Before the period of independence, we faced gross discrimination based on our caste, colour sex, etc. The forefathers of our Constitution also suffered this agony in their life. So, to remove this taboo from our society, the drafters of our Constitution made provision of equality in our supreme constitutional document. This principle of equality is enshrined under Article 14 of the constitution and it ensures that there shall be no discrimination among the people and arbitrariness is removed in the state action.
This article will explore the Concept of Equality before the law, equal protection of law and rule of law. Further, we will also explore the exception of the right to equality along with the doctrine of reasonable classification and the doctrine of non-arbitrariness.
Article 14 of the Indian Constitution
Article 14 of the Indian constitution is the touchstone of the right to equality in our society. It states that every person is equal in the eyes of law and there shall be no discrimination. Further, it also provides for the concept of equality of opportunities and special treatment for the backward section of the society.
Ingredients of Article 14
There are mainly three Ingredients of Article 14 which are as follows –
Equality before Law
This concept is derived from the constitution of England. As per this doctrine, every person is equal in the eyes of the law ranging from a president to a peon. In other words, It states that every person in our society should be treated equally and the same punishment shall be granted for the same offense to every person in the society. There shall be no discrimination on the ground of their wealth, caste, colour, race, etc. The state can’t give a special purpose to any person. It is also known as legal equality. This is a negative concept as it provides for the deprivation of any special privilege or honour to a particular person in society.
Equal Protection of the Law
This concept is derived from the constitution of the United States of America (USA). As per this doctrine, the state is obliged to provide equality of opportunities to its citizens. The spirit of this principle states that the “equals should be treated equally”. In other words, this provision states that there is no comparison between equal and unequal thus the state should adopt the mechanism of positive discrimination. The term positive discrimination means some socio-economic steps aimed to improve the condition of a particular section of society. For example – Reservation for the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled tribe is also an example of positive discrimination.
In Stephens College v. The University of Delhi case, the admission quota involved a specific percentage of reservation for Christian students. It was challenged on the ground of equality but our Hon’ble Supreme court held that this treatment doesn’t violate the principle of equality and minority institutions that receive aid from the state can reserve some seats for their particular community.
Rule of Law
In our Constitution, the rule of law is enshrined under Article 14 of the constitution. The term rule of law is derived from the French phrase ‘La Principe de Legalite’ which means the governance of a state on the principle of equality and justice. The rule of law is the fundamental principle of a democratic setup and it is totally against the policy of arbitrariness. The concept states that democracy shall function as per the law and not by the arbitrary actions of men.
This concept of “rule of law” is derived from Magna Carta and was given by Professor Dicey. This concept has 3 elements namely –
- The supremacy of law– As per Professor Dicey, this concept of “Rule of Law” stands for absolute supremacy of law. Every person ranging from a common man to a government minister needs to abide by the holy Constitution. Further, no person shall be prosecuted except in situations where the breach of law occurs and this offence is proved in a court of law.
- Equality before law– As discussed earlier, this means that the law is equal for everyone no one shall be accorded special treatment on account of his wealth, caste, sex, race, etc. The law shall treat everyone equally.
- The dominance of Legal Spirit – The term legal spirit denotes the spirit of justice. It states that the law shall always follow the principle of justice and no one shall be deprived of his life and liberty except due process. The right of an individual shall be given due importance.
In Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Shri Raj Narain, the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that that “rule of law” enshrined under Article 14 of the constitution is a part of the basic structure of the constitution. It cannot be curtailed or destroyed even by an amendment to the constitution.
Doctrine of legitimate Expectation
As the name suggests, this doctrine talks about the expectations of the individual from their lawmakers. This doctrine put a moral obligation on the part of a state to make laws that impart equality to all sections of society. It is not a legal right and it gives the right of judicial review of the action of administrative authorities to protect the rights of citizens. However, It is important to note that the expectations of citizens must be reasonable and rational.
Exception to Right to Equality
It is pertinent to note that the right to equality is not absolute in nature and several exceptions are provided for it. In the case of the State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar, the hon’ble supreme court held that the right to equality is not absolute and it includes some meaningful exceptions.
In the Special Courts Bill case, the validity of the establishment of special court was challenged before the hon’ble supreme court on the ground of violating Article 14 of the constitution. The court held that there was reasonability and rationality behind the motive of the establishment of these courts, thereby it is not in violation of Article 14 of our Constitution.
Other Exceptions of Article 14
- Article 361 of our Constitution confers a special privilege that during the tenure of the President and the Governor of the State of his office, there shall be no criminal proceedings against them in any court of law.
- Foreign diplomats are also immune from the jurisdiction of our court
- The judges and the police officers also enjoy the protection for the act being done as per their scope of authority and power. However, if any act exceeds their domain of power, they can be held liable for the same. For example – In extrajudicial killing, the police officer concerned may be held personally liable.
