Right to Equality under Constitution of India

The Right to Equality is a right of equal satisfaction of basic human needs, including the need to develop and use capacities which are specifically human.” D.D Raphall

We all human beings are born equally with the same physical attributes. However, our past experience highlights a bitter history of discrimination and partiality in the name of caste, sex, religion etc. Before independence, the people from the upper caste were considered superior and the people hailing from the lower strata were not even allowed to touch them.  Even, at present, some sort of discrimination is still prevalent. Women are not considered equal with men and there are differences in terms of their role, pay scale etc.

So, in order to remove this everlasting taboo from our society, our constitution makers envisioned a state of equality in which all the person shall be treated equally without any discrimination. The right to equality was considered a fundamental right under Part III of our constitution.

In this article, we will explore how this “Right of Equality” is the cornerstone of our constitution. Further, we would also explore how this right developed over the years in the light of landmark judicial pronouncements.

What is the Right to Equality?

As the name suggests, the right to equality means all persons should be treated equally irrespective of their birth, caste, nation, religion, etc. There shouldn’t be any sort of discrimination or partiality in all the matters including public Employment, educational institutions, legislative Provisions etc. It also talks about the abolishment of titles to remove all the inequality.

The government shall treat every person equally without showing any favouritism for any particular group. It means all persons are equal in the eyes of the law, irrespective of a person’s financial or social status. Right to equality is the basic foundation of our democracy, and it lays the foundation of the “Rule of Law“.

It means that no one is above the law and there should not be any distinction between a peon and the president of our country. All the person shall be presumed to be standing on an equal footing.

Meaning of Right to Equality

The term equality has originated from the Latin word aequalis which means even, level or equal. In simple terms, equality means full equality of treatment and reward for all.

The Constitution of India guarantees six fundamental rights to its citizens. The term fundamental means that they are inalienable and can’t be taken away from the legislative actions. They are the basic necessities that ensure a life of minimum standard to its citizens.

One such fundamental right is the “Right to Equality”. It talks about equality before the law, non-discrimination on grounds of race, religion, caste, sex, birthplace, etc. In simple terms, it involves the right to live with equal opportunities.

This right states that no person is entitled to special treatment before the law. All persons, ranging from our prime minister to ordinary citizens, need to follow and respect the same laws. For instance- in the recent past, our former prime minister was accused of cheating. Though he was acquitted later on, during the trial, he had to go to court, submit evidence, attend hearings just like a normal man.

The right to Equality is further clarified in the Constitution of our country as it spelled out some of its implications. It is the utmost responsibility of the government

to not discriminate against any citizen on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, etc.

Each and every citizen of our country is entitled to have equal access to all the public places like shops, restaurants, hotels, etc. Further, there shall not be any restrictions or prohibitions on the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, places of worship for a particular class of society. All the strata of our society shall be allowed to make optimum utilisation of our public resources.

Type of Equality

Our constitution offers different kinds of equality to its citizens. Some of them are discussed below-

Natural Equality

It states that though human beings differ from each other in their physical features, psychological traits, mental abilities and capacities, they still are treated equally. God has made all people equal and we shouldn’t discriminate between them. All persons are entitled to live with basic human rights and freedom.

Social Equality

It refers to the equality of opportunity for the development of all classes of people without any discrimination. Everyone shall be awarded civil rights, freedom of speech, property rights, and access to goods and services to live a healthy life.

This equality emphasizes the absence of social class or caste boundaries while determining the real identity of a person. The person’s gender, sex, caste, political affiliation, etc shall not be a ground for offering unsatisfactory treatment to a particular class of people.

At present, social equality also stands for gender equality wherein women shall be granted equal rights with men. They shall be treated equally in the matter of public Employment and their payroll shall be kept as equal with men.

