Article 14: Guardian of Right to Equality before Law and Equal Protection of Law under the Indian Constitution


Article 14 of the Indian Constitution guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of the laws to all persons within the territory of India[1]. It embodies the general principle of equality and prohibits unreasonable discrimination between persons[2]. Article 14 is one of the pillars of the Indian Constitution and a part of the basic structure which cannot be abrogated even by a constitutional amendment[3].

Historical Background of Right to Equality and Article 14

The concept of equality before law owes its origin to the English Common Law and the Magna Carta[4]. The rule of law propounded by AV Dicey included the principle of equality before the law[5]. The barons of England compelled King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 AD which guaranteed this principle[6].

The equal protection clause finds its origin in the 14th amendment to the US Constitution[7]. It provides that no State shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws[8]. This clause has been extensively interpreted by the US Supreme Court in its jurisprudence[9].

The framers of the Indian Constitution adopted principles from the US and UK and incorporated Article 14 to provide for both equality before law and equal protection of laws[10].

Scope and Application of Right to Equality under Article 14

Article 14 applies to all persons within the territory of India, including citizens, non-citizens, corporates, juristic persons etc[11]. It applies against State action and not private action unless there is sufficient nexus with the State[12]. Both substantive and procedural laws are subject to Article 14[13]. The right under Article 14 is available against arbitrary executive action also[14].

The essence of Article 14 has been described as a “constitutional goal of equal justice”[15]. It aims to establish an egalitarian social order without any discrimination[16]. The overarching principles of governance in Article 14 are fairness, non-arbitrariness, non-discrimination and rationality in State action[17].

Equality Before Law under Article 14

Equality before law means that among equals, the law should be equal and should be equally administered[18]. It implies that people in similar circumstances should be treated alike both in privileges conferred and liabilities imposed by laws[19]. There should not be any special privilege to any person on the basis of birth, creed, sex, religion etc[20].

This doctrine was expounded by Dicey as a principle of Rule of Law[21]. It ensures that every person is subject to the jurisdiction of ordinary courts irrespective of his/her status or position[22].

This principle acts as a check on the arbitrariness of the rulers and requires the law to be certain and predictable in application[23]. However, identical treatment to unequals may lead to inequality[24].

Equal Protection of Laws under Article 14

Equal protection requires State to enact equal laws and provide adequate safeguards against discrimination[25]. The State cannot discriminate based on impermissible criteria[26]. However, reasonable classification is permitted based on rationale differentia[27].

This doctrine mandates equality of treatment in equal circumstances[28]. It permits State to classify persons for legitimate governmental objectives but such classification should be reasonable and have nexus with the objective sought[29]. The essence of this principle is “like should be treated alike”[30].

Inter-relationship between the two expressions of Article 14

The two principles aim to establish equal justice, the former in a negative way and the latter in a positive way[31]. Equal protection of laws is wider in scope and includes equality before law[32]. Classification of persons for differential treatment is permitted subject to Article 14[33].

The differences between equality before law and equal protection of laws have blurred over time and courts use both principles interchangeably to strike down arbitrary laws[34].

Reasonable Classification as a Reasonable Restriction on Article 14

Article 14 permits reasonable classification based on intelligible differentia which distinguishes between those included and excluded from the class[35]. Such differentia must have rational nexus with the object sought to be achieved[36].

The twin tests for valid classification were laid down in the case of Anwar Ali Sarkar[37]. The criteria evolve and vary with times[38]. Classification should not be arbitrary but be based on some “intelligible differentia” or real differences[39]. The Supreme Court has applied several criteria to determine reasonableness[40].

  1. Firstly, a single person can be classified as a class based on unique circumstances applicable only to that person[41].
  2. Secondly, there is a presumption in favor of constitutionality of statutes and burden is on those challenging it to prove unreasonableness[42].
  3. Thirdly, predominance of legal spirit requires court to look at surrounding circumstances and not just object or form of law[43].
  4. Fourthly, classification need not be scientifically perfect[44]. Minor imperfections or fortuitous consequences will not invalidate classification[45].
  5. Fifthly, Article 14 prohibits class legislation but permits reasonable classification[46].
  6. Sixthly, if the object of the law itself is discriminatory, no explanation of classification will justify it[47].
  7. Seventhly, a law can be struck down only if it is shown that there are people similarly situated but treated differently[48].

New Dimensions of Equality under Article 14

In recent times, Indian Courts have expanded the concept of equality under Article 14 by developing principles like arbitrariness, legitimate expectation etc[49].

In E.P.Royappa[50], Justice Bhagwati held equality to be antithesis of arbitrariness[51]. Maneka Gandhi case [52] laid down that aside from classification, reasonableness is also a test for equality. Thus, even non-discriminatory laws can be struck down as arbitrary[53].

