Article 14 of the Constitution of India provides that “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” It means every person, who lives within the territory of India, is equal before the law and equal protection shall be rendered to them.
The word person not only includes individual but also includes statutory corporations, registered societies and any type of legal person.
Article 14 consist of two phrases:
- Equality before the Law
- Equal Protection of the Law
1. Equality before the Law – This phrase has been derived from the Constitution of England; it implies;
- Every person will get equal treatment before the Court of Law.
- No person will get any privilege before the Court of Law.
- The Law will be the same for every person. No person shall be above the authority of Law.
2. Equal Protection of the Law – This phrase has been derived from the Constitution of the United States; it implies;
- People will get equal treatment under equal circumstances.
- Equal treatment shall be rendered to every person without any discrimination.
- In similar circumstances law shall be equal and equally administered.
The rule of equality, however, is not absolute, and there are certain exceptions to it, they are as follows;
- Article 361 of the Constitution provides a special privilege to the President and the Governor of the State during his/her term of office, against any proceeding in the Court.
- Foreign diplomats are immune from the jurisdiction of the Court.
- Judges and Police officers enjoy certain protection.
- Some special groups like the Trade Union get privileges under certain matters.
- Certain classes of persons get special privileges like armed forces are governed by military rules, similarly, doctors are controlled by the Medical Council of India, etc.
Article 14 permits Reasonable Classification but it forbids Class Legislation
Although Article 14 speaks about equality before law, but that does not mean absolute equality. The application of law cannot be universal or general in character, it means, the same law cannot apply to every person equally and similarly. The applicability of law depends upon various aspects, like, the nature of the case, attainment, place, circumstances, etc.
The different situation requires different treatment. For example; according to the Constitution of India, an adult, i.e., a person who has attained the age of 18 years, acquires a right to take part in an election by casting vote. However, prisoners, who are also adults, cannot cast their votes as they do not have that facility. Law has restricted its movement from one place to another.
Therefore, it is clear that although the Statute provided that every adult should cast their vote, the same statute restricted the prisoners from taking part in the election process. Hence, the law applies differently under different situations.
“Thus, the State can treat different persons differently if circumstances justify such treatment. Further, the identical treatment in unequal circumstances would amount to inequality.
Thus, there is a necessity for the “reasonable classification” for society to progress. The Supreme Court has maintained that Article 14 permits reasonable classification of persons, objects, transactions by the State for the purpose of achieving specific ends that help in the development of the society. However, Article 14 forbids “class legislation”. Class legislation makes improper discrimination by conferring particular privileges upon a class of persons.”
In Chiranjit Lal Chowdhury v. Union of India, AIR 1951, the Supreme Court of India held that the law is constitutional even if it is applied to a particular individual differently under specific circumstances. In order to challenge the constitutionality of a law, one has to show that the law is unreasonable and arbitrary in its application in that particular case.
In Ram Krishna Dalmia v. Justice S.R. Tendolkar, AIR 1958, the Supreme Court held that “It is now well established that while Article 14 forbids class legislation, it does not forbid reasonable classification for the purposes of legislation. It condemns discrimination not only by a substantive law but also by a law of procedure.”
Therefore, Article 14 forbids the class legislation but it does not forbid reasonable classification. However, such classification must not be “arbitrary, artificial or evasive”. Class Legislation is something which makes improper discrimination and provides privilege to a class of people arbitrarily selected from among large group of persons who stands on the footing, thereby making an unreasonable distinction between the classes.
In R.K. Garg v. Union of India, AIR 1981, the Supreme Court held that Article 14 forbids class legislation but it does not prohibit reasonable classification.
Test of Reasonable Classification
Reasonable Classification must fulfill the following two conditions:
- The classification must be based on the intelligible differentia which distinguishes persons or things that are grouped together from others that are left out of the group.
- The differential must have a rational relation with the objective of the act.
