BY: Thomas Thomas Maliekel
Petitioner: Maneka Gandhi
Respondent: Union of India
Date of Judgement: 25-01-1978
Bench: 7 Judge Bench; Hameedullah Beg (CJI), Y.V. Chandrachud, P.N Bhagwati, V.R. Krishna, N.L. Untwalia, S.M. Fazal Ali & P.S. Kailasam
A commentary is a set of explanatory or critical notes on a particular book, judgement, matter or case. A case commentary gives a brief overview of the facts, history, judgement, repercussions and significance of the outcome of the case. A landmark judgement is more than just a mere chapter or section in a legal textbook or class, the outcome of this case has shaped judicial activism and had long lasting consequences in that respective country or even globally.
Post-emergency period, Mankea Gandhi vs Union of India (henceforth, Maneka) was one of the most important landmark judgments to be passed by the Supreme Court. The case highlighted how liberal tendencies have influenced the Supreme Court in the importance of interpreting Fundamental Rights, with special emphasis on Article 21. The horrific events during emergency (1975- 1977) led to a shift in the judicial mindset towards protection of personal liberty. The previous interpretation of Art. 21 in the hallmark case of A.K. Gopalan vs The State of Madras (henceforth, Gopalan) had little if any effect in prevention of subjugation of personal liberty by harsh and discriminatory laws. Ever since Maneka, the Apex Court has displayed tremendous diligence towards the protection of personal liberty. The Apex Court, in essence, overturned and overruled the precedent set in Gopalan in favour of Maneka. Ever since the judgement, the Supreme Court has conferred to Art. 21 a wider interpretation which translates into more fundamental rights.
Brief facts of the case
- On 1-06-1976, Mrs Maneka Gandhi was issued a passport. The passport was issued under the Passport Act 1967. On 02-07-1977, Mrs Gandhi received a letter from the regional passport officer, New Delhi. The contents of the letter stated that under section 10(3)(c) of the Passport Act, she would have to surrender her passport within a week of receiving the letter
- Section 10(3)(c) of the Passport Act, 1967 is as follows – “if the passport authority deems it necessary so to do in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of India, friendly relations of India with any foreign country, or in the interests of the general public”
- Mrs Gandhi within no time, reverted back with a letter to the Regional Passport Officer, New Delhi requesting for the statement of reasons for the said order. To this, the Ministry of External Affairs, was adamant not to produce any reason in the interest of Public.
- Following which, a writ petition/ (Article 32 of the Indian Constitution) was filed by Maneka Gandhi in the Apex Court challenging the action of the Indian government as it was violative of her fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21
The issues contended were as follows
- Whether right to go abroad was a part of personal liberty conferred under Art. 21?
- If the Passport Act prescribed a ‘procedure’ before depriving a person from their natural right as stated in the Art.?
- Whether the impugned order of the Regional passport officer is in contravention of the principle of natural justice?
- Whether section 10(3)(c) of the Passport Act violates Art. 14. 19 and Art 21 of the Indian Constitution?
The bench for the case comprised of 7 Supreme Court Judges They were as follows
M.H. Beg, C.J., P.N. Bhagwati. ,Y.V.Chandrachud. ,V.R. Krishna Iyer. ,N.L.Untwalia. ,P.S. Kai asam. ,S. Murtaza Fazal Ali. The standing and lead opinion in the case was pronounced by Justice Bhagwati. There were 5 distinct opinions delivered in the case.
