Dignity of an individual has been internationally recognized as an important facet of human rights in the year 1948 itself with the enactment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human dignity not only finds place in the Preamble of this important document but also in Article 1 of the same. It is well known that the principles set out in UDHR are of paramount importance and are given utmost weightage while interpreting human rights all over the world.

The first and foremost responsibility fixed upon the State is the protection of human dignity without which any other right would fall apart. Justice Brennan in his book The Constitution of the United States: Contemporary Ratification has referred to the Constitution as “a sparkling vision of the supremacy of the human dignity of every individual.”

In fact, in the case of Christine Goodwin v. the United Kingdom[1] the European Court of Human Rights, speaking in the context of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, has gone to the extent of stating that “the very essence of the Convention is respect for human dignity and human freedom”.

In the South African case of S v. Makwanyanex[2] O’ Regan J. stated in the Constitutional Court that “without dignity, human life is substantially diminished.”

Indian Supreme Court on Human Dignity

Having noted the aforesaid, it is worthy to note that our Court has expanded the spectrum of Article 21. In the latest nine-Judge Bench decision in K.S. Puttaswamy and another v. Union of India and others[1], dignity has been reaffirmed to be a component under the said fundamental right. Human dignity is beyond definition. It may at times defy description. To some, it may seem to be in the world of abstraction and some may even perversely treat it as an attribute of egotism or accentuated eccentricity.

This feeling may come from the roots of absolute cynicism. But what really matters is that life without dignity is like a sound that is not heard. Dignity speaks, it has its sound, it is natural and human. It is a combination of thought and feeling, and, as stated earlier, it deserves respect even when the person is dead and described as a ‘body’.

Facet of right to life

The concept and value of dignity requires further elaboration since we are treating it as an inextricable facet of right to life that respects all human rights that a person enjoys. Life is basically self-assertion. In the life of a person, conflict and dilemma are expected to be normal phenomena.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, in one of his addresses, quoted a line from a Latin poet who had uttered the message, ‘Death plucks my ear and says, Live- I am coming’. That is the significance of living.

To live is to live with dignity. The draftsmen of the Constitution defined their vision of the society in which constitutional values would be attained by emphasising, among other freedoms, liberty and dignity. So fundamental is dignity that it permeates the core of the rights guaranteed to the individual by Part III.

Dignity is the core which unites the fundamental rights because the fundamental rights seek to achieve for each individual the dignity of existence. Privacy with its attendant values assures dignity to the individual and it is only when life can be enjoyed with dignity can liberty be of true substance. Privacy ensures the fulfilment of dignity and is a core value which the protection of life and liberty is intended to achieve.

In Mehmood Nayyar Azam v. State of Chhattisgarh and others[1], a two-Judge Bench held thus:-

“The reverence of life is insegragably associated with the dignity of a human being who is basically divine, not servile. A human personality is endowed with potential infinity and it blossoms when dignity is sustained. The sustenance of such dignity has to be the superlative concern of every sensitive soul. The essence of dignity can never be treated as a momentary spark of light or, for that matter, ‘a brief candle’, or ‘a hollow bubble’. The spark of life gets more resplendent when man is treated with dignity sans humiliation, for every man is expected to lead an honourable life which is a splendid gift of “creative intelligence”.”

The aforesaid authority emphasizes the seminal value of life that is inherent in the concept of life. Dignity does not recognize or accept any nexus with the status or station in life. The singular principle that it pleasantly gets beholden to is the integral human right of a person. Law gladly takes cognizance of the fact that dignity is the most sacred possession of a man.

 And the said possession neither loses its sanctity in the process of dying nor evaporates when death occurs.

In this context, reference to a passage from Vikas Yadav v. State of Uttar Pradesh and others[2] is noteworthy. The two Judge Bench of Supreme Court, while dealing with the imposition of a fixed term sentence under Section 302 IPC, took note of the fact that the High Court had observed the magnitude of vengeance of the accused and the extent to which they had gone to destroy the body of the deceased. Keeping in view the findings of the High Court, Supreme Court stated:-

“From the evidence brought on record as well as the analysis made by the High Court, it is demonstrable about the criminal proclivity of the accused persons, for they have neither the respect for human life nor did they have any concern for the dignity of a dead person. They had deliberately comatosed the feeling that even in death a person has dignity and when one is dead deserves to be treated with dignity. That is the basic human right. The brutality that has been displayed by the accused persons clearly exposes the depraved state of mind.”

The aforesaid passage shows the pedestal on which the Court has placed the dignity of an individual.

Reiterating that dignity is the most fundamental aspect of right to life, it has been held in the celebrated case of Francis Coralie Mullin v. The Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi[3]:-

“We think that the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, namely, the bare necessaries of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter and facilities for reading, writing and expressing one-self in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and commingling with fellow human beings.

Of course, the magnitude and content of the components of this right would depend upon the extent of the economic development of the country, but it must, in any view of the matter, include the right to the basic necessities of life and also the right to carry on such functions and activities as constitute the bare minimum expression of the human-self.

Every act which offends against or impairs human dignity would constitute deprivation protanto of this right to live and it would have to be in accordance with reasonable, fair and just procedure established by law which stands the test of other fundamental rights.

Now obviously, any form of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment would be offensive to human dignity and constitute an inroad into this right to live and it would, on this view, be prohibited by Article 21 unless it is in accordance with procedure prescribed  by law, but no law which authorises and no procedure which leads to such torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment can ever stand the test of reasonableness and non-arbitrariness: it would plainly be unconstitutional and void as being violative of Articles 14 and 21.

It would thus be seen that there is implicit in Article 21 the right to protection against torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment which is enunciated in Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed by Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

In National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India and others[4], the Apex Court has held that there is a growing recognition that the true measure of development of a nation is not economic growth; it is human dignity.

In Shabnam v. Union of India and another[5], it has been further held that:-

“This right to human dignity has many elements. First and foremost, human dignity is the dignity of each human being ‘as a human being’. Another element, which needs to be highlighted, in the context of the present case, is that human dignity is infringed if a person’s life, physical or mental welfare is armed. It is in this sense torture, humiliation, forced labour, etc. all infringe on human dignity.”

In Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (1996), the Constitution Bench indicates acceleration of the conclusion of the process of death which has commenced and this indication, as observed by us, allows room for expansion. In the said case, the Court was primarily concerned with the question of constitutional validity of Sections 306 and 309 of IPC. The Court was conscious of the fact that the debate on euthanasia was not relevant for deciding the question under consideration.

The Court, however, in no uncertain terms expounded that the word “life” in Article 21 has been construed as life with human dignity and it takes within its ambit the “right to die with dignity” being part of the “right to live with dignity”. Further, the “right to live with human dignity” would mean existence of such a right upto the end of natural life which would include the right to live a dignified life upto the point of death including the dignified procedure of death.

While adverting to the situation of a dying man who is terminally ill or in a persistent vegetative state where he may be permitted to terminate it by a premature extinction of his life, the Court observed that the said category of cases may fall within the ambit of “right to die with dignity” as part of the right to live with dignity when death due to the termination of natural life is certain and imminent and the process of natural death has commenced, for these are not cases of extinguishing life but only of accelerating the conclusion of the process of natural death which has already commenced.


Common Cause v. Union of India (2018)

[1] (2012) 8 SCC 1[2] (2016) 9 SCC 541[3] (1981) 1 SCC 608[4] (2014) 5 SCC 438[5] (2015) 6 SCC 702

[1] (2017) 10 SCC 1

[1] [2002] ECHR 588[2] 1995 (3) SA 391