Article 21: The article of evolution

- By Aryaki Sethi

In 1949, 389 of the brightest minds of our nation commenced the task of creating a constitution that would serve justice to millions of people for many years to come. They had, on their shoulders, the responsibility to generate a document that would continue to realize the needs of the citizens and evolve with changing times. This is that story. Article 21 described as the “heart of fundamental rights” provides the right to life and liberty to every citizen and non-citizen and it is this article that has enabled the aspirations of the constituent assembly to come to life.

Article 21 states that no person can be deprived of the right to life and liberty except according to the ‘procedure established by law’. Initially, this article only provided protection against arbitrary actions of the executive organ of the government but has since expanded to include protection against anti-democratic orders even by the legislature. Now, a person can only lose these rights if the orders of the government pass the test of reasonability i.e. are just, fair and reasonable. For instance, the death penalty can only be given in the ‘rarest of rare’ cases. Such specific and limited provisions to contain this right are provided because of its importance in a democratic society.

So, how did Article 21 become the diverse law it is today? The two monumental instances in history that changed the scope and course of Article 21 are the case of Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India,1978 and the 44th amendment to the constitution in 1979. In the Maneka Gandhi case, her passport was seized at the airport and she moved that court claiming that her right to liberty had been unreasonably contained. The court agreed that the actions of the authorities were a violation of her right and proceeded to establish the test of reasonability to protect personal liberty in the future. This case set the tone for the expansion of the article 21 that now includes right to travel abroad, right to shelter, right to livelihood and much more! This was followed by the 44th Amendment that disabled suspension of Article 21 even under emergency making this law stronger than ever.

If we enjoy the right to life, do we also possess the right to die? This was debated in Supreme Court in Gian Kaur vs. State of Punjab, 1996. It was concluded that unless the case is of euthanasia, article 21 does not give a person the right to die and instances of suicide to be viewed as a cry for help rather than a punishable offence. This shows that laws are created with an intention to understand human emotions and respect a man’s innate need for dignity. Similarly, courts have heard several cases under the Directive Principles of the Constitution that are not directly enforceable but through PILs (Public Interest Litigation refers to litigation undertaken to secure public interest and demonstrates the availability of justice to socially-disadvantaged parties) and the glory of Article 21, they have become fundamental rights for citizens.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that Article 21 has established itself as the most multifaceted fundamental right. It includes under its umbrella several revolutionary amendments such as the right to education, right to clean environment, right to legal aid, right to privacy and even the right to write a book! Not only does it liberate citizens and explain all that they can do, but also protects them from sexual harassment, rape, honour killing, public hanging, illegal detention and much more. Just like an old banyan tree while it expands its branches to cover more and more under its shade, it also deepens its roots to protect the most precious possession of mankind, life.


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About the Author

Aryaki Sethi is a content writer and mental health advocate. She is currently pursuing Bachelor of Applied Science , Psychology and Health Sciences from the University of Toronto Scarborough.