Over the last four decades, our constitutional jurisprudence has recognised the inseparable relationship between protection of life and liberty with dignity. Dignity as a constitutional value finds expression in the Preamble. The constitutional vision seeks the realisation of justice (social, economic and political); liberty (of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship); equality (as a guarantee against arbitrary treatment of individuals) and fraternity (which assures a life of dignity to every individual).

These constitutional precepts exist in unity to facilitate a humane and compassionate society. The individual is the focal point of the Constitution because it is in the realisation of individual rights that the collective wellbeing of the community is determined. Human dignity is an integral part of the Constitution. Reflections of dignity are found in the guarantee against arbitrariness (Article 14), the lamps of freedom (Article 19) and in the right to life and personal liberty (Article 21).

In Prem Shankar Shukla v Delhi Administration[1], which arose from the handcuffing of the prisoners, Justice Krishna Iyer, speaking for a three-judge Bench of Supreme Court held:

“…the guarantee of human dignity, which forms part of our constitutional culture, and the positive provisions of Articles 14, 19 and 21 spring into action when we realise that to manacle man is more than to mortify him; it is to dehumanize him and, therefore, to violate his very personhood, too often using the mask of ‘dangerousness’ and security…

The Preamble sets the humane tone and temper of the Founding Document and highlights Justice, Equality and the dignity of the individual.”

A Bench of two judges in Francis Coralie Mullin v Union Territory of Delhi[2] (“Francis Coralie”) while construing the entitlement of a detenue under the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities (COFEPOSA) Act, 1974 to have an interview with a lawyer and the members of his family held that:

“The fundamental right to life which is the most precious human right and which forms the ark of all other rights must therefore be interpreted in a broad and expansive spirit so as to invest it with significance and vitality which may endure for years to come and enhance the dignity of the individual and the worth of the human person…

…the right to life enshrined in Article 21 cannot be restricted to mere animal existence. It means something much more than just physical survival.

…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…

Every act which offends against or impairs human dignity would constitute deprivation pro tanto 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…”

In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v Union of India[3], a Bench of three judges of Supreme Court while dealing with individuals who were living in bondage observed that:

“…This right to live with human dignity enshrined in Article 21 derives its life breath from the Directive Principles of State Policy and particularly Clause (e) and (f) of “Article 39 and Arts. 41 and 42 and at the least, therefore, it must include protection of the health and strength of the workers, men and women, and of the tender age of children against abuse, opportunities and facilities for children to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, educational facilities, just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief.

 These are the minimum requirements which must exist in order to enable a person to live with human dignity, and nor State – neither the Central Government – has the right to take any action which will deprive a person of the enjoyment of these basic essentials.”

Dealing with an allegation that activists of an organization were arrested and paraded throughout the town by the police and were beaten up in police custody, Supreme Court in Khedat Mazdoor Chetna Sangath v State of M P[4] held that:

“It is, therefore, absolutely essential in the interest of justice, human dignity and democracy that Supreme Court must intervene; order an investigation determine the correct facts and take strongest possible action against the respondents who are responsible for these atrocities…

If dignity or honor vanishes what remains of life.”

Human dignity was construed in M Nagaraj v Union of India[5] by a Constitution Bench of Supreme Court to be intrinsic to and inseparable from human existence. Dignity, the Court held, is not something which is conferred and which can be taken away, because it is inalienable:

“The rights, liberties and freedoms of the individual are not only to be protected against the State, they should be facilitated by it… It is the duty of the State not only to protect the human dignity but to facilitate it by taking positive steps in that direction.

No exact definition of human dignity exists. It refers to the intrinsic value of every human being, which is to be respected. It cannot be taken away. It cannot give. It simply is. Every human being has dignity by virtue of his existence…

India is constituted into a sovereign, democratic republic to secure to all its citizens, fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity of the nation. The sovereign, democratic republic exists to promote fraternity and the dignity of the individual citizen and to secure to the citizens certain rights.

This is because the objectives of the State can be realized only in and through the individuals. Therefore, rights conferred on citizens and non-citizens are not merely individual or personal rights. They have a large social and political content, because the objectives of the Constitution cannot be otherwise realized.”

In Maharashtra University of Health Sciences v Satchikitsa Prasarak Mandal[6], Supreme Court held that the dignity of the individual is a core constitutional concept. In Selvi, Supreme Court recognised that:

“…we must recognize that a forcible intrusion into a person’s mental processes is also an affront to human dignity and liberty, often with grave and long-lasting consequences…”

In Dr Mehmood Nayyar Azam v State of Chhattisgarh[7], Supreme Court noted that when dignity is lost, life goes into oblivion. The same emphasis on dignity finds expression in the decision in NALSA.

The same principle was more recently reiterated in Shabnam v Union of India[8] in the following terms:

“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 alarmed. It is in this sense torture, humiliation, forced labour, etc. all infringe on human dignity. It is in this context many rights of the accused derive from his dignity as a human being.”

The decision in Jeeja Ghosh v Union of India[9] construed the constitutional protection afforded to human dignity. The Court observed:

“…human dignity is a constitutional value and a constitutional goal. What are the dimensions of constitutional value of human dignity? It is beautifully illustrated by Aharon Barak[10] (former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel) in the following manner:

“The constitutional value of human dignity has a central normative role. Human dignity as a constitutional value is the factor that unites the human rights into one whole.

It ensures the normative unity of human rights. This normative unity is expressed in the three ways:

first, the value of human dignity serves as a normative basis for constitutional rights set out in the constitution;

second, it serves as an interpretative principle for determining the scope of constitutional rights, including the right to human dignity;

third, the value of human dignity has an important role in determining the proportionality of a statute limiting a constitutional right.”

Life is precious in itself. But life is worth living because of the freedoms which enable each individual to live life as it should be lived. The best decisions on how life should be lived are entrusted to the individual. They are continuously shaped by the social milieu in which individuals exist. The duty of the state is to safeguard the ability to take decisions – the autonomy of the individual – and not to dictate those decisions.

‘Life’ within the meaning of Article 21 is not confined to the integrity of the physical body. The right comprehends one’s being in its fullest sense. That which facilitates the fulfilment of life is as much within the protection of the guarantee of life.

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.


An Excerpt from K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India (9J) (2017)

[1] (1980) 3 SCC 526

[2] (1981) 1 SCC 608

[3] (1984) 3 SCC 161

[4] (1994) 6 SCC 260

[5] (2006) 8 SCC 212

[6] (2010) 3 SCC 786

[7] (2012) 8 SCC 1

[8] (2015) 6 SCC 702

[9] (2016) 7 SCC 761

[10] Aharon Barak, Human Dignity- The Constitutional Value and the Constitutional Right, Cambridge University

Press (2015)