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: (a) Equal protection means equal protection under equal circumstances; (b) The state can make reasonable classification for purposes of legislation; (c) Presumption of reasonableness is in favour of legislation; (d) 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.
Equal protection of laws guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution, does not mean that all laws should be general in character and universal in application. It does not mean that same laws should apply to all persons.
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Varying needs of different classes of persons often require separate treatment. In fact, equal treatment in unequal circumstances would amount to inequality. Therefore, reasonable classification is not only permitted but it is necessary if the society is to progress.
Equality is for equals, that is to say, those who are equally circumstanced, are entitled to an equal treatment. The guarantee of equality does not imply that the same rules should be made applicable to all persons in spite of differences in their circumstance and conditions.
In Chircmjeet Lai v. Union of India, AIR 1951 S.C. 41, it was held that a single individual may be considered as a class in special circumstances.
Ordinarily, a legislation pertaining to a single person would not be valid unless it was possible for the court to discern the special circumstances differentiating that particular person from the rest. Such an Act will, however, be bad if it can be established that other persons having the same attributes, have not been included within the scope of the Act and that only a single person has been made the target though many exist in the same position.
If a classification is discernible in the Act, a presumption arises in favor of its constitutionality, but the person affected may show that while there are others having the same differentiating attributes as he, only he is covered by the Act and not others and then the Act will be void.
In Viklad Coal Merchant v. Union of India, (1984) 1 S.C.C. 620, it was held that Government is a class by itself and coal consignment to it is presumed to be in public interest.
Therefore, it can very well be said that preferences given to government against private traders in allotment of wagons for transporting coal was not discriminatory, hence not volatile of Article 14.
What Article 14 forbids is class-legislation. But it does not prohibit reasonable classification. However, the classification should not be arbitrary. It must rest upon some real and substantial distinction having some relationship which is reasonable to the things in respect of which the classification is sought to be made. Classification to be reasonable must fulfill the following two conditions:
(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 relation to the object sought to be achieved by the Act.
The classification can be based on the basis of geography or any other objects or occupations. It has been held In Shashi Mohan v. State of West Bengal, AIR 1958 S.C. 194.
In R.K. Garg v. Union of India, AIR 1981 S.C. 2138, the Supreme Court held that classification made by the Act between persons having black money and persons not having black money, is based on intelligible differentia having rational relation with the object of the Act.
In this case Section 3 of the Special Bearer Bonds (Immunities and Exemptions) Act, 1981, grants certain Immunities to persons who have invested his unaccountable money in the Special Bearer Bonds. They are not required to disclose the nature and source of acquisition of the Special Bearer Bonds. The Supreme Court rejected the contention that the classification is arbitrary rather held the Act valid.
In Nishi Maghu v. State of J. & K., AIR 1980 S.C. 1975, the Supreme Court held that a classification made on the basis of regional imbalance is vague and volatile of Article 14.
In a series of cases, the validity of several State laws creating special courts to deal with the problems of law and order has been questioned. The special court functions according to a procedure which is less elaborate and formal and hence less favourable to the accused than the ordinary criminal procedure.
A law creating special courts can, therefore, be sustained only if it makes a reasonable classification either of the offences or the persons triable by the special courts. Difficulties usually arise when the law establishing these courts fails to do so itself and instead leaves it to the government to decide this matter.
In such a situation, the courts have held that the law would not be invalid if it does not lay down the policy or principle to regulate and control administrative discretion to decide which cases, offences or persons would be triable by these courts.
In Prabhakar Rao vs. State of A.P., AIR 1983 S.C. 210, the A. P. Government reduced the age of superannuation of its employees from 58 to 55 by A.P. Public Employment (Regulation of Age of Superannuation) Act, 1984, as amended by the Act of 1985.
But soon after this, the government realised that serious injustice has been made to its employees and reversed its decision and substituted 58 to 55 years. The employees, who had retired during this period after having attained the age of 55 years, were deprived of the benefit of the higher age of superannuation.
It was held that the action of the government was arbitrary and discriminatory and violative of Article 14. There was, however, no reason to pick out a class of persons who deserved the same treatment from the benefits.
In Bhagwantl v. Union of India, AIR 1989 S.C. 2038, it has been held that classification between marriage during service and after retirement for the purpose of giving family pension is arbitrary and violative of Article 14.
Pension is payable on the consideration of past services rendered by the government servants. Same consideration applies to family pension. So there is no justification to keep post-retirement marriage out of the purview of the definition of the term “family” in Pension Rule.
In Mewa Ram vs. All India Medical Service, AIR 1989 S.C. 1256, it has been held that although the doctrine of equal pay for equal work is an accepted goal of the Constitution, yet it is not an absolute principle and it is open to the State to prescribe different scales of pay for different posts having regard to educational qualifications, duties and responsibilities of the post. Equality must be among equals. Un equals cannot claim equality.