The Right to Equality in India has been enshrined in Articles 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 of the Constitution and the very existence of this right is derived from the Preamble. The Preamble declares securing equality of status and opportunity as one of the primary objects of the Constitution; however, is this equality as straight-jacketed as we perceive it to be?
This article examines this perception of equality through the Doctrine of Reasonable Classification and how it stems from the nuances of Article 14 and the Right to Equality as guaranteed by the Constitution.
The Doctrine of Reasonable Classification provides for situations where Parliamentary enactments may wander beyond the scope of the Right to Equality, yet these enactments may be necessary to cater to certain sections of society as diverse as India’s. Does this wandering equate to a violation of this Fundamental Right which is guaranteed to every individual? In other words, does the Doctrine of Reasonable Classification act as an exception to the Right to Equality? It is argued here that this Doctrine, through interpretations of the language of Article 14 as well as several judicial decisions regarding the same, originates from and serves to protect the Article, rather than being an exception to it.
P.N Bhagwati J. in his judgement in E.P Royappa v State of Tamil Nadu and Ors (“Royappa”) as said that Article 16, is an instance of the application of Article 14, or in other words, Article 14 is the ‘genus’ while Article 16 is the ‘species’. It can, hence, be inferred that the general principle of equality, taken from the preamble, has been enumerated in Article 14 and Articles 15-18 are essentially applications of this general principle in different forms as Justice Bhagwati has stated with regard to Article 16. Further, in Maneka Gandhi v Union of India, the Supreme Court takes cognisance to the importance of Article 14 and has called it, “by far the most important” out of all the articles guaranteeing the right to equality. In order to protect citizens against discriminatory state action and to ensure the tenets of equality (as promised under Article 14 and so on) are complied with, the doctrine of reasonable classification was propounded by Das J., almost seven decades ago in the State of West of Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar (“Anwar Ali Sarkar”) and is relevant in the contemporary constitutional discourse even to this day. This doctrine was propounded as a judicial test to ensure legislative action is in tandem with the principles of Article 14. Thus, for the purpose of this article, Article 14 will be the focus when referring to the Right to Equality as enumerated in the Constitution of India.
AN OVERVIEW OF ARTICLE 14
In order to argue that the doctrine of reasonable classification protects the right to equality and is not an exception to it, it is important to gain a background and discuss the jurisprudence behind the formation of Article 14. There are two operative components in this provision; the first being “equality before the law”, the second being “equal protection of the laws”. The former part of this Article has been derived from the Irish Constitution and is derived from the English concept of “rule of law”; while the latter, “equal protection of the laws” has been derived from the Fourteenth Amendment to the American Constitution. “Equality before the law” denotes negative action on behalf of the State, where there is an absence of special privilege for any individuals, while the latter denotes positive action by the State which provides for equality of treatment of individuals in like circumstances. Thus, the makers of the Constitution were trying to ensure both – positive acts, as well as omissions in State action in order to escape inequality in society through Article 14.
While interpreting Article 14, the Indian judiciary did not take “equality before law” into account and Article 14, in its entirety, has been equated to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; this could be because the Indian Supreme Court has viewed the “equal protection of the laws” as a corollary of “equality before law”. However, as a result, certain principles of American jurisprudence relating to ‘equal protection’ have been imported entirely in order to help the Indian courts interpret and lay down principles with regard to the right to equality. The principles applicable to Indian courts were laid down using American principles in Chiranjit Lal Chowdhuri v. Union of India and Ors. and summarized in the State of Bombay and Ors. v. F.N Balsara as enumerated below.
The very essence of the phrase “equal protection of law” is that there cannot be uniform applicability of laws to all individuals – differing circumstances of individuals implies different requirements of every individual. This stream of reasoning also tells us that if a law pertains to only a certain group of people, and not all individuals in society, the Right to Equality is not violated. However, this Right is violated if the classification of said group of people is on arbitrary grounds, i.e, there must be some reasonable and just grounds or ‘intelligible differentia’ for making such classifications.
