Author : Chaitrali Naik, student at National Law University, Delhi.

Historical background and facts 

Ayillyath Kuttiari Gopalan Nambiar, also known as A.K. Gopalan, was an Indian communist leader and member of the Communist Party of India (CPI). He was a magnetic political activist who was extensively involved in various labour and social causes aimed at alleviating the plight of the working class and the underprivileged.

This case is one of the very first cases which questioned the law of the land. This case had no prior precedent, but it would be one of a few landmark decisions in the years to come. 

Mr. Gopalan  was detained without trial under various acts, including Section 3 (1) of the Preventive Detention Act (1950), beginning in 1947 on the grounds of threat to national security. In 1950, he challenged his preventive detention on the grounds of violation of his fundamental rights against the state of Madras, filing a writ petition under article 32(1) of the constitution in the Supreme Court.

Preventive detention has its origins in the colonial era, when the British Raj who utilized such laws to crush political dissent and preserve order. These laws empowered the government to hold people without a trial or a specific criminal charge, supposedly to safeguard public safety or maintain law and order. One example is the Rowlatt Act of 1919, also known as the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act.

This act gave the colonial government of India the authority to detain and arrest suspects without a trial in order to suppress revolutionary and seditious activity. This was notably useful in the aftermath of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the country’s greater civil upheaval. In India, this measure was met with tremendous resistance and outcry. The Rowlatt Act established the concept of preventative detention in India.

Legal issues raised and the judgement

In the said case the constitutionality of Preventive Detention Act, 1950 was challenged on three grounds, they are firstly the main question around which the case revolves is whether the Preventive Detention Act is violative of Article 14 (equality before law), 19(Freedom of bodily movement and speech), 21(personal liberty) of the Indian Constitution. The second issue was whether there is any inter-relation between Article 19 and Article 21. Lastly Gopalan questioned whether the principle of Natural Justice was followed or not during the arrest. He also asserted that the primary aim of the punishment authorised by the Indian Penal Code was to penalise the criminal behaviour and not curbing an individual’s freedom movement and argued that his detention was unconstitutional.  

The case was reviewed by a constitutional panel of six judges, Justice Fazl Ali, M. Patanjali Sastri, Mehr Chand Mahajan, B.K. Mukerjea, Sudhi Rajan Das, and the bench was led by Chief Justice Harilal Kania. The Preventive Detention Act of 1950 was upheld as constitutional by a majority of 5-1 judges in this case; Justice Fazl Ali offered the dissenting judgement. There is no link between Article 19 and Article 21 of the constitution, according to this ruling. The Indian Supreme Court ruled by an overwhelming majority that a person may be held beforehand if he poses a threat to national security. According to this ruling, the phrase “personal liberty” in Article 21 of the constitution relates solely to freedom of the physical body.

Moreover, the judgement restricted the meaning of Article 19 and stated that only a free citizen of the country can enjoy freedom under Article 19 and because Mr. Gopalan was detained and was restricted by the State, he will not be able to avail the freedom under this article.

The bench also held in this judgement the differentiation between the ‘procedure established by law’ and ‘due process of law’ that is the principle of natural justice and the procedure established by any statute can be different.

Finally, the Supreme Court dismissed A.K. Gopalan’s appeal, ruling that the Preventive Detention Act of 1950 was constitutional and does not infringe Articles 19(1)(d) and 21 of the Indian Constitution, which provide fundamental rights to its people living there.

Various opinion on judgement

When the judgement is critically analysed we come across many loopholes. The judges on the bench interpreted very narrowly various terms like ‘the State’ and ‘Article 21’. The concluding statement of the judgement referred to the state as only limited to legislative and executive and did not include the judiciary which is accepted in recent times. 

Also, the judgement held that Preventive Detention is not violative of Art 14 which provides Equality before law and this Fundamental right is not available as a defence to Mr. Gopalan as he is already in detention which means restricted by the State itself, which according to many jurists who criticised the judgement later is violating the foundational aspect of the constitution which is equality. Adding to the mentioned facts, Article 14 is available to all the individuals in the country whether citizen or foreigners. 

The judgement also refused to take into consideration the border interpretation of Article 21, which talks about the right to life, in the judgement Article 21 has its limit only to the bodily concerns such as movements. It was later in Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, 1963 it was held that Article 21 while talking about the Right to life also held account for personal liberty and dignity which was clearly violated in the Gopalan’s case. 

This judgement was also criticised on the ground that it did not follow the principle of natural justice which is the basic element of the Indian Legal System. According to the institutionalised legal principle of ‘ audi alterm partem’ there should be a fair and just trial. This judgement is also contrary to one of the norms for the principle of natural justice which is ‘A party has a right to know all the causes of the decision and arrest’. Mr. Gopalan was not properly informed as to why he was detained and was just informed the reason as a threat to national security, but which action done by him caused the threat was unknown, which violated the principle of natural justice.

Aftermath of the judgement

The dissenting opinion, issued by Justice Fazl Ali, claimed that the Preventive Detention Act should be declared unlawful since it violates natural justice and human rights principles. Even today, his decision is seen as promoting a more liberal interpretation of fundamental rights, and it established the framework for subsequent opinions that broadened the scope of these rights.

His views were shared by the majority in the most significant case Maneka Gandhi v Union of India (1978). The Supreme Court overturned the limiting interpretation of fundamental rights in the A K Gopalan case when it widened the scope of Article 21 to include the right to live with dignity and freedom in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978). The connection between Articles 19 and 21 was demonstrated in this case, and the principle of the Indian constitution’s golden triangle was formed.

Because of various reasons mentioned above, the Preventive detention act of 1950 expired in the year 1969 after 7 amendments. 

Preventive detention has taken several forms in India, frequently acting behind hidden statutory provisions and articles. The Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), which came into effect during the emergency period from 1975 to 1977, is an example of this. MISA provided authorities the capacity to hold persons regarded as a threat to the security of the state, however this law garnered harsh criticism for its frequent abuse, resulting in unlawful detentions.

The Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) was passed between 1985 and 1995, most likely to address terrorism-related offences. TADA was met with an uproar of protest, principally due to its strict restrictions and the potential for abuse, which resulted in the unlawful incarceration of individuals. Similarly, the Unlawful actions (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was methodically drafted with the primary goal of preventing unlawful actions that threatened India’s sovereignty and integrity.

While the law undoubtedly serves a legitimate purpose, it has found itself under scrutiny for its broad scope, inviting contention that it could be wielded to detain individuals without sufficient evidence or due process safeguards.


The case of A.K. Gopalan and the State of Madras is significant in the history of Indian law. The court case established critical precedents for Indian citizens’ fundamental rights. It also defines the concept of “due processes in India.” The decision established and strengthened the natural justice doctrine, which argues that the government is unable to behave arbitrarily. Natural justice is concerned with fairness and justice.

The case remains a historic turning point in the evolution of Indian constitutional law and the balance between personal liberties and national security. 

The highest court’s reading of Articles 19 and 21 was exceedingly restricted and ignored the relationship between them. Furthermore, the interpretation of concepts like “state,” “cognizable action,” and “personal liberty” was extremely limited. The court also disregarded article 14’s fundamental right to equality by limiting prisoners’ fundamental right to movement. This decision was overturned in the famous case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, but it remains significant since it represented the beginning of broadening fundamental rights and is referenced as a precedent by many other courts.


A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, 1950 SCC 228 

Summary of the case by Legalserviceindi.com

A k Gopalan vs State of Madras, IAS Express

Article 19 of Indian Constitution

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