The Constitution of India, often lauded for its comprehensive approach to fundamental rights, enshrines the essential principle of equality in Article 14. This article encapsulates the ideal that every individual, irrespective of their background, should be treated fairly and equally in the eyes of the law. Let’s explore the principle of equality as expounded by Article 14.
1. Text of Article 14:
Article 14 states:
“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 provision can be dissected into two components:
- Equality before the law: This is a declaration that all persons are equal and no individual can claim privileges above the law. It is akin to the Rule of Law concept in the British system.
- Equal protection of the laws: This mandates that equal treatment should be given under equal circumstances. It is similar to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.
2. Equality Before the Law:
- Universal Application: It ensures that everyone, regardless of their stature, caste, creed, or economic status, stands on equal footing before the law.
- No Special Privileges: It means that no person or class of persons shall be privileged over others in terms of legal proceedings. It negates any idea of legal aristocracy or privilege.
3. Equal Protection of the Laws:
- Like should be treated alike: The essence is to treat equals equally. People in similar circumstances should be treated similarly by the law.
- Allows Rational Classification: While the essence is equality, this principle recognizes that sometimes differentiation is needed for effective governance and justice. However, any differentiation or classification:
- Must be based on an intelligible differentia (i.e., it must be distinguishable from those left out of the group).
- The differentia must have a rational relation to the objective of the legislation or act.
4. Scope and Application:
- Against State Action: Article 14 applies against the actions of the State and ensures that state laws and actions uphold the principle of equality.
- Protection to Both Citizens and Non-citizens: Unlike some other fundamental rights which are exclusive to citizens, Article 14 ensures that even non-citizens have the right to equality before the law.
5. Limitations and Exceptions:
While Article 14 enshrines a noble ideal, there are practical exceptions:
- Reasonable Classifications: The State can treat different classes of individuals differently if there’s a rational basis for it, as discussed above.
- Special Provisions for Women and Children: The State can make special provisions for women, children, or any socially and educationally backward class, without violating Article 14.
- Doctrine of Protective Discrimination: Provisions like reservation are based on this doctrine, which allows for protective discrimination in favor of disadvantaged groups to achieve real equality.
6. Judicial Interpretation:
Through various landmark judgments, the Indian judiciary has played a crucial role in shaping the contours of Article 14:
- In “State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar”, the Supreme Court held that while Article 14 permits classification, such classification should never be arbitrary, artificial, or evasive.
- The doctrine of “arbitrariness” was emphasized in “E.P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu”. The Court held that any action or law which is arbitrary would be violative of Article 14.
Article 14, by embedding the principle of equality in the Constitution, serves as a bedrock for a just and egalitarian society. While the article recognizes the practical need for differentiation in certain cases, it ensures that such differences are always grounded in reason and justice. Through its dynamic interpretation by the judiciary, Article 14 remains a robust safeguard against discriminatory practices in the Indian legal framework.