The administrative order passed by the respondent on 4th July, 1977 has infringed the Fundamental Right of the Petitioner. The Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, Right to travel abroad, Right to Life and Personal liberty & Right to freedom of movement were the rights the Petitioner contended were infringed. Articles 14, 19 & 21 are not mutually exclusive and are to be read in unison. These articles are in essence constitute natural justice. Reading of these articles in synchronization. The American constitutional concept of “due process of law” states that procedure established by law must be reasonable, fair & lacking any trace of arbitrariness. Section 10(3)(c) of the Passport Act violates Article 21 of the Indian Constitution because it violates right to life and personal liberty. The said section in the Passport Act restricted Maneka Gandhi from travelling abroad. This was unconstitutional as right to travel abroad was encompassed within right to life and personal liberty under Article 21. Audi alterum Partem- This legal maxim encompasses the legal theory of hearing both sides. This is an essential principle of natural justice. Even though these principles of natural justice do not explicitly exist in Constitutional provisions, the Fundamental Rights in essence, comprise of these principles. Art. 32 gives the petitioner an opportunity to approach the Supreme Court in violation of Fundamental Rights
It was prayed by the respondent, that the petitioner’s passport was impounded because she was required to appear before a committee for enquiry. The lead counsel ( Attorney General) also promised the Court that such appearances would not be necessitated anymore .Gopalan was used as the crux of their debate reiterating the judgement and precedent laid down by this case on the term law under article 21 cannot be understood in the fundamental rules of natural justice\It was further contended that principles of natural justice are ambiguous and vague. And the constitution should not entertain and interpret such vague provisions. A law may only be deemed as unconstitutional when it directly infringes Art. 14 & 19.As Art. 21 mentions “procedure established by Law”, the said procedure need not satisfy the test of reasonability and the given provisions need not be in conformity with Art 14 & 19.
The framers of the Indian Constitution had deliberated the “due process of law” and the “procedure established by law”. The sheer absence of the American concept gives us a keen insight into the minds of the framers of the constitution and the spirit that must be protected and respected.
The Court cemented the importance of the Golden triangle (Art. 14, art. 19 and Art. 21) and reiterated the proposition that these Articles are not mutually exclusive. There was a connection established between these three vital articles. As established in the judgement that there was a nexus between Art. 19 and Art. 21. So, any law depriving a person of their personal liberty must first meet the criteria and requirements of Art .19 and procedure established by law in Art. 21 should satisfy the conditions of Art. 14. Personal liberty was given a wide scope of interpretation under Art. 21. The Apex Court gave special emphasis to the expression that ‘personal liberty’ has the “widest of amplitudes” which will cover a vast varsity of rights “which go to constitute the personal liberty of man”. A majority of these provisions have been raised to the position of distinct fundamental rights and come under the ambit of protection of Art.19. Personal liberty cannot be clamped down and narrowed into a narrow strait jacket formula: “the attempt of the court should be to expand the reach and ambit of the Fundamental Rights rather than attenuate their meaning and content by a process of judicial construction”. Any law depriving someone of their “personal liberty” will have to satisfy the requirements of Art. 14 and 19. The extent to which section 10(3)(c) was violative of the fundamental rights of the constitution was declared void as it gave the passport authority an undefined, arbitrary and excessive power. It also was violative of principles of natural justice as it did not give an opportunity for the passport holder to be her. Audi alteram partem. It was held in Article 21 that if any law means to take away the personal liberty of an individual, there must be a clear procedure elaborating the same. The aforementioned Section of the Passport Act failed to do so as there was no such established procedure and was arbitrary
The impact of Maneka is multifold and the effect it has on constitutional law is immense. The dormant Art. 21 was brought to life by this landmark case and It is now presumed a “highly activist magnitude”. Section 10(3)(c) is against Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) since it permits restrictions to be imposed on the rights guaranteed by these articles even though such restrictions cannot be imposed under articles 19(2) and 19(6). A new doctrine on post decisional theory was evolved. And lastly, it was held by the Apex court that the right to travel and go outside the nation is covered in the right to personal liberty and guaranteed under art. 21. The interpretation of Art. 21 in the case is often compared to the concept of “due process of law”. This is the result of the case. The judgement helped unfound the restrictive scope of Art. 21 under the Gopalan case and allowed for a wave of creative and succinct judgments by courts all over India. The revival of Art. 21 gave a needed enthusiastic wave on contemporary constitutional jurisprudence. The judgement cemented the nexus between Art. 14, Art. 19 and Art. 21 which were previously held as mutually exclusive.
