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Justice Sikri’s Quest for Human Dignity

As a Supreme Court judge, Justice AK Sikri reflected upon the debate on human dignity through several landmark judgments and scholarly works. Led by his legal initiatives, the apex court, time and again, recalled the principle of human dignity to identify jurisprudence around Article 21 of the Constitution.

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By Lokendra Malik & Shaileshwar Yadav

“Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans, Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground; The emptiness of ages on his face, And on his back the burden of world.”  

These lines from the Edwin Markham’s famous poem “Man with the Hoe” epitomise the reams of legal prose where rule of law and the rule of life run close together; a jurisprudence where human dignity matters abound. Human dignity is a quintessential idea based on philosophical understandings, which supplements human rights in the contemporary debate. Popularly it is understood as an inherent value of humans vis-à-vis the moral foundation of human rights. The conception of human dignity engrossed as the individual’s dignity is touched upon only once in the preamble to the Indian Constitution, which reads it as “…assuring the dignity of the individual”. At the same time, a single reference to it spares us the opportunity to delve into a more significant debate around it. The Supreme Court of India has time and again recalled the principle of human dignity to identify jurisprudence around Article 21 of the Constitution.

Among all the contributions, Justice AK Sikri’s jurisprudence on human dignity remains crucial. Justice Sikri, time and again, through his several landmark judgments and scholarly works, reflected upon the debate on human dignity. The question that still needs an answer is—how human dignity must be conceived and if it is worth the time spent forming a jurisprudence around it? The well-grounded answer to this comes from the realm of Justice Sikri’s thesis over it. In his tribute speech to Justice Ansari, Justice Sikri talks about three models of dignity—(i) Theological model, (ii) Philosophical model, and (iii) Constitutional model. There has always been a debate around all these schools of human dignity, but somewhere all these are intertwined. For instance, theological and philosophical views influence the legal understanding of human dignity. While all the three schools of thoughts around human dignity serve an essential purpose of forming a robust jurisprudence, the constitutional model quenches many contemporary questions and needs the most attention. However, at the same time, little discussion on the theological and philosophical models would be necessary for a critical approach towards human dignity.

Theological is a prototypical model of human dignity based on the ethical spiritual identity. Justice Sikri explains this by quoting religious texts from around the world. The Hindu metaphysics on human beings records human dignity from the soul that makes a body of all living organisms. As far as the Rigveda is concerned, no one is superior to the other, and all should strive towards the collective interest and progress (RigVed, Mandala-5, Sukta-60, Mantra-5). While Islam teaches universal brotherhood, Christianity considers humans to determine their own goals.

Justice Sikri’s understanding of the philosophical dimensions of human dignity quotes Immanuel Kant’s moral theory, which is divided into ethics and rights. While the traces of human dignity are found in the ethics part of his theory, rights theory does not render any evidence that would conclude the presence of human dignity. Ethics theory is an idea of self-legislated individuals free from any external coercion and independent of other people’s rights. Human dignity roughly in the philosophical side could be sketched through three major arguments by referring to Kant’s ethics theory—(i) respect for one’s capacity as an agent to make one’s own free choices; (ii) respect for the choices so made, and (iii) respect for the needs and condition for the fulfilment of these choices. With the advent of nation-state theory and the formation of much sophisticated polity, human dignity has transcended from the earlier two models and the latest one—the constitutional model.

After the Second World War, various governments worldwide came together to form the United Nations through the UN Charter, 1945. Charters signed after the formation of the UN had a special place for the concept of human dignity throughout. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) (1948) is one such example. The UDHR mentions dignity five times. Other essential conventions, including the Geneva Conven­tion, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention of Human rights, makes considerable space for the concept of human dignity in letter and spirit.

After the international adoption of human dignity through various instruments, the Indian Constitution was adopted, and it contains reminiscences of the concepts. Part III of the Constitution, referred to as the “fundamental rights”, carries the idea of a dignified life. Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution read as—“14. Equality before law—The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India. Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth; “21. Protection of life and personal liberty—No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

The bare reading of these crucial provisions does not explicitly mention human dignity. However, through various landmark judgments, the Supreme Court introduced the concept of human dignity into the tremendous constitutional law debate in the country. The elemental spirit behind the Constitution was to enable each citizen with liberty. An ideal example of this could be reading Article 14 and Article 17, which provides equality for every person and abolishes untouchability, respectively.

The earliest judgments of the Supreme Court laid the foundation for a broad deliberation on dignity as a constitutional value reaching as far back as in 1962 (Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb vs State of Bombay). In the Sardar Syedna case, the Supreme Court affirmed human dignity as a core fundamental for the realisation of rights. Later through implied measures, the apex court vouched for instilling human dignity in the legal arena. In D.K. Basu vs State of West Bengal, the top court laid down that the prisoners must be treated with human dignity and must not be deprived of their rights just because they happen to be undertrials or convicts.

