The Constitution of India embodies six of Fundamental Rights in Part III to act as limitations on the Executive (government) as well as legislative powers (law-making). Though these rights are modelled on the US pattern, the Indian Constitution makes a compromise between the principles of Parliamentary Sovereignty and Judicial Supremacy.

In the US, the American President enjoys the power to nullify any decision made by the Federal Court while in the UK, whatever the Parliament says, is law. The Indian Constitution is a via-media between these two extremes. These fundamental rights help not only in protection but also the prevention of gross violations of human rights. They emphasize on the fundamental unity of India by guaranteeing to all citizens the access and use of the same facilities, irrespective of background.

Some fundamental rights apply for persons of any nationality whereas others are available only to the citizens of India. The right to life and personal liberty is available to all people and so is the right to freedom of religion. On the other hand, freedoms of speech and expression and freedom to reside and settle in any part of the country are reserved to citizens alone, including non-resident Indian citizens. The right to equality in matters of public employment cannot be conferred to overseas citizens of India.

Fundamental rights primarily protect individuals from any arbitrary state actions, but some rights are enforceable against individuals. For instance, the Constitution abolishes untouchability and also prohibits begar. These provisions act as a check both on state action as well as the action of private individuals.

The Supreme Court has ruled that all provisions of the Constitution, including fundamental rights can be amended. However, the Parliament cannot alter the basic structure of the constitution. Features such as secularism and democracy fall under this category. Since the fundamental rights can only be altered by a constitutional amendment, their inclusion is a check not only on the executive branch, but also on the Parliament and state legislatures.

A state of national emergency has an adverse effect on these rights. Under such a state, the rights conferred by Article 19 (freedoms of speech, assembly and movement, etc.) remain suspended. Hence, in such a situation, the legislature may make laws which go against the rights given in Article 19. Also, the President may by order suspend the right to move court for the enforcement of other rights as well.

1. Right to equality

Right to equality is an important right provided for in Articles 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 of the constitution. It is the principal foundation of all other rights and liberties, and guarantees the following:

Equality before law: Article 14 of the constitution guarantees that all citizens shall be equally protected by the laws of the country. It means that the State cannot discriminate any of the Indian citizens on the basis of their caste, creed, colour, sex, gender, religion or place of birth.

Social equality and equal access to public areas: Article 15 of the constitution states that no person shall be discriminated on the basis of caste, colour, language etc. Every person shall have equal access to public places like public parks, museums, wells, bathing ghats and temples, etc. However, the State may make any special provision for women and children. Special provisions may be made for the advancements of any socially or educationally backward class or scheduled castes or scheduled tribes.

Equality in matters of public employment: Article 16 of the constitution lays down that the State cannot discriminate against anyone in the matters of employment. All citizens can apply for government jobs. There are some exceptions. The Parliament may enact a law stating that certain jobs can only be filled by applicants who are domiciled in the area. This may be meant for posts that require knowledge of the locality and language of the area. The State may also reserve posts for members of backward classes, scheduled castes or scheduled tribes which are not adequately represented in the services under the State to bring up the weaker sections of the society.

Abolition of untouchability: Article 17 of the constitution abolishes the practice of untouchability. Practice of untouchability is an offense and anyone doing so is punishable by law. The Untouchability Offences Act of 1955 (renamed to Protection of Civil Rights Act in 1976) provided penalties for preventing a person from entering a place of worship or from taking water from a tank or well.

Abolition of Titles: Article 18 of the constitution prohibits the State from conferring any titles. Citizens of India cannot accept titles from a foreign State.The British government had created an aristocratic class known as Rai Bahadurs and Khan Bahadurs in India. These titles were also abolished. However, Military and academic distinctions can be conferred on the citizens of India. The awards of Bharat Ratna and Padma Vibhushan cannot be used by the recipient as a title.

2. Right to freedom

The Constitution of India contains the right to freedom, given in articles 19, 20, 21 and 22, with the view of guaranteeing individual rights that were considered vital by the framers of the constitution. The right to freedom in Article 19 guarantees the following six freedoms:

  • Protection of of six rights in respect of: (i) speech and expression, (ii) assembly, (iii) association, (iv) movement, (v) residence, and (vi) profession.
  • Protection in respect of conviction for offences.
  • Protection of life and personal liberty.
  • Right to elementary education.
  • Protection against arrest and detention in certain cases.

3. Right against exploitation

The right against exploitation, given in Articles 23 and 24, provides for two provisions, namely the abolition of trafficking in human beings and Begar (forced labor), and abolition of employment of children below the age of 14 years in dangerous jobs like factories and mines. Child labour is considered a gross violation of the spirit and provisions of the constitution. Begar, practised in the past by landlords, has been declared a crime and is punishable by law. Trafficking in humans for the purpose of slave trade or prostitution is also prohibited by law.

4. Right to freedom of religion

Right to freedom of religion, covered in Articles 25, 26, 27 and 28, provides religious freedom to all citizens of India. The objective of this right is to sustain the principle of secularism in India. According to the Constitution, all religions are equal before the State and no religion shall be given preference over the other. Citizens are free to preach, practice and propagate any religion of their choice.

5. Cultural and educational rights

As India is a country of many languages, religions, and cultures, the Constitution provides special measures, in Articles 29 and 30, to protect the rights of the minorities. Any community which has a language and a script of its own has the right to conserve and develop it. No citizen can be discriminated against for admission in State or State aided institutions. All minorities, religious or linguistic, can set up their own educational institutions to preserve and develop their own culture. In granting aid to institutions, the State cannot discriminate against any institution on the basis of the fact that it is administered by a minority institution. 

6. Right to constitutional remedies

Right to constitutional remedies empowers the citizens to move a court of law in case of any denial of the fundamental rights. For instance, in case of imprisonment, the citizen can ask the court to see if it is according to the provisions of the law of the country. If the court finds that it is not, the person will have to be freed. 

Amendments in Fundamental Rights

Changes to the fundamental rights require a constitutional amendment which has to be passed by a special majority of both houses of Parliament. This means that an amendment requires the approval of two-thirds of the members present and voting. However, the number of members voting should not be less than the simple majority of the house - whether the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha.

The right to education at elementary level has been made one of the fundamental rights under the Eighty Sixth Amendment of 2002.

Right to property: The Constitution originally provided for the right to property under Articles 19 and 31. Article 19 guaranteed to all citizens the right to acquire, hold and dispose of property. Article 31 provided that "no person shall be deprived of his property save by authority of law. It also provided that compensation would be paid to a person whose property has been taken for public purposes.

The provisions relating to the right to property were changed a number of times. The Forty-Forth Amendment of 1978 deleted the right to property from the list of fundamental rights. A new provision, Article 300-A, was added to the constitution which provided that "no person shall be deprived of his property save by authority of law". Thus if a legislature makes a law depriving a person of his property, there would be no obligation on the part of the State to pay anything as compensation. The aggrieved person shall have no right to move the court under Article 32. Thus, the right to property is no longer a fundamental right, though it is still a constitutional right.

Right to Education

Article 21A: On 1 April 2010, India joined a group of few countries in the world, with a historic law making education a fundamental right of every child coming into force. Making elementary education an entitlement for children in the 6-14 age group, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act directly benefits children who do not go to school.

As per the Act, private educational institutions should reserve 25% seats for children from the weaker sections of society. The Centre and the States have agreed to share the financial burden in the ratio of 55:45, while the Finance Commission has given Rs. 25,000 crore to the States for implementing the Act.