It says 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 uses two expressions “equality before the law” and “equal protection of the law”. It confers rights on all persons whether citizens or foreigners.
Equality before law and absolute equality
The concept of equality does not mean absolute equality among human beings which is physically not possible to achieve.
It is a concept implying absence of any special privilege by reason of birth, creed or the like in favour of any individual, and also the equal subject of all individuals and classes to the ordinary law of the land.
Equality before law
It is of British origin and a negative concept which states that the law should be equal and should be equally administered and that the like should be treated alike. It connotes:
- The absence of any special privileges in favour of any person
- The equal subjection of all persons to the ordinary law of the land administered by ordinary law courts.
- No person (whether rich or poor, high or low, official or non-official) is above the law
Rule of Law
The concept of ‘equality before law’ is an element of the concept of ‘Rule of law’. This concept was given by Prof Dicey in England. It guarantees equality before the law. It requires that no person shall be subjected to harsh, uncivilised or discriminatory treatment. His concept has three elements or aspects:
- Absence of Arbitrary power or Supremacy of Law
- It means the absolute supremacy of law as opposed to the arbitrary power of the Government. It means that no man can be punished except for a breach of law.
- Equality before the law
- It means equal subjection of all citizens (rich or poor, high or low, official or non-official) to the ordinary law of the land administered by the ordinary law courts.
- Primacy of rights of the individual
- It means that the Constitution is the result of the rights of the individual as defined and enforced by the courts of law rather than the constitution being the source of the individual rights.
In the Indian System, only the first two elements are applicable and not the third one. In the Indian System, the constitution is the source of individual rights. In Bachhan Singh v. State of Punjab, it was held that the Rule of Law has three basic and fundamental assumptions. They are:
- Law making must be essentially in the hands of a democratically elected legislature.
- Even in the hands of the democratically elected legislature, there should not be unfettered legislative power; and
- There must be an independent judiciary to protect the citizens against excesses of executive and legislative power.
Equal Protection of the Laws
It is the positive concept of equality, taken from the American Constitution. It connotes:
- The equality of treatment under equal circumstances, both in the privileges conferred and liabilities imposed by the laws.
- The similar application of the same laws to all persons who are similarly situated.
- The like should be treated alike without any discrimination.
|Equality before Law||Equal Protection of Law|
|British origin||Borrowed from American Constitution|
|It declares that no one (rich, poor, high, or low) is above the law||It states that similar people should be treated equally.|
|There are no special privileges granted to anyone||Equality of treatment under the same conditions (both in terms of privileges granted and obligations imposed by the laws). As a result, it indicates that the government can take affirmative action (reservation) in favour of society’s weaker members.|
|All people are subject to the ordinary law of the nation, which is administered by ordinary law courts||The same laws are applied in the same way to all people who are in the same situation.|
|It is a negative concept since it prohibits the state from discriminating against individuals arbitrarily.||It’s a beneficial concept because it makes the state responsible for preventing rights violations|
Protection of Article 14 extends to citizens and non-citizens both
- The word ‘any person’ in Article 14 of the Constitution denotes that the guarantee of the equal protection of laws is available to any person which includes any company or association or body of individuals. The protection of Article 14 extends to both citizens and non-citizens and to natural as well as legal persons.
Exceptions to Rule of law
- First, ‘equality before the law’ does not mean that the “powers of the private citizens are the same as the powers of the public officials”.
- For example, a police officer has the power to arrest while, as a general rule, no private person has this power.
- Secondly, the rule of law does not prevent certain classes of persons being subjected to special rules.
- For example, members of the armed forces are controlled by military laws, while medical probationers are subjected to the regulations framed by the Medical Council of India.
- Thirdly, ministers and other executive bodies are given very wide discretionary powers of the statutes.
- For example, a minister may be allowed by law ‘to act as he thinks fit’ or ‘if he is satisfied’.
- Fourthly, certain members of society are governed by special rules in their professions, i.e., lawyers, doctors, nurses, members of armed forces and police. Such classes of people are treated differently from ordinary citizens.
Exceptions to Equality
The rule of equality before law is not absolute and there are constitutional and other exceptions to it. These are as follows:
- The scope of right to equality under Article 14 has been considerably restricted by the 42nd Amendment Act, 1976. The new Article 31-C added by the Amendment Act provides that laws made by the State for implementing the Directive Principles contained in clause (b) or clause (c) of Article 39 cannot be challenged on the ground that they are violative of Article 14. Such laws will, thus, be an exception to Article 14 of the Constitution. In Sanjeev Coke Mfg. Co. vs Bharat Coking Coal Ltd., the SC held that “where Article 31-C comes in, Article 14 goes out.”
- The President of India and the Governor of States enjoy the following immunities (Article 361):
- The President or the Governor is not answerable to the Court for the exercise and performance of the powers and duties of his office.
- No criminal proceedings shall be initiated or continued against the President or the Governor in any court during his term of office.
- No process for the arrest or imprisonment of the President or the Governor shall be issued from any court during his term of office.
