This article is written by Neha Dahiya, a law student at Dr. B.R. Ambedkar National Law University. This article explains the origin of right to life and also elaborates on Article 21 including its various elements and broad interpretations given in several judicial decisions. It also contains the provisions for right to life in countries other than India.
It has been published by Rachit Garg.
“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity” – Nelson Mandela
Human rights have formed the foundation of civilised human life from the beginning. They are sacred, inviolable, universal, and inalienable. They protect the sanctity of human life. One of the most essential of these rights is the right to life. The right to life guarantees that no person can be deprived of his life and personal liberty, except in accordance with the procedures established by the law. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to life and personal liberty. It has three important elements, which are life, liberty, and dignity. Over time, due to growing judicial activism and the concern for human rights, the scope of Article 21 has been expanded to include a variety of other elements as well that make human life fulfilling and worth living.
History of right to life
The history of the right to life overlaps with the history of the development of human rights.
The first formal codification of human rights can be found in the tablet of Hammurabi. It was built 4000 years ago by Sumerian King Hammurabi and was a legally binding document that protected people from unjust and arbitrary harassment and punishment. In Greece, ‘human rights’ became synonymous with ‘natural rights’ with the emergence of the natural school of law. Greek thinkers like Socrates and Plato believed that nature was the embodiment of the will of Gods who controlled the law. A new concept of human rights took birth with the idea of positive law, which subjected human rights to a positivist approach, i.e., under the control of the sovereign will. The concepts of life and individual liberty can also be found in ancient Indian literature like the Rig Veda and the Mahabharata.
It was during the British era that a formal demand for fundamental rights was made. The British made laws that suited them and were favorable for them, completely disregarding the rights of Indian citizens. Various laws were brought that unjustly took away the right to life and personal liberty of the Indians, just to suppress anti-British activities and sentiments. Thus, a demand for a Fundamental Rights Bill was made between 1917 and 1919, and several resolutions were passed to this effect by the Indian National Congress. The Nehru Report of 1928 concluded that “No one shall be deprived of his liberty, sequestered or confiscated, save in accordance with the law.”
Finally, with the coming of the Indian Constitution in 1950, all Indian citizens were granted certain fundamental rights, including the right to life and personal liberty.
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution covers the arena of protection of human life and liberty. It prescribes that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.”
Article 21 guarantees the right to life and personal liberty to every person, which cannot be violated even by the state, except when stipulated by the law to prevent encroachment on and the loss of life. Thus, it has been rightly called the “procedural Magna Carta protective of life and liberty” by Justice Iyer. The most striking feature of this Article is that it provides the right to life to not only the citizens of our country but also to the foreigners. Thus, even a foreigner can seek protection from Article 21 in India. However, Article 21 can be enforced only against the state and not against private individuals. Any person whose right under Article 21 has been violated can approach the honourable Supreme Court under Article 32 or any High Court under Article 226.
Meaning and concept of right to life
The right to life, liberty, and security of a person has been covered under Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Additionally, Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that “every human being has the inherent right to life. This right ought to be protected by the law and no one shall be deprived of his life arbitrarily.” Right to life can also be found embedded in the constitutions of different countries around the world.
Thus, the right to life is the most basic of all other rights. Fundamentally, this right seeks to protect the unjust deprivation of human life by the state. It prescribes that no one can be deprived of his/her life, except as per the law.
In India, the right to life has been granted a very broad connotation. As per Article 21 and its judicial interpretations, ‘life’ is not simply just the physical act of breathing. It extends beyond mere animal existence and includes a canopy of other elements as well. It includes the right to live with dignity, right to health, right to livelihood, right to privacy, and a bundle of other similar rights. It is, without a doubt, the most significant of all other fundamental rights. It forms the support system for all other rights, being the primary of them all.
As humans, the right to life forms the essence of our very existence. This is because we cannot survive as humans fully without having access to all other allied elements like health, liberty, safety, etc. to make our life worth living and complete. Thus, it includes the minimum necessities that must be made available to every human being so that he/she is able to live to the fullest and take maximum advantage of this life.
