Introduction: The Constitution of India is more than a legal document; it’s a social contract that binds the state to its citizens. A crucial element of this bond is the assurance that the state will not act arbitrarily or unfairly against its citizens. Over the years, several landmark judgments have reinforced these protections, holding the state accountable to its constitutional promises.
- Article 14: This article guarantees to every citizen “equality before the law” and “equal protection of the laws.” It prohibits the state from denying any person equality before the law or equal protection of the law within the territory of India.
- Article 19: It guarantees six freedoms, including speech and expression, peaceful assembly, forming associations, movement, residence, and profession. While these rights aren’t absolute and come with reasonable restrictions, any state action curtailing these freedoms must not be arbitrary or disproportionate.
- Article 21: It states, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.” This article has been expansively interpreted to include a host of rights, ensuring protection from arbitrary state action.
- Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India (1978): This case expanded the scope of Article 21. The Supreme Court held that the procedure established by law to deprive someone of their life or personal liberty must be fair, just, and reasonable, and not merely some semblance of a process.
- A.K. Gopalan vs State of Madras (1950): In this early judgment, the Supreme Court held that preventive detention was a procedure established by law under Article 21. However, later judgments, like Maneka Gandhi’s case, have significantly overruled its limited interpretation of personal liberty.
- E.P. Royappa vs State of Tamil Nadu (1974): This case expanded the scope of Article 14. The court held that equality means more than just formal equality and encompasses the concept of substantive equality. Arbitrariness in state action is a denial of equality.
- Ajay Hasia vs Khalid Mujib (1981): The court reaffirmed that if an action of the state is arbitrary, it is implicit in it that it is unequal both according to political logic and constitutional law.
- D.K. Basu vs State of West Bengal (1997): A significant case concerning arbitrary state action related to arrest, detention, and torture. The court laid down explicit guidelines to be followed by law enforcement to prevent abuse of power.
Challenges and Criticisms:
While the Constitution provides for these safeguards, their application and enforcement have faced challenges. There have been instances where laws and policies perceived as arbitrary have been enacted. The judiciary’s role, while pivotal, has also been criticized at times for either not intervening enough or intervening too much.
The protections against arbitrary action by the state, as enshrined in the Constitution of India, are foundational to Indian democracy. These protections, combined with an active judiciary, ensure that the rule of law is maintained and that the state is held accountable for its actions. While challenges exist, the evolving nature of case law provides hope for stronger protection against arbitrary state action in the future.