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Article 14 Right to Equality

Article 14 declares that “the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”. The phrase “equality before the law” occurs in almost all written constitutions that guarantee fundamental rights. Equality before the law is an expression of English Common Law while “equal protection of laws” owes its origin to the American Constitution.

Both the phrases aim to establish what is called the “equality to status and of opportunity” as embodied in the Preamble of the Constitution. While equality before the law is a somewhat negative concept implying the absence of any special privilege in favour of any individual and the equal subjection of all classes to the ordinary law, equal protection of laws is a more positive concept employing equality of treatment under equal circumstances. Thus, Article 14 stands for the establishment of a situation under which there is complete absence of any arbitrary discrimination by the laws themselves or in their administration. Interpreting the scope of the Article, the Supreme Court of India held in Charanjit Lai Choudhury vs. The Union of India that:

  1. Equal protection means equal protection under equal circumstances;
  2. The state can make reasonable classification for purposes of legislation;
  3. Presumption of reasonableness is in favour of legislation;
  4. The burden of proof is on those who challenge the legislation.

Explaining the scope of reasonable classification, the Court held that “even one corporation or a group of persons can be taken to be a class by itself for the purpose of legislation provided there is sufficient basis or reason for it. The onus of proving that there were also other companies similarly situated and this company alone has been discriminated against, was on the petitioner”. In its struggle for social and political freedom mankind has always tried to move towards the ideal of equality for all. The urge for equality and liberty has been the motive force of many revolutions. The charter of the United Nations records the determination of the member nations to reaffirm their faith in the equal rights of men and women.

Indeed, real and effective democracy cannot be achieved unless equality in all spheres is realised in a full measure. However, complete equality among men and women in all spheres of life is a distant ideal to be realised only by the march of humanity along the long and difficult path of economic, social and political progress.

The Constitution and laws of a country can at best assure to its citizens only a limited measure of equality. The framers of the Indian Constitution were fully conscious of this. This is why while they gave political and legal equality the status of a fundamental right, economic and social equality was largely left within the scope of Directive Principles of State Policy. The Right to Equality affords protection not only against discriminatory laws passed by legislatures but also prevents arbitrary discretion being vested in the executive. In the modern State, the executive is armed with vast powers, in the matter of enforcing by-laws, rules and regulations as well as in the performance of a number of other functions. The equality clause prevents such power being exercised in a discriminatory manner. For example, the issue of licenses regulating various trades and business activities cannot be left to the unqualified discretion of the licensing authority. The law regulating such activities should lay down the principles under which the licensing authority has to act in the grant of these licenses. Article 14 prevents discriminatory practices only by the State and not by individuals. For instance, if a private employer like the owner of a private business concern discriminates in choosing his employees or treats his employees unequally, the person discriminated against will have no judicial remedy.

One might ask here, why the Constitution should not extend the scope of these right to private individuals also. There is good reason for not doing so. For, such extension to individual action may result in serious interference with the liberty of the individual and, in the process; fundamental rights themselves may become meaningless. After all, real democracy can be achieved only by a proper balance between the freedom of the individual and the restrictions imposed on him in the interests of the community. Yet, even individual action in certain spheres has been restricted by the Constitution, as for example, the abolition of untouchability, and its practice in any form by any one being made an offence. Altogether, Article 14 lays down an important fundamental right which has to be closely and vigilantly guarded.

There is a related matter that deserves consideration here. The right to equality and equal protection of laws loses its reality if all the citizens do not have equal facilities of access to the courts for the protection of their fundamental rights. The fact that these rights are guaranteed in the Constitution does not make them real unless legal assistance is available for all on reasonable terms. There cannot be any real equality in the right “to sue and be sued” unless the poorer sections of the community have equal access to courts as the richer sections.

There is evidence that this point is widely appreciated in the country as a whole and the Government of India in particular and that is why steps are now being taken to establish a system of legal aid to those who cannot afford the prohibitive legal cost that prevails in all parts of the country.

