LAW YOG

Reasonable Classification under Article 14 of the Constitution

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“Equality may be a fiction but nonetheless

One must accept it as a governing principle.”

Equality is one of the prime and foremost fundamental rights that an individual ought to defend in order to live a dignified life. Equal treatment and proffering equal opportunities to the citizens of the state is the utmost and significant objective of the constitution per se. Article 14 of the Constitution of India assures you equality through the eyes of the law and equal protection of the laws and is one of the first fundamental rights that talks about equality.

Article 14 of the Constitution

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution reads,

‘The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.’

The phrases, equality before the law and equal protection of the laws hold paramount concern over fundamental rights. Both these aforementioned expressions look kind of identical but they are not and in fact give away different meanings.

What are differences between Equality before the law and Equal Protection of Law?

S.No.Equality before the LawEqual Protection of the Laws
1.It’s a part of the English Law.It’s a part of the American Law.
2.It has its origin from ‘Rule of Law.’It has no universal application.
3.It prohibits unequal treatment.While it demands equal treatment.
4.It is general in nature.It is specific in nature.
5.To some extent, it’s a negative concept as it denies the state to discriminate between individuals, on an arbitrary basis.Rather, it’s a positive concept that supports the expression, ‘treating unequal’s unequally’
6.Eg: Be it a president or a beggar, law is the same for everybody. For instance, Lady Justice, who’s blindfolded apparently, grants justice irrespective of who the individual is, establishing, ‘everyone is equal before the law.’Eg: The Domestic Violence Act, 2005 only considers women while it neglects men, transgender and queers. And hence, it is a specific law that was formed according to the needs of the society, i.e., by understanding the public welfare of the state.

‘Equal protection of the Laws’ may sound simple but is quite complicated to understand and formulate interpretations. This is because; if a specific law selects a particular sect of the community, there should be reasonable classifications as to why it excludes the other faction of the community. But, just because the specific law treats different sects of people differently doesn’t mean that it violates the clause, Article 14(1) of the Indian Constitution that talks about ‘equality before the law.’ Hence, here comes the possibility as to how to classify the same? And, this leads us to the Doctrine of Reasonable Classification that is considered as a kind of test for the latter.

The doctrine of Reasonable Classification

It is based on the principle that law could be extensive in its application, but hardly ever universal. As there is so much diversity pertaining to every aspect in life, that classifying things and events have become inevitable. To cite an illustration, India has a Universal Adult Franchise Law that lets citizens of age eighteen or above vote in the elections. But, prisoners who are also adults can’t vote as they don’t have the facility to. Here, the jailbirds don’t have the opportunity even though they are adults because they’re restricted in their freedom of movement from one place to another. Hence, they are unable to cast votes in the booths. Likewise, the lawmakers have the power to classify, but this very act of classification must necessarily fulfil two requirements, namely, intelligible differentia and rational nexus. This requires some explanation and you can find the same herein under. 

Test of Reasonable Classification

While dealing with the constituents of reasonable classification, there are two of them which can also be implied as, the basis and the object of the law or that of the classification. Here, the basis of the classification must be intelligible and especially mustn’t be prohibited under the Constitution of India and also be relevant to the purpose of the law. In general, it is said that there should be intelligible differentia between those who are part of the law and those who are left out, and the differentia must possess rational relation (also known as rational nexus) with the object of the law.

For instance, if we were to conduct an examination for high school students, from grade 6 to 10, we don’t give the same kind of questions or question paper for every grade, do we? The answer is a decisive no, this is because they do not possess similar IQ and hence we formulate different question papers and test them. The process of arriving at a reasonable but intelligent reason for not giving the same question paper to every student here can be called as ‘intelligible differentia.’ Students of specific age-group need question paper with respect to their level of understanding and interpretations to get the desired result. And, this rational relationship between the classification and the desired result is called ‘rational nexus.’ 

But, to our surprise, there is another element as well, i.e., each classification involves special treatment of favour or disfavour meted out to a class of people to achieve a certain object. This particular factor was only included in the latter part of the 20th century so as to oppose the rule against arbitrariness as it denies equality per se.

