December 9, 2022

Is Article 14 a ‘doctrine of classification’?- Supreme court’s view

Article 14 of Indian constitution reads thus-

14. Equality before law-

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.”

The content and reach of Article 14 must not be confused with the doctrine of classification. Unfortunately, in the early stages of the evolution of our constitutional law, Article 14 came to be identified with the doctrine of classification because the view taken was that Article forbids discrimination and there would be no discrimination where the classification making the differentia fulfils two conditions, namely,

(i) that the classification is founded on an intelligible differentia which distinguishes persons or things that are grouped together from others left out of the group; and

(ii) that differentia has a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved by the impugned legislative or executive action.

E.P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu

It was for the first time in E.P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu[1] that the Court laid bare a new dimension of Article 14 and pointed out that Article has highly activist magnitude and it embodies a guarantee against arbitrariness.

The Court speaking through one of us (Bhagwati, J.) said:

 “The basic principle which therefore informs both Articles 14 and 16 is equality and inhibition against discrimination. Now, what is the content and reach of this great equalising principle? It is a founding faith, to use the words of Bose, J., “a way of life”, and it must not be subjected to a narrow pedantic or lexicographic approach. We cannot countenance any attempt to truncate its all-embracing scope and meaning, for to do so would be to violate its activist magnitude.

Equality is a dynamic concept with many aspects and dimensions and it cannot be “cribbled, cabined and confined” within traditional and doctrinaire limits. From a positivistic point of view, equality is antithetic to arbitrariness. In fact, equality and arbitrariness are sworn enemies; one belongs to the rule of law in a republic while the other, to the whim and caprice of an absolute monarch. Where an act is arbitrary it is implicit in it that it is unequal both according to political logic and constitutional law and is therefore violative of Art. 14, and if it affects any matter relating to public employment, it is also violative of Art. 16. Articles 14 and 16 strike at arbitrariness in State action and ensure fairness and equality of treatment.”

Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India

This vital and dynamic aspect which was till then lying latent and submerged in the few simple but pregnant words of Article 14 was explored and brought to light in Royappa’s case and it was reaffirmed and elaborated by this Court in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[2] where this Court again speaking through one of us (Bhagwati, J.) observed :

“Now the question immediately arises as to what is the requirement of Article 14: what is the content and reach of the great equalising principle enunciated is this article? There can be no doubt that it is a founding faith of the Constitution. It is indeed the pillar on which rests securely the foundation of our democratic republic. And, therefore, it must not be subjected to a narrow, pedantic or lexicographic approach. No attempt should be made to truncate its all-embracing scope and meaning for, to do so would be to violate its activist magnitude.

Equality is a dynamic concept with many aspects and dimensions and it cannot be imprisoned within traditional and doctrinaire limits……………Article 14 strikes at arbitrariness in State action and ensures fairness and equality of treatment. The principle of reasonableness, which legally as well as philosophically, is an essential element of equality or non-arbitrariness pervades Article 14 like a brooding omnipresence.”

Ajay Hasia Etc vs Khalid Mujib Sehravardi

In ‘Ajay Hasia v. Khalid mujib[3]’the court while affirming the above cases, said that,

“ It must therefore now be taken to be well settled that what Article 14 strikes at is arbitrariness because any action that is arbitrary, must necessarily involve negation of equality. The doctrine of classification which is evolved by the courts is not para-phrase of Article 14 nor is it the objective and end of that Article. It is merely a judicial formula for determining whether the legislative or executive action in question is arbitrary and therefore constituting denial of equality.

If the classification is not reasonable and does not satisfy the two conditions referred to above, the impugned legislative or executive action would plainly be arbitrary and the guarantee of equality under Article 14 would be breached. Wherever therefore there is arbitrariness in State action whether it be of the legislature or of the executive or of “authority” under Article 12, Article 14 immediately springs into action and strikes down such State action.”

The concept of reasonableness and non- arbitrariness pervades the entire constitutional scheme and is a golden thread which runs through the whole of the fabric of the Constitution.

Reference

Views as expressed by Supreme court in Ajay Hasia Etc vs Khalid Mujib Sehravardi; 1981 AIR 487,


[1] 1974 AIR 555

[2] 1978 AIR 597

[3] 1981 AIR 487