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Article 21: Right to Life

Fundamental rights have been divided under the seven heads in Part III of the Indian Constitution, one of them being the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the constitution which provides that no one shall be deprived of the right to life except by the provisions of law. In 2002, Article 21A was added in the Constitution which provided free education for children between 6 to 14 years.
Written by:
Prachi Darji
Published on
27-Aug-19

In the last few years, India has witnessed a climate of hostility among different communities, creating a sense of insecurity among minorities based on religion, caste, or region.

Be it UP/Bihar, workers being lynched in the State of Maharashtra, a Dalit family beaten up for skinning a cow in Gujarat, or mob attacking a Muslim family’s house on suspicion of cow slaughter in Muzaffarnagar, UP; a couple killed, 2 others injured, and 2 girls raped in Haryana on account of beef-eating suspicions. 

 

Incidents like these make us question the competence of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees 'Protection of Life and Personal Liberty'. But is it really what we see nowadays around us.

Union minister, Arun Jaitley, recently said, “Nobody has the right to take the law in their own hands. If someone does that, it should be condemned and the person should be arrested and prosecuted. We are the world’s largest democracy. We have an element of tolerance and mutual respect. There is no justification which can be done for violence.

Article 21 and Article 21 A of the Indian constitution are to be protected as they are the broadest fundamental right.

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution – A Fundamental Right

The Constitution itself classifies the Fundamental Rights under the seven heads among which 'right to life' is one. Thus, Article 21 of the Indian Constitution simply says that – 

“No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.”

Thus Article 21 signifies and means that no member of executive or government shall be entitled to interfere with life and liberty of an individual unless supported by provisions of law.

In short, if the State or any of its agent deprives an individual of his/her Rights and Personal liberty, such action can only be justified if it is backed by established laws. In the case of Munn vs Illinois (94 U.S. 113), Right to Life was described in the following words:

“By the term, ‘life' as used here is something that is meant to be more than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those with limbs.” 

This statement, has been repeatedly quoted by our Supreme Court, where Bhagwati J. held: “We think that right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, namely, the bare necessaries of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing, and shelter including facilities for reading, writing, and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing with fellow human beings.” 

The most astonishing part of the Article 21 is that it applies to even non-citizens of India (delegates, tourists, diplomats, etc.) - “…have the right to live, so long as they are here, with human dignity, just as the State is under an obligation to protect the life of every citizen in this country, likewise the State is under an obligation to protect the life of the persons who are not citizens”. (Chairman, Railway Board v. Chandrima Das, AIR 2000 SC 988).    Article 21 derives its life from Directive Principles of the state policy, mainly Article 39 (Principles of policy to be followed by the state) and Article 41 (Right to work, to educate, and to voluntarily serve public assistance in certain cases). 

Protection of Life and Personal Liberty

Remember Ajmal Kasab, one of the terrorists who were caught during the 26/11 attacks? Despite the fact that he was a terrorist and all evidences were against him, he was given a fair trial and proper living conditions due to the Right to speedy, fair, and open trial and Prisoners Right to be served the basic necessities of life. In a series of cases, the Supreme Court has validated the rights that have been guaranteed to us by stating that any procedure established by law and enacted by the legislature should be fair, reasonable, and must be in due accordance to the law while underlining the theme that Article 14, Article 19, and Article 21 are not mutually exclusive but they coexist, empower, and support each other. 

Rights under Article 21

As complex as the man himself and the society he lives in is, the Indian Constitution bestows certain fundamental rights under Article 21 for not only for the physical existence of life but also for the quality of life. Here are a few rights which we as citizens must be aware of and which form a part and parcel of Article 21:

  • Right to Livelihood – It is the fundamental right of every citizen under Article 21 of this country to live with human dignity, free from exploitation and practice any profession to support his livelihood. The magnitude and contents of the components of this right would depend upon the extent of the economic development of the country. 

  • Right to Decent Environment – This right under Article 21 of the Indian constitution covers a wide variety of rights not just for humans but also for wildlife, forests, lakes, ancient monuments, fauna-flora, unpolluted air, water, and maintenance of the ecological balance. 

  • Right to Good Health – This right as provided under Article 21 ensures that the basic requirements which must exist in order to enable a person to live with human dignity and medical treatment. No State has the right to take any action which will deprive a person of the enjoyment of these basic essentials. Which means failure on a part of a government hospital to provide timely medical treatment is a violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution but the same does not extend to private hospitals.

  • Right to Food, Water, Medical Care, & Shelter – As good as this right sounds, as citizens we must provide at least basic shelter to those who are in need and ignored by the government because no human being must be deprived of food, shelter, or water.

  • Right to Education – Every citizen has a right to free education under Article 21 until the minimum age of 14 years. Though we don’t get to see such rights being practised as stated but then we must encourage those who are deprived of education, due to their economic capabilities, to study via government-aided schools and to entitle them of their right as provided under Article 21 and Article 21 A of the Indian constitution. 

  • Right to Speedy, Fair, and Open Trial – As good as it sounds, we all are aware how speedy trials take place in India where dialogues like “tareekh pe tareekh” are used to mock the system. But when it comes to fair and open trials even an accused of rape or a terrorist like Kasab were given a chance to present their cases. Which shows that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is there not just for ordinary citizens but is also guaranteed to prisoners.

