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Article 21 - The Right to Life in the Indian Constitution

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to life and personal liberty to all citizens. It is considered the "heart of fundamental rights" by the Supreme Court and has been expanded through several landmark judgments, such as the inclusion of the right to privacy and the right to education. It cannot be suspended during an emergency.

Jan 19, 2023

5 min read

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is a fundamental right that guarantees the right to life and personal liberty to all citizens, as well as non-citizens. This right is considered to be the "heart of fundamental rights" by the Supreme Court and is included in Part III of the Indian Constitution. It declares that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.




The right to life in Article 21 of Indian Constitution does not mean animal existence or the mere act of breathing. It guarantees the right to a dignified life. The scope of Article 21 has been expanded over the years through various judgments of the Supreme Court.


The rights that are currently included in the ambit of Article 21 include:


Right to live with human dignity,


Right to a decent environment,


Right to livelihood,


Right to privacy,


Right to shelter,


Right to health,


Right to free education up to 14 years of age,


Right to free legal aid,


Right against solitary confinement,


Right to a speedy trial,


Right against handcuffing,


Right against inhuman treatment,


Right against delayed execution,


Right to travel abroad,


Right against bonded labor,


Right against custodial harassment,


Right to emergency medical aid,


Right to timely medical treatment in a government hospital,


Right not to be driven out of a state,


Right to a fair trial,


Right of prisoner to have necessities of life,


Right of women to be treated with decency and dignity,


Right against public hanging,


Right to hearing,


Right to information,


Right to reputation,


Right of appeal from a judgment of conviction,


Right to social security and protection of the family,


Right to social and economic justice and empowerment,


Right against bar fetters,


Right to appropriate life insurance policy,


Right to sleep,


Right to freedom from noise pollution, and


Right to electricity.


Over the years, the scope of Article 21 has been expanded through several landmark judgments. In the AK Gopalan Case (1950), the Supreme Court held that the expression "procedure established by law" embodied the British concept of personal liberty rather than the American "due process".


However, in the Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India Case (1978), the court overturned the Gopalan case judgement and said that Articles 19 and 21 are not watertight compartments. The court also held that any procedure under law for the deprivation of life or liberty of a person must not be unfair, unreasonable or arbitrary.


This expanded the interpretation of the right to life and personal liberty, and subsequent cases such as Francis Coralie Mullin vs. Union Territory of Delhi (1981), Olga Tellis vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985) and Unni Krishnan vs. State of Andhra Pradesh (1993) further upheld this expanded interpretation. 


In the Kharak Singh vs. the State of UP and Others case, the Supreme Court included the right to privacy in Article 21.


In the Sunil Batra vs. Delhi Administration case, the court deemed the fatal handcuffs for convicted persons as unconstitutional and reiterated the clause "protection to the convicted and accused person" under Article 21. 


In the Mohini Jain vs. the State of Karnataka, 1992 SC case, the court held that the Right to life also includes the Right to education.


In the Unni Krishnan vs. the State of Andhra Pradesh, 1993 SC case, the court fixed the age that right to education is a fundamental right to the children for the age of 6-14 years.


In the Subhash Kumar vs. the State of Bihar case, the court included the right to get pollution-free air in the ambit of the right to life.


It is important to note that Article 21 cannot be suspended during an emergency. This fundamental right is a cornerstone of democracy and ensures that every individual is protected against arbitrary deprivation of their life and personal liberty.

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