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Fundamental rights in the Indian Constitution: Guardian of Democracy

Introduction 

Fundamental rights are the bedrock of any democratic society, serving as the cornerstone of individual liberties and freedoms. In the context of India, fundamental rights are enshrined in Part III of the Constitution, spanning Articles 12 to 35. These rights are guaranteed to every citizen, irrespective of caste, creed, religion, or gender, and are aimed at ensuring their dignity, freedom, and overall well-being.

At their core, fundamental rights embody the principles of equality, justice, and liberty, forming the essence of a democratic society. They encompass a diverse range of rights, including the right to equality, freedom of speech and expression, protection against exploitation, freedom of religion, and cultural and educational rights, among others.

Fundamental rights act as a check on the power of the government, safeguarding individuals from arbitrary state action and ensuring that their inherent rights are protected. They empower citizens to lead a life of dignity and autonomy, fostering a society that upholds the principles of justice, equality, and fraternity.

In India, the judiciary plays a pivotal role in interpreting and enforcing fundamental rights, thereby ensuring their effective implementation. Through landmark judgments and legal interventions, the courts uphold the sanctity of these rights, ensuring that they remain inviolable and sacrosanct.

Overall, fundamental rights represent the collective aspirations of a democratic society, reflecting its commitment to uphold the principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all its citizens. They serve as a bulwark against tyranny and oppression, embodying the very essence of a free and democratic nation.

Background of Fundamental Rights

Inspired by: The Indian Constitution drew inspiration from various sources, including the Magna Carta, the US Bill of Rights, and the Government of India Act, 1935.

  • denominations the right to manage their own affairs in matters of religion.
  • Article 27: Freedom to attend religious instructions or worship in educational institutions wholly maintained by the State: Allows individuals to attend religious instructions or worship in educational institutions wholly maintained by the State, subject to the right of conscience and religious freedom of all persons.
  • Article 28: Freedom from taxation for promotion of particular religion: Prohibits the imposition of any taxes for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.

The concept of fundamental rights has its roots in the age-old struggle for human dignity and liberty. Throughout history, individuals and societies have fought against oppression, tyranny, and injustice, seeking to secure certain inalienable rights that are essential for human flourishing.

The idea of fundamental rights gained significant prominence during the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, as philosophers and thinkers championed the principles of individual liberty, equality, and justice. Influential figures such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Paine articulated the notion that every human being possesses inherent rights that are not granted by the state but are instead intrinsic to their humanity.

The French Revolution of 1789 and the American Revolution of 1776 marked watershed moments in the struggle for fundamental rights. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the United States Bill of Rights enshrined key principles such as freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, laying the foundation for modern concepts of constitutionalism and democracy.

In the aftermath of World War II, the horrors of totalitarianism and mass atrocities underscored the urgent need for an international framework to protect human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, articulated a comprehensive set of rights and freedoms that are inherent to all human beings, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or religion.

In the context of India, the struggle for independence from British colonial rule was deeply intertwined with the quest for fundamental rights. Visionaries such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and B.R. Ambedkar envisioned a free and democratic India where every citizen would enjoy certain basic liberties and protections.

The framers of the Indian Constitution, led by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, drew inspiration from various sources, including the UDHR, the constitutions of other democracies, and India’s own rich history and cultural heritage, to codify a comprehensive framework of fundamental rights. Part III of the Indian Constitution, comprising Articles 12 to 35, enshrines these rights and serves as a bulwark against arbitrary state action and injustice.

Fundamental rights in India encompass a wide array of freedoms, including the right to equality, freedom of speech and expression, right against exploitation, freedom of religion, and cultural and educational rights. They reflect the commitment of the Indian state to uphold the principles of justice, liberty, and fraternity, and empower citizens to lead lives of dignity, autonomy, and fulfillment.

Characteristics of Fundamental Rights:

  • Fundamental: These rights are foundational for a just and equitable society, crucial for the development of a person’s personality and a dignified life.
  • Enforceable: Unlike ordinary rights, they are justiciable, meaning individuals can seek judicial intervention through writs (like habeas corpus) to enforce them if violated.
  • Guaranteed by the Constitution: Their existence and protection are not dependent on the benevolence of the legislature or executive; they are constitutionally mandated.
  • Not Absolute: While fundamental, these rights are not absolute. Reasonable restrictions can be imposed by the legislature through laws, provided such restrictions are:
    • Authorized by the Constitution: The specific Article granting the right must allow for reasonable restrictions.
    • Proportionate: The restriction must be necessary to achieve a legitimate State aim and not excessively curtail the right.

