AK Gopalan VS State of madras: A Landmark Judgment in Indian Constitutional Law

This article is written by Mrigank singh, student at symbiosis law school , hyderabad


A.K. Gopalan vs. State of Madras, 1950 is one of the leading judgments of constitutional law to the extent it deals with the question of the relationship or interplay between individual liberty and state security. The petitioner, A.K. Gopalan, was a communist leader in the country and had been detained under the Preventive Detention Act, 1950; therefore, he filed a petition against the State for the invalidity of the said Act on the ground of contravention to several of his fundamental rights under Articles 19, 21, and 22 of the Constitution. It was upheld by the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment as holding that the ‘procedure established by law’ under Article 21 meant the process arranged by law and not the principles of natural justice. The predominant view was that Art. 19 and 21 stood independently of each other, from which it followed as a matter of course that there was no need to read them together, with the consequence that the scope for challenge to preventive detention on grounds of reasonableness was limited. Justices Fazl Ali and S.R. Das sought to be inclusive and broader in their minority judgments. The decision brings out more on the principle or concept of judicial self-restraint within procedure legality rather than the substantive justice of the case at hand. Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India, 1978, it is said, is the case that overruled Gopalan and gave this case a base to build on; it said laws that affected personal liberty have to be fair, just, and reasonable, interlinking Articles 14, 19, and 21.


The case of A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, 1950 AIR 27, 1950 SCR 88, was a landmark decision at the threshold of the evolution of Indian constitutional law because it was one of the few important and earliest cases interpreted by the Supreme Court of India shortly after the enforcement of the Constitution in 1950. It goes into the depths of protection to personal liberty and the reach of state power and sets the stage for later constitutional interpretations.

This case, A.K. Gopalan v State of Madras, 1950 AIR 27, 1950 SCR 88 will remain one of the landmark decisions during the formative years of Indian constitutional law. It was one among few crucial early cases interpreted by the Supreme Court after the Constitution came into operation in 1950. The issue examined protection to personal liberty in depth and freed it from any barriers imposed by state power thus setting a stage for later interpretation on constitutional grounds.

Under Preventive Detention Act, 1950, Communist Party leader AK Gopalan was detained as a precautionary measure under which such detention is made without trial for not more than one year if it is necessary to do so in order to prevent him from acting in a manner prejudicial to the security of the state or public order. This detention of Gopalan was not isolated; most dissenting politicians were subjected to preventive detention during this messy period when India had just gained independence.

In this case, Mr. Gopalan challenges his detention claiming that it violates several fundamental rights conferred upon him by Indian Constitution. He specifically stated that he was detained against articles 19(1) (a), (b), (c), (e) & (f); article 21 and article 22(1) and (4). 

The Court had directly to consider whether the Preventive Detention Act was violative of these provisions under the Constitution. The case thus called for an interpretation as to what ‘procedure established by law’ under Article 21 comprised and whether such procedure must also be just, fair, and reasonable. The Court was also called upon to decide, whether the rights under Articles 19 and 21 were related in a manner that any deprivation of liberty must satisfy the tests of reasonableness and fairness enjoined in Article 19.

The Supreme Court judgment was quite complicated with differences amongst the judges. According to the majority judgment, delivered by Chief Justice H.J. Kania, the Preventive Detention Act is valid on the ground that ‘procedure established by law’ means the statutory law enacted by the legislature, be it just or unfair. The Court held that the provisions of Articles 19 and 21 were separate, and a law relating to preventive detention need not satisfy the reasonableness test under Article 19. This judicial interpretation has narrowed considerably the scope of personal liberty, merely reducing it to a question of procedural compliance and not at all with any notion of substantial justice.

In contrast to this, the minority judgments of Justices Fazl Ali and S.R. Das insisted upon an expansive construction, the argument being that fundamental rights have to be read as unity, or at least that any law taking away the personal liberty of a person should not only comply with the mandate of Article 21 but also the requirements of Article 19, besides conforming to the principles of natural justice, so that the procedure was not only valid but also just and fair.