Meaning and concept of personal liberty
The mention of personal liberty formally dates back to 1215 when the English Magna Carta stated that ‘No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, except by the law of the land’. Personal liberty, as defined by Black’s Law Dictionary, is ‘the right of freedom of a person to behave as they would like. Though following the code of conduct of the society in which a person resides is important’. Personal liberty forms an essential part of life, as per Justice Field in the American case of Munn v. Illinois (1877). It implies that all men are born free and must remain the same way. However, in order to live peacefully together in a society, liberty cannot be allowed to transform into license. Thus, some reasonable restrictions are placed on it. That is why personal liberty implies no one can be wrongfully restrained, except when it is required by the law.
In India, the concept of personal liberty came into the limelight with the case of A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras (1959). The case was about the detention of a communist leader who claimed that the detention was illegal and breached his personal liberty under Article 21. The Court described the ambit of personal liberty as including the liberty of the physical body, and even the right to sleep, eat, etc. Again in Kharak Singh v. State of U.P. and Others (1964), it was outlined that personal liberty not only contained the right to be free from restrictions on one’s movements but also from restrictions placed on our private life.
Meaning and concept of personal dignity
The concept of dignity started with the idea of dignitas hominis in classical Roman thought and it translated to mean ‘status’. Honor and respect were given to the person worthy of it because of attaining a particular status. Thus, the worthiness of a person and his charisma were measured by his status which accorded him his dignity. In a border sense, some of the Roman writings, like Cicero’s, also mention dignity to be attached to a human being per se, without any references to his status. It was believed that humans have been endowed with superior faculties to the rest of the creatures, like the faculty to reason. Later on, with various movements and revolutions going on around the world, dignity came to be attached to material conditions of human beings like food, clothing, shelter, and other basic facilities that ought to be delivered to every human as a part of his dignity to live like a human.
In modern times, dignity is also closely related to abstract concepts like class, caste, religion, race, and gender divisions. Various factors like education, health, employment, freedom from hunger, social security, and social, economic, and political rights ensure a dignified life for a human. Now, these factors may vary depending upon the above-mentioned abstract concepts. Article 21 ensures that everyone gets equal access to these factors.
It was also held in the case of Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi (1981), that “Right to life enshrined in Article 21 cannot be restricted to mere animal existence and goes beyond just physical survival. Right to life includes the right to live with dignity and all that goes along with it, namely the bare necessities of life like adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter, facilities for reading, writing, and expressing oneself in diverse forms, and freely moving and mixing with fellow humans.”
Procedure established by law
Article 21 stipulates that the right to life and personal liberty can be taken away by the procedure established by the law. The procedure established by law is a technical term that implies the procedure prescribed by any statute or the law of the state. It was extensively dealt with in the case of A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras (1959), where the validity of the Preventive Detention Act, 1950 was challenged.
The Court observed that ‘procedure established by law’, as mentioned in Article 21 refers to nothing but the law enacted by the Indian legislature. Thus, if a law is laid down by our Parliament that deprives someone of his life or liberty would be valid. Here, under this principle, the reasonableness or the validity of the law establishing the procedure itself was not the concern. The only essential requirements were:
- There must be a law established by the legislature validly;
- The law must lay down a procedure; and
- The procedure must be followed by the executive while depriving a person of his life or liberty.
This was a very mechanical and positivist interpretation of the principle laid down by the judiciary. Thus, it was not under the power of the judiciary to check the validity of the law. It could merely test the validity of the procedure followed to bring that law into force.
There came a shift in this approach with the landmark judgment given in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978). In this case, a substantive meaning was given to the principle of ‘procedure established by law’ and the American doctrine of ‘Due process of law’ was given a backdoor entry into the Indian Constitution. Due process of law not only checked the validity of the procedure followed but also looked into the fairness of the law establishing the procedure to deprive a person of his life or liberty. It highlighted that not only the procedure must be fair and reasonable, but the law must also pass the test of reasonableness. Thus, ‘procedure established by law’ was established as an extension of the ‘due process of law’. The Court opined that though the framers of our constitution incorporated only ‘procedure established by law’, they did not stop us from progressing towards ‘due process of law’ for the benefit of the citizens, which was the actual intention of the makers. Thus, now, ‘procedure established by law’ is not only construed to check the validity of the procedure that is depriving a person of his right under Article 21, but also the law or statute which is authorising the executive to do so.
Scope of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution
‘Life’ itself is a very wide term that cannot be summed up in a few words. It can not be made complete by one or two elements. There are several such aspects that make life complete and worth living. Thus, while talking about the scope of Article 21, it cannot merely imply the simple act of living, which may even amount to an animal’s existence. In order to live a fulfilling life, a person needs dignity, reputation, good health, a clean and safe environment, livelihood, safety and security, shelter, privacy, and a lot more. Thus, the scope of Article 21 is very broad.
