Classification and Its Discontents

Lessons From The Law

Rayees Ahmed Wani
Author is Senior lecturer at KCEF Law College Pulwama

Article 14 of the Constitution provides that ‘the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection d Jus within the territory of India. At the dawn of Indian constitutionalism, when the early Supreme Court was faced with the task of interpreting the equal protection clause for the very first time, it noted that the first part of Article 14 (equality before the law) was borrowed from the Irish Constitution, while the second par (equal protection of laws) was identical to the US Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. Consequently, relying heavily upon the US precedent, the Supreme Court commenced its Article 14 journey by holding that equality required similar treatment of those who were similarly situated, while allowing for differential treatment between those who were different ‘in fact’. In other words, the equality guarantee prohibited class legislation, but permitted reasonable classification.

What did this mean? It meant that legislative classification would have to be tested on two grounds: First, was there an ‘intelligible differentia’ between the things brought within the scope of the legislation and those left out? And second, was there a ‘rational nexus’ between the intelligible differentia and the legislative goal. However, this basic test leaves many questions unanswered. And in highlighting some of them, the Supreme Court has relied upon a highly influential article written in 1949 (coincidentally, only a few months before it handed down the first of its Article 14 decision) by the American scholars Joseph Tussman and Jacobus tenBroek.

Tussman and tenBroek outlined four issues that a court would have to address while applying the standard to concrete legal problems,” The first was the problem of over-inclusiveness and under-inclusiveness. The world was too complex a place, and language too imperfect an instrument, for there to be perfect correspondence between the legislative goal and the legislative classification (the ‘intelligible differentia’). There could be no divine exactitude in the drawing of a line: some persons would always find themselves on the wrong side, the court would have to decide how much slack to allow the State before a rational nexus’ became irrational.

Second, while deciding the question of rationality, the court would also have to decide the extent of deference that it would accord to the legislature. This question of deference, in turn, had two components. Which of the parties the individual challenging the law, or the State defending the law-bore the burden of convincing the court that a particular classification was irrational (or unreasonable) Also, could the court independently scrutinize the legislature’s claim that there existed facts that justified a rational nexus between the legislative goal and the law’s classification? Could the court go into the question of whether such facts existed, whether they were true and if so, whether they justified the law?

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