Article 21: The Domain of Central Attention


This article talks about the principles involved with respect to the past and present of Article 21[1] of the Indian Constitution. It covers the various dimensions associated with how Article 21 moulded over the years by getting interpreted number of times in the highest judicial body of India i.e. the Supreme Court. This is the only article of the Indian constitution which has been interpreted the maximum times. The reason behind such a scenario is that a constitution has to survive for decades but as time changes, the thinking of the citizens of the country also changes. People evolve and grow which ultimately leads to new interpretations of the meaning of the word “life”.


Indian constitution is the supreme law of the country. Indian constitution is popularly known as the Grundnorm of Indian Democracy. It defines the Government’s fundamental political values, policies, processes, powers, rights and duties. The constitution is the paramount source of all other enacted laws and legislations in India which must align with the principles enshrined in the Indian constitution.

But why are these rights and powers needed ?

These rights and powers are needed for the smooth functioning of the “state”. A state is defined as “an independent political entity, occupying a defined territory the members of which are united together to resist external force and preservation of internal order”.

  • Most important right:

The whole constitution keeps the society moving with its laws as without it there would be chaos. There are various rights enshrined in the Constitution of India but the most important right which comes into play when we talk about the “life and liberty” of a person is Article 21 of the Indian constitution. This article forbids the denial of rights in accordance with legal processes. The core of the Indian constitution is Article 21. It is the most natural and forward-thinking clause in the Indian constitution.


Article 21 which is available to both citizens and non-citizens states no one shall be deprived of life and personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. The fundamental right to life and personal freedom is not a mysterious or uncontested right; rather, it served as the backdrop for political debate, ideological conflict, and most importantly, the fight to establish a robust legal system for India. We are fortunate that Article 21 has come to represent our right to express individual liberty as free agents in India. Article 21 is mainly inspired by the American constitution. The provision of American Constitution states that no person is deprived of life and personal liberty except according to due process of law. It means that the courts can control the power of both legislative and executive bodies of the state. Due process of law checks that the law which comes into question is fair and not arbitrary. The due process of law gives wide scope to grant protection to the rights of citizen. A person’s legal rights must be respected by the state at all times, and any laws that states pass must be in compliance with the law of the land. This is known as due process. All those countries which work on the principle of due process of law, their courts have the power to ask two questions from their legislature. First, if they have the power to create that law and second do those laws comply with the principles of natural justice? If the answer to both the questions is negative then the court has the power to declare that part of the law invalid. This was the very reason why BR Ambedkar wanted this phrase to be used in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. But sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Aiyer said that if we want to bring new social legislation in future then the ‘substantive’ law part would create problem. This is why India used the phrase procedure established by law in its constitution.

Till 1978 we got protection only from Arbitrary executive action which means only those executive actions that were not just, fair or reasonable could be challenged. But, we were still not granted any kind of protection from arbitrary legislative action. After 1978, came Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India case which elaborated the scope of Article 21.

This was all about procedure established by law, now, let’s try to understand about life and personal liberty



Every person has a right to life which is protected by the constitution of India. It is a fundamental aspect of a person’s life without which one cannot think of existing in the society. It entails being able to live a complete life with dignity and respect. Right to life forms the essence of our very existence. It forms the support system of all other rights as being the supreme of all of them. As per Article 21 and its judicial interpretations ‘life’ is not simply the ‘physical act of breathing’. It extends beyond mere animal existence and includes a canopy of other elements as well. It contains the bare needs that must be made available to every person in order for them to live fully and make the most of this life.

From right to privacy to right of LGBTQ community , right to life has become a part of our daily conversations.

The existence of life itself is necessary for the operation of all other rights, which enhance the quality of the life in issue. One may anticipate that the right to life itself would be in some ways primary because without it, none of the other rights would have any meaning or utility as human rights can only relate to living things.

Lets understand Right to life with a case law: Kharak Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh[2]

Facts of the Case:-

As a member of an armed gang, Kharak Singh, the petitioner, had been accused of committing a violent robbery in 1941. Due to a lack of proof, he was freed, but the Uttar Pradesh Police Regulations required the opening of a “history record” about him. These regulations gave habitual offenders or those who were likely to become criminals surveillance capabilities, including powers of home visits.


These regulations allowed the police to frequently visit Singh’s home at strange times and wake him up while he was asleep. In accordance with Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which also contains the right to privacy, the petitioner claimed that these laws violated his right to a life of dignity. Additionally, he claimed that the actions went against Article 19’s guarantee of personal freedoms.


The question of domiciliary visits was considered. Chief Justice Sinha held that this impacted on the right to life, protected under Article 21 of the Constitution, which implied the right to life with human dignity – and not mere animal existence. He considered that the power to enter someone’s house in the middle of the night to confirm their presence ran contrary to this right. This clearly violated Article 21 since the right to life could only be restricted by ‘law’; and the executive regulations of the Uttar Pradesh Police did not fall within the definition of ‘law’.