But it has not always been meant to be this way. It was only intended to protect a person’s life and liberty, so none of them can be taken away arbitrarily by the state, except when laws empower it. In India, we follow the concept of ‘Transformative constitutionalism’, i.e., subjective interpretation of the constitutional provisions to suit the needs of changing society while adhering to the basic structural values. With time, when courts faced questions as to what constitutes ‘life’ and what its elements are, our courts have taken a progressive outlook by expanding the ambit of Article 21 and giving it new dimensions. Thus, Article 21 today is a canopy of rights that includes several elements that make life meaningful.
Elements of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution
Right to health and medical care
A healthy body is an indispensable requirement in order to live a fulfilling life. Our body is responsible for the performance of different activities which form the basis of our life. If we are not healthy or do not get proper and timely healthcare, then we would not be able to live our life to the fullest as our activities shall be restricted by diseases and ailments. Thus, in State of Punjab v. M.S. Chawla (1996), it was established that the right to health and medical care fell within the ambit of the right to life guaranteed under Article 21.
In the case of Consumer Education and Research Centre v. Union of India (1995), the health of workers was linked with their right to life under Article 21. It was observed that the preamble to our Constitution seeks to deliver social justice to all. Social justice implies everyone’s access to a liveable and meaningful life with minimum standards of health, economic security, and civilised living. Thus, denial of their right to healthcare to the workers would be tantamount to violating their fundamental right to life under Article 21.
Right to life also imposes the duty on the state to preserve life. In Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity v. State of West Bengal (1996), a person who was involved in a train accident and had sustained severe injuries was denied treatment by all the hospitals under the pretext of not having the requisite infrastructure and facilities for the treatment. The Court held that by denying treatment to the patient, the government hospitals had violated his fundamental right to life. Hence, they were held liable. Also, the right to emergency treatment was also recognised by the court in this case.
Therefore, the right to health and medical care is an important element of the right to life.
Right to shelter
As recognised in the case of Shantisar Builders v. Narayan Khimalal Totame (1990), the right to life encompasses the right to food, the right to clothing, and the right to a decent environment and accommodation to live in. The court also outlined the fact that one thing that distinguished humans from animals is that humans require a shelter to live under. Animals merely seek the protection of their physical boy, but for humans, shelter has a wider connotation. It is important for overall development, i.e., physical, mental, and intellectual growth. It is not important for everyone to have well-built, large, and comfortable houses. Decent and reasonable accommodation is what is necessary.
In the case of Rajesh Yadav v. State of U.P. (2022), the Supreme Court held that right to shelter is a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(e) read with Article 21. Thus, it is the duty of the state to grant housing sites for the residents. Articles 38 and 46 impose a positive duty on the state to make efforts to reduce income inequalities in order to safeguard the basic needs of the people like food, clothing, and shelter. Therefore, under Article 21 it is the state’s responsibility to make available reasonable places of shelter for the needy people.
Right to clean and healthy environment
Humans are directly and indirectly dependent on the environment for their survival. Most of our basic needs are satisfied by the resources obtained from nature. The sustenance of our life depends on the ecological system around us. Thus, any harm done to the environment affects the lives of humans substantially. A polluted environment is an anti-thesis to our right to life as we can never enjoy our life fully with polluted resources that make them unfair for human consumption.
That is why, in the case of Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar (1991), it was observed that the right to the enjoyment of pollution-free water and air came under the ambit of the right to life under Article 21. Therefore, if any activity causes harm to the environment, recourse can be taken to Article 32 in order to stop the cause of harm or pollution.
Right to freedom from noise pollution
Noise pollution is a form of a nuisance that can cause serious damage to human health. It can cause irritation, annoyance, high blood pressure, damage ears, and disturb the sleep cycle. Thus, the freedom from noise pollution forms another important element of the right to life. It has been held that the right to live in an environment free from noise pollution is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution in some landmark cases like Free Legal Aid Cell Shri Sugan Chand Aggrawal alias Bhagatji v. Govt. of NCT of Delhi and others (2001), and P.A. Jacob v.Superintendent of Police, Kottayam, (1993).
