According to Justice Field in the renowned case “Munn v. Illinois,” the term “life” refers to more than just animal existence and encompasses both the physical and qualitative aspects of life. In addition to freedom from arrest, detention, and unjust or improper confinement, the term “personal liberty” also refers to the rights and privileges necessary for achieving happiness in a free society.
Fundamental rights are protected under the charter of rights in the Constitution of India. Article 21 (“said Article”) is a fundamental right which is included in Part-III of Indian Constitution and one of the most important rights that the Constitution guarantees. The said Article of the Constitution of India provides “Protection of Life and Personal Liberty – No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” This implies that this right has been provided against the State only. State here includes not just the government, but also, government departments, local bodies, the Legislatures, etc.
This right is available to all citizens as well as non-citizens alike. It talks about equality before the law, freedom of speech and expression, religious and cultural freedom, etc. It is the most organic and progressive provision in our living Constitution.
The said Article can only be claimed when a person is deprived of his ‘life or ‘personal liberty’ by the ‘State’ as defined in Article 12. The said Article provides two rights: 1) Right to life and 2) Right to personal liberty. It prohibits the deprivation of the above rights except according to a procedure established by law.
The said Article is not an absolute right. The State can impose restrictions on the right to life and liberty, but it should be fair, reasonable and just, and as per the procedure established by law. During a national emergency, the six freedoms under Right to Freedom are automatically suspended. By contrast, Article 21 – the Right to Life and Personal Liberty cannot be suspended according to the original Constitution.
Interpretation of Article 21
Indian Judiciary or the Supreme Court (SC) is the protector of the fundamental rights of Indian citizens and the guardian of the Indian constitution because it has been given the power to protect, safeguard and uphold the Constitution and its various components. Judicial intervention has ensured that the scope of Article 21 is not narrow and restricted. It has been widened by several landmark judgements.
A few important cases concerned with the Said Article are stated hereunder:
It started with the famous case of A.K Gopalan vs. State of Madras [AIR 1950 SC 27]. Until the 1950s, Article 21 had a bit of a narrow scope. In this case, SC’s narrow interpretation of Article 21 led to some serious implications. SC said that Article 21 is available only against arbitrary executive action and not legislative arbitrariness. It is because of the expression ‘procedure established by the law’ in Article 21, which is different from the expression American ‘due process of law’. Hence, the validity of a law that has prescribed a procedure cannot be questioned because the law is unreasonable, or unjust.
The Supreme Court took the view that the right to life in Article 21 would not include the right to livelihood. In Re Sant Ram [AIR 1960 SC 932], a case arose before the Maneka Gandhi case, where the Supreme Court ruled that the right to livelihood would not fall within the expression ‘life’ in Article 21. The Court said curtly on 7th April, 1960:
“The Right to livelihood would be included in the freedoms enumerated in Article 19, or even in Article 16, in a limited sense. But the language of Article 21 cannot be pressed into aid of the argument that the word ‘life’ in Article 21 includes ‘livelihood’ also.”
In the case of Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India [AIR 1978 SC 597], the Supreme Court overruled its judgment of the Gopalan Case by taking a wider interpretation of Article 21 on 25th January, 1978. The SC said that Articles 19 and 21 are not watertight compartments. The idea of personal liberty in Article 21 has a wide scope including many rights, some of which are embodied under Article 19, thus giving them ‘additional protection’. The SC gave a new dimension to Article 21 and held that the right to live is not merely a physical right but includes within its ambit the right to live with human dignity.
Elaborating the same view that the right to life would include the right to live with human dignity in Francis Coralie Mullin vs. The Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi & Ors [AIR 1981 SC 746], the SC held on 13th January, 1981 that the right to life is not merely animal existence. It means something more than just physical survival. With this interpretation given to the Said Article, the door was made open for various kinds of rights which will have to be read into the Right to live with human dignity. The SC also observed:
“The right to live includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, viz., the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head and facilities for reading writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and mingling with fellow human beings and must include the right to basic necessities the basic necessities of life and also the right to carry on functions and activities as constitute the bare minimum expression of human self.”
