Doctrine of reasonable classification – iPleaders

This article has been written by Diva Rai and updated by Upasana Sarkar. This article deals with the doctrine of reasonable classification, which provides a detailed understanding of its concept, scope, and significance in India.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


Article 14 in India’s Constitution guarantees the right to equality for every citizen of the country. It encompasses the general principles of equality before the law and prohibits unreasonable discrimination between two persons. It incorporates the idea of equality expressed in the preamble.

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It is declared in the article that ‘the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or equal protection of law within the territory of India.’ The expressions of equal protection of law and equality before the law are enshrined in the constitution. They guarantee the fundamental rights and aim to establish equality of status. The two expressions seem identical, but they do not convey similar meanings.

The term has its origin from America and is somewhat a negative concept aiming at the implication of an absence of some special privileges. This can be by the reason of birth, religion, sex, caste, etc and by the ordinary law in favor of persons and all the equal subject of classes.

The term has its origin from Britain and is somewhat a positive concept aiming at equal treatment in identical situations. In other words, the President or the Prime Minister of the country should be dealt in the same manner in law as that of a common citizen.

To know more about reasonable classification and its validity under Article 14 in brief, please refer to the video below:

The Rule of Law in England called by Dicey is an aspect of the guarantee of equality before the law. This means that irrespective of the rank of a person, his condition would be subject to the jurisdiction of ordinary courts as no man is above law. It is a requirement of the rule of law that no man should be subjected to uncivilized, discriminatory and harsh treatment. This would be applicable even when the objective is to secure a paramount need of law and order.

The  three meanings as given by Professor Dicey of the Rule Of Law are:

(i)- Supremacy of the law or the absence of arbitrary power:

  • This means that absolute supremacy of law prevails are contrary to the Government’s arbitrary power.
  • A man can only be punished due to a breach of law and nothing else.

(ii)- Equality before law:

  • This means that ordinary law courts administer the subjection of all classes to the ordinary law of the land.
  • In the eyes of law, all are equal and no one is above law.

(iii)- Absence of individual liberty:

  • A variety of constitution grants individual freedom but does not provide a method.
  • The source of individuals’ rights in the constitution is neither written nor mentioned.
  • Provision for individual liberty is not in the U.K.

Supremacy of Law:

The very first meaning is that in goods no person is punishable or can be legally made to suffer. This is except for a distinct infringement of law established in an ordinary legal manner before the land’s ordinary courts. It means a person can be punished for an infringement of the law but can not be held responsible and punished for anything else. Except in the case of a breach of law, a person cannot be punished. In accordance with the ordinary procedure, an alleged offense needs to be proven in front of the court.

Equality before Law:

A person irrespective of his rank or condition would be subject to the realm of the ordinary law. He would be amenable at the jurisdiction of ordinary tribunals. Under Article 14, every person has equal protection and is equal before law.

Individual Liberty:

Article 21 provides protection of life and personal liberty while Article 19 provides right to freedom which mentions individual liberty like a fundamental right. The first and second of the Dicey’s rule apply to the Indian system but not the third aspect of it. This is because the Constitution of India is the source of the right of individuals. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. The laws passed by the legislature must be in consistency to the provisions of the Constitution. A duty is imposed by the rule of law upon the state as a special measure so as to prevent and punish the brutality of the police methodology. A basic feature is the embodiment of the rule of law in Article 14 of the Indian constitution. Under Article 368 also, it cannot be destroyed or amended.

The above mentioned rule of equality is not an absolute rule and contains a lot many exceptions to it and they are:

  • The meaning of equality of law is not that the power lying at the hands of the private citizens is the same as that of the public officials. The rule of law requires that the powers of the public officials must be clearly defined. The abuse of such power or authority by the officials must be punishable in the courts. Example- No private person can arrest another person whereas a police officer has the power to do so. This is not a violation of the rule of law.
  • A certain class of people being subject to some special rules are not prevented by the rule of law. Example- Armed forces members are controlled by their military rules; the medical council of India controls the medical practitioners.
  • Special rules in the professions govern those specific members of society. These people are treated differently from other citizens. Example- Doctors, police, lawyers, nurses, members of the armed forces, etc.
Criminal litigation

If the classification is made on a reasonable basis, the legislature can deal with two sets of individuals. A reasonable classification must be based on smart differences. This means that collectively grouped persons or things make a properly defined, distinct class and may be exceptional from those left out of the group. Furthermore, this classification basis must have a rational nexus to the object that the legislation in question seeks to achieve.

