Article 21 of the Constitution

5 Mar 2022  Read 14377 Views

Article 21 is the soul of the Indian Constitution. It contains an ocean of rights within it. To this, the apex court of India has given a living body by expanding its scope and ambit. This makes the Article a complete theory to be researched.  

No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.” ---Article 21

Where did Article 21 come from?

The inspiration to the Constitution makers for including Article 21 in the constitution has been taken from the US. The US Constitution, by its 5th and 14th Amendments, has added - that ‘no person shall be deprived of his ‘life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’. Justice Krishna Iyer featured Article 21 as ‘the procedural Magna Carta Protection of life and liberty. The Constitution of Japan contains a similar provision under Article XXXI that follows- ‘No person shall be deprived of life or liberty, nor shall any other criminal penalty be imposed, except according to procedure established by law’.

To whom does Article 21 apply?

 Life is the most valuable right that can be thought of. Thus, making the same applies to both citizens as well as foreign nationals staying in India for the time being. The idea behind applying the rule to foreigners is that they shall be treated at par with citizens for the time they are residing within India. 

What does Article 21 cover?

The Article protects two rights of an individual i.e., the Right to Life and the Right to Personal Liberty. 

What does ‘life’ mean under the Article?

To understand the word ‘life’, one must go to the roots and understand the basic element which distinguishes living beings from all other materials. Life does not mean mere ‘breathing’ but all another element that surround it. Supreme Court has repeatedly held, especially in Kharak Singh v. State of UP that – life means something more than mere animal existence. Justice. P.N. Bhagwati in the case of Francis Coralie v.  Union Territory of Delhi held that ‘any act which damages or injures or interferes with the use of any limb or faculty of a person, either permanently or even temporarily, would be within the inhibition of Article 21’. 

How Supreme Court expanded the scope of Article 21?

Article 21 is the fundamental right that is guaranteed to an individual irrespective of its nationality, based merely on being a living creature. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. The scope of the Article is wide enough to include all the elements essential to protect and provide for a better life of a human. 

The right to life directly implies the right to live with human dignity. Supreme Court made this observation in the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, where the jailor had treated mercilessly some of the inmates that resulted in death. Article 21 contains the universal truth of the life of an individual which cannot be denied except with an established procedure of law. 

It was held in Peoples Union for Democratic Rights v. UOI that non-payment of a minimum amount of wage to workers was to be considered as a denial of their basic human life and dignity. 

In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. UOI, where the question of bondage and rehabilitation of some laborers was involved, the apex court held that Article 21 includes the right to live with human dignity, free from exploitation. This right to live with human dignity derives its existence from the Directive Principles of State Policy under Article 39(e)and (f), 41 and 42. 

The apex court in Board of Trustees of the Bombay v. Dilipkumar R. Nadkarni held that the right to livelihood is included in the right to life ‘because no person can live without the means of living, that is, the means of living’. Similarly, in Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corp., it was held that the right of agriculturalists to cultivation is a part of their fundamental right to livelihood.

Right to unpolluted environment and preservation and protection of nature’s gift has also been conceded under Article 21. The same was devised in M.C. Mehta v. UOI, where the green activist Mr Mehta claimed the right to maintenance of ecological balance and sustainable development as the basic human right. 

In Bodhisattwa Gautam v. Shubhra Chakraborty, the apex court gave a bold statement and held that the commission of rape is a violation of the right to life of the victim under Ar21. Also, the right to reputation and self-preservation is to be considered as part of ‘life’ under the Article. 

After the historic judgment in KS Puttaswamy v. UOI, the SC has made clear that the right to life and liberty under Article 21 includes the right to individual privacy. The right to privacy alone means the right to be not questioned. An individual has a right to privacy of himself, his family, marriage, procreation, motherhood, childbearing, and education. 

What does ‘liberty’ mean under the Article?

As per the literal meaning, ‘liberty’ means free from all kinds of restraints. The US Constitution has a wide scope and is not confined to mere freedom from bodily restraint but extends to all the conducts that an individual is free to pursue. But when we see from the Indian context, the word liberty is qualified by ‘personal’ that makes it narrower when compared to the US, and the same was accepted in the case of AK Gopalan v. the State of Madras

In Kharak Singh v. the State of UP, the question on the scope of personal liberty arose for the first time and the apex court held that personal liberty was used in the Article as a compendious term to include within itself all the varieties of rights which go to make up the ‘personal liberties’ of man other than those dealt with in several clauses of Article 19(1). 

Supreme Court in Makena Gandhi v. UOI concluded that ‘The expression personal liberty is of the widest amplitude, and it covers a variety of rights which go to constitute the personal liberty and some of them have been raised to the status of distinct fundamental rights.’

The right to travel abroad is included in the expression ‘personal liberty’ as held by SC in the case of Satwant Singh Sawhney v D. Ramarathnam and thus, no person can be denied the passport services which is essential for the enjoyment of the same right. 

An individual has the personal liberty to write a book and even get it published and where a detenu exercised this right its denial without any due consideration was held to be violative of Article 21 in the case of State of Maharashtra v. Prabhakar Pandurang

The procedure established by law

 The law here implies any interference which restricts the right to life and liberty of an individual with a valid objective. The key essentials for restricting Article 21 or for describing what ‘procedure established by law’ implies:

  1. There must be a law justifying the interference with the person’s life or personal liberty 

  2. The laws should be a valid one

  3. The procedure established by law must have been strictly followed.

In the absence of any of the points above, the law shall not be considered a valid reason for restricting the right to life and personal liberty of an individual. 

Supreme Court in the case of Maneka Gandhi v. UOI has held that the procedure established by law must be ‘right, just and reasonable and not ‘arbitrary, fanciful, or oppressive. For the law to be the same, it should follow the principle of natural justice and must be fair in action. 

Comparing Procedure Established by law with Due Process of Law: 

Basis of Comparison

Procedure Established by Law

Due Process of Law


Interference restricting the right to life and liberty of an individual with a valid objective.

It means the words of law as it must be applied.


British Constitution

Constitution of USA

Presence in Indian Constitution

It is present in the Indian Constitution under Article 21

Has not been mentioned explicitly in the Indian statute.


The law restricting the right to life and liberty must be a valid one and the procedure must have been expressly followed. 

The object is to check whether the law in question is not arbitrary or unjust. 


It is narrow in scope and makes sure that law must be ‘right, just and reasonable and not ‘arbitrary, fanciful, or oppressive.

Wide in scope and extend power to the apex court for protecting life and liberty. 


The right to life and personal liberty has been interpreted by the apex court widely to include the right to livelihood, health, education, environment, and all those matters that contributed to life with dignity. This fundamental Right has given birth to so many new concepts that are now treated as separate rights of an individual.

About the Author: Ankita Saria | 4 Post(s)

Final year Ba.llb. student from the University of Calcutta. Passionate about learning different skills. Loves law and believes in hard work.

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