Additionally, the matter again came in front of the Supreme Court recently where the use of loudspeakers was in question. The issue was related to the noise pollution caused by the use of loudspeakers in temples and mosques. The Court held that no one can be forced to be the audience of the religious message being spread and the protection of religious freedom cannot be availed here. Thus, it was observed that the resulting noise pollution violated the right to life under Article 21.
A similar judgement was also given by the National Green Tribunal while hearing a plea regarding the noise pollution caused by gurudwaras in Hoshiarpur, Punjab. It was held that a noise-free environment was a part of the right to life and also that its violation amounted to a criminal offence.
Right to privacy
The concerns about the right to privacy were raised for the first time in the case of Kharak Singh v. State of U.P. (1962). The main issue was related to the surveillance of the suspects. The Court linked the right to privacy with the right to protect life and personal freedom. Thus, if surveillance was intrusive and gravely encroached upon the privacy of any citizen, it violates both Articles 19(1)(d) and 21.
In Naz Foundation v. Government of NCT of Delhi (2009), privacy was defined as “a private space in which a man may become and remain himself.” Thus, it is basically the right to be left alone.
However, in Govind v. State of Madhya Pradesh (1975), Justice Mathew placed a caution on the right to privacy by holding that it was not an absolute right. He held that fundamental rights have their penumbral zones, and like any other fundamental right, the right to privacy was also subject to reasonable restrictions on grounds of compelling public interest. Therefore, reasonable intrusions like that from legislative action, administrative/executive order, and judicial orders are permissible and do not violate the right to privacy under Article 21.
Another landmark judgment on the right to privacy is Justice K.S. Puttuswamy (Retd) v. Union of India (2018). The case was filed by a retired justice K.S. Puttuswamy, claiming that the government’s scheme of introducing biometric-based identity cards to avail government services and benefits was an infringement of the citizen’s right to privacy. The honorable Supreme Court after listening to both sides held that the right to privacy was an essential part of the right to life. It also outlined the ambit of the right to privacy upholding that it included autonomy over decisions relating to personal choices (example, eating beef), bodily integrity (example, reproduction and abortion rights), and even the protection of personal information (example, health records). Along with this, the Court also expressed that there was a need for the introduction of a data protection regime in India.
Rights to education
For the first time, in the case of Mohini Jain v. State of Karnataka and Ors. (1992), the right to education was recognised as a part of the right to life and personal freedom under Article21.
Also, while hearing a petition on the validity of the Right to Education Act, which provided free and compulsory education till the completion of primary school education for all children between the age groups 6-14, the right to education was outlined as a part of the right to life under Article 21. A three bench consisting of Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia, K.S. Radhakrishnan and Swantanter Kumar held that education was instrumental in providing the means to live a life with dignity and hence, it was an important facet of the right to life.
Education is the key to liberation and opens up the doors to a fulfilling life. With education, other rights like food, shelter, and livelihood are also secured collaterally. This is because the right to education has also been added as a fundamental right with the insertion of Article 21A by the 86th Amendment.
Right to information
Right to know was included under the ambit of Article 21 in the case of R.P. Ltd. v. Indian Express (1988). The Court highlighted the importance of the right to information in a participatory democracy. It was observed that getting to know the information regarding various government workings and other issues that affect our rights as citizens is important so that we are able to make an informed choice. Article 21 guarantees personal liberty and freedom, but it can be exercised only when one has all the information affecting our choices. Thus, in order to make truly free decisions, the right to information is essential. As a result, the Right to Information Act, of 2005 was brought into force to secure this right of the citizens.
Right to a speedy trial
In India, criminal cases have a history of being dragged on for years. The persons worst hit by this trend are the under-trial prisoners. For years the case goes on and the person is forced to spend time even greater than the punishment prescribed for that particular crime in prison while the case is pending. This takes away crucial years from the life of a person. In the end, even if the person is acquitted, those years spent in prison are never coming back. This has caused overcrowding in the prisons. As a result, the prisoners are forced to live in unhygienic conditions with no facilities. As is often repeated, justice delayed is justice denied. This highlights the need for a speedy trial.
Consequentially, in the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar (1979), it was held that the right to a speedy trial was implicit in the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21. When a person is imprisoned for a longer period than required or is made to wait for the judgment for an unreasonable long period, it takes both his right to live a life and his personal liberty. In this case, the writ of habeas corpus was filed on behalf of several women, men, and children under-trial prisoners waiting for a decision for years behind the bars. The court also highlighted the importance of easy access to bail, more humane living standards, and a reduction in time from arrest to trial.
