Maneka Gandhi judgment simplified

Landmark judgment in Maneka Gandhi case

The judgment in Maneka Gandhi case ( Maneka Gandhi v Union of India: AIR 1978 SC 597) was a landmark judgment in the judicial history of India. It was a conscious attempt on the part of the Supreme Court (SC) in restoring the people’s faith in the judiciary which reached at its low in the seventies, particularly after the ADM Jabalpur judgment which is considered to be the most infamous judgment in India.

Brief facts of the case

The facts of the case are as follows: Maneka Gandhi, the petitioner in the case, wanted to travel abroad for a speaking event in 1977. While she was planning for the travel she received a letter from the Government of India stating that the government decided to impound her passport, which she held since 1976, in public interest. When she sought the statement of reasons for passing such an order, the government declined to offer any specific reason other than giving her a reply that the impounding was in the interest of the general public. Therefore she filed a writ petition in the SC challenging the passport impounding order issued under section 10(3)(c) Of the Indian Passport Act.

Maneka Gandhi case primarily was a case concerning the impounding of an Indian citizen’s passport and the fundamental right of him/her to travel abroad. It came before the SC immediately after the national emergency and when a non-congress government was in power. The substantive question posed before the SC in Maneka case was whether a law formulated by satisfying all procedural requirements (due procedure) in its enactment would satisfy the test of substantive review under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Reaffirmed travelling abroad as basic right

In the Maneka Gandhi case, the SC reaffirmed its earlier decision in Satwant Singh v Asst Passport Officer, Government of India case ( AIR 1967 SC 1836) that the right to travel abroad fell within the sweep of the right to personal liberty under Article 21. But the court considered several issues peripheral to the case and issued a lengthy judgment on Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution.

Deviated from A K Gopalans case

In Maneka Gandhi case the SC wholly departed from its rigid approach in interpreting the fundamental rights in the AK Gopalan case (A K Gopalan v State of Madras : AIR 1950 SC 27). In A K Gopalan case the petitioner wanted the court to examine that his detention violated the Articles 13, 19, 21 and 22 of the constitution. But the court then held that he could not challenge the detention under any other article when it satisfied Article 22. The court added that each fundamental right is distinct and must be read in isolation and the expression ‘personal liberty’ under Article 21 excludes those freedoms that come under Article 19, as well.

However in Maneka Gandhi case, the SC held that the rights come under the fundamental rights in the Constitution are not distinct and mutually exclusive but they altogether form an integrated scheme under the Constitution. Therefore a law, regulation or procedure of the government prescribing a procedure for depriving a personal liberty of a citizen must not be inconsistent with Article 21, Article 19, Article 14 or any other fundamental right.

Procedure must be just, fair & reasonable

The court said the right to equality under Article 14 is a concept of wider dimension and it is antithetic to arbitrariness. The concept of equality is part of rule of law while arbitrariness is part of whims and caprice of an absolute monarchy. So any arbitrary action violates Article 14. On the other hand reasonableness is the essential element of equality. So every procedure under Article 21 of the Constitution must be reasonable. That means it must be fair, just and reasonable but not arbitrary, fanciful or oppressive. Any procedure that is not fair, just and reasonable is not a valid procedure at all.

The test of reasonableness must apply to judicial, quasi-judicial and administrative functions equally. The court also held that as moving abroad being a fundamental right, the act of impounding a citizen’s passport should satisfy the stipulations in Articles 21, 19 and 14 of the Constitution.

The court held that if anyone applies the above said standards to the government’s order on impounding Maneka Gandhi’s passport or its stand in not furnishing any reason in that regard would fail to satisfy the Article 21, which includes in its ambit the right to travel abroad.

Therefore the SC found that the government order was arbitrary and violated the right to equality under Article 14 and her right to travel abroad under Article 19 of the Constitution.

Unreasonable law cannot be a valid law

In Maneka Gandhi case the SC held that a law, which is an arbitrary and unreasonable one, cannot be accepted as valid law, when it is put to substantive judicial review under Article 21 of the Constitution, on the ground that it has been formulated by following all the procedural formalities.

In short, the Maneka Gandhi judgment means that “procedure established by law” under Article 21 would mean “due process of law”. It is true that while drafting the Article 21 of the Constitution, the makers of it retained the expression ‘procedure established by law’ as they wanted the court to examine only the procedural adequacy of laws under the Article.

That means a law, however arbitrary or oppressive it is, is not required to be examined by the court as to whether it is violative of the right to life or personal liberty, if the law is suitably passed and enacted.

Judgment rewrites the constitutional scheme

The judgment in effect rewrote the Article 21 of the Constitution. The Article 21 would now mean, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to fair, just and reasonable procedure established by valid law”.

Therefore since the judgment the expression ‘procedure established by law’ under the Article 21 of the Constitution would have to be understood as ‘due process of law’ as in the US Constitution.

The SC, after making some extra ordinary observations, did not pass any formal order in Maneka Gandhi case, but closed the case accepting the government’s assurance that she would get adequate opportunity to be heard, in exercise of the principles of natural justice.

The SC’s expansive approach in Maneka Gandhi case was a strategic attempt to distance itself from the judgment in the ADM Jabalpur v Sivakant Shukla (AIR 1976 SC 1207) in which the SC held that a detenu could not file a habeas corpus petition challenging the legality of detention during emergency.

The judgment has turned into a springboard for the emergence of a series of human rights under Article 21, making it an expansive repository of human rights and fundamental freedoms in India.