  • Prisoners’ Right to Basic Necessities of Life – We have already mentioned above how well this right is used that even a convict of a heinous crime is provided with basic amenities to live peacefully in prison. Article 21 of the Indian constitution provides that everybody should have access to the basic necessities of life.

  • Right of Women to be Treated with Decency, and Dignity – This right as a part of Article 21 reminds us of a famous dialogue: “‘Na’ sirf ek shabd nahi ek poora vaakya hai... isko kisi explanation ki zarurat nahi hoti... when said by a girl.” And to uphold this right, the Supreme Court in the State of Maharashtra vs. Madukar Narayan Mandikar (1991) stated that every woman is entitled to privacy and no one can invade her privacy as an when one likes. The Act of Rape against women is definitely a violation of her fundamental rights especially violation of her right to life with liberty as provided under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

  • Right Against Sexual Harassment at a Workplace – The Supreme Court, after a series of cases, has held that the ‘right to life’ under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution along with other fundamental rights are guaranteed to us by constitutional amplitude to cover gender equality including the Right against Sexual Harassment. The scope of Article 21 has been widened by the Supreme Court to a great extent.

  • Right to Privacy – In light of the past few incidents where privacy of an individual was subject to debate by our members of the parliament, one must remember that it is one of the essential rights under personal liberty. Thus it is a part of Article 21 and it is a right to be free from restrictions or encroachments on his person whether they are imposed directly or indirectly. Though it is nowhere mentioned under the Constitution or under Article 21 or any other Article of Part IV of the constitution, an unauthorised intrusion would amount to a violation of privacy.

  • Right to Reputation – Man being a social animal thrives on the fact that one's reputation and dignity goes hand in hand for making life worth living. The Supreme Court in Kiran Bedi’s case held that a good reputation was an element of personal security and is protected by the Constitution under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The right to enjoyment of private reputation was of ancient origin and was necessary to human society.

  • Right Against Solitary Confinement – This right draws its power from Article 19(1), which deals with particular species of freedom when it comes to confinement within prison boundaries. The right has been made a part and parcel of Article 21.

  • Right to Legal Aid – Not everyone can afford legal expenses when it comes to fighting long and exhausting cases in courts. In such scenarios, the government organises legal aid camps to provide legal aid to those who are deprived or are economically weak as a right given to them under Article 21. In case an accused is not told of this right and therefore he remains unrepresented by a lawyer, his trial would be considered as an act of arbitrariness and would be subject to set aside.

  • Right to Health and Medical Aid of Workers – After a series of cases, courts have held that the right to health and medical aid was made to protect the health and vigour of a worker while in service or after retirement. It is a fundamental right under Article 21 to make the life of a workman meaningful and purposeful.

  • Right Against Public Hanging – No person shall be deprived of his personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and unfair trial which includes public hanging in the absence of any law prescribed. This right was given in order to make sure that no one is subjected to inhuman torture, and is given a chance of fair and open trail.

  • Right Against Cruel and Unusual Punishment – This right under Article 21 can be challenged by an already established law, stating that to arrive at a sentence of death is valid under CrPC. Courts are thus bound to decide whether the execution of sentence should be carried out or should be altered into imprisonment for life.

  • Right to Information – This right which is a subset of Article 21 was transformed into an act known as 'Right to Information Act, 2002' allowing any citizen to request information from a public authority and bounding the governing authorities to reply within a stipulated time of 30 days.

  • Right to Compensation – Right to claim monetary compensation for the violation of rights under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has also been recognised in several cases.

These are a few basic rights which are recognised and guaranteed to every citizen of this country by the constitution of India. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is a broad chapter and includes various rights as its part and parcel.

Article 21 A - Right to Elementary Education

Article 21A of the Indian Constitution was added in the constitution in the year 2002 by way of the 86th Amendment and guarantees the Right to Elementary Education. It states that it is the right of children between 6 to 14 years to get free education. Article 21A came into effect on 1st April 2010 and if anybody violates Article 21 A of the constitution, he/she can be punished for the same. 

For more queries or confusion regarding Article 21- Right to life, ask for expert legal advice from us now!

Remedies against Violation 

With ever-growing hatred and polarisation of religious and political thoughts, one must always remember his/her rights when encountering actions taken by executive members or by someone who has violated the right of personal liberty as provided under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Article 32 (Right to Constitutional Remedies) of the Constitution can be invoked by any citizen in case his/her fundamental rights have been violated by any member of the State or executive.

The provision of Article 21 and Article 21A itself being a part of the fundamental rights, cannot be denied to any citizen except in the case of State emergency (Article 359).

An application made under Article 32 in violation of the fundamental rights under Article 21 cannot be dismissed on technical grounds. Such applications can be made under any prescribed writs, and the Supreme Court shall protect these rights by providing appropriate relief as deemed fit.

We must also not forget that these rights are given to us by the State and hence, available only against the State and not against an individual, in that case, one must seek remedy under ordinary law and not under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

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External Links:

[1] Article 39 - The objective of article 39 of the Indian constitution is to provide the guidelines and a direction to the state in terms of policymaking.

[2] Constitution of India - Sitemap of a list of Articles and Acts as drafted in the Constitution of India.