Illustration- The law on maternity benefits applies to women working on the way to maternity, not to others. Because the purpose of the law on maternity benefits is to grant privileges only to women who turn out to be mothers when they need them. Hence, the category of men and women is based totally on an intelligible differentia.

Another illustration is of tax laws. Charities, libraries are exempted from sure tax whereas other residences are not.

The ambit of the doctrine of reasonable classification is derived from the Constitution of India. The discrimination must be made on the basis of valid reasons. A framework for establishing reasonable classification among different individuals or groups of society is provided under Article 14 of the Constitution. The scope of a reasonable classification is usually determined by its capacity in supporting some specific regulations or legislation that are particularly addressed to certain situations or conditions. This provides the concept that all individuals are different from one another. So if the treatments provided to them are equal or similar, it would lead to unfairness and injustice. Therefore, when the State gives special treatment to a particular section of people, it is done to promote social welfare and justice. Hence, this doctrine of classification offers the legislature an opportunity to enact laws on the basis of intelligible differentia. It helps the State make laws for the welfare of different sections of society and provide equitable treatment to everyone. 

Intelligible Differentia

The intelligible differentia is an important factor in reasonable classification. It means forming a particular group of individuals with common characteristics. In other words, the members of that group should be unique from the members of other groups. In addition to it, this classification ought to have a reasonable connection that would explain the basis for its enactment, which the country wants to find. For instance, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, is applicable to children who are below the age of 14 years to protect them from being employed in hazardous industries. It cannot be used for any children who have completed the age of 14 years. Similarly, the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, is available only to the working women who are pregnant. It will not be applicable to any other women except those who are expecting a child. Maternity leave is important for those women who are about to become mothers for their and their babies good health. Women who carry a baby need special care and rest. For this reason, Article 14 grants a reasonable classification between men and women.  

As mentioned earlier, Article 14 guarantees everyone equality before the law without any kind of unreasonable discrimination. This means that necessary discrimination is allowed by law. Since the situations and conditions of all individuals are different, the way of treating them must also be different. Therefore, reasonable discrimination is permitted. If the ground of discrimination is fair, logical, and reasonable, then such discrimination is considered necessary for the welfare of the people of society. The doctrine of classification allows the legislature to make laws accordingly. The legislature makes laws keeping in mind the social inequalities and various other challenges that people of different communities face. The laws are made in such a way that no group or community feels discriminated. It tries to provide equal opportunities to all members of society. The Judiciary also plays an important role in ensuring that the laws made by the legislature for the benefit of any particular group or community are reasonable and not arbitrary in nature.

Article 13 of the Indian constitution forbids class legislation but it does not prohibit the reasonable classification of objects, persons, and transactions for the purpose so as to achieve specific ends by the parliament. Such classification should not be artificial, arbitrary or evasive and it must rest on substantial distinction which is real. It must bear a reasonable and just relation to the sought object which is to be achieved by the legislation. Classification of reasonable as laid by the Indian Supreme Court has two conditions as in the case of Saurabh Chaudhari v Union Of India [1], are-

(i)- The classification must be founded on intelligible differentia, distinguishing grouped together persons or goods from the left out ones of the group.

(ii)- The differential must be in a rational relation with the sought object that is to be achieved by the act. The object of the act and differential on the basis of classification are two separate things. It is essential that there must be the presence of nexus between the object of the act and the basis of classification. When a reasonable basis is not present for classification then such classification made by the legislature must be declared discriminatory.

The age at which a person would be deemed competent between themselves can be fixed by the legislature but competency cannot be claimed. A contract made dependent on the color of hair cannot be made, and such a classification would be arbitrary.

This doctrine of reasonable classification also plays an important role in the administrative laws in the following ways:

  • Provide guidance for the interpretation of statutes: It also plays an important role by guiding the formation statutes so that its interpretation does not give rise to any irrational or ludicrous conclusion. So the legislators and the judges use this doctrine as their guiding principle for enacting or interpreting laws. It helps them deliver fair justice to the people without any arbitrariness.
  • Testing the legitimacy of the law: One of the significant roles played by the doctrine of reasonable classification is determining the legitimacy of any bill of law that is introduced or enacted by the Government of the State. The rationality of that bill or law is determined by this doctrine. It clarifies whether the law is justifiable or not, which in turn reduces problems and increases acceptability. 
  • Provide a standard for judicial review: This doctrine is also useful in providing a standard for judicial review. The judicial review nullifies any administrative action that seems irrational or arbitrary. Some discretionary powers have been granted to the administration, but those are also subjected to judicial review. 

