According to Dicey, - “The right to personal liberty as understood in England means in substance a person’s right not to be subjected to imprisonment, arrest, or other physical coercion in any manner that does not admit of legal justification.”
In other words, ‘personal liberty’ means freedom from physical restraint and coercion which is not authorized by law.
Article 21 of the Constitution says, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”
Maneka Gandhi’s case is not only a landmark case for the interpretation of Article 21 but it also gave an entirely new viewpoint to look at the Chapter III of the Constitution. Prior to Maneka Gandhi’s decision, Article 21 guaranteed the right to life and personal liberty only against the arbitrary action of the executive and not from the legislative action. Broadly speaking, what this case did was extend this protection against legislative action too.
Pre-Maneka Gandhi: Old Position
The concept of ‘personal liberty’ first came up for consideration of the Supreme Court in A.K. Gopalan’s case. In this case, the Petitioner had been detained under Preventive Detention Act, 1950. The petitioner challenged the validity of his detention on the ground that it was violative of his Right to freedom of movement under Art. 19(1)(d), which is the very essence of personal liberty guaranteed by Art. 21 of the Constitution. He argued that the words ‘personal liberty’ include the freedom of movement also and therefore the Preventive Detention Act, 1950 must also satisfy the requirements of Art. 19(5). It was further argued that Art. 21 and Art. 19 should be read together as Art. 19 laid out the substantive rights while Art. 21 provided procedural rights. It was also argued that the words “procedure established by law” actually meant “due process of law” from the American Constitution which includes principles of natural justice and the impugned law does not satisfy that requirement.
Rejecting both the contentions, Supreme Court, by the majority, using the meaning given to the phrase ‘personal liberty’ by Dicey, held that the phrase ‘personal liberty’ in Art. 21 meant nothing more than the liberty of the physical body, that is, freedom from arrest and detention without the authority of law. According to majority, the term ‘liberty’ was wider in meaning and scope than ‘personal liberty’. Hence, while ‘liberty’ could be said to include Art. 19 within its ambit, ‘personal liberty’ had the same meaning as given to the expression “liberty of the person” under English law. Hence, the majority took the view that Art. 19 and Art. 21 deal with different aspects of liberty. The Court further interpreted the term ‘law’ as ‘State made law’ and rejected the plea that the term ‘law’ in Art. 21 meant jus naturale or principles of natural justice.
It is pertinent to mention here that in A.K. Gopalan’s case, the attention of the Supreme Court was drawn to the legislative history of Art. 21 which showed why the expression “due process of law” was replaced by “procedure established by law”. However, it is unfortunate that the legislative history of Art. 22, and particularly of clauses (1) and (2), whereby the substance of “due process” was reintroduced, was not brought to the attention of the Supreme Court.
But this restrictive interpretation of the expression ‘personal liberty’ has not been followed by the Supreme Court in its later decisions. Like for example, in Kharak Singh’s case, it was held that “personal liberty” was not only limited to bodily restraint but was used as compendious term including within itself all the varieties of rights which go to make up the personal liberty of man other than those dealt within Art. 19(1).
Post-Maneka Gandhi: New Dimension
In Maneka Gandhi’s case, the meaning and content of the words ‘personal liberty’ again came up for the consideration of the Supreme Court. In this case, the petitioner’s passport had been impounded by the Central Government u/s 10(3)(c) of the Passport Act, 1967. Here, the Supreme Court not only overruled A.K. Gopalan’s case but also widened the scope of words ‘personal liberty’ considerably. Bhagwati, J. observed:
“The expression ‘personal liberty’ in Article 21 is of widest amplitude and it covers a variety of rights which go to constitute the personal liberty of man and some of them have raised to the status of distinct fundamental rights and given additional protection under Article 19.”
With respect to the relationship between Art. 19 and Art. 21, the Court held that Art. 21 is controlled by Art. 19, i.e., it must satisfy the requirement of Art. 19. The Court observed:
“The law must therefore now be settled that Article 21 does not exclude Article 19 and that even if there is a law prescribing a procedure for depriving a person of personal liberty, and there is consequently no infringement of the fundamental right conferred by Article 21 such a law in so far as it abridges or takes away any fundamental right under Article 19 would have to meet the challenges of that Article.”
Thus a law “depriving a person of ‘personal liberty’ has not only to stand the test” of Article 21 but it must stand the test of Art. 19 and Art. 14 of the Constitution.
Hence to conclude, it may be said that Maneka Gandhi’s case, gave the term ‘personal liberty’ widest possible interpretation and gave effect to the intention of the drafters of the Constitution. This case, while adding a whole new dimension to the concept of ‘personal liberty’, extended the protection of Art. 14 to the personal liberty of every person and additional protection of Art. 19 to the personal liberty of every citizen.
# A.K. Gopalan v. The State, (1950) S.C.R. 88, (‘50) A.S.C. 27
# Kharak Singh v. State of U.P., (1964) 1 S.C.R. 332, (‘63) A.S.C. 1295
# Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, (1978) 2 S.C.R. 621, (‘78) A.S.C. 597
# Dicey, The Law of the Constitution.
# Basu, Durga Das, Shorter Constitution of India
# Jain, M.P., Indian Constitutional Law
# Mahajan, V.D., Constitutional Law of India
# Seervai, H.M., Consitutional Law of India
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