- No civil proceedings against the President or the Governor shall be instituted during his term of office in respect of any act done by him in his personal capacity, whether before or after he entered upon his office, until the expiration of two months next after notice has been delivered to him.
- No person shall be liable to any civil or criminal proceedings in any court in respect of the publication in a newspaper (or by radio or television) of a substantially true report of any proceedings of either House of Parliament or either House of the Legislature of a State (Article 361-A)
- No member of Parliament shall be liable to any proceedings in any court in respect of anything said or any vote given by him in Parliament or any committee thereof. (Article 105)
- No member of the legislature of a State shall be liable to any proceedings in any court in respect of anything said or any vote given by him in the Legislature or any committee thereof. (Article 194)
- The Foreign Sovereigns (rulers), ambassadors and diplomats enjoy immunity from criminal and civil proceedings.
- The UNO and its agencies enjoy diplomatic immunity.
- Article 359(1) provides that where a proclamation of emergency is in operation the President may, by order, declare that the right to move any court for the enforcement of such rights conferred by Part III (except Articles 20 and 21) shall remain suspended. Thus, if the President of India issues an order, where a Proclamation of Emergency is in operation, enforcement of Article 14 may be suspended for the period during which the Proclamation is in force.
Article 14 permits classification but prohibits class legislation
- Article 14 permits Reasonable Classification and not Class Legislation.
- Class Legislation means making improper discrimination by conferring certain privileges upon a class of persons arbitrarily selected from a huge number of people.
- Thus, Class legislation violates equal protection whereas, Reasonable Classification is always based on real and substantial distinction.
- Thus, what Article 14 forbids is class-legislation, but it does not forbid reasonable classification. Article 14 applies where equals are treated differently without any reasonable basis. But where equals and unequal are treated differently, Article 14 does not apply.
Test of Reasonable Classification
While Article 14 forbids class legislation, it does not forbid reasonable classification of persons, objects and transactions by the legislature for the purpose of achieving specific ends. But classification must not be “arbitrary, artificial or evasive”. It must always rest upon some real and substantial distinction bearing a just and reasonable relation to the object sought to be achieved by the legislature. In the case of State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar, the Supreme Court of India, stated the twin test for reasonable classification. The court held that for the classification to pass the test, two conditions must be fulfilled:
- Classification must be founded on an intelligible differentia which distinguishes those that are grouped together from others and
- The differentia must have a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved by the Act.
The differentia which is the basis of classification and the object of the act are two distinct things. What is necessary is that there must be a nexus between the basis of classification and the object of the Act which makes the classification.
In Devika Biswas vs Union of India, 2016, the SC held that- In family planning and sterilisation, it is necessary that the policies and incentive schemes are made gender neutral and the necessary focus on female sterilisation is discontinued.
In K.A. Abbas vs Union of India, the validity of Cinematograph Act, 1952 was challenged on the ground that it made unreasonable classification. The Court held that- The treatment of motion pictures must be different from that of other forms of art and expression due to its versatility, realism and its coordination of the visual and real senses. The motion picture is able to stir up emotions more deeply than any other product of art. Therefore, the classification of films into two categories of ‘U’ films and ‘A’ films is a reasonable classification.
Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation
Legitimate Expectation means that a person may have a reasonable expectation of being treated in a certain way by administrative authorities owing to some consistent practice in the past or an express promise made by the concerned authority. According to this doctrine, a public authority can be made accountable in lieu of a legitimate expectation. Thus, the doctrine of Legitimate Expectation pertains to the relationship between an individual and a public authority. Legitimate Expectation may arise:
- if there is an express promise given by a public authority; or
- because of the existence of a regular practice which the claimant can reasonably expect to continue.
- such an expectation must be reasonable.
In Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court laid down exhaustive guidelines to prevent sexual harassment of working women in places of their work until the enactment of a legislation for this purpose. The court observed that the fundamental rights under Article 14(2), 19(3)(1)(g) and 21(4) of the Constitution of India that every profession, trade or occupation should provide a safe working environment to the employees.
In Javed vs State of Haryana, validity of Section 175(1)(g) of the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994 on the ground that it was violative of Article 14 of the Constitution. Section 175(1)(g) disqualified a person having more than two children from contesting elections for Sarpanch or Panch in Gram Panchayats but did not apply to offices in other institutions of Local Self Governance or in State legislature or in Parliament. The SC held that the provision is not discriminatory, and the classification made by it is based on intelligible differentia having nexus with the object of popularisation of family planning programme.
Geographical Application of the law
The words “within the territory” used in Article 14 do not mean that there must be a uniform law throughout the country. A law may be applicable to one State and not to another. A State may be divided into several geographical regions and a law may be applicable to one and not to others depending on commitments.
In Krishna Singh vs State of Rajasthan, the validity of Marwar Land Revenue Act, 1949, was challenged on the ground that it applied only to the Marwar portion of the State of Rajasthan and not to the whole of the State. The Supreme Court held the law not to be violative of Article 14 as the particular conditions of Marwar portion of the State required a special law to be applied there.