Article 14 guarantee equal protection of laws and they are:

  • Neither means that the laws need to be general in character nor that it should be applicable to everyone, which means, the same law applies to every person.
  • It does not assess attainment or situations in the same position. Different classes have various needs that require separate treatment.
  • For safety and security different laws for varying places and legitimate control policies enacting laws lie at the best interest of the state.
  • Identical treatment in unequal situations, in fact, would amount as inequality.

Therefore for the society to progress a reasonable classification is not only permitted but also necessary. Article 14 forbids class legislation but not reasonable classification. The article applies on the reasonable basis, equals are treated differently. The article does not apply where unequals and equals are given different treatments.

Conferring particular privileges upon a class of persons, class legislation makes improper discrimination by selecting a large number of persons arbitrarily. No reasonable or substantial difference can be found in justifying the exclusion of the one and the inclusion of the other from such privilege.

The propositions laid in Ram Krishna Dalmia v. Tendolkar [2], explains the true scope and meaning to the right to equality and holds a valid classification. It is as follows:

1- Even though relating to an individual person, a law would be constitutional if on account of some reasons or special circumstances is applicable to him and not applicable to others. The individual person can be treated as a class.

2- There is a dependable assumption in favor of the constitutionality of a rule and the burden is upon him who attacks it to demonstrate that there has been a reasonable transgression of established constitutional standards.

3- The assumption might be disproved in specific cases by showing that on the fact of the statue, there is no order and no distinction peculiar to any individual or class and not applicable to any other individual or class, and yet the law hits a specific individual or class.

4- It must be assumed that the legislature accurately acknowledges and comprehends the need of its own people that its law is directed to the problem made manifest by involvement and that its discrimination is based on satisfactory grounds.

5- So as to continue the assumption of constitutionality the court may take into consideration matters of basic knowledge, matters of report, the historical backdrop of the times and may expect each condition of facts which can be conceived existing at the time of the enactment.

6- Thus the legislation is allowed to perceive degrees of harm and may confine its limitation to those situations where the need is considered to be the clearest.

7- While good faith and knowledge of the current conditions with respect to a legislature are to be assumed, if there is nothing on the substance of the law or the surrounding conditions brought to the notice of the court on which the classification may reasonably be viewed as based, the assumption of constitutionality can’t be conveyed to the degree dependably that there must be some undisclosed and obscure explanation behind exposing certain people or organization to be unfriendly or discriminating legislation.

8- The classification can be made on various bases like  geographical or according to object or occupation.

9- The legislative classification no longer needs to be scientifically perfect or logically complete. There is no need for mathematical nicety and perfect equality. Equal treatment no longer involves the same treatment. Similarly, remedy identity is no longer enough.

10- There may be discrimination each inside the substantive as well as the procedural law. Article 14 applies to both. If the class satisfies the test laid down inside the above propositions, the regulation could be declared constitutional. The query whether or not a classification is reasonable and proper and no longer need to but, be judged more on common sense than on legal subtitles.

The doctrine of reasonable classification has some limitations as well. The critics pointed out the few situations where this doctrine can be misused by the people. This reasonable discrimination can lead to unjustified differentiation at times. So it is required to ensure that while making a reasonable classification, it should not be done in any arbitrary way. It is necessary to make sure that the law is fair and reasonable. It should be made in such a way that no fundamental rights of any person are infringed. The classification must be made in such a way that it removes inequality among various sections of society. This reasonableness of classification is scrutinized by the Judiciary. The judicial review examines whether the classification made in a particular case is reasonable or not. This would help safeguard the principles of the Indian Constitution. 

Another important limitation is that it may be subjective to determine the factors that would constitute a reasonable classification. Providing equal or the same treatment to everyone might not always be right due to factors like age, gender, physical strength, and many more. If everyone had been treated equally without providing reasonable discrimination, then it may not always result in fairness and justice. To provide fair justice to everyone, it is very important to take into consideration the needs and conditions of different individuals or groups. The critics stated that for a particular reasonable classification, different judgements or interpretations may arise from various perspectives. So it is important for the Judiciary to provide clear and specific principles and guidelines for determining the requirements of classification. 