Also, in the case of Air India v. Nargesh Meerza, the Supreme Court had nullified a guideline that said that an air hostess would lose her job on her first pregnancy. This had been invalidated for being subjectively arbitrary. The regulation’s arbitrariness may invariably insult our Indian motherhood. The feminists seem to blame this reasoning as it brings down a female to the level of a child-producing mortal instrument. The genuine reason might be the denial of a substantive right which every female or else a male possesses, generally. It is the right of procreation after all. As we see, the special treatment – the substantive aspect emerged out to be a major role that had influenced the judgment as to such.

Evolution of the Doctrine

The old doctrine of reasonable classification was reformed and it has become more dynamic and active in nature, ever since the 1970s. E.P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu was one of the first-ever cases where Article 14 of the Indian Constitution was further interpreted and the ambit of the same was broadened. P. N. Bhagwati, J. speaking for himself and on behalf of Chandrachud and Krishna Iyer, JJ. had said ‘Equality is a dynamic concept; it cannot be cribbed, cabined or confined with traditional and doctrinaire limits’ and it was concluded in the judgment that where an act is arbitrary it is implicit that it is unequal both according to political logic and constitutional law. In light of the facts of the case, it was quite appropriate to reconsider this part of the article as the petitioner’s claims could be summed up as an allegation of having been treated arbitrarily. In this case, we find that the learned Justice had located the essence of equality in arbitrariness. In no other case, the Hon’ble Court has come out to define the relationship between reasonable classification and anti-arbitrariness rule. Thus, paving way for a new doctrine that pronounces ‘Article 14 is a guarantee against arbitrariness.’

In the case of Maneka Gandhi v Union of India, Justice Fazal Ali’s view paved way for a laissez-faire approach of the interpretation of Article 21; he’d rebelled with the dominant contemplations by sharing that the right to life comprises the ‘Principles of Natural Justice’ and had read the courts must verify any kind of ‘procedure established by law’ doesn’t undergo the problem of unreasonableness & arbitrariness. The utmost aspect that had left us in awe was the interlinking it established between the provisions of Article 14, 19 and 21. By the virtue of this linkage the court made these provisions indivisible and a solo entity. On this hold, Justice Iyer has splendidly orated that no Article in the Constitution is an island in itself. Bhagwati, J. held that the procedural law has to meet the requirements of Articles 14 & 19 to be a valid law under Article 21 which is also known as the ‘golden triangle’. The court in an admirable way overruled the regressive decision of A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras and has served the common populace unanimously. Therefore, it extended the scope of personal liberty exponentially and protected the constitutional and fundamental right to life to a great extent. This judgment was very well balanced and is one of the finest judgments that the Hon’ble Supreme Court had ever given.

Article 14 allows Classification while it prohibits Class Legislationn

The equal protection of laws that were assured by Article 14 doesn’t imply, every law ought to be general in nature and should apply to every citizen of the state. In fact, equal treatment in an unequal state of affairs would actually result in inequality. The article applies on a reasonable basis when equals are treated differently but while treating an equal and unequal differently, Article 14 does not pertain but class legislation does which is also called as improper discrimination by choosing large no. of people arbitrarily without any reasonable or substantial difference in justifying the exclusion of one part of the community and the inclusion of the other from any such privileges and therefore prohibited.

To understand what class legislation is, let us take an example, ‘the concept of untouchability’ was abolished and practice of such deeds is punishable under law. Article 17 of the constitution prohibits the custom of untouchability as it was class legislation that ostracises a minority group from the mainstream by social custom or legal mandate for no particular reason but just because they were born into one of such marginalised communities. And, as it violates the spirit of the constitution and thoroughly infringes one of the basic and foremost fundamental rights – Equality, it is prohibited by Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.

Critical Analysis with regards to Citizenship (Amendment) Act          

So far, the constitutional validity of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act has been discussed, argued and had been framed around the subsequent arguments in the public sphere,

  • Does the grant of immunity and citizenship to a select group of migrants violate the principle of ‘reasonable classification’ under Article 14, by virtue of the individuals and groups it excludes?
  • Does the selection of groups lack any “determining principle”, and is therefore unconstitutionally arbitrary?
  • By privileging religious persecution over other forms of persecution in claims to citizenship, does the CAA violate the basic feature of “secularism”?

