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Right to Equality

The Constitution says that the government shall not deny to any person in India equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws. It means that the laws apply in the same manner to all, regardless of a person’s status. This is called the rule of law. Rule of law is the foundation of any democracy. It means that no person is above the law. There cannot be any distinction between a political leader, government official and an ordinary citizen. Every citizen, from the Prime Minister to a small farmer in a remote village, is subjected to the same laws. No person can legally claim any special treatment or privilege just because he or she happens to be an important person. For example, a few years ago a former Prime Minister of the country faced a court case on charges of cheating. The court finally declared that he was not guilty. But as long as the case continued, he had to go to the court, give evidence and file papers, just like any other citizen. This basic position is further clarified in the Constitution by spelling out some implications of the Right to Equality.

The government shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, caste, ethnicity, sex or place of birth. Every citizen shall have access to public places like shops, restaurants, hotels, and cinema halls. Similarly, there shall be no restriction with regard to the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads, playgrounds and places of public resorts maintained by government or dedicated to the use of general public. This might appear very obvious, but it was necessary to incorporate these rights in the Constitution of our country where the traditional caste system did not allow people from some communities to access all public places. The same principle applies to public jobs. All citizens have equality of opportunity in matters relating to employment or appointment to any position in the government. No citizen shall be discriminated against or made ineligible for employment on the grounds mentioned above.


The Government of India has provided reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. Various governments have different schemes for giving preference to women, poor or physically handicapped in some kinds of jobs. Are these reservations against the right to equality? They are not. For equality does not mean giving everyone the same treatment, no matter what they need. Equality means giving everyone an equal opportunity to achieve whatever one is capable of. Sometimes it is necessary to give special treatment to someone in order to ensure equal opportunity. This is what job reservations do. Just to clarify this, the Constitution says that reservations of this kind are not a violation of the Right to Equality.

The principle of non-discrimination extends to social life as well. The Constitution mentions one extreme form of social discrimination, the practice of untouchability, and clearly directs the government to put an end to it. The practice of untouchability has been forbidden in any form. Untouchability here does not only mean refusal to touch people belonging to certain castes. It refers to any belief or social practice, which looks down upon people on account of their birth with certain caste labels. Such practice denies them interaction with others or access to public places as equal citizens. So the Constitution made untouchability a punishable.

Many Forms of Untouchability In 1999, P. Sainath wrote a series of news reports in The Hindu describing untouchability and caste discrimination that was still being practiced against Dalits or persons belonging to Scheduled Castes. He travelled to various parts of the country and found that in many places:


1. Tea stalls kept two kinds of cups, one for Dalits one for others;


2. Barbers refused to serve dalit clients;

3. Dalit students were made to sit separately in the classroom or drink water from separate picher;


4. Dalit grooms were not allowed to ride a horse in the wedding procession; and

5. Dalits were not allowed to use common hand pump or if they did, the hand pump was washed to purify it.


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