Our constitution says that “No person shall be deprived of personal liberty according to the procedure established by law”.

The right to personal liberty requires that persons not be subject to arrest and detention except as provided for by law, and provided that neither the arrest nor the detention is arbitrary*. According to the Indian Constitution, our law’s sole mission is to preserve our rights to liberty. As can be seen, the Indian Constitution is protected by the Supreme Court. In light of this, the Supreme Court is only required to ensure and protect fundamental rights. We have all of the legally recognised fundamental rights as Indian citizens. In order for us to enforce it whenever our fundamental rights are violated, we have the Supreme court of India.

Whenever any of our rights get violated, we have the right to constitutional remedy granted by the constitution of India. SC then practices judicial review through the writs and orders for the enforcement of Fundamental rights.

We’ll understand this right through two very important case laws.

  • K. Gopalan vs State of Madras[3]



A.K Gopalan was a communist leader who was mainly active in Madras Presidency (now called Kerala). He was detained in the jail of Madras, and whenever he came out of the prison, a new detention order was issued against him, and he had to go to jail again. After several years of detention, he challenged his preventive detention. A.K Gopalan argued that this prolonged detention had violated his right to life and personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.



  • Whether the Preventive Detention Act of 1950 violates Article 19 and Article 21 of the Indian constitution?
  • Whether the procedure established by law under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is same as due process of law?
  • Whether Article 19 and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution are dependent on each other?



The court rejected the arguments given by A.K. Gopalan and said that personal liberty means freedom of the physical body only and nothing beyond it. It said that personal liberty is infringed in only two ways. First if there is a physical restraint and second in case of coercion. In this way, the court restricted the meaning of Article 21 of the Constitution.

In this particular case, personal liberty was interpreted through a very narrow lense. In the case of A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, the Supreme Court rejected the idea of due process of law and refused to acknowledge the legal procedure’s flaws.  However, this was reversed in the Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India case.

  • Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India[4]



Maneka Gandhi was issued a passport on 1st June 1976 for her foreign tour. But soon she received a letter from the Passport office of India that on Government’s order her it is needed to impound her passport under section 10(3) (c) off the act in public interest. She was required to surrender her passport within 7 days of receiving this letter. The passport was eventually denied by the government because, according to them, it goes against the interests of the general population. Then the petitioner filed a writ petition under Article 32, challenging the government order impounding her passport and declining to give reasons for the same.



  • Whether the right to travel abroad is included in the meaning of ‘personal liberty” given under Article 21?
  • Whether any procedure established by law decreasing personal liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is arbitrary?
  • Whether section 10(3) of the Passport Act, 1967, violates Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
  • Whether it can be said that suspending Maneka Gandhi’s passport is against the principles of natural justice?


First off, the Supreme Court declared that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution’s guarantee of personal liberty has a very broad scope. The notion of personal liberty provided by Article 21 includes the right to travel internationally. The court did accept that the passport can be impounded by the passport authorities under section 10(3) of the Passport Act because they have the right to suspend and cancel passports, which can be crucial for national security. Maneka Gandhi, however, was not given a chance to speak, and the passport service did not provide her with any justifications for keeping her passport in limbo. The maxim of Audi Alteram Partem was not followed in this case.

Generally people think that if they have a right to do certain thing, they also have the right to not do a certain thing which means that they believe that if they have the right to live, they also have a right not to live which means right to die. This particular issue was discussed in the case P Rathinam vs Union of India[5]. The Supreme court agreed that Article 21 does provide ‘Right to die’ therefore section 309 of IPC should be declared invalid. But in Gian Kaur vs State of Punjab[6] it was decided that the Indian Constitution does not allow waver of Fundamental rights so if the right to life has been given, you cannot give that away which means Right to die is not protected under Article 21 and section 309 is valid.



Every person has the right to life which is protected by the Indian constitution. If anybody’s right to life is being violated, they can directly approach the court through writs under Article 32[7]. Everybody has equal rights enshrined under the constitution of India. No person shall be discriminated on the basis of caste, creed or colour. It is the supreme duty of the authorities to protect the rights of citizen.

Article by Vaishnavi Singh



[1] Constitution of India, 1950, Art.21

[2] Kharak Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh [1964] 1 SCR 332, AIR 1963 SC 1295

[3] A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras [1950] SCR 88, AIR 27

[4] Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India [1978] SC 597; AIR 1978 1 SCC 248

[5] P. Rathinam/ Nagbusan Patnaik v. Union of India [1994] AIR 1844 1994 SCC (3) 394 JT 1994 (3) 392 1994 SCALE (2)674

[6] Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab [1996] AIR 946 1996 SCC (2) 648 JT 1996 (3) 339 1996 SCALE (2)881

[7] Constitution of India, 1950, Art.32

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