But first, let us take a look at how equality as an idea has evolved in order to uncover the unconstitutionality of the act. In the mid 20th century, it had been profoundly influenced by American jurisprudence, which led the constitution-makers to adopt the ‘classification test’ in order to determine the violations that may occur under Article 14. Nevertheless, there has been a long line of a tradition for dissenting this approach as it is excessively formalistic and constrained in the Indian Supreme Court. In the case of Anwar Ali Sarkar v. State of West Bengal, Vivian Bose J. asked what “substantially equal treatment” might mean in “the democracy of the kind we have proclaimed ourselves to be.’ 

Down the line, the Supreme Court had made in numerous endeavours to break through the shackles of the classification framework. For instance, the relationship between reasonable classification and the anti-arbitrariness rule was developed in the 1970s. Although the real burst through was only doable due to the 2018 judgments of Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India and Joseph Shine v. Union of India, i.e., only by reading down the Sections 377 and 499, Indian Penal Code, the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had moved a step forward in achieving a substantive version of equality that has been a dream in the eyes of billions of Indians. In a nutshell, the Supreme Court shifted the epicentre from the idea of ‘reasonable classification’ to the ‘vision of disadvantage.’ True equality, could intuitively be sensed as discovering all about the axes of disadvantage and working on them to dig up the remedies.

In order to spot and classify disadvantages, nonetheless, the law needs to unearth the alternatives. On this stare, the constitutional courts around the world have expressed this particular query to ponder over, ‘whether or not legislation picks out people on the basis of ‘personal characteristics’ that they, one, have no control over and two, are powerless to change, or can only change at great personal cost.

It is in this juncture that the unconstitutionality of the CAA is in its starkest stipulations. Every one of the three said ‘conditions’ under the CAA – a country of origin, religion, and date of entry into India – are in actual fact beyond the control of the individuals and this is where the law, in reality, targets at. A human being can certainly not choose in which country he/she/they can be born in, which religious sect of the community he/she/they would be born into, and nevertheless when the persecution forced them to flee into this very country, India. But, sadly the CAA categorizes the migrants living in the state and precisely divides them on these three bases where they had no control over. This is the very basic reason why it goes against the fundamental tenets of equality – violating Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.

Conclusion

The doctrine of Reasonable Classification under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution is quintessential for an individual to live with dignity and plays a significant role in his/her/their holistic development. Article 14 of the Constitution of India enshrines one of the basic and foremost fundamental rights – Equality. This is an ever-evolving part of the constitution that is truly dynamic and active in nature. ‘Reasonableness is an essential element of Equality or Non-Arbitrariness,’ to no one should there be a miscarriage of justice due to the arbitrary nature of any act or law. At this juncture, it is pertinent to invalidate and thoroughly check the constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the laws that impinge on citizenship status in the way that the CAA does, must be subjected to the highest threshold of judicial scrutiny, rather than the lowest.

Endnotes

1.  Air India v Nargesh Meerza 1981 AIR 1829, 1982 SCR (1) 438

2.  E.P. Royappa v State of Tamil Nadu 1974 AIR 555, 1974 SCR (2) 348

3.  Maneka Gandhi v Union of India 1978 AIR 597, 1978 SCR (2) 621

4.  A.K. Gopalan v State of Madras 1950 AIR 27, 1950 SCR 88

5.  Anwar Ali Sarkar v State of West Bengal AIR 1952 Cal 150

6.  Navtej Singh Johar v Union of India AIR 2018 SC 4321

7.  Joseph Shine v Union of India 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676

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Meera Bharathi S

Student, Tamil Nadu National Law University

Meera Bharathi is a curious and enthusiastic person who loves writing. She has co-authored a few anthologies. She believes that a legally empowered society can pave the way for a better environment for the people to live in. For any clarifications, suggestions and feedback kindly find her at @meera.marvel@gmail.com

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