Right to livelihood
Initially, in the case of Re Sant Ram (1960) before the Maneka Gandhi judgment was delivered, the view accepted was that the right to livelihood can be covered under Article 19, or even under Article 16 in a limited sense, but not under Article 21. Thus, it was construed that the word ‘life’ did not include ‘livelihood’.
But post-Maneka judgment, Article 21 was given a broad interpretation. Thus, in the case of Board of Trustees of the Port of Bombay v. Dilipkumar Raghavendranath Nandkarni (1982), the Court came to a conclusion that the word ‘life’ in Article 21 included ‘livelihood’ as well.
In the case of Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985), also known as the famous ‘pavement dwellers case’, it was observed that no person can survive or have a life worth living without having the means of earning that living, i.e. having a means of livelihood. It was also added that the state may not actively provide a means of livelihood to every person, but it cannot take away someone’s right to livelihood, except according to a fair and just procedure established by the law.
Thus, in the case of DTC v. DTC Mazdoor Congress (1990), where an employee was laid off without any notice and a valid reason, the court held it was violative of Article 21 as the right to livelihood is a part of the right to life.
Right to die
It has always been a controversial question whether the right to life also includes the right to die. The tussle between the right to life and the right to die started in the case of State of Maharashtra v. Maruti Sripati Dubal (1986). The Bombay High Court held that the right to life under Article 21 includes the right to die. Thus, Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which penalised suicide was struck down for being unconstitutional. This judgment was upheld by the Supreme Court in the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India (1994). It was observed that the right to life includes the right to live a dignified life and not to live a forced life. It was also stated that suicide is not a crime but a cry for help, and hence does not deserve punishment.
Section 309 was an archaic law that criminalised ‘attempt to suicide’, i.e., anyone who survived a suicide attempt could be booked under this Section. The basic idea was that the right to life did not include the right to die. It was considered to be a crime against both the state and religion. However, even though it was held to be unconstitutional, it continued to remain in the Indian Penal Code. However, its scope was significantly reduced in with the coming of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 which prescribed that it shall be presumed that the person committing suicide was under severe stress unless proved otherwise and shall not be tried under Section 309.
However, this decision was overruled in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (1996). it was observed that Article 21 preserves the natural right to life and suicide is not at all-natural. It is an unnatural termination of life, which is the antithesis of the right to life. The court also established a distinction between suicide and euthanasia. This case finally upheld that the right to life includes the right to live with dignity, but only until the natural end of life. Therefore, the right to life did not include the right to die. Thus. euthanasia was also not recognised to be legal. The case of Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India (2011) proved to be a landmark judgment that for the first time recognised passive euthanasia in India. Even though the plaintiff was denied euthanasia since she was not declared to be brain dead, it was held that passive euthanasia could be administered with the prior consent of the concerned High Court.
Finally, in the case of Common Cause v. Union of India (1999), it was recgonised that the right to life encompassed the right to die with dignity. Thus, an adult with the requisite mental capacity to make an informed decision could refuse medical treatment or request for withdrawal of life-support systems. The concept of ‘living wills’ was also introduced.
Right to travel abroad
In Satwant Singh Sawhney v. Assistant Passport Officer, New Delhi (1967), Supreme Court upheld that the right to travel abroad was an essential element of ‘personal liberty’ under the right to life.
This judgment was again upheld in the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978). This case was the harbinger for the future board and liberal interpretations of Article 21. It was in this case that for the first time the scope of Article 21 was widened and a subjective interpretation was taken. The meaning of personal liberty was expanded to include the right to travel abroad. Also, it was, in this case, the Apex court took a step toward ‘due process of law’ from the ‘procedure established by law’.
Right to free legal aid
The right to free legal aid was held to be a fundamental right under Article 21 in the case of Hussainara Khatoon and Ors. v. Home Secreatary, State of Bihar (1979). Justice P.N. Bhagwati observed that free legal aid was an essential part of ‘reasonable, fair and just procedure for anyone who is undergoing a trial and this is guaranteed by Article 39A and is implied in Article 21.
Article 21 guarantees the right to life and personal liberty, except against the procedure established by the law. However, a person incapable of defending himself/herself against the procedure established by the law is clearly deprived of his/her right under Article 21. Free legal aid ensures that equal opportunity is provided to the downtrodden, poor, and weaker sections of society to defend themselves and their right to life and liberty.