The A.K. Gopalan case thus embodies this tension between individual rights and state security, a leitmotif running through constitutional jurisprudence. In so far as a straitjacket framework for the interpretation of personal liberty was laid down in the judgment, further evolution has been opened for refinement by later judicial decisions. It is in the subsequent cases that this judicial approach underwent a change, more in respect of the bench-mark judgment of Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India in 1978, wherein the narrow judgment of Gopalan was overruled and firmly held that the laws affecting personal liberty must be fair, just, and reasonable; thus drawing a nexus between Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution.

Facts of the case:

Since December 1947, A.K. Gopalan has been unjustly arrested multiple times, and even after a court ruling freeing him, the government has kept him incarcerated under the Prevention Detention Act of 1950. So he filed an application for writ under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, claiming the writ of habeas corpus from the court. He questioned the constitutionality of the government’s directive, which contradicted several parts of the Indian Constitution. He further claimed that Sections 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14 of the Prevention Detention Act, 1950 infringe Articles 13, 19, and 21 of the Indian constitution. 

But he primarily sought this writ on the grounds that the Preventive Detention Act [4] violates his right to freedom under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. He maintained that the law under Article 21 comprises not only the established legislation, but also the Rule of Natural Justice and other laws related with it that deprive individuals of their own lives and liberty. 

Key issues:

The case brought to the fore several important issues relating to the following:

  • Whether preventive detention under the Preventive Detention Act, 1950, was violative of the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 19, 21 and 22.
  • Meaning of the term ‘procedure established by law’ under Article 21 and its implicating relationship with personal liberty:
  • Article 22 dealt with the question of the extent to which it provided protection against arbitrary detention.


The 1950 decision of the Supreme Court of India in A.K. Gopalan vs. State of Madras is one such milestone in the annals of Indian constitutional law, involved with basic issues relevant to personal liberty, preventive detention, and constitutional interpretation. In the majority judgment, a six-member bench held that the Preventive Detention Act, 1950, is constitutionally valid, with one striking dissent for an expansive interpretation of fundamental rights.

Majority Opinion

The majority judgment was delivered by the then Chief Justice H.J. Kania with Justices Patanjali Sastri, Mehr Chand Mahajan and B.K. Mukherjea. It struck down the Preventive Detention Act, 1950. The major points of the majority judgment were given as follows:

Interpretation of Article 21:

The Court read the expression ‘procedure established by law’ in Article 21 to mean any procedure laid down by a law made by the legislature. A majority read that so long as the detention is in conformity with the statutory procedure, it does not violate Article 21. This was a plain reading of the text and inference as to fairness or reasonableness was not made.

Separation of Articles 19 and 21:  The Supreme Court having thus laid down in blacks and white has not only knocked at the bottom the doctrine of separation of powers but also made Article 21 an empty ornaments. It held that these two—Articles 19 and 21—were separate and independent rights. Article 19 deals with certain specified freedoms, namely, speech, assembly, and movement under Article 21 deals with the general right to life and personal liberty. By a majority, it was therefore held that a law under Article 21, which takes away liberty from a person, need not necessarily satisfy the tests of reasonableness and fairness enjoined upon laws under Article 19.

Article 22 and Preventive Detention:

It was brought out that Article 22 having particularly dealt with the preventive detention did provide certain safeguards notwithstanding, like the right to know the grounds of detention and the right to representation. These safeguards sufficed for the Court to prevent arbitrary detention and hence declared the Preventive Detention Act consistent with the constitutional provisions.

Principles of Natural Justice:

But the majority did not accept the contention that principles of natural justice, including the right to a hearing, are implied in ‘procedure established by law’ in Article 21. “So long as the statutory procedure was duly followed” the Court held, “the Act did not offend the Constitution”.

Implications of the Judgment:

The A.K. Gopalan case had the following implications for Indian constitutional law and the enforcement of Fundamental Rights:

The majority judgment laid down a precedent for a narrow interpretation of personal liberty under Article 21, confined solely to procedure established by law, leaving the substantive fairness of the law itself completely open.

