Case Analysis: Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India

Case : Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India, 1978 AIR 597, 1978 SCR(2) 621

Author: Kanu Priya


The judgement of this case was delivered by 7- judge bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court on 25th January 1978, this decision marked the development of a new era with respect to the interpretation of fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. This decision marked a new era of development in the concept of ‘personal liberty’.

Being one of the progressive decisions of the SC, the principles laid down, in this case are relevant to date. It marked the judiciary’s transformation from pandemic to purposive approach in construing the sweep of the right to life under the Constitution.

Facts of this case:

The petitioner Maneka Gandhi was journalist whose passport was issued on June 1, 1976 under the Passport Act 1967. The regional passport officer, New Delhi issued a letter dated July 7,1977 addressed to Maneka Gandhi in which she was asked to surrender to Maneka Gandhi in which she was asked to surrender her passport under section 10(3) of the Act in the public interest within 7 days from the date of receipt of the letter. As soon as the petitioner got the notice of such impound she responded to the authorities asking for specific detailed reasons as to why her passport shall be impounded as provided in Section 10(5)(c) of  the Passport Act.

The authorities however answered that the reasons are not to be specified in the “interest of the general public”. In response the petitioner filed a writ petition under Article 32 for violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution alleging that Section 10(3)(c) of the Act was ultra vires of the Constitution.[1]

Issues before the Court:
  • Whether the Fundamental Rights are absolute or conditional and what is the extent of the territory of such Fundamental Rights provided to the citizens by the Constitution of India?
  • Whether ‘Right to Travel Abroad’ is protected under the umbrella of Article 21.
  • What is the Connection between the rights guaranteed under Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India?
  • Determining the scope of “ Procedure established by Law”
  • Whether the provision laid down in Section 10(3)(c) of the Passport Act 1967 is violative of Fundamental Rights and if it is whether such legislation is a concrete Law?
  • Whether the Impugned order of Regional Passport Officer is in contravention of principles of natural justice?
Arguments advanced by Petitioner:
  • Through the administrative order that seized the passport on 4th July 1977, the State had infringed upon the Petitioner’s Fundamental Rights of freedom of speech and expression, right to life and personal liberty, right to travel abroad and the right to freedom of movement.
  • The provision of Article 14, 19 &21 are to be read in synchronization and they are not mutually exclusive. These provisions in itself though not explicitly constitutes in itself principles of natural justice. A combined reading of three provisions will give effect to the spirit of the constitution and constitution-makers.
  • Even though India has not adopted American “due process of law” in it’s constitution, the procedure established by law must be reasonable, fair and just free from any sort of arbitrations.
  • Section 10(3)(c) of the Passport Act violates Article 21 insofar as it violates the right to life and personal liberty guarantee by this Article.
  • An essential constituent of Natural Justice is “Audi Alteram Partem” give a chance to be heard was not granted to the petitioner.
Arguments advanced by Respondent:
  • The respondent stared before the court that the passport was confiscated since the petitioner had to appear before a government committee for hearing.
  • Reiterating the principle laid down in A.K Gopalan the respondent contended that the word law under Article 21 cannot be comprehended in the light of fundamental rules of natural justice.
  • Article 21 contains the phrase “procedure established by law”& such procedure does not have to pass the test of responsibility and need not necessarily be in consonance with the Articles 14&19.
  • The framers of our Constitution had debates on the American “due process of law” versus the British “procedure established by law”. The marked absence of the due process of law from provision of the Indian Constitution clearly indicates the Constitution makers intention.[2]
Judgement of the Court:
  1. Before the enactment of the Passport Act 1967, there was no law regulating the passport whenever any person wanted to leave his native place and settle abroad. Also, the executives were entirely discretionary while issuing the passports in an unguided and unchallenged manner. In Satwant  Singh Sawhney v. D Ramarathnam the SC stated that – “personal liberty” in its ambit, also includes the right of locomotion and travel abroad. Hence, no person can be deprived of such rights, except through procedures established by law. Since the State had not made any law regarding the regulation or prohibiting the rights of a person in such a case, the confiscation of the petitioner’s passport is in violation of Article 21 and its grounds being unchallenged and arbitrary, it is also violative of Article 14.
  2. Further, clause (c) of section 10(3) of the Passports Act, 1967 provides that when the state finds it necessary to seize the passport or do any such action in the interests of sovereignty and integrity of the nation, its security, its friendly relations with foreign countries, or for the interests of the general public, the authority is required to record in writing the reason of such act and on-demand furnish a copy of that record to the holder of the passport. 
  3. The Central Government never did disclose any reasons for impounding the petitioner’s passport rather she was told that the act was done in “the interests of the general public” whereas it was found out that her presence was felt required by the respondents for the proceedings before a commission of inquiry. The reason was given explicit that it was not really necessarily done in the public interests and no ordinary person would understand the reasons for not disclosing this information or the grounds of her passport confiscation.
  4. The fundamental rights conferred in Part III of the Constitution are not distinctive nor mutually exclusive.” Any law depriving a person of his personal liberty has to stand a test of one or more of the fundamental rights conferred under Article 19.  When referring to Article 14, “ex-hypothesi” must be tested. The concept of reasonableness must be projected in the procedure.
  5. The phrase used in Article 21 is “procedure established by law” instead of “due process of law” which is said to have procedures that are free from arbitrariness and irrationality.
  6. There is a clear infringement of the basic ingredient of principles of natural justice i.e., audi alteram partem and hence, it cannot be condemned as unfair and unjust even when a statute is silent on it. 
  7. Section 10(3)(c) of the Passports Act 1967, is not violative of any fundamental rights, especially Article 14. In the present case, the petitioner is not discriminated in any manner under Article 14 because the statute provided.
  8. unrestricted powers to the authorities. the ground of “in the interests of the general public” is not vague and undefined, rather it is protected by certain guidelines which can be borrowed from Article 19.
  9. It is true that fundamental rights are sought in case of violation of any rights of an individual and when the State had violated it. But that does not mean, Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression is exercisable only in India and not outside. Merely because the state’s action is restricted to its territory, it does not mean that Fundamental Rights are also restricted in a similar manner.[3]
  10. It is possible that certain rights related to human values are protected by fundamental rights even if it is not explicitly written in our Constitution. For example, Freedom of the press is covered under Article 19(1)(a) even though it is not specifically mentioned there.
  11. The right to go abroad is not a part of the Right to Free Speech and Expression as both have different natures and characters. 
  12. A.K Gopalan was overruled stating that there is a unique relationship between the provisions of Article 14, 19 & 21 and every law must pass the tests of the said provisions. Earlier in Gopalan, the majority held that these provisions in itself are mutually exclusive. Therefore, to correct its earlier mistake the court held that these provisions are not mutually exclusive and are dependent on each other.

After this case the Supreme Court became the watchdog to protect the essence of the Constitution and safeguard the intention of the constitutional assembly who made it. The majority of judges opined that any legislation or section should be just, fair and reasonable and in it’s absence even the established or prevailed law can be considered arbitrary.

The judges mandated that any law which deprives a person of his personal liberty should stand the test of Article 21,14 as well as 19 of the Constitution. Also principles of natural justice are sheltered under article 21 and therefore no person is deprived of his voice to be heard inside the court. Further to declare any state action or legislation invalid, the “golden triangle”.

[1] Maria Paliwala, Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India, Ipleaders / Maria Paliwala

[2] Fathima Mehendi, Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India (1978),  Legal Bites- law& beyond (14 December, 2020) Fathima Mehendi

[3] Maria Paliwala, Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India, Ipleaders / Maria Paliwala