Therefore, it is very much necessary to ensure that while using this reasonable discrimination, the doctrine of reasonable classification should be able to create a balance by recognising different realities while upholding the principles of equality as mentioned in Article 14 of the Constitution of India.

  • In the case of State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar (1952), the Supreme Court of India upheld the distinction between the object of the Act and the basis of classification, which should be examined carefully before passing any order. Before passing any decree regarding the classification, it must be examined carefully. The following two conditions must be fulfilled- 
    • It should be based on an intelligible differentia that makes a distinction between one group of people and another.
    • The differentia must have a reasonable connection with the purpose sought by the law.

It is the responsibility of the courts to make sure that there exists a relationship between the differentia and the objectives of the legislators. The classification can be declared discriminatory in nature if the basis for it is unreasonable. It is the duty of the courts to prevent any unfairness or arbitrariness in treatment.

  • In the case of Madhu Limaye v. the Superintendent, Tihar Jail (1975), the case was filed against the discriminatory treatment of prisoners at Tihar Jail. The European prisoners were treated differently from the Indian prisoners. They were given nutritious food and treated in a better way than the Indian prisoners. So the Indian prisoners challenged this kind of discrimination before the Supreme Court. The Apex Court observed that this kind of behaviour violates Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. As right to equality is considered fundamental in the Constitution, the Court ordered the officials to treat every prisoner equally without any kind of discrimination. The Court stated that the doctrine of reasonable classification shall not be applicable in this case. 
  • In the case of D.S. Nakara & Others v. Union of India (1983), there was an issuance of a memorandum by the Government where it was notified that persons who have retired after 31st March, 1979, will be eligible to get the benefits of liberalized pension. The Supreme Court was against this scheme because it was arbitrary in nature. There exist no rational grounds that would clarify that the fixing of cut off date is non-discriminatory. This distinction of pensioners into two categories based on retirement date is considered irrational and unprincipled. So the Court held it to be violative of Section 14. Therefore, the doctrine of reasonable classification cannot be applied under any circumstances in this case.

The doctrine of reasonable classification plays a significant role in supporting the less privileged section of society. It helps in distinguishing people from one another on the basis of their characteristics. This doctrine provides benefits to a certain group or section. Though Article 14 lays down the provisions of the Right to Equality, discrimination by way of reasonable classification is permitted by law. As the conditions and circumstances of different people vary from one another, their treatment must also differ. There shall be an equitable distribution of rights and responsibilities so that no section of society alone feels that burden. Therefore, if identical treatment is provided to everyone, then it will amount to inequality. So the doctrine of reasonable classification is introduced under Article 14 as an exception to the rule. Though sometimes, it is misused by certain authorities. When they are awarded some discretionary power, they try to use this doctrine in an arbitrary manner. To prevent such arbitrary use, judicial review plays an important role by striking off those arbitrary actions taken by an authority. In short, the doctrine of reasonable classification can be used for discrimination when rational and logical grounds are present.

Which amendment introduced an exception to Article 14?

The 42nd Amendment Act of 1976 introduced an exception to the equality principle. It made reasonable classification legal. It helped in categorising different sections of people on the basis of caste, sex, creed, race, gender, religion, place of birth, and many more. Therefore, the doctrine of reasonable classification allows only reasonable discrimination among the members of society, as laid down in the provisions of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. 

What is the difference between class legislation and reasonable classification?

The reasonable classification is permitted by law on valid grounds as it discriminates one group from another on the basis of circumstances or characteristics. Class legislation, on the other hand, means discriminating one group from another by giving them certain privileges arbitrarily without any valid and rational basis. So it is not permissible by law. Therefore, distinction on the basis of reasonable classification is rational and logical, whereas distinction on the basis of class legislation is improper and violates Article 14 of the Constitution.

Which States inspired India to introduce this doctrine of reasonable classification?

Article 14 of the Constitution states that everyone should be given equal and fair treatment without any kind of discrimination, as everybody is equal in the eyes of the law. But the doctrine of reasonable classification states that only those people with similar characteristics or conditions should be treated similarly, not everyone. The phrases ‘equality before law’ and ‘equal protection of laws’ were derived from the UK Constitution and the American Constitution. 

  1. AIR 2004 SC 2212
  2. 1958 AIR 538, 1959 SCR 279

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