Article 21 of the Constitution said that no one will be deprive of his life or personal liberty except procedure established by law.

After the decision in Maneka Gandhi’s case, a highly activist magnitude and Article 21 embodies a constitutional value of supreme importance in a democratic society. It provides that no one shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law and such procedure shall be reasonable fair, and just.

Ambit of the Right to life

Now what is the true scope and ambit of the right to life guaranteed under this Article?

The supreme court in the case of “Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administration of Union Territory Delhi, 1981’, said that,

“While arriving at the proper meaning and content of the right to life, we must remember that it is a constitutional provision which we are expounding and moreover it is a provision enacting a Fundamental right and the attempt of the court should always be to expand the reach and ambit of the Fundamental right rather than to attenuate its meaning and content.”

The court referred the luminous guideline in the interpretation of a constitutional provision, provided by the Supreme Court of United States in Weems v. U. S. 54 Lawyers Edition 801.

“Legislation, both statutory and constitutional is enacted, it is true, from an experience of evils, but- its general language should not, therefore, be necessarily confined to the form that evil had, therefore taken. Time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes. Therefore, a principle, to be vital, must be capable of wider application than mischief which gave it birth. This is peculiarly true of constitutions. They are not ephemeral enactments designed to meet passing occasions.

They are, to use the words of Chief Justice Marshall, “designed to approach immorality as nearly as human institutions can approach it” The future is their care, and provisions for events of good and bad tendencies of which no prophecy can be made. In the application of a constitution, therefore, our contemplation cannot be only of what has been, but of what may be. Under any other rule a constitution would indeed be as easy of application as it would be deficient in efficacy and power. Its general principles would have little value, and be converted by precedent into important and lifeless formulas. Rights declared in the words might be lost in reality. And this has been recognized. The meaning and vitality of the Constitution have developed against narrow and restrictive construction.”

This principle of interpretation which requires that a Constitutional provision must be construed, not in a narrow and constricted sense but in a wide and liberal manner so as to anticipate and take account of changing conditions and purposes so that the Constitutional provision does not get atrophied or fossilized but remains flexible enough to meet the newly emerging problems and challenges, applies with greater force in relation to a fundamental right enacted by the Constitution.

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.

Life is more than animal existence

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

In Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh Subba Rao J. quoted with approval the following passage from the judgment of Field J. in Munn v. Illinois to emphasize the quality of life covered by Article 21:

“By the term “life” as here used something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body or amputation of an arm or leg or the putting out of an eye or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with the outer world.”

And this passage was again accepted as laying down the correct law by the Constitution Bench of this Court in the first Sunil Batra case.

Every limb or faculty through which life is enjoyed is thus protected by Article 21 and a fortiorari, this would include the faculties of thinking and feeling. Now deprivation which is inhibited by Article 21 may be total or partial, neither any limb or faculty can be totally destroyed nor can it be partially damaged. Moreover, it is every kind of deprivation that is hit by Article 21, whether such deprivation be permanent or temporary and, furthermore, deprivation is not an act which is complete once and for all: it is a continuing act and so long as it lasts, it must be in accordance with procedure established by law.

It is therefore clear that any act which damages or injures or interferes with the use of, any limb or faculty of a person, either permanently or even temporarily, would be within the inhibition of Article 21. But the question which arises is whether the right to life is limited only to protection of limb or faculty or does it go further and embrace something more.

Right to life includes right to live with human dignity

The supreme court in Francis case (supra) established that,

“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.”

Right to dignity for Prisoners

The court further declared that,

“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. This right to live which is comprehended within the broad connotation of the right to life can concededly be abridged according to procedure established by law and therefore when a person is lawfully imprisoned, this right to live is bound to suffer attenuation to the extent to which it is incapable of enjoyment by reason of incarceration.

The prisoner or detenu obviously cannot move about freely by going outside the prison walls nor can he socialize at his free will with persons outside the jail. But, as part of the right to live with human dignity and therefore as a necessary component of the right to life, he would be entitled to have interviews with the members of his family and friends and no prison regulation or procedure laid down by prison regulation regulating the right to have interviews with the members of the family and friends can be upheld as constitutionally valid under Articles 14 and 21, unless it is reasonable, fair and just.

The same consequence would follow even if this problem is considered from the point of view of the right to personal liberty enshrined in Article 21, for the right to have interviews with members of the family and friends is clearly part of personal liberty guaranteed under that Article. The expression ‘personal liberty’ occurring in Article 21 has been given a broad and liberal interpretation in Maneka Gandhi’s case (supra) and it has been held in that case that the expression ‘personal liberty used in that Article is of the widest amplitude and it covers a variety of rights which go to constitute the personal liberty of a man and it also includes rights which “have been raised to the status of distinct Fundamental Rights and given additional protection under Article 19”.

There can therefore be no doubt that ‘personal liberty would include the right to socialise with members of the family and friends subject, of course, to any valid prison regulations and under Articles 14 and 21, such prison regulations must be reasonable and non-arbitrary. If any prison regulation or procedure laid down by it regulating the right to have interviews with members of the family and friends is arbitrary or unreasonable, it would be liable to be struck down as invalid as being violative of Articles 14 and 21.


Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administration, Union territory of Delhi, (1981)