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By TT Bureau
  • Published 27.11.13

The Maneka Gandhi v Union of India (Maneka Gandhi) case arose in the period immediately following the end of the national Emergency in India, with the Janata Party government assuming power in 1977. Maneka Gandhi, daughter-in-law of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and founder-editor of a political magazine Surya, was issued a passport in 1976 under the Passports Act. Soon after the Congress Party was ousted by the Janata Party, she began using Surya as a political platform to restore the image of the Congress Party and discredit leaders of the new government. (The most notable instance of this was when Surya carried photographs showing the son of then defence minister Jagjivan Ram engaging in sexual intercourse with a student of Delhi University.)

In 1977, around the time she wished to leave India to fulfil a speaking engagement, Maneka Gandhi received a letter stating that the Government of India had decided to impound her passport “in public interest” under Section 10(3)(c) of the Passports Act.

The government turned down her request seeking the reasons why the order had been passed, stating that it was not “in the interest of the general public”. In reaction, she filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging the passport impounding order of the Government of India and its subsequent refusal to provide reasons for the same...

In Maneka Gandhi, the Supreme Court departed from the straitjacketed interpretation of fundamental rights in Gopalan (A.K. Gopalan v State of Madras) and held that the fundamental rights form an integrated scheme under the Constitution. The court stated:

“Articles dealing with different fundamental rights contained in Part III of the Constitution do not represent entirely separate streams of rights which do not mingle at many points. They are all parts of an integrated scheme in the Constitution. Their waters must mix to constitute that grand flow of unimpeded and impartial justice... Isolation of various aspects of human freedom, for purposes of their protection, is neither realistic nor beneficial.”

Emphasising the need to read Part III of the Constitution in a holistic manner, the Supreme Court said that the mere fact that a law satisfied the requirements of one fundamental right did not exempt it from the operation of other fundamental rights.

What this means is that even if a law were ostensibly associated with a particular fundamental right and complied with its requirements, it would also have to satisfy the requirements of other fundamental rights.

The majority on the seven-judge bench stated that any procedure established by law under Article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) would have to be “fair, just and reasonable” and could not be “fanciful, oppressive or arbitrary”. If this standard were applied, the government’s impounding order — passed without providing a hearing nor furnishing any reasons to Maneka Gandhi — failed to satisfy the mandate of Article 21. The court… held that the right to travel abroad fell within the sweep of the right to personal liberty under Article 21. The court also found that the government order was arbitrary and violated the right to equality under Article 14.

In spite of its emphatic observations, the court did not pass any “formal order” in the case and accepted the government’s assurance that Maneka Gandhi would get an adequate opportunity to be heard. The majority upheld the impounding of Maneka Gandhi’s passport and held that her passport should remain in the court’s custody in the meantime. Justice Beg, who was otherwise part of the majority, did opine that the government order was “neither fair nor procedurally proper” and deserved to be quashed by the court.

Small Case, Large Judgment?

The Supreme Court’s judgment in Maneka Gandhi has been widely critiqued as one that went out of bounds with reference to the facts before the court. The matter concerned, on the face of it, the impounding of an individual’s passport. The Attorney-General had undertaken that Maneka Gandhi would be provided a post-decisional hearing. Moreover, even if the government decided to stand by its impounding order after hearing Maneka Gandhi, it had conceded that the period of impounding would not exceed six months from the date of its fresh order. Instead of deciding the case on this finite ground, the court chose to consider several peripheral issues — yes, these issues were pivotal to India’s governance, but peripheral to the case — in judgments that together added up to over 70,000 words...

Indeed, why did the Supreme Court say more than what needed to be said? The immediate cause of the court’s expansive, rights-based approach in Maneka Gandhi was the criticism it faced for its decision during the Emergency in the ADM Jabalpur case. In fact, Maneka Gandhi was followed by a series of actions undertaken by the court and its judges to distance themselves from ADM Jabalpur — this was akin to an acknowledgement that it had “violated the fundamental rights of a large number of people” thirty-four years after the case was decided.

And, yet, though the Supreme Court embarked on an inquiry not necessitated by the facts before it in Maneka Gandhi, when we look at it from a result-oriented approach, the court’s interpretation of Articles 14, 19 and 21 played a hugely beneficial role in shaping India’s constitutional policy...

Does a law that satisfies all procedural requirements in its enactment, however arbitrary or unreasonable, meet the test of Article 21? This is the question that the Supreme Court sought to answer in Maneka Gandhi. By vesting in itself the power of substantive review under Article 21, the court transformed itself from being merely a supervisor, to being a watchdog of the Constitution. This is the seminal importance of the Maneka Gandhi decision...

Some would wonder why there was so much excitement over a verdict that essentially recognised the right of a member of India’s most influential political family to go abroad. It is the constitutional developments after Maneka Gandhi that highlight how it was one of the cases that truly changed India. For most jurists, it was a turning point in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Article 21. The court moved from a pedantic to a purposive approach in construing the sweep of the right to life under the Constitution. The judgment became a springboard for the evolution of the law relating to judicial preservation of human rights.

The most striking aspect of the Supreme Court’s introduction of substantive due process was that it empowered courts to expand the limited phraseology of the right to life under the Constitution, to include a wide range of un-enumerated rights. Derived from Article 21, these rights cover areas such as the rights of prisoners, protection of women and children, and environmental rights.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from 10 Judgments that Changed India by Zia Mody; Shobhaa De Books; Rs 399