In Satwant Singh Sawhney vs D. Ramarathnam, the Apex Court held that the right to travel overseas is encompassed in the ambit of Article 21. To curb that, the Parliament passed the Passport Act 1967 which gave authorities the power to impound and confiscate the passport of certain individuals in the “interest” of the integrity of India and sovereignty, and security of India. The reasons for impounding the passports were to be communicated to the aggrieved party but in the interest of public safety, these reasons could be withheld.
Maneka Gandhi approached the court (Supreme) under art. 32 to enforce her Fundamental Right stated in article 12 against the arbitrary action of the authorities. A little later, the petition was amended for the enforcement of Art. 21 (Protection of Life and Personal Liberty), Art. 19(1)(a) which is the Right to freedom & Article 19(1)(g) which is the Right to freedom of movement. The main crux of Maneka Gandhi filing such petition is that she contended the impugned order is null since it deprived her right to be given a fair hearing to present her defence.
Most of the bench rejected the petitioner’s contention that that the term law under art. 21 doesn’t have to conform with principles of natural justice. However, it was Justice Fazal Ali who opined that right to life under art. 21 does constitute Principles of Natural Justice, this gave way for more liberal interpretations of Art. 21 in judgments to follow. The essence of Justice Ali’s argument was that the procedure should be fair, just and reasonable.
In a glorious way, the Apex Court overruled the regressive judgement of Gopalan. The Court rightly quashed the respondent’s argument procedure established by law need not be just, reasonable and fair. Which In turn has helped the common people of our country and enriched the Right to Life and Personal Liberty with a progressive, new liberal interpretation. It was held hat “procedure established by law” must be rid of arbitrariness and irrationality. The legacy and image of the Constitution framers was also slaved by this smear the legislature was trying to portray. The procedure established by law cannot deprive citizens of their Fundamental Rights by being random and haphazard. The Court very rightfully opined that the Fundamental rights are not mutually exclusive but rather intertwined and that procedural law must satisfy Art 14 & 19 to be valid under Art. 21.
“Travel Makes liberty worthwhile” opined Justice Iyer, hence no person can be denied this Right. This judgement gave way for an interpretation of Art. 21 which is beneficial for the citizens of India. It is a new weapon for seeking justice and prevention of exploitation
Few judgments in Indian Legal history have had the effect which the Maneka Gandhi judgement has. A balanced and well written judgement, it established the interlinking of Art, 14, 19 & 21, which was beneficial to secure the Fundamental Rights of a citizen and made sure that no procedure may be arbitrary or irrational.
The judgement while protected the people from unrequited actions of the Executive also saved the sanctity of Parliamentary law as it did not strike down Section 10(3)(c) & 10(5) of 1967 Act.
The authorities were reminded by the Court to only rarely use the provision of Section 10(5) to help meet stations of utmost importance. The greatest impact of the judgement is that today’s problems and unanswered questions of the parliament are solved by the interpretation of Article 21 derived in this case. It is Evident that the judgement passed has played a key role in construing “Right to clean Air, Right to Clean Water, Right to freedom from Noise Pollution, Speedy Trial, Standard Education, Fair Trial, Legal Aid, Right to Livelihood, Right to Food, Right to Medical Care, Right to Clean Environment etc., as a part of Right to Life & Personal liberty mentioned u/a 21.”
MP Jain Constitutional Law 7th edition
ManekaGanhi v Union of India AIR 1978 SC 597: ((1978) 1 SCC 248
Infra, Ch. XXXII, Sec. F for effects of Emergency on Fundamental Rights.
AK Goapaln v State of Madras 1950 AIR 27
Passport Act, 1967 s. 10(3)(c)
In Satwant Singh Sawhney vs D. Ramarathnam, (1967) 3 S.C.R 525.
Passport Act, 1967 s. 10(3)(c).
Passport Act, 1967 s. 10(5).