Where can you find Fundamental Rights in the Indian Constitution?

In the Indian Constitution, fundamental rights are enshrined in Part III, which comprises Articles 12 to 35. This part of the Constitution is dedicated to safeguarding and guaranteeing certain basic rights and freedoms to all citizens of India. The framers of the Constitution considered these rights essential for the development of individual personality and the preservation of human dignity.

  1. Part III: Fundamental Rights: This is the main section of the Constitution where fundamental rights are explicitly enumerated. Articles 12 to 35 outline various rights and protections granted to citizens, including the right to equality, freedom of speech and expression, right against exploitation, freedom of religion, and cultural and educational rights.
  2. Article 12: Definition: Article 12 provides a definition of the term “State” as used in Part III. It clarifies that “State” includes the Government of India, the government and Parliament of each state, and all local or other authorities within the territory of India or under the control of the Government of India.
  3. Article 13: Laws inconsistent with or in derogation of fundamental rights: Article 13 establishes the supremacy of fundamental rights by declaring that any law that violates or abridges these rights shall be void to the extent of such inconsistency. It also defines the term “law” to include various legal instruments and clarifies the scope of laws covered under this provision.
  4. Subsequent Articles (14-35): Following Article 13, the subsequent articles in Part III detail specific fundamental rights along with their scope, limitations, and exceptions. These include rights to equality, freedom, protection against exploitation, freedom of religion, and cultural and educational rights.

Overall, Part III of the Indian Constitution occupies a central position in ensuring that the principles of justice, liberty, and equality are upheld in Indian society. It provides citizens with a mechanism to protect their rights and liberties, thereby fostering a democratic and egalitarian society.

FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS 

  1. Right to Equality (Articles 14-18):
    • Article 14: It ensures equality before the law and equal protection of laws within the territory of India. This means that the State cannot deny any person equality before the law or discriminate against any individual in the application of laws.
    • Article 15: It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, or any of them. It ensures that no citizen is discriminated against in access to public places or in matters of employment.
    • Article 16: It guarantees equality of opportunity in matters of public employment. It prevents discrimination based on religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, or residence in government employment.
    • Article 17: It abolishes “Untouchability” and prohibits its practice in any form. It makes the enforcement of any disability arising out of “Untouchability” punishable by law.
    • Article 18: It abolishes titles of nobility and prohibits the State from conferring titles, except military and academic distinctions. It prevents citizens from accepting titles from foreign states.
  2. Right to Freedom (Articles 19-22):
    • Article 19: It grants six freedoms to citizens: freedom of speech and expression, assembly, association, movement, residence, and profession, subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of sovereignty, integrity, security of the State, public order, decency, or morality.
    • Article 20: It protects individuals against arbitrary and excessive punishment. It includes the right against ex post facto laws, double jeopardy, and self-incrimination.
    • Article 21: It guarantees the protection of life and personal liberty. It ensures that no person shall be deprived of their life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.
    • Article 21A: It provides for the right to education for children between the ages of 6 and 14 years. The State is mandated to provide free and compulsory education to all children within this age group.
    • Article 22: It safeguards individuals’ rights when arrested or detained. It includes provisions such as the right to be informed of the grounds of arrest, the right to legal counsel, and the right to be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours.
  3. Right against Exploitation (Articles 23-24):
    • Article 23: It prohibits trafficking in human beings, beggar, and other forms of forced labor. It also allows the State to impose compulsory service for public purposes but prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, or class.
    • Article 24: It prohibits the employment of children below the age of fourteen years in factories, mines, or any other hazardous employment.
  4. Right to Freedom of Religion (Articles 25-28):
    • Article 25: It guarantees freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion, subject to public order, morality, and health. It also allows the State to regulate economic, financial, political, or secular activities associated with religious practice.
    • Article 26: It grants religious denominations the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in matters of religion, and own and acquire property.
    • Article 27: Freedom to attend religious instructions or worship in educational institutions wholly maintained by the State: Allows individuals to attend religious instructions or worship in educational institutions wholly maintained by the State, subject to the right of conscience and religious freedom of all persons.
    • Article 28: Freedom from taxation for promotion of particular religion: Prohibits the imposition of any taxes for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.
    • Cultural and Educational Rights (Articles 29-30):

      • Article 29: Cultural and Educational Rights of Minorities: Protects the interests of minorities regarding their distinct culture, language, and education.
      • Article 30: Right of Minorities to Administer Educational Institutions: Allows minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.