Justice P. Bhagwati had said that Article 21 ‘embodies a constitutional value of supreme importance in a democratic society’. Further, Justice Iyer characterised Article 21 as ‘the procedural Magna Carta protective of life and liberty’.
In another case Olga Tellis & Ors vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation & Ors [1986 AIR 180, 1985 SCR Supl. (2) 51] was a 1985 case in the Supreme Court of India popularly known as the ‘Pavement Dwellers Case’, a five-judge bench of the SC on 10th July, 1985 ruled that the word ‘life’ in Article 21 includes the ‘right to livelihood’ also and that the right to livelihood is borne out of the right to life. It said so as no person can live without the means of living, that is, the means of livelihood. The Court further observed:
“The sweep of the right to life conferred by Art.21 is wide and far-reaching. It does not mean, merely that life cannot be extinguished or taken away as, for example, by the imposition and execution of death sentence, except according to procedure established by law. That is but one aspect of the right to life. An equally important facet of the right to life is the right to livelihood because no person can live without the means of livelihood.”
In another case of Subhash Kumar vs. State of Bihar [AIR 1991 SC 420], the SC on 9th January, 1991 held that the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution includes the rights to pollution free water and free air for full enjoyment of life. Through this case, the SC recognized the right to a wholesome environment as part of the fundamental right to life.
In Unni Krishnan J.P. & Ors vs. State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors (AIR 1993 SC 217), the SC on 4th February, 1993 upheld the expanded interpretation of the right to life and observed that Article 21 is the heart of Fundamental Rights, and it has extended the Scope of the Said Article by observing that the life includes education, as well as the right to education, flows from the right to life. The 86th Constitutional Amendment in 2002, provided the Right to Education as a fundamental right in Part-III of the Constitution. It inserted Article 21A which made the Right to Education a fundamental right for children between 6-14 years. It provided for a follow-up legislation Right to Education Act 2009. Article 21A states that the State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of 6 to 14 years in such manner as the State may by law determine.
In Chameli Singh vs. State of UP [1995 Supp (6) SCR 827], a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court on 15th December, 1995 had considered and held that the right to shelter is a fundamental right available to every citizen. And the same was read into Article 21 of the Constitution. Thus, ‘right to shelter’ was considered encompassing the right to life, making the latter more meaningful. The Court advanced:
“Shelter for a human being, therefore, is not mere protection of his life and limb. It is however where he has opportunities to grow physically, mentally, intellectually and spiritually. Right to shelter, therefore, includes adequate living space, safe and decent structure, clean and decent surroundings, sufficient light, pure air and water, electricity, sanitation and other civic amenities like roads etc. so as to have easy access to his daily avocation. The right to shelter, therefore, does not mean a mere right to a roof over one’s head but right to all the infrastructure necessary to enable them to live and develop as a human being.”
In a historic ruling in the case of Murli S. Deora v. Union of India & Ors (AIR 2002 SC 40), SC found that the fundamental right guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution provides that no one shall be deprived of his life without due process of law. SC ordered ban on smoking in public places after considering the harm that smoking causes to both smokers and passive smokers. The SC ruled that passive smokers’ right to life is violated when they smoke in public settings. The Supreme Court, seeing the gravity of the situation and the harmful effects of smoking on smokers and passive smokers, issued an order prohibiting smoking in public areas. It not only outlawed smoking in public places, but it also declared that the right to a healthy environment is a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
In Suchita Srivastava & Anr v. Chandigarh Administration [AIR (2009) 9 SCC 1], the appellant, a “mentally retarded woman,” contested the High Court of Punjab & Haryana’s decision to terminate her pregnancy against her will. Subject to a few exceptions, the MTP Act requires consent for a pregnancy termination. The case raised previously unanswered issues regarding a mentally retarded person’s reproductive right. The most contentious abortion-related issues are currently the subject of numerous discussions as a result of the Apex Court’s decision. The SC, by its Order dated 28th August, 2009, overturned the decision of the Punjab & Haryana High Court, and held that the right to reproductive choice flows from the right to liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. It was stated that taking away a woman’s choice regarding her own body would amount to infringement of her right to privacy. It further distinguished between mental illness and mental retardation and considered that the woman’s mental retardation did not take away her right to make a decision regarding her reproductive choices. As a result, it held that a termination of her pregnancy without her consent could not be ordered.
