Article 21 of the Constitution of India- Right to Life and Personal Liberty

Article 21 of the Constitution of India- Right to Life and Personal Liberty
Part III of Constitution of India envisages Fundamental Rights that are guaranteed to all the citizens of the country. The ambit of these rights is far-fetched, though not unlimited. The Constitution simultaneously recognises the need for restriction on the Fundamental Rights. Power has been conferred on the legislature to impose reasonable restriction of these rights. The restriction must be just, fair and must make way for the public interest.
The right to life is a moral principle based on the belief that a human being has the right to live and should not be killed by another human being. The right to life is an inalienable right which is inherent to all human beings. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most important document adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations has also recognised right to life. Article 3 of UDHR says "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person". The enshrinement of the right to life in the Constitution, confers a fundamental character as it is the core of the fundamental human rights.
Article 21 declares:
“No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.” This right is available to both citizens and non-citizens.
Article 21 has two facets:
1. Protection of life
2. Personal liberty
The object of Article 21 is to prevent encroachment upon personal liberty and deprivation of life except according to the procedure established by law.
This fundamental right guarantees protection against the actions of state only and not private individuals. Hence, any act of encroachment by a private individual does not fall under the parameters of Article 21 rather under Article 226 of the constitution or general law.
In case the act of a private individual is supported by state the act will certainly come under the ambit of Article 21.
The term ‘State’ includes Government Departments, Legislature, Administration, Local Authorities exercising statutory powers but it does not include any non-statutory or private bodies having no statutory powers.
The scope of Article 21 has widened over the years. In the famous A.K. Gopalan case 1 , the Supreme Court has taken a narrow interpretation of the article. Due to the phrase ‘procedure established by law’, it was held that the state could deprive the right to life and personal liberty of a person based on a law. This is because there is a difference between the two terms ‘procedure established by law’ and ‘due process of law’. Due process of law ensures that the law that the procedure is just and fair and not arbitrary. Under the term ‘procedure established by law’ validity of the law cannot be questioned on grounds that the law is unreasonable, unjust or unfair. Secondly, the Supreme Court held that the ‘personal liberty’ means liberty only relating to the person or body of the individual. 2
The judgement in the case Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India 3 was a ground changing one. First, the Court opened new doors and held that the procedure cannot be arbitrary, unfair or unreasonable one. Article 21 imposed a restriction upon the state where it prescribed a procedure for depriving a person of his life or personal liberty.  Protection under Article 21 should be available not only against arbitrary executive action but also arbitrary legislative action. 4 ‘Right to life’ as per Article 21 does not mean merely animal existence but also includes within its ambit the right to live with human dignity and all other aspects which make a meaningful and worth living and not merely performing the physical act of breathing.
In the case of Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh 5 , the Supreme Court quoted and held that:
“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 by amputation of an armoured leg or the pulling out of an eye, or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with the outer world.”
Thus, the bare necessities and basic requirements that are essential for a meaningful life and unavoidable for a person is the core concept of the right to life.
It also ruled that the expression ‘Personal Liberty’ in Article 21 is of the widest amplitude and it covers a wide variety of rights that go to constitute the personal liberties of a man. It is the only article in the Constitution that has received the widest possible interpretation. Under the canopy of Article 21, so many rights have found origin, shelter, growth, and nourishment.
The Court has declared the following rights as part of Article 21:-
1. Right to live with human dignity.
Art. 21 guarantees the right to life right to life with dignity which encompasses all facets of gender equality including prevention of sexual harassment or abuse.


