Article 14 of the Indian Constitution ensures equality before the law, it 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 Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.”
Article 14 deals with the principles of equality before the law and equal protection of the law, both of which aim to provide equal status to all the citizens of the country. It is important to understand these two principles in order to understand Article 14. The principle of equality before the law means that everyone would be treated equally under the law and no one would be given any special privileges on the basis of their religion, caste, gender, etc. On the other hand, the principle of equal protection of law aims to provide equal treatment in all circumstances, that is, whether the person is a prime minister or ordinary man, both of them should be treated equally under the ordinary law.
The essence of the Article lies in the doctrine of Rule of Law. Rule of law guarantees the principle of equality before the law, it means that no person is above the law, what so ever his post is, he is bound to the jurisdiction of the courts and law. It also states that no person shall be harassed or discriminated against and shall be treated equally before the law. There are three meanings to rule of law:
- Absence of supremacy of law
This is means that no absolute power is given to the law. A person can only be punished for not adhering to or violating the law but not in any other circumstances.
- Equality before law
Every individual is to be treated equally and protected equally under the law and is bound to the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts.
- Individual liberty
Even though there is mention of individual liberty in the fundamental rights, like in Article 21 which ensures personal liberty, and Article 19 which rights to freedom, this meaning of personal liberty is not applicable in the Indian context (the third meaning of rule of law given by Dicey is however applied in other countries like the United Kingdom). This is because the source to the right of individuals is the Constitution of Indian and then Constitution is the law of the land.
But, the concept of equality under rule of law is not absolute, there are few exceptions to the principle of rule of law,
- The public officials and an ordinary man are not on the same level having the same power. A police officer for example, has the power to arrest an ordinary man for breach of law, whereas an ordinary man does not have the power to arrest another ordinary man or a police officer for the breach of law.
- Rule of law does not mean that every class of individuals would be bound to the same set of rules. There are special rules for people of a certain class. For example, the individuals in the armed forces are bound to the military rules.
Now that we have understood the main doctrines behind Article 14, we shall now look into the underlying principle of the Article. Equality before law or equal protection under the law does not amount to equal treatment to everyone. Because no two individuals can be equal or the same in all aspects, and so treating them both equally in all aspects would not amount to a fair trial. For example, an adult and a child are two individuals in a society, but can both of them be treated equally in all aspects? In the aspect of crimes committed, is it fair that the child is given the same amount of punishment as to what would be given to any adult? No. That is why the system of punishment is different for both children and adults under the IPC. Hence, it is important to note that ‘equal treatment’ should be justifiable and fair. Therefore, the meaning of equality under the Article does not mean uniform treatment to all, it means to provide the same treatment in aspects where the individuals are similar and different treatment in the aspects where the individuals are different. In order to differentiate between the equals and the unequal’s, the doctrine of reasonable classification is applied.
Article 14 is applicable when there are two equal individuals treated differently, then the equality before the law comes inapplicable. But, in the case where an equal and an unequal individual is treated differently, the Article is not applicable. Class legislation is that which makes improper discrimination by providing privileges for certain classes. However, Article 14 is forbidden Class legislation and promotes reasonable classification.
The reasonable classification should be on real and substantial difference, bound to a reasonable relation. Hence, there are tests to reasonable classification,
- The classification should be intelligible differentia. That is, it has to be able to distinguish people from a group to those who aren’t part of the group.
- There should be a rational relation between the objects.
Now, we will look into the points that hold a valid classification under Article 14. In the case of Ram Krishna Dalmia v. Tendolkar, the court explained the true meaning of Article 14 as follows,
- If there are some special reasons or circumstances that apply to an individual, which is not applicable other individuals, then that person can be considered as a class.
- There is always an assumed favour constitutionally on an individual and the burden is on the one who attacks this to show that there has been a transgression of the principles of constitution.
- This assumption can be taken away by showing that there is no difference or to a particular class.
- It has to be assumed the law or the legislature will only do things for the need of the people and no discrimination to take place.
- To keep the constitutional presumption, the court may consider the common knowledge, the history, the reports on the same, etc.
- The legislation has the power to identify harms and also put restrictions to those case.
- The legislation is presumed to work on good knowledge and a good faith.
- The classification can be made on any basis, individual, geographic, etc.
- The classification made does not have to be logically perfect or equality perfect.
- Discrimination can be there in substantial and procedural law and the Article applies to both of these.
In the case of Madhu Limaye v. Supdt. Tihar Jail Delhi, the Indian and European prisoners were not treated equally. The court held this is to be a case of discrimination and applied the principle of Article 14 to provide equal treatment for both the prisoners. In the case of D.S. Nakara v. Union of India, there was a memorandum given by the government, where the pension for retired officials was divided into two classes depending on their retirement date. The court held that this classification was not rational, as the classification of the retirement dates was in the difference of just two days. These cases show how the application of the principle of Article 14 and also on the legislature who analyses the application of the Article.
Therefore, Article 14 aims to have equal treatment, that is fair and justifiable to all individuals and to remove any kind of discrimination. It gives fair treatment between the equals and unequal.
- Constitution of India, V.N Shukla
- Indian Kanoon
- Ram Krishna Dalmia v. Tendolkar.
- Madhu Limaye v. Supdt. Tihar Jail Delhi
- D.S. Nakara v. Union of India
This article is written by Hiranmayi Rajeev, a 2nd-year law student at Alliance University Bangalore.
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