The Hon’ble Apex Court has recently categorically recognized in the case of Budhadev Karmaskar v. State of West Bengal and Others (AIR 2011 SC 2636) popularly known as the sex workers case, that the basic protection of human decency and dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution of India extends to sex workers and their children, who bearing the brunt of social stigma attached to their work, are removed to the fringes of society, deprived of their right to live with dignity and opportunities to provide the same to their children. To emphasise and elaborate on the purview of the right to life under Article 21, reference has been made to the Court’s earlier rulings.
In Ramlila Maidan Incident Dt. 4/5.6.2011 vs. Home Secretary, Union of India & Ors [(2012) 5 SCC 1], Right to Sleep has been acknowledged as a fundamental right under the Said Article. Right to Sleep is a fundamental right, says SC. In his concurring judgment, Justice Chauhan wrote: An individual is entitled to sleep as comfortably and as freely as he breathes. Sleep is essential for a human being to maintain the delicate balance of health necessary for its very existence and survival.
The Right to Property was removed as a fundamental right in 1978, and the Right to Privacy has been recently added. Right to Privacy is a Fundamental Right. Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) vs. UOI & Ors [AIR 2017 SC 4161, (2017) 10 SCC 1], also known as ‘Aadhar Judgment’ is the most recent landmark judgment of the Said Article. Decided by nine bench judges on 26th September, 2018, they unanimously recognized the Right to Privacy as a fundamental right of every individual guaranteed by the Constitution, within the Said Article.
In Common Cause (A Regd. Society) Vs. Union of India & Anr [AIR 2018 SC 1665], a five-judge Constitution Bench on 9th March, 2018 upheld the legality of passive euthanasia by allowing patients to withdraw medical support if they enter an irreversible state of coma. The ruling was written by Chief Justice Dipak Mishra. According to SC, the right to die with dignity is a fundamental right.
Shakti Vahini v. Union of India & Ors [2018 (7) SCC 192] is a landmark case when it comes to the matter of Honour killing. In this case, the right to select one’s life partner was decided and was held that any attempt by Khap Panchayats or any other assembly to scuttle or preventing two consenting adults from marrying is absolutely ‘illegal’ and laid down preventive, remedial and punitive measures in this regard.SC recently ruled that the freedom to select one’s life partner is a fundamental right protected by Article 21 and by an Order dated 27th March, 2018 laid down guidelines that need to be implemented by the government to eradicate and/or curb the practice of Honour killing in India. Honour killing is the homicide of a member of a family by other members, due to the perpetrators having the belief that the victim violated the principles of a community or a religion and that the victim has brought shame or dishonour upon the family. Assertion of choice is an in-segregable facet of liberty and dignity.
‘Life’ under Article 21 of the Constitution is not merely the physical act of breathing. It does not connote mere animal existence or continued drudgery through life. It has a much wider meaning including the right to live with human dignity, right to livelihood, right to pollution-free air, right to education, right to shelter, right to sleep, right to privacy, etc. The right to life is fundamental to our very existence, without which we cannot live as human beings and includes all those aspects of life, which make a person’s life meaningful, complete, and worth living. It is the only Article in the Constitution that has received the broadest possible interpretation.
Image Credits: Photo by Sora Shimazaki
‘Life’ under Article 21 of the Constitution is not merely the physical act of breathing. It does not connote mere animal existence or continued drudgery through life. It has a much wider meaning including the right to live with human dignity, right to livelihood, right to pollution-free air, right to education, right to shelter, right to sleep, right to privacy, etc.