Doctrine of Reasonable classification

Article 14 says that State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India. Equality before law as provided in the Article 14 of our constitution provides that no one is above the law of the land. Rule of the Law is an inference derived from Article 14 of the constitution. The article 14 aims to establish the “Equality of Status and Opportunity” as embodied in the Preamble of the Constitution.

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution (intelligible differentia and the object sought to be achieved)

It is now accepted that persons may be classified into groups and such groups may be treated differently if there is a reasonable basis for such difference. Article 14 forbids class legislation; it does not forbid classification or differentiation which rests upon reasonable grounds of distinction. The principle of equality does not mean that every law must have universal application to all the persons who are not by nature, attainment or circumstances in the same position. The varying needs of different classes of persons require different treatment. In order to pass the test for permissible classification two conditions must be fulfilled, namely:

(1) the classification must be founded on an intelligible differentia which distinguishes persons or things that are grouped together from others left out of the group, and (2) the differentia must have a rational nexus with the object sought to be achieved by the statute in question. What is however necessary is that there must be a substantial basis for making the classification and the there should be a nexus between the basis of classification and the object of the statute under consideration. In other words, there must be some rational nexus between the basis of classification and the object intended to achieve.

The expression “intelligible differentia” means difference capable of being understood. A factor that distinguishes or in different state or class from another which is capable of being understood. The impugned act deals with users of social networking websites Test laid down in State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar i.e. the differentia or classification must have a rational nexus with the object sought to be achieved by the statute in question Supreme Court in many of its judgment has clearly indicated about such kinds of classifications as vague and inoperative. The Supreme Court in landmark judgment of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India clearly ruled out the room for arbitrariness. ‘Article 14 strikes at arbitrariness in State action and ensures fairness and equality of treatment. The principle of reasonableness, which logically as well as philosophically, is an essential element of equality or non-arbitrariness, pervades Article 14 like a brooding omnipresence.’ Rule of law which permeates the entire fabric of the Indian Constitution excludes arbitrariness. Wherever we find arbitrariness or unreasonableness there is denial there is denial of rule of law.

This new dimension of Art.14 transcends the classificatory principle. Art.14 is no longer to be equated with the principle of classification. It is primarily a guarantee against arbitrariness in state action and the doctrine of classification has been evolved only as a subsidiary rule for testing whether a particular state action is arbitrary or not. If a law is arbitrary or irrational it would fall foul of Art.14. As an example, it has been held that any penalty disproportionate to the gravity of the misconduct would be violative of Art.14. So the impugned act should be tested at the touchstone of Art. 13(2) and should be declared invalid.

Article 14 Permits Classification But Prohibits Class Legislation

The equal protection of laws guaranteed by Article 14 does not mean that all laws must be general in character. It does not mean that the same laws should apply to all persons. It does not attainment or circumstances in the same position. The varying need of different classes of persons often requires separate treatment. From the very nature of society there should be different laws in different places and the legitimate controls the policy and enacts laws in the best interest of the safety and security of the state. In fact identical treatment in unequal circumstances would amount to inequality. So a reasonable classification is only not permitted but is necessary if society is to progress.

Thus what Article 14 forbids is class-legislation but it does not forbid reasonable classification. The classification however must not be “arbitrary, artificial or evasive” but must be based on some real and substantial bearing a just and reasonable relation to the object sought to be achieved by the legislation. Article 14 applies where equals are treated differently without any reasonable basis. But where equals and unequal are treated differently, Article 14 does not apply. Class legislation is that which makes an improper discrimination by conferring particular privileges upon a class of persons arbitrarily selected from a large number of persons all of whom stand in the same relation to the privilege granted that between whom and the persons not so favored no reasonable distinction or substantial difference can be found justifying the inclusion of one and the exclusion of the other from such privilege.

