The term “Fundamental Rights” brings several political and judicial conflicts to mind. However, the essence of the term is hardly understood by the citizens who are guaranteed with these rights. The Drafting Committee, headed by Dr. BR. Ambedkar, felt compelled to introduce certain rights that all the citizens of India enjoyed irrespective of their differences as a result of the Indian freedom struggle. The Bill of Rights of the United States of America helped as a foundation for the formation of these rights in India. Resulting from these motivations, the Drafting Committee composed Part III of the Constitution of India. This part guarantees all the citizens of India with certain basic rights that they enjoy merely because they are citizens of the Indian nation.
Taking into consideration the environment in which India had gained her independence and the struggle the Nation had been through; it had become necessary to provide certain special characteristics to the rights that were to be mentioned in the Supreme law of the land; the Constitution of India. As a result of this, the Fundamental Rights have been made justiciable and a subject of direct approach to the Constitutional Courts under Article 32 and 226 of the Indian Constitution before the Supreme Court of India and the High Courts respectively. The writ jurisdiction of the Courts is exercised especially for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights of the Indian citizens.
In order to cover various aspects of an individual’s life, Part III of the Indian Constitution focuses on ensuring political, economic, and social rights of individuals in terms of equality and freedom to enjoy various aspects of life. One of the most important aspects of fundamental rights is covered under Articles 14-18 of the Indian Constitution, which deals with equality. Article 14 addresses the equal treatment of individuals by the State; Article 15 refers to an individual’s right against discrimination on the basis of their religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth; Article 16 deals with the equality of opportunities to all; Articles 17 and 18 address the abolition of untouchability and titles respectively.
Intelligible Differentia Meaning
The term “intelligible differentia” means difference capable of being understood. the law is required to treat all individuals similarly placed in a similar manner. The concept of intelligible differentia means that Article 14 does not imply that the law must have a universal application toward all individuals. Rather, it must be applied to similar persons in a similar manner. In furtherance, intelligible differentia means that equals must be treated equally without being discriminated on the basis of their race, religion, wealth, social status, or political influence.
Elements of Article 14
Over a period of 75 years of independence, the Indian Judiciary has established certain elements that must be followed under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court of India has interpreted the constitution in this manner using the harmonious method of interpretation so as to avoid conflict among the various provisions of the Constitution. As a result of this, Article 14 has been interpreted in line with Article 15, to mean that equals must be treated equally and that unequals must also be treated equally. While the Constitution still prohibits discrimination of individuals on the basis of their religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, members of a particular community are to be treated as equals.
This interpretation helps avoid discrimination while at the same time allowing certain communities or groups the chance to develop and better their situation in society. An example of this is the provision for reservation of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes or the Economically Weaker Sections as the latest division according to a judgement in 2022.
These interpretations have come about as a result of the principle of intelligible differentia. In order to understand this concept in detail, it is necessary to refer to the letter of the law. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution reads as follows:
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.
From the language of this provision, it can be noted that there are two important aspects:
- Equality before the law; and
- Equal protection of the laws.
The former is a negative concept that ensures that no individual is given special privileges or treated as above the law within the territory of India. According to this interpretation, all persons, irrespective of their rank or condition, must be treated as equals with reference to the laws of the country. This essentially means that the law stands superior to all individuals within Indian territory, irrespective of their status.
The latter, however, is a positive concept that applies the concept of intelligible differentia. As per this concept, the law is required to treat all individuals similarly placed in a similar manner. This means that Article 14 does not imply that the law must have a universal application toward all individuals. Rather, it must be applied to similar persons in a similar manner. In furtherance, it means that equals must be treated equally without being discriminated on the basis of their race, religion, wealth, social status or political influence.
Post this interpretation, it was noticed that classification of different individuals on the basis of their different requirements and conditions would itself result in discrimination. Therefore, the Supreme Court of India introduced the concept of reasonable classification. In the case of Re Special Courts Bill, 1978 [AIR 1979 SC 478]; it was held by the Supreme Court that in order to pass the test of permissible classification, two conditions must be fulfilled:
The classification must be founded on intelligible differentia which distinguishes persons or things that are grouped together from others left out of the group; and
The differentia must have a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved by the statute in question.