In State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar, AIR 1952, the Supreme Court held that the differentia which is the basis of classification and the object of the Act are two different things. It is important that there must be nexus between the basis of classification and the object of the Act.
Principles for Determining Reasonableness of Classification
In Ram Krishna Dalmia v. Justice S.R. Tendolkar, AIR 1958, the Supreme Court explains the true scope and meaning of the right to equality, they are as follows;
1. A law is constitutional even if it relates to an individual person on account of some specific circumstances which is applicable to him and not to others. That individual person can be treated as a class.
2. The presumption will always be in the favour of the constitutionality of the Statute and the burden shall be upon the person who brings an allegation about the unreasonable and arbitrary application of the law.
3. Such presumption may be disproved in certain cases by showing that on the fact of the Statue, that there is no order and no distinction peculiar to any individual or class and not applicable to any other individual or class, and yet the law hits a specific individual or class.
4. It must be assumed that the legislature correctly acknowledges and comprehends the need of its own people that the law is directed to the problem made manifest by involvement and that its discrimination is based on adequate grounds.
5. In order to maintain the presumption of constitutionality the court may take into consideration matters of basic knowledge, matters of report, the historical background of the time and may expect each condition of facts which can be conceived existing at the time of the enactment.
6. The legislation is permitted to perceive degrees of harm and may restrict itself to those situations and cases where the need is considered to be the clearest.
7. While good faith and knowledge of the current situation with respect to a legislature are to be presumed, if there is nothing on the substance of the law or the surrounding circumstances brought to the notice of the court on which the classification may reasonably be viewed as based, the presumption of constitutionality cannot be conveyed to the extent that there must be some undisclosed and unknown reason for exposing certain people or organization to be hostile or discriminating legislation.
8. The classification may be based on various aspects, like, geographical or according to the object or the occupation.
9. The classification made by the legislature need not to be scientifically perfect or logically complete. There is no need for mathematical nicety and perfect equality.
10. There can be discrimination both in the substantive as well as the procedural law. Article 14 applies to both. If the classification satisfies the test as laid down in the above propositions, the law shall be declared constitutional. The question whether or not a classification is reasonable and proper, must be judged more on common sense than on legal subtitles.
The Principle stated above was further elaborated by Justice Chandrachud in Re Special Courts Bill, 1978, it was held that,
- The basic principle of Article 14 is that persons under similar circumstances shall be treated similarly both in privileges conferred and liabilities imposed.
- The State shall have the power to determine, with regard to the process of classification, who should be regarded as class for the purpose of the enactment and in relation to a law, enacted on a particular subject.
- The classification does not mean arbitrary application of law to certain person, instead, it means segregation in classes which had a systematic relation, usually found in common properties and characteristics.
- The law can make and set apart the classes according to the needs and experiences of society. It may recognise even degree of evil but the classification should never be arbitrary, artificial or evasive.
- If the legislative policy is clearly and definite and in order to effectively enforce such policy, the Statute may vest discretionary power upon the administrator or officers to make selective application of the law to certain classes or groups or persons. The Statute cannot be condemned as a piece of discriminatory legislation.
- A mere assumption that the authority which has been conferred with discretion by law, would act arbitrarily in exercising such law, would not be determinative of the constitutionality of law. Discretionary powers not necessarily mean discriminatory power.
- Mere inequality in the application of law cannot question the constitutionality of such law.
- A practical evaluation of the operation of law in particular circumstances is necessary.
- A rule of procedure laid down by law derived as much within the purview of Article 14 as any rule of substantive law.
- Prof. Narender Kumar, Constitutional Law of India, 7th Edition, 2008, Allahabad Law Agency.
- Samarth Agarwal, Pariksha Manthan Recent & Landmark Case Laws, 1st Edition, 2020.
This article has been written by Moumita Paul, B.A.LLB student at Hazra Law College, Calcutta University.
Also Read – Fundamental Rights – Meaning And Concept