Test of Reasonable Classification While Article 14 forbids class legislation it does not forbid reasonable classification of persons, objects, and transactions by the legislature for the purpose of achieving specific ends. But classification must not be “arbitrary, artificial or evasive”. It must always rest upon some real upon some real and substantial distinction bearing a just and reasonable relation to the object sought to be achieved by the legislation. Classification to be reasonable must fulfill the following two conditions:

Firstly the classification must be founded on the intelligible differentia which distinguishes persons or thing that are grouped together from others left out of the group Secondly the differentia must have a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved by the act. The differentia which is the basis of the classification and the object of the act are two distinct things. What is necessary is that there must be nexus between the basis of classification and the object of the act which makes the classification. It is only when there is no reasonable basis for a classification that legislation making such classification may be declared discriminatory. Thus the legislature may fix the age at which persons shall be deemed competent to contract between themselves but no one will claim that competency. No contract can be made to depend upon the stature or colour of the hair. Such a classification will be arbitrary. The true meaning and scope of Article 14 have been explained in a number of cases by the supreme court. In view of this the propositions laid down in Damia case still hold good governing a valid classification and are as follows:

1. A law may be constitutional even though it relates to a single individual if on account of some special circumstances or reasons applicable to him and not applicable to others, that single individual may be treated as a class by itself

2. There is always presumption in favor of the constitutionality of a statute and the burden is upon him who attacks it to show that there has been a clear transgression of constitutional principles.

3. The presumption may be rebutted in certain cases by showing that on the fact of the statue, there is no classification and no difference peculiar to any individual or class and not applicable to any other individual or class, and yet the law hits only a particular individual or class

4. It must be assumed that Legislature correctly understand and appreciates the need of its own people that its law are directed to problem made manifest by experience and that its discrimination are based on adequate grounds.

5. In order to sustain the presumption of constitutionality the court may take into consideration maters of common knowledge, matters of report, and the history of the times and may assume every state of facts which can be conceived existing at the time of the legislation.

6. Thus the legislation is free to recognize degrees of harm and may confine its restriction to those cases where the need is deemed to be the clearest.

7. While good faith and knowledge of the existing conditions on the part of a legislature are to be presumed, if there is nothing on the face of the law or the surrounding circumstances brought to the notice of the court on which the classification may reasonable be regarded as based, the presumption of constitutionality cannot be carried to extent always that there must be some undisclosed and unknown reason for subjecting certain individuals or corporation to be hostile or discriminating legislation

8. The classification may be made on different bases e.g. geographical or according to object or occupation or the like.

9. The classification made by the legislature need not be scientifically perfect or logically complete. Mathematical nicety and perfect equality are not required. Equality before the law does not require mathematical equality of all persons in all circumstances. Equal treatment does not mean identical treatment. Similarly not identity of treatment is enough.

10. There can be discrimination both in the substantive as well as the procedural law. Article 14 applies to both. If the classification satisfies the test laid down in the above propositions, the law will be declared constitutional. The question whether a classification is reasonable and proper and not must however, be judged more on commonsense than on legal subtitles.


It is now too well-settled that every State action, in order to survive, must not be susceptible to the vice of arbitrariness which is the crux of Article 14 of the Constitution and basic to the rule of law, the system which governs us. Arbitrariness is the very negation of the rule of law. Satisfaction of this basic test in every State action is sine qua lion to its validity and in this respect, the State cannot claim comparison with a private individual even in the field of contract. This distinction between the State and a private individual in the field of contract has to be borne in the mind. The meaning and true import of arbitrariness is more easily visualized than precisely stated or defined. The question, whether an impugned act is arbitrary or not, is ultimately to be answered on the facts and in the circumstances of a given case.

An obvious test to apply is to see whether there is any discernible principle emerging from the impugned act and if so, does it satisfy the test of reasonableness. Where a mode is prescribed for doing an act and there is no impediment in following that procedure, performance of the act otherwise and in a manner which does not disclose any discernible principle which is reasonable, may itself attract the vice of arbitrariness.

