The Constitution of India is the highest law of the land. It is the framework within which all other laws are set. In India, the Constitution defines with certainty the political principles, procedures and laws that govern the powers and duties of the Government and the various agencies of the Centre and the States. It also sets out the rights and duties of the people towards the nation.
It is interesting to note that the Constitution of India is the longest written Constitution in the world and consists of 22 parts, 12 schedules and 5 Appendixes.
The Constitution of India is novel in its approach and presentation. India being the vast and diverse country, has numerous facets and issues to be taken care of. In a secular, democratic republic such as India it is the people who are most important and it is the duty of the lawmakers to make sure that the law equally protects each and every individual irrespective of any classification such as caste, color or creed.
Part III and IV of the Indian Constitution
As the primal social document in the country, the Indian Constitution carries two very important parts, i.e. Part III and IV of the Constitution that basically set out the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy for the country. What follows is a very important question, i.e., - "What are Fundamental Rights?"
Fundamental Rights are a bunch of rights as set out in a charter of rights contained in Part III of Constitution of India. Fundamental Rights guarantee certain civil liberties to all people, citizen or alien, enabling them to lead their lives with dignity, in peace and harmony and to the fullest.
Of all the available fundamental rights, the most fundamental is the Right to Life.
Article 21 of the Constitution lays down that the constitution guarantees the right to life and personal liberty to every person, citizen or alien and cites specific provisions in which these rights are to be applied and enforced.
Article 21 guarantees the protection of life and personal liberty to every individual and states that, "No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to procedure established by law."
The true test of a democracy is how its laws stand with regard to the life and liberty of its people. In England, a charter of liberties are set out in the Magna Carta of 1215. In the same vein, in USA the Fifth Amendment to the American Constitution is what Article 21 is in India and Article XXXI of the Constitution of Japan, 1946 reflects what is set out under Article 21 in the Indian Constitution.
In a literal sense, what this right signifies is that the Fundamental Right to Life as set out under Article 21, as mentioned above, prevents any kind of encroachment upon the personal liberty and deprivation of life of any individual except according to a procedure duly established by law.
A clear reading of this Article indicates that this right protects citizens against any act of the state that encroaches upon the basic dignity of life and liberty of any citizen.
According to the Hon'ble Justice Bhagwati, Article 21 "embodies a constitutional value of supreme importance in a democratic society." Article 21 has also been linked to "the magna carta for protecting life and liberty".
Article 21 applies to all natural persons and is available to every person, citizen or alien, which means that even a foreigner can claim this right.
What does the 'Right to Life' Embody?
Article 21, which embodies the right to life and liberty, is the right from which all other rights emerge. Without the right to life and liberty, all the other fundamental rights would be absolutely meaningless.
When we analyze the meaning and implications of Article 21, we can consider that it embodies two separate rights that in fact are inseparable and go hand in hand. These two rights are, i) the right to life, and ii) the right to personal liberty.
The 'Right to Life'
'Life' as mentioned under Article 21 signifies not merely living or the physical act of breathing. It has a much more profound meaning that signifies the:
- Right to live with human dignity;
- Right to livelihood;
- Right to health;
- Right to pollution free air; and
- Right to live a quality life.
- Right to go abroad;
- Right to privacy;
- Right against solitary confinement;
- Right against delayed execution;
- Right to shelter;
- Right against custodial death;
- Right against public hanging; and
anything and everything that fulfills the criteria for a dignified life.
Article 21 in a sense is limitless in its scope as it embodies everything that a human being requires to live a quality life so that he/she can afford the opportunities to make his/life better, more fruitful and secure.
In a landmark judgment on the right to life, the Honorable Supreme Court inter alia held that, "life as here used is something more is meant more than mere animal existence…"
Therefore, the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, that is to say the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing, shelter and facilities of self expression such as reading writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and mingling with society. To have all of this is to live with dignity and we can call ourselves fortunate to be governed by laws that guarantee this basic law of life and liberty.
In this way we see that the right to life as guaranteed by Article 21 covers in totality the entire bouquet of rights and obligations that guarantee a life of freedom and dignity.
What is 'Procedure Established by Law', as Mentioned in Article 21?
We have already analyzed the first part of the Article that encapsulates that every individual is fundamentally entitled to his life and personal liberty, unless deprived by the due process of law.
To recap, Article 21 mentions that, "No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to procedure established by law."
The expression "procedure established by law" has been subject to examination in various landmark cases and the consensus is that that the procedure prescribed by law for depriving a person of his life and personal liberty must be "right, just and fair" and not "arbitrary, fanciful and oppressive," otherwise it would directly violate Article 21.
Effect of Article 21
Article 21 of our constitution is the most far reaching in its scope and reach and it is fair to say that it is the foundation on which every other law is laid. The right to life and liberty is something that affects each and every person in the country, every single moment of their life and it is something that we must always value and fight for as it has been guaranteed to us by our forefathers and maintained by the vigilant eyes of our Judiciary that keeps our rights intact.
The bottom line here is that, this is a very important article, i.e. Article 21 can be understood in parts to define the extent of its meaning, but must be read as a whole to understand its true effect. Article 21 is basically, responsible for enabling the fullest development of an individual and ensuring his dignity of life by the power vested in it by law. The effectiveness of this law can only be possible if it is supported by procedural machinery that is reasonable, just and fair for all.
The Fundamental right to life and liberty as mentioned in Article 21 can and should be read in consonance with the Directive Principles of State Policy as enumerated under Part IV of the Constitution of India.
Some of the Directive Principles are listed herein below for easy reference:
- right to pollution free air and water;
- protection of under trial;
- right of every child to full development; and
- protection of cultural heritage.
In this way, the Constitution and lawmakers of India have made the right efforts to make sure that the Fundamental Right of the right to life and personal liberty is well within the reach of every individual. A study of legal judgments and pronouncements in this regard evidences the flexibility and ease with which this right is treated. This humane way in which the right to life is considered is a hallmark of our legal system and it is this quality that breathes air into our constitution, giving it life and enabling it to change with the pressures and demands of our ever changing society, in spite of the economic and cultural inequality that burdens the basic quality of life of many in India.