THE DOCTRINE OF REASONABLE CLASSIFICATION AS PROTECTION FOR ARTICLE 14
The Doctrine of Reasonable Classification reads:
“In order to pass the test, two conditions must be fulfilled, namely, that
the classification must be founded on an intelligible differentia which distinguishes
those that are grouped together from others and that that differentia must have a
rational relation to the object sought to be achieved by the Act. The differentia which
is the basis of the classification and the object of the Act are distinct things and what
is necessary is that there must be a nexus between them.” 
The law provides alike for individuals in like circumstances and Article 14 provides protection from discrimination by law between equals. People inherently belong to different positions, circumstances and attainments – for example, some are born rich, some are born poor. In light of these natural differences, assuming everyone in society is equal would not be fair and that a distinction between “discrimination with reason” and “discrimination without reason” must be drawn. Thus, in order to cater to people in different circumstances and govern them effectively, they must be classified on a reasonable basis or there must be an “intelligible differentia” and further, on the basis of this classification – be subjected to suitable policies and corresponding State action, i.e., there must be a rational relation/nexus between the classification and the object sought to be achieved.
The principle of “equal protection of law” does not imply subjecting everyone to the same laws; instead, it is subjecting everyone in the similar circumstances to the same laws, by taking these inherent differences in society into account – that is the true meaning of “equal protection of the laws”. The Supreme Court has termed the universal application of laws as “abstract symmetry” and clearly established that Article 14 does not insist upon it. Ajay Hasia v. Khalid Mujib Sehravardi made the position in law quite clear that the doctrine of reasonable classification is not a paraphrase of Article 14, neither is it the objective or end of the Article. The doctrine of reasonable classification is a mere judicial test to determine whether there is arbitrariness in State action; if the State action in question does not pass the test as laid down by the doctrine – it is considered arbitrary and since it is arbitrary, it will be unconstitutional as per the principles of Article 14.
To conclude, Bhagwati J. wrote, “For it is the classification which determines the range of persons affected by the special burden or benefit of a law which does not apply to all persons. This brings out a paradox. The equal protection of the laws is a pledge of the protection of equal laws. But laws may classify. And, as pointed out by Justice Brewer, the very idea of classification is that of inequality. The court has tackled this paradox over the years and in doing so, it has neither abandoned the demand for equality nor denied the legislative right to classify. It has adopted a middle course of realistic reconciliation. It has resolved the contradictory demands of legislative specialization and constitutional generality by a doctrine of reasonable classification. This doctrine recognizes that the legislature may classify for the purpose of legislation but requires that the classification must be reasonable. It should ensure that persons or things similarly situated are all similarly treated.”
The doctrine of reasonable classification does not favour the party attaining the benefit, or disfavour the party who is burdened; it only assists the legislature in governing either party with respect to their standing in society, further propagating equality in society and not negating it.
Therefore, this article argues that due to the equal protection clause in Article 14 accounts for the varying needs of different sections of society. This is why there cannot be a universal application of all laws, or “abstract symmetry” in society. Taking into cognizance the impossibility of abstract symmetry, Article 14, through the equal protection clause, in itself allows classification and strikes against arbitrariness in State action. The doctrine of reasonable classification was formed as a judicial test to protect the rights guaranteed by Article 14. Thus, this article proposes that the doctrine is not an exception to the right to equality, but instead protects it.
 1978 AIR 597
 1952 AIR 75
 Shivam, ‘SCOPE OF CONSTITUTIONAL REVIEW OF PARLIAMENTARY ENACTMENTS’ (2018) 30 National Law School of India Review.
 J.K Mittal, ‘Right To Equality And The Indian Supreme Court’ (1965) 14 The American Journal of Comparative Law.
 S.S Nigam, ‘Equality And The Representation Of The Scheduled Classes In Parliament’ (1959) 2 Journal of the Indian Law Institute.
 Supra n.5
 1951 AIR 41
 1951 AIR 318
 Supra n.3
 Kathi Raning Rawat v. The State of Saurashtra 1952 AIR 123
 1981 AIR 487
 Mohommad Shujat Ali and Ors. v. Union of India 1974 AIR 1631