September 28, 2021

A Human Rights Perspective in Expansion of Article 21 of the Constitution of India

“Human Rights are not a privilege conferred by the Government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity.”

-Mother Teresa

The Concept of Human Rights

Human Rights are rights without which man cannot live a civilized and dignified life. Human Rights originate from the concept of ‘Natural Rights’ which are supposed to be with man by birth. Human Rights are inherent to all human beings irrespective of their caste, religion, sex, race, gender etc. They are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every individual from birth until death. United Nations was the first ever successful international body to take into consideration the importance of Human Rights. The United Nations has described a broad range of internationally accepted rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights along with well established mechanisms to promote and protect these rights and to assist states in carrying out their responsibilities.

Human Rights in India

Now, let us understand the roots of Human Rights in India. It is evident that right from the period of Indus Valley Civilization, India has been the amalgamation of various cultures and religions. Because of this diversity and to maintain UNITY IN THIS DIVERSITY, it becomes very crucial for our country to provide security of Human Rights. The modern vision of Human Rights jurisprudence took birth in India during the British rule. Under the British rule Human Rights and democracy were suspect and welfare was an anathema. The harsh repressive measures by the British and the freedom movement encouraged among Indians the desire of liberty and freedom. The Indians then were in quest of a dignified life which was completely neglected during the British rule and this was only possible through the inclusion of certain provisions, rules and regulations to safeguard the basic human rights of every individual. Thus keeping in mind the need for Human Rights and to provide its citizens a dignified, respectable and peaceful living there was the emergence of a true and the longest legal framework in the world ‘The Constitution of India.’

The entire Human Rights jurisprudence is founded in some parts of the Constitution which forms the heart of it. They are mainly found in the Part III, IV and IV (A) of the constitution. The very first provision of Human Rights is in the form of Fundamental Rights provided in part III. Among them is the very important right, Article 21, which forms the very basic of it and without which all rights are meaningless. The then Chief of India, Patanjali Shastri in State of [2]West Bengal v/s Subodh Gopal Bose, 1953 referred to Fundamental rights as those great and basic rights which are recognized and guaranteed as natural rights inherent in the status of a citizen of a citizen of a free country.

Understanding Article 21

Article 21- Protection of life and personal liberty.

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

Article 21 forms the very heart of all the fundamental rights and duties and is considered to be the most organic and evolving right in our constitution. The Supreme Court of India has been expanding over the decades the dimensions of this article. In [3]F.C.Mullin vs. The Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi and others, 1981, Justice Bhagwati observed, Right to life includes the right to live with dignity, namely the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter and facilities for reading, writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving, mixing and mingling with fellow human beings.

Right to life and personal liberty forms the very basic Human Right of every individual. According to me, this Human Right acts as a pre existence to all the other rights and all the other rights can be said to add quality to the Right to Life mentioned in this article. There have been quite a few debates as to what all should be included in the ambit of this article and what all privileges and rights does an individual have when it comes to Right to Life. The Supreme Court of India has played not only an active but also a creative role when it comes to the extraordinary interpretations of Article 21. For this let us now try to understand and analyse these different debates and the role of Supreme Court in it.

To begin with, one of the most important judgments given by the Supreme Court under Article 21 is the famous case of [4]Maneka Gandhi v/s Union of India, 1978. The Maneka Gandhi case concerned the fundamental right to travel abroad. This case arose when Maneka Gandhi received a letter stating that the Government of India had decided to impound her passport in public interest under section 10 (3)(c) of the Passports Act. In reaction, she filed a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution challenging the passport impounding order of the government and its subsequent refusal to provide reasons for the same as violating the fundamental right of personal liberty under Article 21.

This case is often read and linked with the case of [5]A.K Gopalan v/s State of Madras, 1950 because this case revolves around the concept of ‘personal liberty’ which first came up in the A.K Gopalan case. In Maneka Gandhi, the Supreme Court departed from the rigid interpretation of fundamental rights in A.K Gopalan case, which stated that ach fundamental right is distinct and must be read in isolation, and the expression of personal liberty under Article 21 excludes those freedoms that are categorically provided under Article 19. On the contrary in Maneka Gandhi the court held that the fundamental rights form an integrated scheme under the Constitution. The court stated:

Articles dealing with different fundamental rights contained in part III of the Constitution do not represent entirely separate streams of rights which do not mingle at many points. They are all parts of an integrated scheme in the Constitution. Their waters must mix to constitute the grand flow of unimpeded and impartial justice……..isolation of various aspects of human freedom, for purposes of their protection, is neither realistic nor beneficial.

The apex court decided that the right to travel abroad should be included under the ambit of Article 21.

It is the constitutional developments after Maneka Gandhi that highlighted how it was one of the cases that truly changed India. The Supreme Court of India truly changed the perspective from a rigid one to a more wide and integrated interpretation of the fundamental rights. The judgment became a spring board for the evolution of law relating to judicial preservation of Human Rights. Since this the Supreme Court included the rights of prisoners, protection of women and children, and environmental rights within the embrace of the right to life and personal liberty.

Another most important debate under Article 21 was; where there is right to live, is there also the right to die? This was brought to conclusion in the landmark judgment of [6]Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v/s Union of India, 2011. It was in this case where passive euthanasia was declared to be constitutional. After Aruna Shanbaug, the position on euthanasia is that while law recognizes euthanasia in case of physical suffering, no amount of mental suffering would justify a claim to end a person’s life.