Sexual Harassment of women has been held by the Supreme Court to be violative of the Right to Life contained in Article 21. In Vishakha v. the State of Rajasthan 6 , the Supreme Court has declared sexual harassment of a working woman at her work as amounting to the violation of rights of gender equality and rights to life and liberty which is a clear violation of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution. In this landmark judgement, the Court held that employers should take appropriate steps to prevent sexual harassment at their workplaces.
2. Right to livelihood.
Supreme Court before Maneka Gandhi’s case never included the right to livelihood within the right to life. The same was held in Re Sant Ram case 7 . However, the court in  Board of Trustees of the Port of Bombay v. Dilipkumar Raghavendranath Nandkarni 8 overruled in its previous judgement and held that right to life encompasses the right to livelihood.
3. Right to privacy
In Kharak Singh v. State of UP & ors. 9 , this issue was raised for the first time and it was held that the right to privacy flows from the expression of personal liberty. This minority judgement paved the path for development.
Justice KS Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union of India has been proven to be a landmark judgement in deciding the issue of whether the right to privacy is constitutionally protected. The nine Judges bench has held that:
 The right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the constitution.
 The decision in MP Sharma case 10 which held that right to privacy is not protected by the constitution was overruled and the decision in Kharak Singh case to the extent that it held that right to privacy is not protected by the constitution was overruled.
Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India 11  proved to be another milestone in the development of the right to privacy and an important precedent delivered by five- judge Bench.
4. Right to the decent environment including pollution-free water and air and protection against hazardous industries.
It was held by Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Hemant Gupta in Hanuman Laxman Aroskar v. UOI 12 with Federation of Rainbow Warriors v. UOI and Ors. 13 That health of the environment is the key to preserve the Right to Life under Article 21.
5. Right to shelter
In Chameli Singh v. State of U.P 14 , it was considered and held that the right to shelter is a fundamental right available to every citizen. It was read into Article 21 as encompassing within its ambit, the right to shelter to make the right to life more meaningful.
6. Right to health
A healthy body is the very foundation of all human activities. Concerns relating to good health are always addressed on national as well as the international front. Health is also one of the key indicators of the Human Development Index.
7. Right to travel abroad.


The Supreme Court while permitting an IPS Officer who is facing departmental proceedings to go for a private foreign visit in Satish Chandra Verma v. Union of India and Others 15 held that the right to travel abroad is an important basic human right and the pendency of departmental proceedings cannot be a ground to prevent the officer from travelling abroad.
A landmark judgement with respect to the right to travel abroad is Maneka Gandhi v. UOI. 16
8. Right to die.
In the case of Gian Kaur v. the State of Punjab 17 , it was held that Section 306 and Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code is constitutional. Further, it was observed that suicide is an unnatural way of ending one’s life hence it is incompatible and inconsistent with the concept of the right to life.
In Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v. Union of India 18 , a five-judge bench gave legal sanction to passive euthanasia, permitting ‘living will’ by patients on withdrawing medical support if they slip into an irreversible state of coma. The SC held that the right to die with dignity is a fundamental right.
9. Right against bonded labour
In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union Of India & Others 19 , a complaint was filed on behalf of the labourers that they were kept in bondage and were working and living in miserable conditions without any adequate shelter over their heads, without two square meals per day and with only dirty water from a nullah to drink. Court held that it was violative of their right to live with dignity free from any sort of exploitation.
10. Right to timely medical treatment in a government hospital
K.P. Singh v. Union of India 20 was a case in which the court upheld the right to timely medical treatment in government hospitals. It was filed by retired government employees against the procedural difficulties in the Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) for pensioners to receiving timely treatment and reimbursement of expenditure incurred on such treatment.
SC directed the respondents to issue circulars to the effect that in case of emergency, medicines that are outside the CGHS formulary could be obtained immediately from the local chemist concerned on the basis of an authority slip from the CMO in charge of the CGHS dispensary.
11. Right of a prisoner to have necessities of life
The Supreme Court in State of Andhra Pradesh v. Challa Ramkrishna Reddy 21 held that right to life is one of the basic human rights, guaranteed to every person by Article 21 and not even the State has authority to violate it. A prisoner does not cease
to be a human being even when lodged in jail; he continues to enjoy all his fundamental rights including the right to life. 22
12. Right of women to be treated with decency and dignity
Right to life has been an ever-expanding right and also includes right to live with decency and dignity. The right to life is not only correlated with human dignity but also it directs our attention to the very essential subject of honour killing. Family members for sake of social status or ‘so-called his family honour’ kill the members of
the family especially women.
Honour killings are one such example where people even in the twenty-first century blatantly violate the right to life.
13. Right to reputation.
Reputation is considered to be a man’s most valuable property irrespective of wealth possessed by him. It is quite often said that a property loss can be regained but a reputation once lost can never be recovered. Hence, the right to reputation is included within the right to life.