It was held that there must be a nexus between the basis of the classification and the ultimate objective of the statute in consideration.
This judgement also indicates towards the non-arbitrariness of a certain law in India. It was further held in the case of S. Seshachalam v. Bar Council of Tamil Nadu, that if any legislation is found to be arbitrary in nature, the classification done for the purpose of such legislation ought to be considered discriminatory.
Other Relevant Landmark Judgments on Intelligible Differentia
Jagannath Prasad v. State of Uttar Pradesh AIR 1961 SC 1245
In the context of discrimination on the basis of economic status and professional status, it was held that:
“Equal protection of the laws does not postulate equal treatment of all persons without distinction: it merely guarantees the application of the same laws alike and without discrimination to all persons similarly situated. The power of the legislature to make a distinction between persons or transactions based on a real differentia is not taken away by the equal protection clause.”
Sri Srinivasa Theatre v. Government of Tamil Nadu AIR 1992 SC 999
In this case it was held that the two expressions ‘equality before law’ and ‘equal protection of law’ do not mean the same thing even if there may be much in common between them.
“Equality of law” is a dynamic concept having many facets. One facet – the most commonly acknowledged – is that there shall be no privileged person or class and that none shall be above law. A facet which is of immediate relevance herein is the obligation upon the State to bring about, through machinery of law, a more equal society envisaged by the Preamble and Part IV of our Constitution. For equality before law can be predicated meaningfully only in an equal society i.e., in a society contemplated by Article 38 of the Constitution.”
It must be noted that Article 38 of the Indian Constitution refers to one of the Directive Principles of State Policy. It states that the State must strive to promote the welfare of the citizens by securing and protecting social, political, economic justice thereby protecting the social order. It further mentions that the State must strive to reduce inequality in terms of income, status, facilities and opportunities amongst all sections of the Indian society.
Gauri Shanker v. Union of India AIR 1995 SC 55
Citing a precedent judgement in the case of Western U.P. Electric Power & Supply Co. Ltd. v. State of U.P., the Supreme Court in the present case held that:
“Equals should not be treated unlike and unlikes should not be treated alike. Likes should be treated alike. It is settled law that in giving effect to the said salutary principle, a mathematical precision is not envisaged and there should be no fanatical or ‘doctrinaire’ or wooden approach to the matter. A practical or realistic approach should be adopted. It is open to the State to classify persons or things or objects, for legitimate purposes.”
M Jagdish Vyas v. Union of India AIR 2010 SC 1596
In line with the previous judgements, the Supreme Court further clarified the interpretation of Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution thereby adjudging that:
“The law has been well settled for many years that members of one homogeneous group have to be treated equally. At the same time Articles 14 and 16 do not mandate that unequals are to be treated as equals. In this case, the classification cannot be said to be either irrational or arbitrary, it has a clear nexus with the objects sought to be achieved i.e., to fill in as many vacant posts from the departmental candidates working on the lower ranks…”
The common citizens of our country interpret the provisions of Articles 14, 15 and 16 merely on the basis of the letter of the law. This literal interpretation of the laws is necessary for several aspects of law. However, harmonious interpretation of certain provisions of different existing laws also becomes necessary in order to avoid conflict within the society that these laws intend to protect and govern. Therefore, it can be concluded that the harmonious interpretation of the rights under Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Indian Constitution has resulted in not only the harmonious co-existence of different communities in the diverse Indian society. It has also helped in the upliftment of those sections of Indian society that were suppressed or ill-treated before and at the time of Indian independence.
It can be agreed that the different communities of Indian society have come to learn to support one another and accept others for what they are thereby respecting each other’s practices and beliefs. This has ultimately only helped us as a community accomplish the larger goals of secularism, socialism and unity in diversity that were laid down by our leaders during the drafting of the Indian Constitution.