“The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”.
Right to Equality is guaranteed through Articles 14 to 18 of the Indian Constitution. Article 14 forbids discrimination in a general way and provides equality before law to all persons. Whereas the subsequent articles provides specific provisions of equality not covered under the general principle of Article 14. Thus Article 14 acts as a bulwark against any arbitrary or discriminatory action of State by conferring right to equality, barring discrimination and prohibiting discriminatory laws.
Article 14 provides for two concepts, namely, equality before law and equal protection of all.
Equality before law means that no person is above the law irrespective of his rank or condition. This concept is negative in nature and it does not confer any special privilege in favour of any subject. The other concept is equal protection of laws which brings in the concept of like should be treated alike and unlike should be treated alike. Being a positive concept it provides for application of the same laws in a similar fashion and without discrimination to all persons similarly situated.
Concept of Reasonable Classification in light of Article 14:
What Article 14 of the indian constitution forbids is class legislation. However, there is no bar in forbidding reasonable classification of persons, objects or transactions by the Legislature for the purpose of achieving specific ends. For a classification to be reasonable, it should fulfil the following two tests –
1. The classification should not be arbitrary, artificial or evasive. It should be based on intelligible differentia i.e. there must exist some real and substantial distinction which differentiates persons or things grouped together in the category from others left out of it.
2. The classification on the basis of differentia must reflect rational or reasonable nexus with the object sought to be achieved by the statute in question.
Below are landmark judgements pronounced by the judiciary of India pertaining to Article 14 with relation to classification, basis of such classification and the concept of arbitrariness.
Constitution of Classification: Classification means a systematic and organized grouping of things into groups, classes or categories by following some definite scheme. Such classification must be reasonable and not arbitrary.
Chiranjit Lal Chowdhury v Union of India: In this case, the Sholapur Spinning and Weaving Company (Emergency Provisions) Ordinance, 1950 was promulgated which empowered the Central Government to take over the management and administration of the Sholapur Spinning and Weaving Co Ltd., which was closed down due to disputes between the management and the employees. This Ordinance was subsequently replaced by an Act of Parliament with similar provisions. The act was challenged for being unconstitutional for being arbitrary. The court held that the law can be applied to one person or one class of persons, if there exists a sufficient reason for such application.
Basis of Classification:
For a classification to be reasonable, it must be founded on some intelligible differentia which differentiates persons or things that are grouped together from those left out of the group. Thus the basis of classification can be geographical area, sex, financial status, nature of offence, disabilities among others.
Dharmendra Kirthal v State Of UP:
In this case, the Uttar Pradesh Gangsters and Anti- Social Activities (Prevention) Act, 1986 was challenged as it provides that the accused under the Act shall be tried by Special Court. The court held that such organized crimes should be dealt with an iron hand and thus the classification between the accused in the special court and an accused who faces trial in other courts is valid.
Baburao v Bombay Housing Board:
In this case, section 3A of Bombay Housing Board was challenged as it exempts lands or buildings belonging to or vested in the Board from the operation of the Bombay Rent Act. The court held that this section does not violate equal protection as provided under Article 14 as the term person under Article 14 does not include “State” and thus a provision which treats State and persons differently is not unconstitutional.
Javed v. State of Haryana:
In this case, the validity of Haryana Panchayati Raj Act was challenged as the statute stated that an individual would be automatically disqualified in contesting for Panchayat if the person has more than two children. The SC held that such provision is not discriminatory in nature as the classification made is based on an intelligible differentia having a nexus with the object sought to be achieved which is popularisation of family planning.
India Council of Legal Aid and Advice v Bar Council of India:
In this case, Rule 9 in Chapter 3 of Part 6 of the Bar Council of India rules which was added by a resolution was challenged as the rule prohibited those above 45 years of age to submit an application for enrolment as an advocate to the State Bar Council. It was contended by the petitioner that the new rule violates the principle of equality enshrined in Article 14. The Supreme Court quashed the new rule and held that the rule is discriminatory in nature as there exists no reasonable nexus and hence violated the right to equality.