Also, the right to free legal aid is enshrined in Article 39A by the 42nd Amendment Act under the Directive Principles of State Policy. It states that the State must endeavor to provide equal access to justice to everyone and free legal aid to the ones hindered by economic or other disabilities.
Right against handcuffing
Usually, the accused and undertrials are handcuffed to prevent them from escaping. However, it is not required in all cases. Over the years, it has been considered to be a humiliating practice that restricts the freedom of an accused or undertrial who may even be declared innocent by the court. Thus, in the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration (1978), it was observed that Article 21 forbids the deprivation of personal liberty, except in accordance with the procedure established by law. Handcuffing deprived a person of his liberty and all the accused and undertrials must be given the minimum freedom of movement. Thus, the right against handcuffing was also included under the ambit of Article 21.
Right against inhuman treatment
Prisoners have been subjected to cruel and inhuman forms of punishment like handcuffing and using chains and iron rods to punish them. Courts have taken notice of the fact that such inhuman treatment was completely unjustified and violated Article 21. It has been established that some forms of restraining instruments can be used but only in special and restricted cases. In the case of Kadra Pehadiya v. State of Bihar (1980) where four undertrial prisoners were chained to iron rods, the Apex Court denounced this practice as inhuman and unjustified. The Court ordered the immediate removal of those chains. Also, in Sunil Gupta v. State of MP (1990), the handcuffing of the accused who had voluntarily surrendered and refused to bail out for public good was held to be inhuman in nature and violative of Article 21.
Right against sexual harassment
In a recent case of Union of India and Ors. v. Mudrika Singh (2021), Justice D.Y. Chnadrachud, and A.S. Bopanna recognised the right against sexual harassment as a part of Article 21. It was held that the right against sexual harassment was entrenched in all persons and is an important element of the right to life and dignity. Sexual harassment is a grave crime that attacks the dignity of a person, thus attracting the application of Article 21.
Also, in the landmark judgment of Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan (1997), Justice Verma stated, “The meaning and content of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution of India are of sufficient amplitude to compass all the facets of gender equality including prevention of sexual harassment or abuse.” In this case, sexual harassment, particularly at the workplace, was held to be violative of the right to equality, life, and liberty. Thus, it breached Articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Indian Constitution.
Right to sleep
Interestingly, it has been held that the right to sleep is also a part of Article 21. The Supreme Court, while ruling that the police action on the sleeping crowd in Ramlila Maidan amounted to a breach of their right, observed that the right to sleep was a crucial right. Every citizen has a right to sound sleep as it is fundamental to the right to life. The Court said that “sleep is essential for a human being to maintain the delicate balance of health necessary for its very existence and survival. Sleep is, therefore, a fundamental and basic requirement without which the existence of life itself would be in peril.” Thus, acknowledging the health benefits of sleep for a human, the right to sleep had been made a fundamental right under Article 21.
Right against solitary confinement
Solitary confinement, as defined in Black’s Law Dictionary, refers to “the separate confinement of a prisoner, with only occasional access of any other person, and that only at the discretion of the jailer; in a stricter sense, the complete isolation of a prisoner from all human society, and his confinement in a cell so arranged that he has no direct intercourse with or sight of any human being, and no employment or instruction.”
Over the years, it has been denounced as an extreme form of torture that violates the prisoner’s rights. In the case of Unni Krishnan and Ors. v. State of Andhra Pradesh and Ors.(1993), solitary confinement was held to be violative of the right to life and personal freedom granted under Article 21. It breaches basic human rights, capable of causing mental illness, physical pain, and suffering. It degrades a person’s dignity and is a cruel form of punishment. Thus, every prisoner has a right against solitary confinement as a part of Article 21.
Right to reputation
In the case of the Board of Trustees of the Port of Bombay v. Dilipkumar Raghvendranath Nadkarni (1983), it was observed that the right to reputation is an important facet of Article 21. Reputation is an important element of living a dignified life which is secured by the right to life. Even though our constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and expression, it cannot be misused to defame someone. Moreover, reasonable restrictions can be constitutionally placed on this freedom. In fact, defamation is also a criminal offence under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code. Thus, to ensure that everybody lives a dignified life with a good reputation, the right to reputation has been included under Article 21.