Every State action must be informed by reason and it follows that an act uninformed by reason, is arbitrary. Rule of law contemplates governance by laws and not by humour, whims or caprices of the men to whom the governance is entrusted for the time being. It is trite that be you ever so high, the laws are above you’. This is what men in power must remember, always.Almost a quarter century back, this Court in S.G. Jaisinghani v. Union of India and Ors., [1967] 2 SCR 703, at p.7 18-19, indicated the test of arbitrariness and the pitfalls to be avoided in all State actions to prevent that vice, in a passage as under:”In this context it is important to emphasize that the absence of arbitrary power is the first essential of the rule of law upon which our whole constitutional system is based. In a system governed by rule of law, discretion, when conferred upon executive authorities, must be confined within clearly defined limits. The rule of law from this point of view means that decisions should be made by the application of known principles and rules and, in general, such decisions should be predictable and the citizen should know where he is. If a decision is taken without any principle or without any rule it is unpredictable and such a decision is the antithesis of a decision taken in accordance with the rule of law. (Dicey–”Law of the Constitution”-Tenth Edn., Introduction cx).In Shrilekha Vidyarthi Vs Union of India “Law has reached its finest moments”, stated Douglas, J. in United States v. Wunderlick, (*), “when it has freed man from the unlimited discretion of some ruler … Where discretion is absolute, man has always suffered”. It is in this sense that the rule of law may be said to be the sworn enemy of caprice. Discretion, as Lord Mansfield stated it in classic terms in the case of John Wilker (*), “means sound discretion guided by law. It must be governed by rule, not humour: it must not be arbitrary, vague and fanciful.” After Jaisinghani’s case (supra), long strides have been taken in several well-known decisions of this Court expanding the scope of judicial review in such matters. It has been emphasized time and again that arbitrariness is anathema to State action in every sphere and wherever the vice percolates, this Court would not be impeded by technicalities to trace it and strike it down. This is the surest way to ensure the majesty of rule of law guaranteed by the Constitution of India.

Every discretionary power vested in the executive should be exercised in a just, reasonable and fair way. That is the essence of the rule of law. In United States V Wunderlich (1951) 342 US 98 Law has reached its first finest moments when it has freed man from the unlimited discretion of some ruler, some civil or military official, some bureaucrat. Where discretion is absolute, man has always suffered .At times it has been his property that has been invaded, at times his privacy; at times his liberty of movement; at times his freedom of thought; at times his life. Absolute discretion is a ruthless master It is more destructive of freedom than any of mans other invention. John Wilkes (1770) 4 Burr 2528 . Discretion means sound discretion guided by law it must be governed by rule not humor; it must not be arbitrary, vague or fanciful. In a state of governed by the rule of Law, discretion must be confined within clearly defined limits. A decision taken without any principle or rule is the antithesis of a decision of a decision taken in accordance with the rule of Law.In a State governed by the rule of law , discretion can never be absolute. Its exercise has always to be in conformity with rules; in contradistinction to being whimsical and should not stand smack of an attitude of “ so let it be written, so let it be done”. It is important to emphasize that the absence of arbitrary powers is the first essential of the Rule of Law upon which our whole constitutional system is based. In a system governed by the rule of law, discretion when conferred by upon executive authorities, must be confined within clearly defined limits. Aeltemesh Rein, Advocate, Supreme Court Of India Vs Union Of India And Others (AIR 1988 SC 1768)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. State Policy : The sweep of Article 14 covers all state action .Non arbitrariness and fairness are the two immobile and unalterable cornerstone of a legal behaviour baseline. Every action even a change of policy in any relam of state activity has to be informed fair and non arbitrary. In E. P. ROYAPPA Vs.STATE OF TAMIL NADU & ANR. An authority, however, has to act properly for the purpose for which the power is conferred. He must take a decision in accordance with the provisions of the Act and the statutes. He must not be guided by extraneous or irrelevant consideration. He must not act illegally, irrationally or arbitrarily. Any such illegal, irrational or arbitrary action or decision, whether in the nature of legislative, administrative or quasi-judicial exercise of power is liable to be quashed being violative of Article 14 of the Constitution. In Neelima Misra Vs Harinder Kaur Paintal And Others (AIR 1990 SC 1402)