Civil Equality

It can be understood as the grant of equal rights and social freedoms to all the people belonging to different social groups without any sort of discrimination. All the people are equal before the law and civil liberty focus on the enjoyment of rights and freedom by all the sections of the society. Our society shall be free from the discrimination between superior and inferior, the rich and the poor, caste and creed, colour and race, etc. The rule of law shall govern our society.

Political Equality

This equality talks about equal opportunities for participation in all the political processes and activities. It also involves the concept of equal political rights for the person standing in a uniform category.

The concept of the Universal adult franchise shall be followed. It means that all persons above the age of 18 years, shall have the right to vote in the formation of the government. Further, the people should have their voice in the formation of government and also a right to be involved in the functioning of the government. This equality ensures the enjoyment of similar political rights to all citizens.

Economic Equality

The term “Economic equality” should not be understood as an equal reward or equal wages for all the people. It emphasizes fair and adequate opportunities for all the people to work and earn their livelihood as per the best of their abilities.

The basic or the primary needs of all people should be fulfilled instead of satisfying the special needs of a few. Though the gulf between rich and poor can’t be completely done away with, efforts should be made to minimise it to a very large extent. The government shall ensure equitable distribution of wealth and resources to its citizens.

Legal Equality

It can be defined as equality before the law, equal subjection of all before the same legal code. It also highlights the equal opportunity for all to secure legal protection of their rights and freedom. There should be a rule of law and laws must be equally binding for all. In every society, equality must be ensured in all these forms.

Right to Equality in Constitution of India

In our constitution, the right to equality is provided under Article 14-18 of our constitution. These rights are provided under part III which deals with fundamental rights. So, now we will look at various facets of each Article mentioned above.

Article 14 of Constitution and Right to Equality

The bare wording of Article 14 of the constitution of India states 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”.

This Article may appear small in length, but it has a very wide dimension and implications in our present life. The basic objective of this right is to ensure that all the person shall be treated equally without any discrimination. This right is connected to the liberty and freedom of an individual.

For understanding Article 14 in detail, it is essential to understand the following concepts

 Equality Before Law

India is the largest democratic country in the world with the lengthiest written constitution. Our constitution empowers its citizens to think independently, do anything (with reasonable restriction though). The state may put reasonable restrictions to secure the interest of the public at large. It is imperative that all persons residing in the domestic territory of our country should be treated equally.

The term “Equality before Law” means that all persons should be treated equally while ignoring their financial, social, economical and religious standing. The state shouldn’t provide special entitlement to a selective group of individuals.

This concept is taken from the British common law. It is a negative concept which aims for the absence of any special privileges on the ground of birth, religion, sex, caste, etc.

It is very pertinent to note that the Right to Equality is not absolute and it carries several exceptions. For instance- an Immunity against prosecution is provided to the President and Governor in our constitution. Further, Reservation is also an example that demonstrates that this right is not absolute and the state can formulate laws in order to meet the needs of the society.

State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar

The question emerged before the Hon’ble Supreme Court was “whether the Right to Equality is absolute or not?”. The court held that this Right to equality is not absolute and the state of West Bengal has used its power arbitrarily.

Equal protection of the Laws

It is a positive concept relating to the right to equality. This concept has emerged from Section 1 of the 14th Amendment Act of the US constitution. As per this concept, all persons residing in the country shall be treated equally in the matter of providing opportunities. This right focuses on the fact that the “equals should be treated equally”.

According to this principle, everybody who resides in India should be treated equally and will get equal protection of the law. This principle imposes a positive obligation on the state to ensure that the right to equality remains protected which can occur by bringing socio-economic changes.

Stephens College v. The University of Delhi

The issue was raised regarding the validity of the preference given to the Christian students in the matter of admission to the college. The court held that the institutions receiving aid from state funds are entitled to make some sort of preference or give reservations for the students of its community. This differential treatment in no way violates Article 14 of the constitution as it aims to provide a better opportunity for the minority and deprived section of our society.