Further, in Shabnam vs Union of India, the Court protected death row prisoners’ rights. While holding that the prisoners can’t be executed until they exhaust all the remedies, the Court deliberated on human dignity by referring to the position of the Supreme Court of the United States in Furman vs Georgia. This reference to a foreign court judgment for defining an important doctrine led to far reaching application of the Indian Constitution.

This prepared the ground for many important debates, including death penalty, prisoner’s rights and human rights in general. However, firm assertion towards human dignity and its explicit reference lacked in the judgments of the Supreme Court only until Justice Sikri theorised it in his number of judgements.

Amongst all the judgments delivered by the Supreme Court, which have an intersection with human dignity, Justice Sikri’s work stands out—in many judgments delivered by him, he has taken his space for explaining dignity in-depth along with the ever-growing human rights bandwidth. Apart from Justice Sikri’s scholarly works, his reasoning through various landmark judgments on human dignity had been a defining force in liberal and pro-human rights interpretation of laws.

The Supreme Court in the Deaf Employees Welfare Association vs Union of India (2013), speaking through the Division Bench of Justices AK Sikri and KSP Radhakrishnan laid the equality of the protection of law to be given to all citizens irrespective of their disability. The judges here fascinatingly invoked the concept of human dignity to better understand the standing position of law and human rights of physically disabled petitioners. Similarly, Justice Sikri in Jeeja Gosh vs Union of India (2016) held that human dignity is the sound principle upon which the Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 is based.

Further, in NALSA vs Union of India (2014), in his concurring opinion, Justice Sikri affirmed that gender identity is an integral part of the personality and one of the most fundamental aspects of self-determination and freedom. Justice Sikri referred to dignity and its constitutional values to reach this conclusion. He explained the intersectionality between dignity and the rule of law. According to him, there has to be a need for the rule of law to strike a balance between society’s need and personal liberty endorsing the human dignity of an individual. This ruling humanized the law greatly.

In the landmark ruling of K.S. Puttaswamy vs Union of India (2017), the Supreme Court revolutionised privacy in India’s spectrum of rights debate. Human dignity played an essential role in accommodating privacy in Article 21 of the Constitution. Justice Sikri, in his opinion, defined the principles of human dignity. According to him, the sanctity of privacy lies in its functional relationship with dignity. While privacy is an important facet of human rights, it is the core of human dignity. Though the Court provided for exception in the jurisprudence of privacy per se; in Modern Dental College & Research Centre vs State of M.P. (2016), the bench, comprising Justices Anil Dave, AK Sikri, RK Agrawal, Adarsh K Goel and R Banumathi held that albeit it is an accepted notion that there are no absolute constitutional rights but still a very few rights are out of the question of this vexed issue—the right to human dignity is one such right that is inviolable.

Further, in Common Cause vs Union of India (2018), Justice Sikri opined on the contextual analysis of human dignity. He explained it using Ronald Dworkin’s methodology. He explains that proper recognition of human dignity leads to the recognition of freedom of the individuals and freedom is essential for self-worth, a moral right to confront the most fundamental questions about the meaning and worth of their own lives. This reasoning allowed the right to die with dignity as part of personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. Eventually, leading towards the identification of self-determination as a facet.

The moving figure writes; and having writ, Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit; Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all your tears wash out a word of it. These lines from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; verse 76 translated by Fitzgerald reminds us that through all these rulings, the Supreme Court has placed human dignity in one of the most important places. But as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed famously:“Yet what greater defeat could we suffer than to come to resemble the forces we oppose in their disrespect for human dignity”, at the same time the discussion provides that human dignity is inviolable, it opens the door for the addition of new kinds of rights from time to time. The ascertaining of new rights into the realm of Article 21 comes from human dignity.

Justice Sikri, a great Dworkinian judge, using the same assertion added the right to people’s right to self-determination and privacy in the spectrum of fundamental rights jurisprudence. His contribution especially when it comes to developing the theory and application of human dignity is commendable as it gives ample space to the coming generations to encounter a whole new gamut of rights which were initially not enforceable at the time of independence. It is also to be noted that assertion of human dignity provides for a more humane approach towards realisation of constitutional values with dynamic characteristics which tends to change with society. The discussion until now answers the questions that were asked in the initial part of this article in affirmatives but opens a new debate on how the coming generations are going to protect human dignity.

—Lokendra Malik is advocate, Supreme Court of India, and Shaileshwar Yadav is a 4th year law student at National Law University Jabalpur

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