Written By: Anshuman Singh
“The right to life is the first among human rights”
- Pope Francis
Since the inception of democracy in the ancient Greek city-state of Athens, there has been a constant presence of a set of basic human rights which is usually recognized by every sovereign country having a democratic form of government. These human rights are considered inalienable and they can not be withdrawn or taken away by anyone not even by the state as they form a set of rights that pertain to core values and aspects of human life without which human life would be reduced to mere physical existence.
The Right to life is the most important of these basic human rights as it guarantees a person his right to live. Almost every democratic country guarantees this right not only to its citizen but to every person in the world. Similarly, the constitution of India provides for this right under article 21 which guarantees to all individuals the right to life and personal liberty which can not be restricted or curtailed except by a process established by law. Article 21 of the Indian constitution has gone through a continuous and steady evolution throughout its history of more than 70 years. This evolution is a result of continuous addition to the meaning of the term “life” done by the Indian judiciary, this evolution is as per the changing times and along with it the demands of the Indian society and morality as a whole. This paper traces the history of the evolution of article 21 in India.
Evolution of Article 21
Article 21 of the Indian constitution traces its history back to the Government of India act of 1935 in which the “right to life” was first introduced in India. Article 21 was kept in the final draft of the Indian constitution as it was in the Government of India act of 1935 even though it originated during the colonial rule of the Britishers.
Article 21 now is considered as the “heart of the fundamental rights” since all the other fundamental rights are present for the betterment of one’s life but for these right to be logical one’s “life” first need to be protected which is done by article 21 of the Indian constitution. Right to life today is significantly different from what it was interpreted in 1950 when the Indian constitution came into force. Even the framers of the Indian constitution did not consider article 21 as it is done by the legislative today since, all then that article 21 stood for was to proclaim to free India that the state can deprive a person of their life in whatever manner it likes, so long as a law was enacted for that purpose . Even the earliest Supreme court judgment on the right to life confirmed this notion that rather than protecting the right to life of the general population article 21 was a conforming mandate that gave the state the power to deprive a person of his right to life and personal liberty.
The first landmark judgment in this long process of evolutionofof h right to life was that of A.K Gopalan V. State of Madras  in which the supreme court absurdly limited the meaning and scope of the term “personal liberty” to just “freedom of the physical body” and in its reasoning, the supreme court stated that the right to life in its essence is a mere procedural right and not substantive right and thus conferring to the notion that the state can restrict a person’s right to life. In another landmark case, Kharak Singh V. State of U.P  the supreme court held that the act of the U.P police of doing regular checking into the petitioner’s house is violative of the right to life of the petitioner since no law existed that justified this act of U.P police. Interestingly, the issue of whether the right to privacy comes under the ambit of the right to life was also raised in this case and although the majority opinion of the court was against the motion, justice Subba Rao believed that the right to privacy should be considered a part of the right to life.
The next important case law in the process of evolution of the right to life was that of ADM Jabalpur V. Shivkant Shukla  in which the supreme court almost turned article 21 into a dead letter since the supreme court held that a person cannot reach the high court or supreme court under articles 226 and 32 respectively in the case of an emergency even if his/her right to life as protected under article 21 is violated. Thus, ADM Jabalpur further, curtailed the powers and extent of article 21 of the constitution of India.
The next landmark case law in the history of the right to life is that of Maneka Gandhi V. Union of India  the supreme court, in this case, deflecting from past cases on the same subject, held that the meaning of the word “liberty” as mentioned under article 21 of the Indian constitution is of the widest amplitude. Further, the supreme court, overruling A.K Gopalan, abolished the doctrine of mutual exclusivity and held that articles 19 and 21 are not exclusive and any law which is passed by the legislation should not only conform to article 19 but to article 21 also. Furthermore, the case of Maneka Gandhi also led to the Indian judiciary adopting the principle of due process of law so, now, the procedure established by law or rule would also need to be as per the due process of law to restrict someone’s right to life i.e. a law which intervenes with someone’s right to life should not be valid just by the virtue of it being a procedure established by law but rather it should also be a just, reasonable, non-arbitrary and should follow the principles of natural justice.
This case is significant because before the Maneka Gandhi case the scope and ambit of article 21- the right to life was very narrow and this case significantly broaden the scope and ambit of article 21 and further, the supreme court in this case laid down the groundwork for the future evolution of article 21- right to life.
After the case of Maneka Gandhi, the supreme court of India has shown great activism in broadening the scope and ambit of the right to life as per article 21 of the Indian constitution since there have been several cases in which the supreme court has widened the scope of article 21 of the Indian constitution. One such case is that of Francis Coralie Mullin V. Union territory of Delhi and ors  in which the supreme court has rightly held that the right to life is not limited to mere physical presence but rather it means living with human dignity, further, the supreme court in this case also held that, bare necessities of life like, food, clothing, shelter, etc. also forms a part of the term “term” as mentioned in article 21 of the constitution.
Article 21 has had a continuous evolution that started right from the first time it was interpreted by the supreme court of India and till now it is going through an evolution and different aspects of life are getting added to the term “life” as mentioned under article 21. Even things like which one on the first look may not look that significant aspect of life are getting added to the meaning of life for example right to clean environment was added to the ambit of article 21 by the supreme court in the case of Vellore citizens welfare forum V. Union of India .
The supreme court and other high courts of India have tried to take a liberal stance while interpreting the term “life” as mentioned under article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Even in contemporary times, the Indian judiciary has tried to keep up with changing societal needs of the Indian society. One of the recent important judgments on article 21 of the Indian constitution is that of Justice K.S Puttaswamy and Anr. V. Union of India  in which the supreme court held that the right to privacy also comes within the ambit of article 21.
It is evident from the above that the right to life in India has gone through a lot of evolution and is still in the process of this continuous evolution. Right to life in republic India did not have a perfect head start and the earliest judgments on the right to life in India fundamentally deteriorated the value and the weightage of article 21 of the Indian constitution as they made it a procedural right that depended just on the procedure established by law. Maneka Gandhi case came as a changing moment for the right to life in India as it not only significantly broaden the scope of article 21 of the constitution but also held that a law intervening with someone’s right to life should not be arbitrary and should conform to the principles of natural justice. It is safe to say that the evolution of the right to life and the path that it has followed for this evolution has been eventually for the betterment of Indian democracy and Indian society as a whole since now it is more inclusive and the rights of the people are protected better than ever.
Rohan J. Alva, “Article 21: The story of the most important fundamental right”, Outlook, Jan. 22, 2022
A.K Gopalan V. State of Madras, AIR 1950 SC 27
Kharak Singh V. State of U.P, AIR 1963, SC 129
ADM Jabalpur V. Shivkant Shukla, (1976) 2SCC 21
Maneka Gandhi V. Union of India, AIR 1978,
Francis Coralie Mullin V. Union territory of Delhi and Anr., 1981, AIR 746
Vellore citizens welfare forum V. Union of India, 1996 (5) SCC 647
Justice K.S Puttaswamy and Anr. V. Union of India, 2017 10 SCC 1