Rule of law

To a very large extent, Article 14 is based on the concept of rule of law. This concept was founded by A.V Dicey.  It provides that all individuals, states, and other institutions should be governed by the law in letter and spirit. There shall not be any arbitrary action by an individual or by the state. Irrespective of the status of a person, he/she should be subject to the ordinary court established for normal people.

Further, this concept also emphasized that all government actions should be completely premised on sound legal and moral principles, which are embedded in our supreme law i.e., constitution. The rule of Law has 3 main pillars, which are discussed below-

  • Supremacy of law

It states that there should not be an arbitrary exercise of power and no person shall be punished except in the condition when he/she violates the law. Before persecuting someone, substantive evidence shall be put forth before the court and the accused shall be given a fair right of hearing.

  • Equality before law

As discussed earlier, it states that all individuals, regardless of their status and position, shall be treated equally without any sort of discrimination. Every person shall be subject to the ordinary law of the country and his proceedings are administered in the courts of the country. This concept is also mentioned in the Preamble and Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • The Predominance of legal spirit

Dicey opined that for achieving the aforesaid 2 objectives, it is very essential to have an enforcing authority. According to him, such enforcing authority should be ‘courts’ which should function in a just, fair and reasonable manner while following the supreme laws of the country.

Exceptions to Rule of law

  • Delegated Legislation

In the present times, our parliament is very much occupied and it neither has the time to delve deep into minute details of every law, nor it has technical expertise which has become quite essential to understand complicated and specific laws. So, in order to overcome this issue, the parliament delegates this work to a specialised body or sometimes to the executive. They design the framework and all the important provisions of the bill after conducting thorough research. This improves the efficiency of our legal system.

  • Administrative adjudication

Our courts are already overburdened with a large backlog of cases. So, the parliament has established some tribunals and departments with judicial and quasi-judicial powers to function in a particular domain of law and mitigate the burden of normal courts. Example of such tribunals is National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT), Security Appellate Tribunal (SAT), National Green Tribunal, etc. These tribunals are governed by the concept of natural justice.

In India’s constitution, the concept of rule of law can be traced in its preamble, fundamental rights and other important articles of our constitution.

  • Access to Justice

One other important facet of Article 14 is that it talks about equal access to justice. All people are equal in the eyes of the law and they should be treated equally. The term “Access to Justice” means a basic right of a person to appear before the court for seeking a remedy. There shall not be any sort of bar or restrictions in approaching the court.

In our society, there are a large number of people who are deprived of their legal rights due to financial constraints or lack of awareness. At this juncture, it is important for the government to play a vital role and bring reform to our judicial system. The concept of free legal aid was also set up to achieve the true spirit of Article 14 of the constitution.

  • Protection against Arbitrariness

The difference between arbitrary and non-arbitrary actions is very thin. The right to equality especially emphasizes that there shall not be any arbitrary action on the part of the state as it is totally against the doctrine of arbitrariness. The power conferred to the government should be used judiciously without infringing the right of any person. The executive or the administrative decisions shall be taken only after keeping in mind the interest of the masses.

The doctrine of legitimate expectation

As per this doctrine, it is expected from the state that it shall frame the laws which will provide equality to all the people in the territory. It is not a legal but a moral obligation on the part of a state. The right of judicial review can be exercised when the public authorities failed to fulfil their responsibility by framing arbitration rules.

This doctrine works as a bridge between the expectation of a person and the act of government authorities. However, for the purpose of this doctrine, it is essential that the expectations needed to be reasonable; therefore, they are known as legitimate expectations.

The doctrine of Legislative Classification

For successful implementation of laws with effective results, it is pertinent for our legislation to frame laws keeping in mind the needs of the society. There are some groups of people that need special care and attention. So, the law should be framed accordingly. The law can’t be made and applied universally as there are differences in social, cultural and economical conditions. For satisfying different needs, various kinds of legislation needed to be prepared that provide special treatment to uplift the deserving ones.