Caterpillar India (P) Ltd. v. Western Coalfields Ltd:
In this case, a preference policy which was adopted by the Government granting price preference to Public Sector Enterprises to the effect that the price quoted by them which was less than 10% of the lowest price would be reckoned while taking a decision on finalizing the tender was challenged. It was held by the court that such policy suffered from unreasonable classification and unjust. The court also has pointed out that such classifications should not have mathematical precision but if there is no or little difference between the persons/things which have been grouped together and left out then the classification is ought to be unreasonable.
LIC of India v. M.V. Valliapan:
In this case, the Supreme Court warned against over-emphasis on classification and explained that the doctrine of classification is only a subsidiary rule evolved by the Courts to give a practical content to the doctrine of equality, over-emphasis on the doctrine of classification or anxious or sustained attempt to discover some basis for classification may gradually erode the profound potency of the glorious content of equity enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution.
Concept of Arbitrariness:
Article 14 is antithetic to arbitrariness, i.e. it provides that all state action should ensure fairness and equality of treatment. Such new approach of arbitrariness has been consistently applied by courts in determining the true scope of the principle of equality. Although there is no straightjacket definition of arbitrariness, but a basic test to apply in such cases is to ascertain whether there is any discernible principle emerging from the impugned action which satisfies the test of reasonableness.
E.P. Royappa v State of Tamil Nadu and Anr.:
In this case, the Supreme Court added a new dimension to Article 14 by stating that it is guarantee against arbitrariness. The court stated that when an act is arbitrary, it is unequal both from the logic of politics and constitutional law, therefore violates Article 14 of the Constitution.
R.D. Shetty v. International Airport Authority:
The International Airport Authority was established by the Central Government through a statutory provision, which dealt with tenders for the Bombay Airport. The statue prescribed certain qualifications and conditions for the contractors. The Petitioner possessed all the required qualifications and also met with all the conditions. However, the contract was awarded to a person who did not meet with all the necessary qualifications and conditions. The Petitioner challenged the act of the Authority and claimed the action defeated the principle of equality. It was held that the authorities ought to have struck down the prescribed conditions. The action of the authority was held to be discriminatory on the grounds that it did not give an equal chance to those who were similarly situated to tender for the contract.
Air India v. Nergesh Meerza:
In this case, the regulations for Indian Airlines were challenged which required Air Hostess had to retire from their services on attaining the age of 35 or if they get married within 4 years of their service or on their first pregnancy whichever occurred earlier. The court stated that terminating the services of an air hostess on the basis of pregnancy is discriminatory in nature as it presented an unreasonable ground for termination. The regulations provided that after 4 years of service the air hostess could marry therefore the grounds of pregnancy was not reasonable. Thus, such regulations were found to be violating Article 14 of the Constitution of India.
D.S. Nakara v. Union of India:
In this case, Rule 34 of the Central Services rules was challenged as it was found to be violating Article 14 and thus unconstitutional. The rule provided for a classification which differentiated between the pensioners who retired before a specific date and those who retired after such date. The court found such classification as irrational and arbitrary. As a result, the rule was set aside for violating Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
Thus, it is observed that the purpose behind developing new dimensions of Article 14 through judicial pronouncements is to remove arbitrariness from the action of State and enlarging the scope of Article 14.
 Article 14, The Constitution of India, 1950.Chiranjit Lal Chowdhury v Union of India, AIR 1951 SC 41.  Dharmendra Kirthal v State of UP, AIR 2013 SC 2569.  Baburao v Bombay Housing Board, AIR 1954 SC 153.  Javed v State of Haryana, ( 2003 ) 8 SCC 369.  India Council of Legal Aid and Advice v Bar Council of India, 1995 SCC (1) 732.  Caterpillar India (P) Ltd. v. Western Coalfields Ltd., AIR 2007 SC 2971.  E.P. Royappa v State of Tamil Nadu and Anr., AIR 1974 SC 555.  R.D. Shetty v. International Airport Authority, 1979 SCR (3)1014.  Air India v. Nergesh Meerza, 1982 SCR (1) 438.
 D.S. Nakara v. Union of India, 1983 SCR (2) 165.
Author: Garima Darda (Symbiosis Law School, Pune)