Another important aspect covered under this article is right to live with basic human dignity. This aspect provides for the provision of all the basic services and opportunities which are required for a person to lead a respectful life such as maintenance of health and strength of workers (both men and women), facilities for children to develop in a healthy manner, educational facilities, just and humane conditions of work, maternity relief etc. One of these was covered in the very famous case of [7]Peoples Union of Democratic Rights v/s Union of India, 1982. It held that non-payment of minimum wages to the workers employed in various Asian Projects in Delhi was a denial to them of their right to live with basic human dignity and violative of Article 21 of the Constitution.

In [8]M. C. Mehta vs. Union of India, 1988, the Supreme Court reiterated the fundamental right to clean environment and held that a pollution treatment plant is a pre condition for the continuation of any industry. It was made very clear that Right to Clean Environment also comes under the ambit of Right to Life.

Similarly the Right to Free and Fair Trial and the Right to Bail are also included under Article 21 to ensure personal liberty and security of a person. Surprisingly, in the case of[9]T.V. Vatheeswaram v. State of Tamil Nadu, 1983 the Supreme Court provided for the right against delayed execution. It held that the delay in execution of death sentence exceeding 2 years would be sufficient ground to invoke protection under Article 21 and the death sentence would be commuted to life imprisonment.

Article 21 and the Emergency

Article 21 stands unsuspended at any cost even during emergency as denying this right to the citizens would amount to a loss in the most fundamental freedom and the word ‘life’ would remain lifeless and meaningless. Hence, Right to Life and Personal Liberty of every individual is always supposed to be guarded in any crisis.


These are some of the most important judgments under the scope of Article 21 which altogether gave a new direction to the understanding of Human Rights. It can be said that the Maneka Gandhi case acted as a stepping from where the authorities of the state could re think and over think for the enhancement of all the Fundamental Rights in general and Article 21 in specific so as to provide maximum protection of the basic Human Rights of the individuals. As mentioned earlier and to underline it again the Judiciary has played a pioneer role in widely interpreting article 21.

It interprets ‘Right to Life and Personal Liberty’ encompassing all the basic conditions of life which are required to live with dignity. It includes all the rights which are required for a human to have adequate means of livelihood i.e. right from the ‘Right to Shelter’ to ‘Right to Speedy Trials’. The upcoming feature of Judicial Activism has allowed the Judiciary to take active participation beyond its decided jurisdiction and decide upon matters of public concern. This activism by the judiciary has increased the scope for protection of Human Rights of the people.

Despite all of these planning and provisions made for the wide interpretation of Article 21 which happens to protect our ‘Right to Live’, unfortunately the observations made under this article are left for mere academic importance. In the current scenario, there happen to be a lot of loopholes in the fair and just execution of these provisions. Are all the citizens able to avail these facilities, are we really living in a healthy environment, are the judicial proceedings going according to the terms established under this article etc. are questions we frequently come across. To overcome all these issues there needs to a complete review and revival of the political system. Article 21 is the most important base given to all the individuals for the basic existence of Human Rights and humanity. Thus, right to live with human dignity is the roadmap to various other rights that have been recognized by our Constitution.

To end with a quote…….. “Peace can only last where Human Rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free.”


  2. State of W.B v. Subodh Gopal Bose, 1954 SCR 587: (1954) 1 MLJ 314: AIR 1954 SC 92
  3. F.C. Mullin v. The Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi & others, 1981 SCR 516: (1981) 2 SCR 516
  4. Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India,(1978) 1 SCC 248: AIR 1978 SC 597: (1978) 2 SCR 621
  5. A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, 1950 SCR 88: (1950) 2 MLJ 42: 1950 MWN 495: (1950) 51 Cri LJ 1383: AIR 1950 SC 27
  6. Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India, 2011 15 SCC 480: 2012 AIR SCW 3786: (2011) 2 Scale 503: AIR 2012 SC Supp 435
  7. M.C. Mehta v. Union Of India & Ors on 12 January, 198: 1988 AIR 1115, 1988 SCR (2) 530
  8. T.V. Vatheeswaram v. State Of Tamil Nadu on 16 February, 1983: 1983 AIR 361, 1983 SCR (2) 348

End Notes


[2] State of W.B v. Subodh Gopal Bose, 1954 SCR 587: (1954) 1 MLJ 314: AIR 1954 SC 92

[3] F.C. Mullin v. The Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi & others, 1981 SCR 516: (1981) 2 SCR 516

[4] Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India,(1978) 1 SCC 248: AIR 1978 SC 597: (1978) 2 SCR 621

[5] A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, 1950 SCR 88: (1950) 2 MLJ 42: 1950 MWN 495: (1950) 51 Cri LJ 1383: AIR 1950 SC 27

[6] Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India, 2011 15 SCC 480: 2012 AIR SCW 3786: (2011) 2 Scale 503: AIR 2012 SC Supp 435 Click to access 09_chapter%2003.pdf

[7] People’s Union For Democratic Rights v. Union Of India & Others on 18 September, 1982: 1982 AIR 1473, 1983 SCR (1) 456

[8]M.C. Mehta v. Union Of India & Ors on 12 January, 198: 1988 AIR 1115, 1988 SCR (2) 530

[9] T.V. Vatheeswaram v. State Of Tamil Nadu on 16 February, 1983: 1983 AIR 361, 1983 SCR (2) 348

Author Details: Sayali Jayesh Mandlik is a student at ILS Law College, Pune


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