This special classification on reasonable grounds becomes very handy in reducing inequalities in our society. So, Article 14 of our constitution permits reasonable classification.

Test for Reasonable Classification

‌The primary condition of the classification is that it must be just and reasonable. It must be related to the need and purpose of law in respect of which the reasonable classification is made.

‌The object of classification must be lawful. In the case of Subramanian Swamy v.CBI, it was observed by the honourable Supreme Court that ”if the object of classification is discriminatory or illegal, then the explanation that classification is having a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved is completely immaterial.”

In order to make a classification legally valid, the following 2 conditions must be satisfied

  1. Intelligible differentia (Intelligent reason for classification)
  2. Rational Nexus (Relationship between classification and desired result)

Intelligible Differentia

It states that there should be reasonable and genuine grounds to make a distinction between the persons or things that are grouped together from others left out of the group. The reason for the distinction must be just and fair.

For instance – The government notification of providing reservation of the Economically weaker Section (EWS) is based on the intelligible Differentia as the people who are grouped together have an annual income of less than 8 lakh Per annum.

Rational Nexus

This implies that there shall be a direct relation between the distinction and the objective for which the distinction has been made. The relation must be direct and relates to the objective sought.

For instance – The EWS reservation for the person whose family income is less than 8 lakh per annum was notified to uplift the poor and downtrodden sections of our society. Thus, there is a rational Nexus between distinction and the object sought from the enactment.

Some Landmark Judgements

Charanjit Lal Chowdhury v. Union of India

The apex court held that as per Article 14 of our constitution, a law can be constitutional even if it relates to a single individual. A single individual can be treated as a class by himself if, on account of some special reasons, a reasonable distinction can be made.

Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India

The Honorable Supreme Court held that there shall be procedural fairness while deciding the validity of a statute. The principle of natural justice can’t be ignored even in adverse conditions.

Rajendran v. State of Madras

For determining the grounds of making a reasonable distinction, the legislation doesn’t need to expressly lay down such guidance. it can be easily inferred from its Preamble, objectives and another factual surrounding of that statute.

In recent times, the horizon of equality has grown manifold and now the action of the states must be reasonable to qualify the test under Article 14 of the constitution of India.

Article 15 of Constitution and Right to Equality

Article 15 of our constitution specifically talks about the prohibition of discrimination. So, before moving ahead, it is very essential to understand the meaning and scope of the term “discrimination”.

The term Discrimination can be understood in a situation when you are distinguished or treated in a less favourable manner in comparison to any other person situated in similar circumstances or if you are feeling disadvantageous by being placed on equal footing with a person having totally different backgrounds or circumstances.

For example – Putting a disabled person and a normal person in a similar category would be disadvantageous for the disabled person.

Article 15 restricts discrimination on various grounds, which are as follows-

Religion – It talks about that no person shall be discriminated against on the basis of religion while accessing any public place or policy by the state or any group.

Race – A person’s ethnic origin should not be considered as a basis of discrimination. For instance- an Afghan should not be discriminated against by those of an Indian origin.

Caste – In India, there are a large number of castes and classes. Discrimination on that basis is also prohibited in order to curtail atrocities on the lower castes by the upper caste.

Sex – Our biological differences shall not be a ground for valid discrimination in any matter. For example, discriminating against transgenders, females, etc.

Place of birth – India is a very large country and a place where an individual is born should not become a reason for discriminating among other members of the country.

However, at this juncture, it is important to clarify that each form of classification doesn’t constitute discrimination. In the case of Kathi Raning Rawat v. the State of Saurashtra, the validity of special courts were challenged. The court held that all forms of legislative differentiation are not discriminatory.

The concept of Reservation

The reservation is considered positive discrimination which aims to provide an equal platform to the underprivileged and the downtrodden classes to lift their status in society.  It works on the principle of reasonable Differentia which is already discussed above.