- Special groups like some Trade Union and other organizations also enjoy privileges or immunity against proceedings in certain matters.
- Some certain classes of people also enjoy freedom against persecution. These include our doctors and armed forces etc
Test of Reasonable Classification
As we already discussed, the right to equality is not absolute and some special treatment may be provided to an individual as per the circumstances. Thus, the doctrine of reasonable classification was derived by our hon’ble Supreme Court. This doctrine permits the reasonable classification of individuals, things, etc for achieving a particular objective in society. However, it is important to note that this doctrine also forbids “class legislation”.
Class Legislation refers to making improper discrimination and conferring special privileges to a certain class of person which is arbitrarily selected. In other words, the people who are at the receiving end are equal in status with other people and there is no special need for that provision. So, we can say that class legislation makes unreasonable discrimination between various classes which all are on equal footing.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court in Saurabh Chaudhari v Union Of India laid down the test that determines whether the special treatment is based on reasonable classification or not. The classification will be considered reasonable if 2 conditions are satisfied which are described below –
- The classification must be based on reasonable differentia. It means that the people who are selected must be different in status or position from those who are left out. In simple words, the statute or the Act must demonstrate that there are some special or considerable grounds of difference between both groups.
- There must be sufficient nexus between the differential classification and the object sought with the act. In simple words, it is essential to demonstrate that the classification is necessary for achieving a particular objective.
For example – The government wants to curtail the rate of poverty in our country. With this objective, it designated a certain class of person as “below the poverty line” based on their economic condition. This is an example of reasonable classification as there is a reasonable classification based on their economic condition and this classification is necessary for achieving the objective of reducing poverty in our society.
In the absence of reasonable classification or a situation when there is no nexus between the object and the impugned Act, it will be declared unconstitutional and discriminatory.
In the case of Ram Krishna Dalmia v. Tendolkar , the Hon’ble Supreme Court elaborately explained the various facets of this doctrine of reasonable classification. These are as follows –
- An individual can constitute a class and it will be deemed as a reasonable classification if that particular individual is conferred certain privileges on account of reasonable conditions or circumstances.
- It will be presumed that the Act of the state is constitutionally valid and the burden of proof will lie on the person who challenges its validity on the ground of arbitrariness and discrimination.
- This presumption will be reversed if it is prima facie evidence that the object of the statute doesn’t aim for special treatment of a particular set of an individual and yet the classification is incurred among individuals or classes.
- It will be presumed that the classification is reasonable as the state considers the needs of their citizens and some special treatment is needed for improving their condition.
- While assuming constitutionality, the court will take into consideration the intent of the legislation while enacting the Act. Further, other factors like a matter of reports, basic knowledge and historical backdrop shall also be duly recognised.
- The classification can be based on numerous grounds including geographical, economic and social factors etc.
- The discrimination or the classification incurred in the doctrine applies to both the substantive and the procedural law. If the aforesaid 2 tests are satisfied, then the impugned Act will be declared constitutional.
- The classification should not be scientifically perfect or mathematically proved. The essential element of classification is reasonability and rationality which is a very subjective phenomenon and it is determined by case to case basis.
Doctrine of Non-arbitrariness
It is well-settled law that equality is totally against the arbitrariness action. In the case of E.P Royappa Vs State of Tamil Nadu, the doctrine of reasonable classification was challenged before the hon’ble supreme court. In this case, a new doctrine or a new facet of the right to equality was evolved. This was known as the doctrine of Non-arbitrariness. The court held that equality is a very dynamic concept and cannot be confined to the existing limit.
As per this doctrine, equality is the antithesis to arbitrariness. So, any form of arbitrariness in political, social or administrative action will make the entire Act unconstitutional as it will violate the principle of equality. In the landmark case of Meneka Gandhi vs Union of India, It was held that Article 14 struck down arbitrary actions. The doctrine ensures fairness, responsibility and equality of treatment. This concept of reasonability and non-arbitrariness is the golden thread that binds all the fabric of the constitution. Thus, there shall be reasonability and rationality in every Act of the legislature or the Act of administrative authorities.
The right to equality is an integral element of our Constitution and it is the most commonly used mechanism to assess the legality of the act of the legislature or the executive body. Article 14 encompasses the concept of equality before the law and equal protection of the law. The former state that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and the latter states that the like should be treated alike and allowed positive discrimination for the benefit of society.
However, the right to equality is not absolute and certain exceptions are there. The state can make a reasonable classification among the individuals. However, while doing so, it needs to ensure that the classification must be reasonable and it has sufficient nexus with the object sought. Article 14 also struck against the arbitrary act of the state and made them constitutional. Thus, in a nutshell, we can say that Article 14 is one of the most important elements that is enshrined in Part III of the constitution.