Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India [1978 SC]

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[It is a long judgment. Delhi Law Academy is presenting here for its students a concise and useful Summary of the judgment]


The petitioner is the holder of the passport issued to her on June 1, 1976 under the Passports Act, 1967. On July 4, 1977 the petitioner received a letter dated July 2, 1977 from the Regional Passport Officer, Delhi intimating to her that it has been decided by the Government of India to impound her passport under Section 10(3)(c) of the Act in public interest and requiring her to surrender the passport within seven days from the date of receipt of the letter.

The petitioner immediately addressed a letter to the Regional Passport Officer requesting him to furnish a copy of the statement of reasons for making the order as provided in Section 10(5) to which a reply was sent by the Government of India, Ministry of External Affairs on July 6, 1977 stating inter alia that the Government has decided “in the interest of the general public” not to furnish her a copy of the statement of reasons for the making of the order. The petitioner thereupon filed the present petition challenging the action of the Government in impounding her passport and declining to give reasons for doing so.

Meaning and content of personal liberty in Article 21

 The expression ‘personal liberty’ in Article 21 is of the widest amplitude and it covers a variety of rights which go to constitute the personal liberty of man and some of them have been raised to the status of distinct fundamental rights and given additional protection under Article 19. Now, it has been held by this Court in Satwant Singh case that ‘personal liberty’ within the meaning of Article 21 includes within its ambit the right to go abroad and consequently no person can be deprived of this right except according to procedure prescribed by law.

Prior to the enactment of the Passports Act, 1967, there was no law regulating the right of a person to go abroad and that was the reason why the order of the Passport Officer refusing to issue passport to the petitioner in Satwant Singh case was struck down as invalid.

It will be seen at once from the language of Article 21 that the protection it secures is a limited one. It safeguards the right to go abroad against executive interference which is not supported by law; and law here means ‘enacted law’ or ‘state law’. Thus, no person can be deprived of his right to go abroad unless there is a law made by the State prescribing the procedure for so depriving him and the deprivation is effected strictly in accordance with such procedure. It was for this reason, in order to comply with the requirement of Article 21, that Parliament enacted the Passports Act, 1967 for regulating the right to go abroad. It is clear from the provisions of the Passports Act, 1967 that it lays down the circumstances under which a passport may be issued or refused or cancelled or impounded and also prescribes a procedure for doing so, but the question is whether that is sufficient compliance with Article 21. Is the prescription of some sort of procedure enough or must the procedure comply with any particular requirements? Obviously, the procedure cannot be arbitrary, unfair or unreasonable.

The inter-relationship between Articles 14, 19 and 21

We may at this stage consider the inter-relation between Article 21 on the one hand and Articles 14 and 19 on the other. We have already pointed out that the view taken by the majority in A.K. Gopalan case was that so long as a law of preventive detention satisfies the requirements of Article 22, it would be within the terms of Article 21 and it would not be required to meet the challenge of Article 19. This view proceeded on the assumption that “certain articles in the constitution exclusively deal with specific matters” and where the requirements of an article dealing with the particular matter in question are satisfied and there is no infringement of the fundamental right guaranteed by that article, no recourse can be had to a fundamental right conferred by another article.

This doctrine of exclusivity was seriously questioned in R.C. Cooper case and it was over-ruled by a majority of the full Court. The majority judges held that though a law of preventive detention may pass the test of Article 22, it has yet to satisfy the requirements of other fundamental rights such as Article 19.

The nature and requirement of the procedure under Article 21

Now, the question immediately arises as to what is the requirement of Article 14: what is the content and reach of the great equalising principle enunciated in this article? There can be no doubt that it is a founding faith of the Constitution. It is indeed the pillar on which rests securely the foundation of our democratic republic. And, therefore, it must not be subjected to a narrow, pedantic or lexicographic approach- No attempt should be made to truncate its all-embracing scope and meaning, for to do so would be to violate its activist magnitude.

Equality is a dynamic concept with many aspects and dimensions and it cannot be imprisoned within traditional and doctrinaire limits. We must reiterate here what was pointed out by the majority in E.P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu [(1974) 2 SCR 348], namely, that “from a positivistic point of view, equality is antithetic to arbitrariness. In fact equality and arbitrariness are sworn enemies; one belongs to the rule of law in a republic, while the other, to the whim and caprice of an absolute monarch. Where an act is arbitrary, it is implicit in it that it is unequal both according to political logic and constitutional law and is therefore violative of Article 14”. Article 14 strikes at arbitrariness in State action and ensures fairness and equality of-treatment. The principle of reasonableness, which legally as well as philosophically, is an essential element of equality or non-arbitrariness pervades Article 14 like a brooding omnipresence and the procedure contemplated by Article 21 must answer the test of reasonableness in order to be in conformity with Article 14. It must be “right and just and fair” and not arbitrary, fanciful or oppressive; otherwise, it would be no procedure at all and the requirement of Article 21 would not be satisfied.

How far natural justice is an essential element of ‘procedure established by law

The question immediately arises: does the procedure prescribed by the Passports Act, 1967 for impounding a passport meet the test of this requirement? Is it ‘right or fair or just’?