Clause (3) (4) and 5 of Article 15 talks about providing reservations. It states that the state can make special provisions relating to-

  1. For women and children
  2. For the betterment and advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes, Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST)
  3. Make provision relating to the admission in the government, semi-government or state fund colleges.

Recently, 27% reservation was announced for the All India Medical College Exams for the students belonging to the other backward class category. This move is taken after having regard to their lower strength in the medical community.

The Concept of Reservation within Reservation

It refers to a condition wherein the reservation is provided to a particular class that is already availing the benefit of being in a reservation category.

For example – A person “X” is belonging to a particular community of Schedule castes (SC) and he is entitled to reservation for SCs. But, what would be the scenario if the community that he belongs is more underprivileged as compared to the other communities of the SCs category.

The example of such a reservation can be seen from the Maratha reservation in Maharashtra who already fall under the OBC reservation in Maharashtra.

Further, Article 371 of our constitution also provides for some area wise reservations.

Article 16 of Indian Constitution and Right to Equality

Article 16 of the constitution of India deals with the matter of public employment. It explicitly states that there shall not be any discrimination for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State.

It is important to note that Article 16 only guarantees equality in the matter of state services. As per this Article, if a person possesses the prescribed qualification for a post, then he should get it without any discrimination.

Article 16(1)

This provision only talks about the services falling under the domain of “state”. In other words, it will only apply to the offices of the state. The state may lay down its qualification criteria including minimum educational qualification, physical fitness, mental stability, moral integrity and sense of loyalty toward the state, etc. This clause is applicable to the initial employment, promotion and even to the termination of the period of employment.

The principle of equal pay for equal work is enshrined under Article 16(1) as it puts an obligation on the state to ensure equality in all matters in relation to employment. In Randhir Singh v. Union of India, The court held that the spirit of Article 16 ensures that there shall no discrimination in the quantum of the remuneration if the work is the same.

Article 16(2)

As per this clause, in the matter of public employment, the states need to ensure that there shall be no discrimination between two individuals or classes on the basis of their caste, religion, sex, birth, colour, etc.

Article 16 (3)

This clause allows the parliament and the state legislature to frame any law in the matter of public employment relating to a particular class falling in their respective jurisdictions. In other words, they can make any law for an office falling under the state, local or in the union territory.

For example – if the state wants to give a reservation, then it shall be based on some reasonable differentia. Further, the quantum of the reservation shall not exceed 50% in any case.

Article 16 (4)

This clause is the heart of Article 16. As per this clause, the state is empowered to make provisions of reservation for backward castes if they are not adequately represented in the public services. The major criteria behind providing the reservation are the backwardness of a particular class or a caste. The backwardness can be assessed through social, educational and economic factors.

in the case of State of Kerala v. N.M. Thomas, it was opined by the apex court that this Article is not an exception of Article 16(1) and 16(2) but it gives them true spirit and positive support. It also secures the same objective of achieving equality.

Article 16(4A)

This Article allows the state to make reservations in the matter of promotion. In simple words, this article states that if the state feels that the scheduled Classes or the scheduled tribes are not adequately represented, then it can make provision of reservation in their promotion on the basis of seniority.

Article 16(5)

This clause is the non-obstante provision that overrides all other provisions enshrined under Article 16 of the constitution. This provision states that no law will affect the appointment in an office that is connected with some religious or denominational.

Article 16(6)

The union parliament through the 103rd constitutional amendment incorporated Article 16(6) into the constitution. This section allows a reservation of a maximum of 10% for the economically backward class or economically weaker section in public employment.

Article 17  of the constitution of India and Right to Equality

Article 17 of the constitution of India talks about the abolishment of untouchability.  As per this Article, the practice of untouchability is prohibited in all forms. The practise of untouchability is considered an offence under the Untouchability Offences Act of 1955 (renamed to Protection of Civil Rights Act in 1976). Any person who is persecuted under this Act is punished with strict punishment. This Act states that public properties should be easily accessible for the people.