Separate Rights under Articles 19 and 21: By holding that Articles 19 and 21 are separate, the judgment roped off the preventive detention laws from judicial review. The meaning afforded the state sufficient play to enact laws that may have violated personal liberty, then not precisely being made subject to the reasonableness test under Article 19.

Emphasis on Legislative Procedure: The judgment brought out that it was legislative procedure which decided the constitutionality of laws concerning personal liberty. So long as legislature made the law and followed prescribed procedure, that was constitutional.

The judgment shows a phase of judicial restraint, where the court would seldom like to interfere with the legislature’s judgments, more so when these pertain to national security and public order.

Criticism and Later Developments:

The judgment in A.K. Gopalan vs. State of Madras was considerably criticized for his fleets interpretation of personal liberty and laying undue prominence on procedural legality at the cost of substantive justice. It has been criticized that the judgment on one hand has failed to provide sufficient protection to individual rights and on the other hand, opened scope for misuse of preventive detention laws.

However, the judicial approach towards Fundamental rights has undergone significant transformation in later years. There was a paradigm shift, the historic decision in Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India (1978), where the Supreme Court overruled the straitjacketed interpretation of personal liberty led by Gopalan’s case. In Maneka Gandhi, it was held that Article 21 procedure established by law must be fair, just, and reasonable, and that Articles 14, 19, and 21 are interlinked and Directive Principles have to be read together. Such an interpretation fundamentally improved protection for basic rights, typical of a more activist judicial approach with respect to protecting individual liberty.


In this case, the Court used a strictly factual construction of Article 21 to decide that any procedure that may deprive an individual of his or her individual liberty was referred to by the phrase “the process established by law” in any law issued by the appropriate legislature. It was also claimed that the courts were barred from adopting concepts such as fairness by nature, due process of law, or rationality into the article. The Court ruled that the procedure could not be challenged, regardless of whether it was unreasonable or against natural justice. 

Thus the Court incorrectly ruled that each basic right was independent of others and that Article 19 only extended to individuals who were free, rather than those who were being detained without charge. 

Frequently asked questions:

Q-What was the principal issue in A.K. Gopalan vs. State of Madras?

ANS- The principal question that came up before the court in this case, A. K. Gopalan vs. State of Madras, was the validity of the Preventive Detention Act, 1950. It thus also posed the constitutionality issue of that Act, providing for detention without trial, as against the fundamental rights guaranteed to appellants under Articles 19, 21, and 22 of the Constitution of India, particularly with regard to the expression ‘procedure established by law’ envisaged under Article 21.

Q-How did the Supreme Court interpret ‘procedure established by law’ under Article 21 in this case?

ANS-The Supreme Court construed the words ‘procedure established by law’ in Article 21 to mean any procedure so prescribed by a law made by the legislature, however unfair or unreasonable it may be., the law does not infringe Article 21 so long as it is followed.

Q-What, according to the Supreme Court, was the relation, if any, of Arts. 19 and 21 in the case before them?

ANS-The Supreme Court held that Articles 19 and 21 are different and independent fundamental rights. Article 21 was specified as the right to life and personal liberty, and indeed, a statute taking away a person’s liberty under that article was not called upon to satisfy the tests to which laws under Article 19 dealing with specific freedoms, such as the freedom of speech, the right to assemble, and the right to move, had to conform to the canons of reasonableness and fairness.

Q-What were the fulcrums of minority opinions in A.K. Gopalan?

ANS-The minority judgment of Justice Fazl Ali and S.R. Das was an invitation for an integrated construction of fundamental rights. But Justice Fazl Ali particularly pointed out that every law depriving personal liberty must also satisfy the tests of reasonableness under Article 19. Justice S. R. Das was of the opinion that although the words ‘procedure established by law’ has no necessary overtones of fairness and reasonableness, still the Preventive Detention Act must be so tested to see that it conformed to the principles of natural justice.

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