Now, as already pointed out, the doctrine of natural justice consists principally of two rules, namely, nemo debet esse judex in propria causa: no one shall be a judge in his own cause, and audi alteram partem: no decision shall be given against a party without affording him a reasonable hearing. We are concerned here with the second rule and hence we shall confine ourselves only to a discussion of that rule.

Attorney General urged that having regard to the nature of the action involved in impounding of a passport, the audi alteram partem rule must be held to be excluded, because if notice were to be given to the holder of passport and reasonable opportunity afforded to him to show cause why his passport should not be impounded, he might immediately, on the strength of the passport, make good his exit from the country and the object of impounding the passport would be frustrated. The argument was that if the audi alteram partem rule were applied, its effect would be to stultify the power of impounding the passport and it would defeat and paralyse administration of the law and hence the audi alteram partem rule cannot in fairness be applied while exercising the power to impound a passport.

The audi alteram partem rule would, by the experiential test, be excluded, if importing the right to be heard has the effect of paralysing the administrative process or the need for promptitude or the urgency of the situation so demands.

It would not therefore, be right to conclude that the audi alteram partem rule is excluded merely because the power to impound a passport might be frustrated, if prior notice and hearing were to be given to the person concerned before impounding his passport The Passport Authority may proceed to impound the passport without giving any prior opportunity to the person concerned to be heard, but as soon as the order impounding the passport is made, an opportunity of hearing, remedial in aim, should be given to him so that he may present his case and controvert that of the Passport Authority and point out why his passport should not be impounded and the order impounding it recalled. This should not only be possible but also quite appropriate, because the reasons for impounding the passport are required to be supplied by the Passport Authority after the making of the order and the person affected would, therefore, be in a position to make a representation setting forth his case and plead for setting aside the action impounding his passport.

A fair opportunity of being heard following immediately upon the order impounding the passport would satisfy the mandate of natural justice and a provision requiring giving of such opportunity to the person concerned can and should be read by implication in the Passports Act, 1967. If such a provision were held to be incorporated in the Passports Act, 1967 by necessary implication, as we hold it must be, the procedure prescribed by the Act for impounding a passport would be right, fair and just and it would not suffer from the vice of arbitrariness or unreasonableness. We must, therefore, hold that the procedure ‘established’ by the Passports Act, 1967 for impounding a passport is in conformity with the requirement of Article 21 and does not fall foul of that article.

Is Section 10(3)(c) violative of Article 14?

That takes us to the next question whether Section 10(3)(c) is violative of any of the fundamental rights guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution. Only two articles are relied upon for this purpose and they are Articles 14 and 19(l)(a) and (g).

Now, the law is well settled that when a statute vests unguided and unrestricted power in an authority to affect the rights of a person without laying down any policy or principle which is to guide the authority in exercise of this power, it would be affected by the vice of discrimination since it would leave it open to the authority to discriminate between persons and things similarly situated. But here it is difficult to say that the discretion conferred on the Passport Authority is arbitrary or unfettered.

There are four grounds set out in Section 10(3)(c) which would justify the making of an order impounding a passport. We are concerned only with the last ground denoted by the words “in the interests of the general public”, for that is the ground which is attacked as vague and indefinite. We fail to see how this ground can, by any stretch of argument, be characterised as vague or undefined.

The words “in the interests of the general public” have a clearly well defined meaning and the courts have often been called upon to decide whether a particular action is “in the interests of the general public” or in “public interest”. These words are in fact borrowed ipsissima verba from Article 19(5) and we think it would be nothing short of heresy to accuse the constitution-makers of vague and loose thinking.

The legislature performed a scissors and paste operation in lifting these words out of Article 19(5) and introducing them in Section 10(3)(c) and if these words are not vague and indefinite in Article 19(5), it is difficult to see how they can be condemned to be such when they occur in Section 10(3)(c). How can Section 10(3)(c) be said to incur any constitutional infirmity on account of these words when they are no wider than the constitutional provision in Article 19(5)?

Sufficient guidelines are provided by the words “in the interests of the general public” and the power conferred on the Passport Authority to impound a passport cannot be said to be unguided or unfettered. Moreover, it must be remembered that the exercise of this power is not made dependent on the subjective opinion of the Passport Authority as regards the necessity of exercising it on one or more of the grounds stated in the section, but the Passport Authority is required to record in writing a brief statement of reasons for impounding the passport and, save in certain exceptional circumstances, to supply a copy of such statement to the person affected, so that the person concerned can challenge the decision of the Passport Authority in appeal and the appellate authority can examine whether the reasons given by the Passport Authority are correct, and if so, whether they justify the making of the order impounding the passport. It is true that when the order impounding a passport is made by the Central Government, there is no appeal against it, but in such a case the power is exercised by the Central Government itself and it can safely be assumed that it  will exercise the power in a reasonable and responsible manner.

When power is vested in a high authority like the Central Government, abuse of power cannot be lightly assumed. And in any event, if there is abuse of power, the arms of the Court are long enough to reach it and to strike it down. The power conferred on the Passport Authority to impound a passport under Section 10(3)(c) cannot, therefore, be regarded as discriminatory and it does not fall foul of Article 14. But every exercise of such power has to be tested in order to determine whether it is arbitrary or within the guidelines provided in Section 10(3)(c).

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