Right against public hanging
In the case of Attorney General of India v. Lachma Devi and Ors. (1985), the practice of public hanging was held to be violative of the right to life and personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. It was observed that it was a barbaric and archaic practice that must be given up. It takes away a person’s dignity from him and is certainly a ‘revolting spectacle’.
Right to water and electricity
In a slew of judgments, various High Courts across the country have held the right to water and electricity to be an essential element of the right to life under Article 21. The honorable Kerala High while listening to a writ petition filed by two KESB employees stated that “water and electricity are an integral part of the right to life within the meaning of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.”
In another case, Madan Lal v. State of Himachal Pradesh (2018), a division bench led by CJ Surya Kant and J. Ajay Mohan Goel held that water and electricity formed a part of the basic necessities of life and hence cannot be separated from the right to life under Article 21.
Rights of prisoners to have necessities of life
The word ‘life’ has been given a wide connotation by our judiciary. It equally applies to the prisoners. In the case of Marie Andres v. Superintendent, Tihar Jail (1974), it stated by Justice Krishna Iyer, “imprisonment does not spell farewell to fundamental rights although, by a realistic re-appraisal, Courts will refuse to recognise the full panoply of Part III enjoyed by a free citizen”. Thus, not even the stone walls and iron bars of the prison can deprive a person of his fundamental rights. That implies that the prisoners have the protection of Article 21.
In the case of Francis Coralie v. Delhi Administration (1981), it was observed that ‘life’ has multiple facets including adequate nutrition and food, clothing and shelter, access to education, ability and opportunity of expressing oneself in diverse forms, move freely, and interact with fellow human beings. Thus, all the prisoners have the right to these basic necessities as a part of Article 21.
Right against custodial harassment
India has witnessed several instances of custodial violence. However, it has been recognised that custodial violence is a violation and complete degradation of human dignity. What makes it more aggravating is that it is inflicted by the state itself which is the so-called protector of our rights.
In the landmark judgment of DK Basu v. State of West Bengal (1996), it was stated that “worst violations of human rights take place during the course of an investigation when the police with a view to secure evidence or confession often resorts to third-degree methods including torture and adopt techniques of screening arrest by either not recording the arrest or describing the deprivation of liberty merely as a prolonged interrogation.” This clearly amounts to a violation of the right to life and dignity under Article 21. Thus, the Court laid down detailed guidelines to protect the rights of the prisoners and prevent instances of custodial harassment.
What is Article 21A of the Indian Constitution
Education is an important component of a meaningful life for any person. It liberates a person from the shackles of ignorance and empowers him to achieve his desired goals. Education is also an important factor in a nation’s progress.
Initially, the right to education was not a part of the fundamental rights. Though it was prescribed under Article 45 as a part of the Directive Principles of State Policy, it was not an enforceable right. Finally, in 2002, Article 21A was added to Part III of the Indian Constitution, and the right to education was made a fundamental right by the 86th Amendment Act.
Article 21A provided every child in the age group six to fourteen years with the right to free and compulsory education. It has been reiterated several times that the right to education flows from the right to life and it was finally manifested in the form of this article.
However, there are certain drawbacks to this article as well. Firstly, it does not include the children below the age of six years and the ones falling between 14-18 years of age. Scientifically, 0-6 age is a highly impressionable age and maximum cognitive development takes place in this age. Also, once a child completes education till he turns 14 and then does not have enough financial resources to continue his further education, his education is left in the middle and he cannot seek any good and stable employment on the basis of this education. Nevertheless, Article 21A has marked a positive step in the direction of raising the Indian literacy levels. It was after this Section was added that the Right to Education Act was brought into force in 2009.
Right to life in conflict with death penalty
There has always been a conflict between the right to life and the death penalty. The death penalty is inherently violative of the right to life. The validity, utility, and morality of the death penalty have always been in question. There are several judicial decisions that deal with this conundrum.
Firstly, in the case of Jagmohan v. State of U.P.(1972), the death penalty was recognised as valid under the constitutional provisions. It was held that it does not violate Articles 14, 19 and 21. This was because it took away someone’s right to live in accordance with the procedure established by the law.
However, in Rajindra Prasad v. State of U.P. (1979), the learned judge pleaded against capital punishment. It was observed in this case that capital punishment was not justified unless it can be shown that the criminal is extremely dangerous to society.
