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Article 21- Right to Life and Personal Liberty- Evolution in Changing times

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

Right to Life and Personal Libert


Article 21 of the Indian Constitution reads- "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law."

This right protects the inherent Right to Life of individuals and has a wide scope that has been used by the Indian judiciary to broaden the ambit of protection and ease and lays down the principle of dignified human existence instead of mere animal existence.


In a renowned case in the USA, Field, J., in Munn v. Illinois, observed:

"By the term, 'life' as here used something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body by the amputation of an arm or leg...."

The concept of Liberty in the Indian Constitution that was inspired by the 5th and 14th Amendments of the US Constitution was considered to encompass a very wide meaning of the term.

But in contrast, the Indian Constitution makers had combined the concept of liberty with the word 'personal' and attenuated its scope. But this was not an oversight, as the Indian Constitution had already provided other liberties under Article 19 as well as other provisions of Part III of the Constitution.


The Judiciary although had initially supported a strictly narrow interpretation of personal liberty in A.K. Gopalan v. the State of Madras, where personal liberty was limited to the body or person of the individual, the latter decisions however showed some advancement in protection and promotion of human rights.

In cases such as Kharak Singh v. the State of U.P., Satwant Singh Sawhney v. A. P. O. New Delhi, and other such cases, the Supreme Court has opined that Article 21 is capable of being put into much wider and more liberal interpretations and that such interpretation extended beyond the life and body of the person concerned.

Interestingly, according to A. V. Dicey, the Right to Personal Liberty in England has been understood to be a person's right, that prevents imprisonment, arrest, or any form of other physical coercion that is not backed by legal justification.

Over time, the scope of Article 21 has been broadened to include a wide range of remedies to the citizens of India and foreigners. But the scope of the Article far exceeds what we have read and acknowledged from judicial orders.

It was after the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, that the Apex Court started to take cognizance of the issues faced by the poor sections of the society and began widening the interpretation of Right to Life and Personal Liberty, to promote the general welfare of the weakened sections of the society and State.

This is the point from where the Judiciary began establishing and propagating newer dimensions and interpretations to the scope and meaning of Article 21.

This was also the time when the Judiciary encouraged PILs filed by jurists, advocates, and social activists on behalf of various communities or groups of people who were being deprived of their basic human rights.

In the same spirit of promoting human rights and a democratic demeanor, the Supreme Court has continually given progressive meaning to the concepts of 'Procedure established by law', 'liberty', and 'life'.

Although this right akin to the other fundamental rights is also subject to certain limitations and restrictions, the phrase 'Procedure established by law' prevents any arbitrariness in law or procedure and requires that any such action taken must be reasonable, fair, and just, that is, it must abide by the principles of Natural Justice.

Article 21- Right to Life and Personal Liberty


It was rightly observed by Justice H. R. Khanna in A.D.M. Jabalpur v. Shiv Kant Shukla, that Right to Life and Liberty prevailed among many civilized societies. Hence it was only natural that it was instituted by the Indian Constitution makers.

In the modern sense, this development might seem very trivial because of the integration of these rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations and has been normalized as a basic human right. But for an under-developed nation, one that was still considered to have a proxy democracy, it was a massive step forward in the democratization process.

The broad interpretations of this right also helped in remodeling the prison administration process and treatment of prisoners as well as those undergoing trial, evident from the case of D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal.

For any person to be able to exercise the Right to Personal Liberty, must also mean a life that would be devoid of any interference from unsustainable laws or governance. It must also be noted that for any law, ordinance, or policy to intervene with Personal Liberty, it must pass a 3-tier test-

  1. A procedure must be prescribed

  2. The procedure must be able to withstand one or more of the Fundamental Rights as laid down in Article 19, which may be applicable in a particular circumstance

  3. It should also be able to withstand the test under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution

Any further discussion on Life and Personal Liberty must also warrant an analysis of Preventive Detention and its constriction on these rights. The object of Preventive Detention is to prevent reprehensible activities, but more than not, this Act is used in the political agenda to limit or constraint the rights of individuals.

Hence, it is highly coveted that detaining authorities are to be certain about the exercise of this power and upon questioning, can show that the disputed detention has been strictly according to the Procedure Established by Law.

The Constitution makers were aware of the powers granted to the Executive and Legislature and hence, it has been construed that the word 'Law' in Article 21 is not limited to the legislation made by the Parliament, but also includes the Ordinances that may be passed by the Executive.

The Executive shall become tyrannical if they were permitted to alter or control these essential rights. Hence, the Supreme Court interpreting the word 'Law' in Article 21 in conjunction with Article 123(2) pined that-

"...… the Constitution makes no distinction in principle between a law made by the legislature and an ordinance issued by the President. Both, equally, are products of the exercise of legislative power and, therefore, both are equally subject to the limitations which the Constitution has placed upon that power".

Similarly, the rulemaking powers of the Supreme Court under Article 145 and that of the High Court under Article 225 also come within the ambit of the meaning of 'Law' in Article 21.

Article 21- Right to Life and Personal Libert


In conclusion, the right under Article 21 is one of complex intricacies and interpretations, which requires constantly widening its scope to suit the interest of the public in general.

With liberal interpretation and application, we have seen that this Article has given way to Sexual Harassment law, Fundamental rights- Right to Education, other basic rights of Speedy trial and Free legal aid, etc.

Therefore, we must question the validity and integrity of any law and ordinance that even attempts to hinder this sacrosanct right and at the same time keep in check the Executive's activities in the implementation of law and policy.

For a more detailed understanding of the scope of Article 21, check out this comprehensive article by iPleaders.

Happy reading!

Any suggestions and questions are highly welcome.

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