Article 14 declares that "the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or equal protection of the laws within the territory of India". The phrase "equality before the law" occurs in almost all written constitutions that guarantee fundamental rights. Equality before the law is an expression of English Common Law while "equal protection of laws" owes its origin to the American Constitution.
Both the phrases aim to establish what is called the "equality to status and of opportunity" as embodied in the Preamble of the Constitution. While equality before the law is a somewhat negative concept implying the absence of any special privilege in favour of any individual and the equal subjection of all classes to the ordinary law, equal protection of laws is a more positive concept employing equality of treatment under equal circumstances.
Thus, Article 14 stands for the establishment of a situation under which there is complete absence of any arbitrary discrimination by the laws themselves or in their administration.
Interpreting the scope of the Article, the Supreme Court of India held in Charanjit Lai Choudhury vs. The Union of India that: (a) Equal protection means equal protection under equal circumstances; (b) The state can make reasonable classification for purposes of legislation; (c) Presumption of reasonableness is in favour of legislation; (d) The burden of proof is on those who challenge the legislation.
Explaining the scope of reasonable classification, the Court held that "even one corporation or a group of persons can be taken to be a class by itself for the purpose of legislation provided there is sufficient basis or reason for it. The onus of proving that there were also other companies similarly situated and this company alone has been discriminated against, was on the petitioner".
In its struggle for social and political freedom mankind has always tried to move towards the ideal of equality for all. The urge for equality and liberty has been the motive force of many revolutions. The charter of the United Nations records the determination of the member nations to reaffirm their faith in the equal rights of men and women.
Indeed, real and effective democracy cannot be achieved unless equality in all spheres is realised in a full measure. However, complete equality among men and women in all spheres of life is a distant ideal to be realised only by the march of humanity along the long and difficult path of economic, social and political progress.
The Constitution and laws of a country can at best assure to its citizens only a limited measure of equality. The framers of the Indian Constitution were fully conscious of this. This is why while they gave political and legal equality the status of a fundamental right, economic and social equality was largely left within the scope of Directive Principles of State Policy.
The Right to Equality affords protection not only against discriminatory laws passed by legislatures but also prevents arbitrary discretion being vested in the executive. In the modern State, the executive is armed with vast powers, in the matter of enforcing by-laws, rules and regulations as well as in the performance of a number of other functions.
The equality clause prevents such power being exercised in a discriminatory manner. For example, the issue of licenses regulating various trades and business activities cannot be left to the unqualified discretion of the licensing authority. The law regulating such activities should lay down the principles under which the licensing authority has to act in the grant of these licenses.
Article 14 prevents discriminatory practices only by the State and not by individuals. For instance, if a private employer like the owner of a private business concern discriminates in choosing his employees or treats his employees unequally, the person discriminated against will have no judicial remedy.
One might ask here, why the Constitution should not extend the scope of these right to private individuals also. There is good reason for not doing so. For, such extension to individual action may result in serious interference with the liberty of the individual and, in the process; fundamental rights themselves may become meaningless.
After all, real democracy can be achieved only by a proper balance between the freedom of the individual and the restrictions imposed on him in the interests of the community. Yet, even individual action in certain spheres has been restricted by the Constitution, as for example, the abolition of untouchability, and its practice in any form by any one being made an offence. Altogether, Article 14 lays down an important fundamental right which has to be closely and vigilantly guarded.
There is a related matter that deserves consideration here. The right to equality and equal protection of laws loses its reality if all the citizens do not have equal facilities of access to the courts for the protection of their fundamental rights.
The fact that these rights are guaranteed in the Constitution does not make them real unless legal assistance is available for all on reasonable terms. There cannot be any real equality in the right "to sue and be sued" unless the poorer sections of the community have equal access to courts as the richer sections.
There is evidence that this point is widely appreciated in the country as a whole and the Government of India in particular and that is why steps are now being taken to establish a system of legal aid to those who cannot afford the prohibitive legal cost that prevails in all parts of the country.