Finally, the doctrine of ‘rarest of the rare’ cases was established in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980). It was held that capital punishment was not in violation of the right to life under Article 21 when done in accordance with the just, fair, and reasonable procedure established by a valid law. Also, it was observed that capital punishment must be given only in the rarest of rare cases so that no innocent is sentenced to death.
Is right to life an absolute right
No, the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is not an absolute right. It is stated in Article 21 itself that life and personal liberty can be taken away as per the procedure established by law. However, a shift came in this ideology with the famous Maneka Gandhi judgment where it was held that not only the life and liberty is to be taken away in accordance with the procedure established as per the prevailing law, but it should also be just and fair, i.e., as per the due process of law. It should not be arbitrary or oppressive.
However, the right to life has been provided with additional protection, i.e. in the case of a national emergency when all other fundamental rights are suspended, Article 21 along with Article 20 are still functional. This implies that the right to life and liberty cannot be taken away even when an emergency has been proclaimed in the country.
Right to life in other countries
The United States of America
The following amendments in the USA deal with the right to life and personal liberty:
- Fourth Amendment– in 1791, the American citizens were granted rights against ‘unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons, houses, papers, and effects’. It sought to protect the personal liberty of the citizens.
- Fifth Amendment– It prescribed that no one shall be compelled to be a witness against himself or be deprived of liberty or property, without due process of law.
- Sixth Amendment– It granted the right to a speedy and public trial, and obtain witnesses in favor when accused of any crime.
- Eighth Amendment– It stipulated that the state shall not inflict excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishments on anyone.
- Fourteenth Amendment- It laid down that all persons born or naturalised in the US shall not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.
One of the notable things here is that the US follows the principle of ‘due process of law’ and not the ‘procedure established by law’, as followed in India. In the US, the courts have wider powers to not only look into the validity of the procedure followed but also into the reasonableness of the law that prescribes the procedure which deprives a person of his life or liberty. After the Maneka Gandhi judgment, the Indian judiciary has also shifted its approach towards ‘due process of law’.
The United Kingdom
The earliest instance of the mention of the right to life in England was the Magna Carta of 1215, which proclaimed, “no freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseized, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed without a legal and valid proceeding, except in the law of the land.” The Magna Carta was a powerful instrument of self-protection for the people against the oppressive tyrants.
Presently the right to life and liberty is available to all the people in the UK, regardless of whether they are British citizens or not, by the virtue of the Human Rights Act of 1998. Article 2 of the Act provides that no one shall be deprived of his/her life and proper investigation must take place if someone dies under unexpected or suspicious circumstances. Thus, the state is not allowed to breach this right, even under an emergency, except only when it is absolutely necessary. Additionally, Article 5 guarantees the right to liberty and security. It protects people from their freedoms being taken away arbitrarily, except when the law prescribes it.
The right to life is one of the most significant human rights that safeguard not only one’s life and liberty but also other elements of life like livelihood, dignity, shelter, privacy, health, etc. that make living worthwhile. It is not absolute and can be curtailed by the procedure established by law. However, it has been upheld by the courts that not only the procedure followed should be valid, but it should also be reasonable and established by a valid and just law. In India, Article 21 guarantees the right to life and personal dignity and has been given a wide interpretation by our judiciary. It is also available in other countries and under international statutes. Also, it has come into controversy several times on issues like capital punishment and euthanasia. Nevertheless, the right to life has always triumphed in the debate.
What is Article 21?
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution states that every person has got the right to life and personal liberty and it cannot be taken away except in accordance with the procedure established by the law.
Is the right to life an absolute right?
No, the right to life is not an absolute right and can be taken away as per the procedure established by law. However, it is not suspended even during an emergency.
Does the right to life include the right to die?
It has been held that the right to life includes the right to live with dignity, and thus a person who is suffering from an incurable disease or is being kept alive through life support systems can avail his right to die, by the means of a living will. It is only passive euthanasia that is recognised in India.
What is the difference between the ‘due process of law’ and the ‘procedure established by the law’?
The ‘due process of law’ is an American concept that prescribes that the right to life can be taken away in accordance with a law that is just and reasonable. However, the ‘procedure established by law’ prescribes that the right to life can be taken away in accordance with the procedure established by law, i.e. only the validity of the procedure followed is taken into consideration, and not the justness and fairness of the law establishing that procedure. Indian judiciary made a departure from the ‘procedure established by law’ to the ‘due process of law’ in the Maneka Gandhi judgment.
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