The Supreme Court in Kiran Bedi v. Committee of Inquiry 23 held that “good reputation was an element of personal security and was protected by the Constitution, equally with the right to the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property. The court affirmed that the right to the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property. The court affirmed that the right to the enjoyment of private reputation was of ancient origin and was necessary to human society.”

14. Right to sleep

It was observed in the Ramlila Maidan Case 24 that Sleep is a basic human right. It is essential for a human being to maintain the delicate balance of its health necessary for its very existence and survival. Sleep is, therefore, a basic requirement without which the existence of life itself would be in peril. During the rally, CRPF, Delhi Police and Rapid Action Force lashed out at the protesters who were peacefully sleeping at 1 am.
15. Right against custodial harassment.
16. Right to emergency medical aid.
17. Right not to be driven out of state.
18. Right to a fair trial.
Right to a fair trial is based on the principles of natural justice and is also incorporated
in Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
19. Right against public hanging.
20. Right to hearing.
21. Right to information.
22. Right to social security and protection of the family.
23. Right to appeal from a judgement of conviction.
24. Right to social and economic justice and empowerment.
25. Right to appropriate life insurance policy.
26. Right against bar fetters.
27. Right to electricity.
28. Right to freedom from noise pollution.
29. Right to free legal aid.
30. Right against solitary confinement
31. Right to a speedy trial.
32. Right against handcuffing.
33. Right against inhuman treatment.
34. Right against delayed execution
Article 21 is an alive provision in the constitution of India which is constantly evolving and developing. It is one such provision whose scope has been ever-widening and is catering to the needs of the society.  It will evolve further in future through various judicial pronouncements and legislative enactment. It serves as an under-stream that touches every fundamental right in Part III of the Indian Constitution.
It is the fundamental of our fundamental rights. Even the Preamble of our Constitution says "we the people of India" have pledged to secure to all Justice, equality, liberty, fraternity without any discrimination on the basis of sex, caste and creed. The framers of the constitution have done their job of enshrining our human rights in the constitution. Let us join hands and minds to ensure dignified and decent human existence to all human beings. Thus the dream, of our forefathers, enshrined in our Constitution, may be realised. Dignity and decency of every individual may be maintained.
Thus, to meet the new challenges in the society and to fulfil the dynamic needs of the society the judicial system or the legislature will come up with new facets of article 21.
1 AIR 1950 SC 27
2 M Laxmikant, Indian Polity, McGraw Hill Education, Chennai, 2018, p. 7.11.
3 1978 AIR 597, 1978 SCR (2) 621
4 ibid
5 AIR 1963 SC 1295
6  (1997) 6 SCC 241
7 AIR 1960 SC 932, 1960 3 SCR 499
8 1983 AIR 109, 1983 SCR (1) 828
9 1963 AIR 1295, 1964 SCR (1) 332
10 1954 AIR 300, 1954 SCR 1077
11 (2018) 1 SCC 791
12 Civil Appeal No 12251 of 2018
13 Civil Appeal No 1053 of 2019
14 1996 2 SCC 549
15 Civil Appeal No.3802 of 2019
16 1978 AIR 597, 1978 SCR (2) 621
17 1996 AIR 946, 1996 SCC (2) 648
19  1984 AIR 802, 1984 SCR (2) 67
20 (2001) 10 SCC 167
21 AIR 2000 SC 2083
accessed on 4 June 2019.
23 (1989) 1 SCC 494
24 (2012) 5 SCC 1
Books referred:
Laxmikant, M, Indian Polity, McGraw Hill Education, Chennai, 2018.
Websites referred:
Written by Preetkiran Kaur 
OurLegalWorld Intern , RGNUL

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