Thevarajah v. Padmanna, AIR 1958

In this case, the term untouchability was defined. The court held that, though the Untouchability Offences Act, 1955 fails to define the word ‘untouchability’,  Article 17 of the Constitution should not be construed in the literal sense but it should be given a very wide meaning. It is a practice which is developed historically in this country. A large number of efforts were made to mitigate the effect of such an evil taboo from society.

In this case, the court gave a very broader interpretation of the word ‘untouchability’ under Article 17 of the Constitution.

Asiad Project Workers Case

In this case, the People Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) filed a case against the Delhi Administration. (PUDR) is an organization that aims to protect the democratic rights of the citizens. It constituted a commission of  3 social scientists to inquire about the working conditions of the workers in the Asiad Project. Based on the findings of the commission, they wrote a letter to Justice Bhagwati highlighting violations of labour laws at the project. Taking cognizance of the letter, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Union of India and the Delhi Government.

There were allegations that the workers belonging to the lower class were not treated equally and were subject to very harsh treatment.

The Supreme Court pronounced the judgement in favour of the petitioners. It was the observation of the court that it is the duty of the State to protect the fundamental rights of the citizens. There should be a provision of minimum wages and there shall not be any sort of untouchability and social exclusion of a worker because of his caste and social status.

Article 18 of the Constitution and Right to Equality

Article 18 of the constitution talks about the Abolition of Titles. It prohibits the State from giving titles to its citizens or foreigners. However, military and scholarly acknowledgements are excluded for this purpose as they aimed to promote extra efforts from them in their respective fields.

Clause(2) of Article 18 prohibits an Indian citizen to accept any title from any foreign State. Clause (3) of the same Article states that a foreigner holding any office of profit under the State shall not accept any title from any foreign State without the prior consent of the President. This aims to ensure that there shall not be any foreign intervention in government affairs or administration.

However, it is important to note that The conferment of titles of “Bharat Ratna“, “Padma Vibhushan“, “Padma Shri”, are not included in the purview of Article 18 of the constitution. These honours fall in the category of ” scholastic qualifications“ which is provided as an acknowledgement of good work by natives in the different fields of life. These honours are awarded on the very auspicious occasion of Republic day.

In 1954, these National Awards were officially started with the proclamation of two Presidential Notifications. It was clarified that this honour shall be rewarded irrespective of the caste, occupation, position, sex or religion of the individual. These awards can even be granted after the death of a person.

Further, It was explicitly clarified that these honours shall not be construed as titles and can not be linked as postfixes or prefixes to the name of the honours. Though in the year 1977 these honours were stopped, they were again restored in 1980.

Balaji Raghavan v. Union of India

In this case, the candidates questioned the legal validity of these National Awards and asked the Court to refrain the Government of India from presenting the Awards. The petitioner contended that these titles are within the purview of Article 18 of the Constitution.

The apex court held that the aforesaid  National Awards are not violative of the rule of uniformity as enshrined in the provisions of the Constitution. The National Awards can’t be considered as  “titles” within the purview of Article 18 and, in this manner, not violative of Article 18 of the Constitution.

Indira Jaising v. Supreme Court of India

The designation of ” Senior Advocate“ was challenged by placing reliance on Article 18 of the constitution. The apex court held that it was merely an acknowledgement as provided in Section 16 of the Advocates Act, 1961. So, Article 18 will not be attractive.


The concept of the “Right to Equality” is the heart of our constitution. It talks about the equality of opportunities without any discrimination on the ground of caste, sex, birth, religion, etc. The right to Equality is provided under Article 14-18 of the constitution. Article 14 provides free equality before the law, Equal Protection of Law and Rule of Law. Article 15 and 16 of the constitution of India talk about affirmative action to uplift the needy section of society. Article 17 and 18 deals with untouchability and abolishment of Titles respectively.

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