      Right to Constitutional Remedies (Article 32):

      • Article 32: Right to Enforcement of Fundamental Rights: Empowers individuals to approach the Supreme Court for the protection of their fundamental rights if violated. This is crucial for ensuring the enforceability of these rights.
      • Habeas Corpus:
        • Meaning: The term “Habeas Corpus” originates from Latin, meaning “to have the body of.” In legal terms, it refers to a writ that empowers a court to demand the presence of a person who is allegedly detained or imprisoned, allowing the court to determine the legality of their detention. The primary purpose of this writ is to protect individuals against unlawful or arbitrary detention by authorities.
        • Application: Habeas Corpus is a fundamental legal principle that safeguards individual liberty. When someone is detained, whether by law enforcement or any other authority, they have the right to challenge the legality of their detention through this writ. The court examines whether the detention complies with legal procedures and substantive laws, ensuring that no one is unlawfully deprived of their freedom.
      • Certiorari:
        • Meaning: “Certiorari” is a Latin term that translates to “to be certified.” In legal contexts, it refers to a writ issued by a higher court to review the decision of a lower court, tribunal, or administrative body. The purpose of Certiorari is to ensure that legal proceedings are conducted correctly and that decisions are based on proper interpretation and application of the law.
        • Application: Certiorari is commonly used in the context of judicial review, where a higher court examines the legality and correctness of decisions made by lower courts or administrative agencies. It allows parties dissatisfied with a lower court’s decision to seek a review by a higher authority, ensuring fair and consistent application of legal principles.
      • Prohibition:
        • Meaning: The writ of “Prohibition” is a legal order issued by a higher court to prevent a lower court, tribunal, or administrative body from exceeding its jurisdiction or acting beyond its legal authority. It aims to halt proceedings that are deemed unlawful or outside the scope of the governing law.
        • Application: Prohibition is invoked when there is a concern that a lower court or administrative body is acting beyond its legal powers or violating procedural rules. The higher court issues this writ to restrain the lower authority from proceeding further in a case or taking actions that are not legally permitted.
      • Mandamus:
        • Meaning: “Mandamus,” which means “We command” in Latin, is a writ issued by a court to compel a public official, government agency, or corporation to perform a specific duty that they are legally obligated to perform but have failed or refused to do so.
        • Application: Mandamus is utilized when a person or entity seeks judicial intervention to enforce a legal duty or right. It commands the responsible party to take action and fulfill its legal obligations, ensuring compliance with the law and preventing neglect or abuse of power by public authorities.
      • Quo Warranto:
        • Meaning: “Quo Warranto,” translating to “By what authority or warrant” in Latin, is a legal remedy used to challenge the validity of a person holding a public office or position. It questions the authority by which an individual holds a particular office or position.
        • Application: Quo Warranto is employed to address situations where there are doubts or disputes regarding the eligibility or legality of someone occupying a public office. It allows the court to inquire into the authority or right of the person to hold that office, ensuring that public positions are filled lawfully and with proper authority.

DOCTRINES 

These are the two key doctrines related to fundamental rights-

  1. Doctrine of Severability:
    • Definition: The doctrine of severability, also known as the doctrine of separability, is a legal principle that determines the validity of a statute or law when part of it is found to be unconstitutional or in violation of fundamental rights.
    • Explanation: According to this doctrine, if a law contains provisions that are inconsistent with fundamental rights or other constitutional provisions, only those specific provisions that are in conflict will be deemed void. The rest of the law remains valid and enforceable.
    • Application: For example, if a law has ten provisions, and one of these provisions is found to violate the right to equality, only that particular provision will be struck down as unconstitutional. The remaining nine provisions will continue to be in effect.
    • Significance: The doctrine of severability ensures that even if a part of a law is unconstitutional, the entire law is not invalidated. It allows for the preservation of valid and legal provisions while eliminating those that are contrary to constitutional principles.
  2. Doctrine of Eclipse:
    • Definition: The doctrine of eclipse is a legal principle that deals with the status of pre-constitutional laws or statutes that were enacted before the Constitution came into force and are found to be inconsistent with fundamental rights.
    • Explanation: According to this doctrine, if a pre-constitutional law violates fundamental rights, it is not null and void from the beginning (ab initio). Instead, it becomes inactive or “eclipsed” to the extent of its inconsistency with fundamental rights.
    • Application: When a fundamental right is violated by a pre-constitutional law, the law is not automatically struck down. Instead, it remains dormant or inactive insofar as it contradicts fundamental rights. If the conflicting fundamental right is removed or amended, the law becomes active again.
    • Significance: The doctrine of eclipse provides a mechanism for dealing with pre-existing laws that are incompatible with fundamental rights without outright nullifying them. It allows for the revival of such laws if and when the constitutional inconsistency is resolved.