Doctrine of legitimate expectation was evolved in India[54]. State cannot arbitrarily change a regular practice without sufficient cause[55]. Any change in policy must be fair, non-arbitrary and rational[56]. Proportionality of such change will be examined[57].

Critical Analysis of Right to Equality under Article 14

Certain conflicts have arisen in applying doctrines under Article 14. There is thin line between discretion and discrimination[58]. Courts have struggled to determine arbitrariness in non-discriminatory laws[59]. Wider judicial review of State action may encroach on separation of powers[60]. Legal scholars have criticized the vagueness in principles of equality[61].

However, the dynamic approach of the Supreme Court has strengthened equality jurisprudence[62]. Article 14 has become a potent weapon against injustice[63]. The Court has balanced different principles to uphold the spirit of the Constitution[64].


To conclude, Article 14 is the bedrock of Indian democracy[65]. It has been interpreted innovatively by the courts to uphold justice[66]. The horizon of equality jurisprudence was expanded by developing linked principles[67]. However, achieving substantive equality remains a goal for the State[68]. Inclusive growth and equitable development will fulfill the vision of Article 14[69].


[1] INDIA CONST. art. 14.

[2] Deepak Sibal v Punjab University, (1989) 2 SCC 145.

[3] Indira Nehru Gandhi v Raj Narain, AIR 1975 SC 2299.


[5] Id.


[7] U.S. CONST. amend. XIV.

[8] Id.

[9] Gautam Bhatia, Equal moral membership: Naz Foundation and the refashioning of equality under a transformative constitution, 2 NUJS L. REV. 443 (2009).

[10] GOYAL, supra note 4.

[11] State of U.P. v Mohd. Nooh, AIR 1958 SC 86.

[12] Pradeep Kumar Biswas v Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, (2002) 5 SCC 111.

[13] Budhan Choudhry v State of Bihar, AIR 1955 SC 191.

[14] Royappa v State of Tamil Nadu, AIR 1974 SC 555.


[16] GOYAL, supra note 4.

[17] Shayara Bano v Union of India, (2017) 9 SCC 1.

[18] Mohd. Qasim v State of Jammu and Kashmir, (1953) SCR 564.

[19] Id.

[20] GOYAL, supra note 4.

[21] SATHE, supra note 6.

[22] Id.

[23] Bachan Singh v State of Punjab, (1980) 2 SCC 684.

[24] SATHE, supra note 6.

[25] INDIA CONST. art. 14.

[26] GOYAL, supra note 4.

[27] Id.

[28] State of West Bengal v Anwar Ali Sarkar, AIR 1952 SC 75.

[29] GOYAL, supra note 4.

[30] SATHE, supra note 6.

[31] Anwar Ali Sarkar, AIR 1952 SC 75.

[32] Id.

[33] GOYAL, supra note 4.

[34] Mahesh Chandra v Regional Manager, (2009) 2 SCC 99.

[35] Anwar Ali Sarkar, AIR 1952 SC 75.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] State of West Bengal v Anwar Ali Sarkar, AIR 1952 SC 75.

[39] Id.

[40] MAHESH CHANDRA, CONSTITUTIONAL LAW 205 (10th ed. 2020).

[41] Chiranjit Lal Chowdhary v Union of India, AIR 1951 SC 41.

[42] Anwar Ali Sarkar, AIR 1952 SC 75.

[43] Jyoti Prasad v Union Territory of Delhi, AIR 1961 SC 1602.

[44] Bachan Singh v State of Punjab, (1980) 2 SCC 684.

[45] Id.

[46] Mahesh Chandra, supra note 40.

[47] Subramanian Swamy v CBI, (2005) 2 SCC 317.

[48] Mahesh Chandra, supra note 34.

[49] GOYAL, supra note 4.

[50] E.P. Royappa v State of Tamil Nadu, AIR 1974 SC 555.

[51] Id.

[52] Maneka Gandhi v Union of India, AIR 1978 SC 597.

[53] R.D. Shetty v International Airports Authority, (1979) 3 SCC 489.

[54] Navjyoti Coop. Group Housing Society v Union of India, (1992) 4 SCC 477.

[55] Id.

[56] Id.

[57] GOYAL, supra note 4.

[58] Mahesh Chandra, supra note 40.

[59] Shayara Bano v Union of India, (2017) 9 SCC 1.

[60] SATHE, supra note 6.


[62] Mahesh Chandra, supra note 40.

[63] GOYAL, supra note 4.

[64] SATHE, supra note 6.

[65] Mahesh Chandra, supra note 40.

[66] E.P. Royappa v State of Tamil Nadu, AIR 1974 SC 555.

[67] Maneka Gandhi v Union of India, AIR 1978 SC 597.

[68] SATHE, supra note 6.

[69] Mahesh Chandra, supra note 40.