The Indian Constitution, often described as a “living document,” has shown adaptability and resilience to evolving societal norms and values. The dynamism of the Constitution is particularly evident in the way the scope of the right to life and personal liberty, enshrined under Article 21, has been expanded by judicial interpretations.
Expanding Horizons of Article 21:
- Right to Live with Dignity: In the landmark case of Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that the right to life encompasses the right to live with dignity. This interpretation set the stage for numerous subsequent judgments that revolved around personal liberty and dignity.
- Protection against Custodial Violence: The Court, in D.K. Basu vs. State of West Bengal (1997), issued detailed guidelines to protect individuals from custodial torture, underlining the right to life’s sanctity.
- Right to Clean Environment: In the M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India (1986) case related to the Oleum gas leak, the Supreme Court emphasized the right to a wholesome environment as an integral facet of the right to life.
- Right to Speedy Trial: The prolonged detention of accused persons awaiting trial was deemed a violation of their right to life and personal liberty. The judgment in Hussainara Khatoon vs. State of Bihar (1979) underlined the right to a speedy trial as an essential part of Article 21.
- Right to Privacy: In the Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) vs. Union of India (2017) case, a nine-judge bench unanimously recognized the right to privacy as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty, ensuring citizens’ protection from unwarranted state intrusions.
- Right to Health: In Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity vs. State of West Bengal (1996), the Supreme Court held that the right to health and medical care is integral to a life with dignity, thereby making it a fundamental right under Article 21.
- Protection of Undertrials: In Sunil Batra vs. Delhi Administration (1978), the Court emphasized the rights of prisoners and undertrials, stating that incarceration does not spell farewell to fundamental rights, including the right to life and personal liberty.
- Rights of Transgenders: The landmark judgment in NALSA vs. Union of India (2014) recognized transgenders as the third gender and reaffirmed their rights to personal liberty, dignity, and freedom from discrimination.
The Indian Constitution’s inherent dynamism, aided by progressive judicial interpretations, ensures that it remains responsive to societal needs and values. As society evolves, the Constitution has proven its capacity to encompass new dimensions of rights and liberties, especially concerning life and personal freedom. The proactive role of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, has been instrumental in upholding and expanding the essence of Article 21 in sync with the demands of a progressive society.