These doctrines play a crucial role in constitutional interpretation and the application of fundamental rights in India’s legal framework. They ensure a nuanced approach to addressing legal conflicts while preserving the integrity of both the Constitution and existing laws.

CASE LAWS

  1. Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973):
    • Issue: Review of Golak Nath case and the scope of Parliament’s amending power vis-a-vis Fundamental Rights.
    • Decision: The Supreme Court introduced the “basic structure” doctrine, stating that while Parliament can amend the Constitution, it cannot alter its basic structure, which includes democracy, rule of law, and judicial review.
  2. Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain (1975):
    • Issue: Validity of the 39th Constitutional Amendment Act and election disputes.
    • Decision: The Supreme Court added new features to the basic structure doctrine, emphasizing the importance of the rule of law, democracy, and judicial review.
  3. Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978):
    • Issue: Impoundment of passport and violation of fundamental rights.
    • Decision: The Supreme Court held that any procedure under Article 21 must be fair, reasonable, and not arbitrary, extending the scope of procedural due process under the Constitution.
  4. A. K. Gopalan v. State of Madras (1950):
    • Issue: The validity of preventive detention under the Preventive Detention Act, 1950, and its compliance with fundamental rights.
    • Decision: The Supreme Court upheld the validity of preventive detention but ruled that the grounds of detention must be disclosed to the detainee. Section 14 of the Act, which prohibited such disclosure, was struck down.
  5. Shankari Prasad v. Union of India (1952):
    • Issue: Constitutional validity of the First Amendment of 1951, which curtailed the right to property.
    • Decision: The Supreme Court held that Parliament has the power to amend fundamental rights under Article 368, including curtailment of the right to property.
  6. Golak Nath v. State of Punjab (1967):
    • Issue: Parliament’s authority to amend Fundamental Rights, particularly regarding property rights.
    • Decision: The Supreme Court ruled that Parliament cannot curtail Fundamental Rights, marking a significant limitation on the amending power of Parliament

CONCLUSION

The journey of fundamental rights in India reflects a profound evolution in legal thought and constitutional interpretation. From the early challenges posed by cases like A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, where the scope of preventive detention and the interplay of constitutional articles were tested, to the landmark decisions that established the “basic structure” doctrine, the trajectory has been one of defining and defending individual liberties within the framework of a democratic republic.

One of the defining aspects of this journey is the role of judicial review. Courts have consistently acted as guardians of fundamental rights, ensuring that legislative and executive actions adhere to the constitutional guarantees enshrined in Articles 14, 19, and 21, among others. The power of the judiciary to review and strike down laws or actions that violate fundamental rights has been pivotal in upholding the rule of law and protecting citizens from arbitrary state action.

The scope of parliamentary amendments to fundamental rights has also been a subject of intense legal scrutiny. Cases such as Golak Nath v. State of Punjab and Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala delineated the boundaries of parliamentary authority, affirming that while Parliament can amend the Constitution under Article 368, it cannot alter its “basic structure.” This concept, crystallized through judicial pronouncements, safeguards core constitutional principles from arbitrary changes.

The notion of the “basic structure” embodies foundational elements of the Constitution that are immutable, forming the bedrock of India’s democratic ethos. These include principles like democracy, rule of law, separation of powers, and judicial review. The judiciary’s role in defining and protecting this basic structure has been instrumental in preserving the integrity and values of the Constitution.

Furthermore, the dynamic interpretation of fundamental rights has ensured their relevance and adaptability to evolving societal norms and global human rights standards. Cases like Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India underscore the importance of procedural fairness and reasonableness in administrative actions, expanding the scope of Article 21 to encompass broader notions of liberty and due process.

In essence, fundamental rights represent the heart and soul of India’s constitutional democracy. They are not just legal provisions but embody the aspirations of a free and just society, where the rights and dignity of every individual are sacrosanct. The judiciary’s vigilant oversight, coupled with a dynamic and principled interpretation of these rights, continues to be paramount in upholding the constitutional vision of justice, liberty, and equality for all citizens.

Sommya Kashyap
Sommya Kashyap
A law enthusiast
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