoms of animals as under :-

  1. freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition;

  2. freedom from fear and distress;

  3. freedom from physical and thermal discomfort;

  4. freedom from pain, injury and disease; and

  5. freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour.

These above-stated five freedoms have to be read into Sections 3 and 11 of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 along with Articles 51-A(g) and (h) of the Constitution, which is magna carta of animal rights. It was also observed that every species has a right to life and security, subject to the law of the land. Article 21 of the Constitution, while safeguarding the rights of humans, protects life and the word ‘life’ has been given an expanded definition and any deviation from the basic environment which includes all forms of life, including animal life, which are necessary for human life, within the meaning of Article 21. So far as animals are concerned, ‘life’ means something more than mere survival or existence or instrumental value for human being, but to lead a life with some intrinsic worth, honour and dignity.

In 2018, Uttarakhand High Court declared animals as ‘legal persons’ having rights and corresponding duties in Narayan Dutt Bhatt v. Union of India & Others.12 Recently, the Punjab and Haryana High Court in Karnail Singh & Others v. State of Haryana,13 dictated that the entire animal kingdom including avian and aquatic are declared as legal entities having a distinct persona with corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person. All the citizens throughout the State of Haryana are hence declared persons in loco parentis as the human face for the welfare/protection of animals. It means the individuals of the State would act as parents or representatives of animals for the purpose of expressing their stand and enforcing their rights.

3. Company being regarded as a legal person

The very definitions of ‘person’ under the General Clauses Act and the Penal Code have affirmatively included a company within their scope. Companies and corporations are given ‘personhood’ in law. It means that they are capable of holding and exercising rights and also are liable to be sued for any wrong as they might cause to anyone. In Aneeta Hada v. M/S Godfather Travels & Tours Pvt Ltd,14 the Hon’ble Apex Court was of the opinion that company is not a natural person but ‘legal’ or ‘juristic person’. That, however, does not mean that company is not liable to prosecution. Corporate criminal liability is not unknown to law.


It is to be stated that though all the above-stated beings have been given the tag of a ‘legal person’, still their rights and liabilities are neither superior to human beings nor is it equivalent. They are protected to ensure a balance in the eco-system. Their rights are subject to the rights of human beings. In Animal Welfare Board of India v. A. Nagaraja & Others (supra), it was held that animal welfare laws have to be interpreted keeping in mind the welfare of animals and species best interest subject to just exceptions out of human necessity.

Though several rights have been bestowed upon animals, those are subject to the fundamental and legal rights of human beings. Right to freedom of profession or to carry out any trade under Article 19(1)(g) and right to life of human beings under Article 21 of the Constitution are essentially superior to the rights of animals. However, in certain circumstances human beings and State have to give much more importance to the rights of animals. In State of Gujarat v. Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kassab Jamat & Others,15 it was observed that in order to give effect to the policy of the Government towards further securing the directive principle laid down in Article 48 of the Constitution namely prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle, it was considered necessary to impose a total prohibition against slaughter of the aforesaid progeny of cow below the age of eighteen years as they are useful for other purposes.

In Mohd. Hanif Quareshi & Others v. State of Bihar,16 the Supreme Court observed that sacrifice of cow on BakrI’d is not an obligatory act for a Mussalman to exhibit his religious belief and idea. In State of West Bengal & Others v. Ashutosh Lahiri,17 the Court held that sacrifice of any animal by Muslims for the religious purpose on BakrI’d does not include slaughtering of cows and it is neither essential nor required as part of religious ceremony.

Further, while giving the status of a ‘legal person’ to a company or corporation, the law tightens the corporate criminal and corporate civil liabilities. It fixes the responsibilities of them to be accountable for the wrongs. Had they not been conferred upon the title of ‘person’, it would not have been that flexible to make companies answerable for the mistakes committed by them directly or through their representatives.


Bestowing ‘legal personhood’ to non-human creatures and deities have necessarily broadened the scope of right to life and right to sue. These creatures can now execute their due rights through individuals who will act loco parentis. Though it has wide-scale ramifications and repercussions, still in the modern world it has become an imperative to make a cooperative biodiversity where each and every constituent may sustain its existence rightfully. Being regarded as the superior creatures, human beings should voluntarily play an activist role and should be instrumental in advocating the cause of animals and other natural objects. Similarly, people belonging to different religious sect must represent their deities for the protection of their respective religious ethos and values. Furthermore, giving personhood to companies and corporations have become pivotal in fixing responsibilities and liabilities of erring organisations and compensating the victims thereof.


1 Civil Appeal No. 943 of 1993.

2 Civil Appeal No. 1994 of 2002.

3 AIR 2000 SC 1421.

4 Narayan Dutt Bhatt v. Union of India & Ors., Writ Petition (PIL) No. 43 of 2014. (Uttarakhand High Court)

5 C.I.T. v. Ahmedabad Mill Owner’s Association, 7 ITR 369: AIR 1939 Bom 363; C.I.T. v. Sodra Devi, AIR 1957 SC 832; C.I.T. v. Salem District Urban Bank Ltd., AIR 1940 Mad 612.

6 Pramatha Nath Mullick v. Pradyumna Kumar Mullick, (1925) 27 BOMLR 1064.

7 Rambramha v. Kedar, (1922) 30 C.L.J. 478.

8 Yogendra Nath Naskar v. Commissioner of Income-Tax, Calcutta, AIR 1969 SC 1089; Manohar Ganesh v. Lakshmiram, ILR 12 Bom 247; Vidyapurna Tirthaswami v. Vidyanidhi Tirthaswami, ILR 27 Mad 435; Maharanee Shibbessouree Debya v. Mathooranath Acharjo, 13 MIA 270; Prasanna Kumar Debya v. Golab Chand Baboo, 2 IA 145.

9 (1999) 5 SCC 50.

10 Bihar State Board Religious Trust v. Mahant Sri Biseshwar Das, (1971) 1 SCC 574: AIR 1971 SC 2057; Maharaja Jagadindra Nath Roy Bahadur v. Rani Hemanta Kumari Debi, (1904) LR 31 IA 203, 209, 210.

11 (2014) 7 SCC 547.

12 Writ Petition (PIL) No. 43 of 2014.

13 Criminal Revision Petition No. 533 of 2013.

14 Criminal Appeal No. 838 of 2008.

15 Civil Appeal No. 4937-4940 of 1998.

16 AIR 1958 SC 731: 1959 SCR 629.

17 (1995) 1 SCC 189.

Jyoti Prakash Dutta

Content Writer, Law Corner, B.A.LL.B(Hons), 3rd year, University Law College, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Odisha

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