Equality before law and equal protection of laws connote that equality is not an absolute concept. Equals cannot be treated unequally and un-equals cannot be treated equally. Similarity of treatment does not mean identical treatment. In this sense it cannot be said that Article 14 mandates that all laws should be uniformly applicable to every person. It is because all persons are not equal by nature, attainment or circumstances and therefore, mechanical application of equality will result in injustice. Article 14 does not provide for equal treatment of all persons without distinction. It permits reasonable classification for the purpose of legislation and administrative decisions. Supreme Court in Virendra Krishna Mishra v. Union of India, (2015) 2 SCC 712 held right to equality cannot be denied arbitrarily in absence of valid classification.
Need for reasonable classification: The need for reasonable classification arise out of varying needs of different classes or section of people. These varying class of people have different problems, diverse needs and require separate treatment. In D.S. Nakara v. Union of India (1983) Supreme Court held that doctrine of classification was evolved to sustain a legislation to State in order to help weaker sections of society.
In R.K. Garg v. Union of India (1981) Supreme Court held that Article 14 forbids class-legislation but it does not prohibit reasonable classification. A class legislation is a legislation which applies to a particular class of persons without any reasonable basis. When there is no reasonable basis for classification such classification may be declared discriminatory.
The classification must not be arbitrary, artificial or evasive. For the classification to be reasonable following two conditions must be satisfied.
1. The classification must be based on an intelligible differentia which distinguishes persons or things that are grouped together from others left out of the group; and
2. The differentia must have a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved.
In State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar (1952) the Supreme Court held that differentia which is the basis of the classification and the object of the Act are two different things. It is important to have nexus between the basis of classification and the object of the Act.
Classification is a normal feature of law making and administrative discretion. As a general rule, there is a presumption of constitutionality in favour of the statute. When a person seeks to impeach the validity of a law on the ground that it offends Article, the onus is on him to prove that the law offends Article 14. [Ashutosh Gupta v. State of Rajasthan, (2002) 4 SCC 34]
Supreme Court in Deepak Sibal v. Punjab University, AIR 1989 SC 903 held that classification need not be made with ‘mathematical precision’. In order to consider reasonableness of classification the object of such classification needs to be taken into account. If the objective is illogical, unfair and unjust then the classification will be unreasonable. Further, Supreme Court in Subramanian Swamy v. CBI, (2014) 8 SCC 682 held that following two dimensions of Article 14 render the legislation invalid:-
1. Discrimination based on impermissible or invalid classification; and
2. Excessive delegation of power.
Application of law to single individual: A statute based on a reasonable classification does not become invalid merely because the class to which it applies consists of only one person. Supreme Court in Chirinjit Lal v. Union of India, AIR 1951 SC 41 held that law may be constitutional even though it applies to a single individual on account of special circumstances. That single individual may be treated as a class. The statute will be invalid if there are no special circumstances differentiating the person concerned from the rest. In S.P. Mittal v. Union of India, AIR 1983 SC 1 Supreme Court held that a law providing for taking over of Auroville by government does not infringe Article 14 as Auroville can be treated as a class. The presumption of constitutionality is always in favour of the statute and the person who challenges the constitutionality has to show that law is arbitrary and unreasonable.
Procedural classification: Article 14 provides equal protection not only as regards substantive laws but procedural laws as well. It condemns discrimination not only by a substantive law but also by a law of procedure [Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India, AIR 1990 SC 1480]. It means that all persons similarly circumstanced are entitled to avail same procedural rights without discrimination. If special procedure is laid down for a class of persons then such ‘class’ must be based on intelligible differentia having a reasonable nexus with the object sought to be achieved. Section 27 of the Evidence Act was challenged in State of U.P. v. Deoman Upadhyaya, AIR 1960 SC 1125. It was argued that this provision makes a distinction between statements made by persons in custody and those not in custody. The Supreme Court held that such distinction in context of admissibility of statements is not arbitrary or artificial.
Special courts: The law prescribing special courts for trial of offences has to be valid on the touchstone of Article 14. State of West Bengal passed The West Bengal Special Court Act, 1950 to provide speedier trial for certain offences. These courts followed procedure less advantageous to the accused. Supreme Court in State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar, AIR 1952 SC 75 struck down the law as unconstitutional as it laid down no yardstick for grouping persons or classes of offences. The Act gave uncontrolled authority to the executive to make a discrimination and subject persons to this special law. The court further held that such kind of laws will not violate Article 14 if proper guidelines are laid down for classifying offences which could be tried by the special courts.
On the other hand in Kathi Raning Rawat v. State of Saurashtra, AIR 1952 SC 1239 Supreme Court upheld the law constituting special court because such law laid down guiding principles for selecting the offence to be tried by special court. The government was supposed to select offences, classes of offences which affected public safety, maintenance of public order etc.
In re Special Courts Bill, 1978, AIR 1979 SC 478 the question was referred to Supreme Court under Article 143 for advisory opinion. The question was whether the Special Courts Bill, 1978 proposing to set up special courts for speedier trial of offences committed by person holding high public offices during the period of emergency is constitutionally valid? The Supreme Court held that the classification provided in the Bill was valid. The court held that offences alleged to have been committed during the period of emergency constitute a ‘class’ by themselves. The court also held that apart from requirement of Article 14, the law must also satisfy the requirement of Article 21 i.e. the procedure should be just, fair and reasonable.
This law was passed by the Parliament with one change. The original Bill was confined only to trial of offences committed during period of emergency, but, the Parliament amended it and expanded its scope to provide setting up of special courts for trial of offences committed by those who held high public or political office at all times i.e. not only for the period of emergency only. This was challenged in State (Delhi Administration) v. V.C. Shukla, AIR 1980 SC 1382. Supreme Court upheld the law and held that persons holding public or political offices constitute a ‘class’ and the object of the Act was to provide speedier trial for certain offences.