Satwant Singh Sawhney v. D. Ramarathnam, Assistant Passport Officer (1976 AIR 1836)

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

Bench

  1. Justice K. Subba Rao
  2. Justice M. Hidayatullah
  3. Justice R.S. Bachawat
  4. Justice J.M. Shelat
  5. Justice C.A. Vaidyialingam

Parties

Petitioner- Satwant Singh Sawhney

Respondent- D. Ramarathnam, Assistant Passport Officer

Introduction

“The strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it. Only if every citizen feels bound to share in this defense, the constitutional rights are secure.”

Albert Einstein

In India, the passports were issued for the first time in 1914 during British rule when the First World War was going on. It was issued under the Indian Passport Act, 1920. The Indian Passport Act was replaced by the Indian Passport Ordinance, 1967 on May 5, 1967. From the period 1947 to 1967, passports were issued only to a selected category of people as per the discretion of the British. 

This case of Satwant Singh[1] is a landmark case that led to the obliteration of the orthodox system of issuing passports that were being followed by the British in India and instantly the case led to the enlightening of ‘Right to Travel Abroad’ under the ambit of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In this case, the Apex Court held that the term ‘personal liberty’ under Article 21 is inclusive of the right of any person to go abroad and no person can be deprived of such a right. Moreover, the government was also unauthorized to refuse any passport of a person who has applied for the same. Thus, this case led to the regulation of issuing passport and travel documents by legal means. Let us now proceed with the facts of the case.

Facts of the Case

Mr. Satwant Singh, a citizen of India, holds a business of import, export, and manufacturing of automobile parts and engineering goods by the name ‘Indo-European Trading Corporation’. He owns another business in engineering goods by the name ‘Sawhney Industries’. Because of this, he has regular business tours abroad, so he owns two passports for the purpose. 

On October 27, 1965, he obtained his first passport whose validity was up to March 22, 1967. Consequently, on December 8, 1965, he obtained his second passport whose validity was up to March 22, 1969. Both the passports were regular passports that were obtained from the Government of India.

In the instant case, there are three active respondents, namely, Assistant Passport Officer, the Regional Passport Officer, and the Union of India. 

On August 31, 1966, the APO from the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India in New Delhi wrote a letter to the petitioner seeking him to return both the passports issued in his name since the Union of India had finalized to take back the passport facilities provided to the petitioner. Later, on September 24, 1966, the Regional Passport officer of Bombay wrote a letter to the petitioner seeking to submit both the passports to the Union of India and further warned that in case of failure, strict action shall be taken against the petitioner. 

In reply to the letters, the petitioner wrote back to the APO as well as the Regional Passport Officer requesting them to reconsider his passports but he did not receive any reply from their end. 

The petitioner filed a writ petition before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India under Article 32 of the Constitution alleging that the passport officers have infringed his rights under Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution and requested the court to issue a writ of mandamus or any other write that the court deems fit. He further requested the court to issue the writs such that the respondents withdraw their letter and cancel their decision on his passport. 

Issues of the Case

The case involves the following issues:

  • Whether the Right to travel is guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution?
  • Whether the discretion to issue a passport discriminatory under Article 14 of the Constitution? 
  • Whether the possession of the property has any legal ramifications?

Arguments on behalf of the Petitioner 

The petitioners contended the following points:

  1. That right to travel abroad and the right to return is a part of personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 which guarantees the right to life and personal liberty.
  2. That the withdrawal of an issued or refused passport is a deprivation of a person’s liberty since it inhibits a person from traveling outside India without a passport. Also, no travel company admits a person who is without a passport and the Indian Passport Act penalizes the re-entry of any person without a passport in India.
  3. That the procedure established by law within Article 21 is against the deprivation of personal liberty of the people and no such law prohibits the citizens of any country to travel abroad.
  4. That the discretion of the passport officers to reject a passport application is violative of the right to equality under Article 14 of the constitution. 

Arguments on behalf of the Respondent

The council presented the following arguments on behalf of the respondents:

  1. That the facility of the passport was given by the government and other person has the authority to interfere since a passport is an official document and is used for the protection of the country.
  2. That right to travel does not come under the ambit of personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution because the right to travel with a passport is no right as a passport is simply a facility and not a right.
  3. That the Constitution does not mention anything about the right to travel and thus, cannot be purported to be part of fundamental rights.
  4. That the right to travel depends upon the municipal laws in the foreign country where the person is visiting and there is no such provision dealing with the right to travel to another country.
  5. That no violation of fundamental rights was taking place as the petitioner had breached the conditions of import of license issued to him and he was under an investigation. Further, if the passport authorities were satiated that the petitioner was allowed to have his passport, then he may leave India and not return for further trial before the court. 

Provisions and Statutes Involved

  1. Article 14 of the Constitution of India, 1950– Right to Equality and Equal Protection of Laws
  2. Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1950– Right to Life and Personal Liberty
  3. Indian Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920

Judgment of the Case

The judgment, in this case, was pronounced by a majority of 3:2 on the date of April 10, 1967. The majority judgment was declared by the then Chief Justice K. Subba Rao on behalf of Justice Shelat, Justice Vaidalingam, and himself. While the dissenting opinion was pronounced by Justice Hidayatullah on behalf of Justice Bachwat and himself. 

In this case, the Apex Court held that the right to travel is covered under the ambit of ‘personal liberty’ enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The bench added that the right to travel cannot be disputed by any other law made by the State and the right can be excused only as per the procedure established by law. The Court further held that the act of refusing the delivery of passport to the petitioner was violative of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. 

The Supreme Court, in furtherance of this case, issued a writ of mandamus directing the respondents to withdraw their decision mentioned in the letter of August 31, 1966, and September 20, 1966. Henceforth, the Court directed the respondents to restrict from taking any step against the enforcement of the decision of the Court and further to forbear from taking back of the two passports and other passport facilities by the petitioner. 

Cases Referred

  1. A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras[2]In this case, the petitioner challenged the legality of the Preventive Detention Act, 1950 contending that the said Act contravenes provisions of Article 13, 19, and 21 of the Constitution. Thus, the bench held the Act as ultra vires, and hence the detention of A.K. Gopalan was illegal. However, the court did not deal with the right to travel, rather it dealt with whether there was any relevance of the right to move throughout the territory of India under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution.
  2. Kavalappara Kottarathil Kochuni v. State of Madra[3]In this case, a petition challenging the constitutional validity of the Madras Marumakkathayan (Removal of Doubts) Act, 1955 was filed. The judgement, in this case, the judgement of A.K. Gopalan was upheld which paves a way for the right to travel to be included under the purview of Article 21 of the Constitution. 
  3. Kharak Singh v. State of U.P.[4]In this case, Kharak Singh was acquitted of a dacoity case in lack of evidence. In this case, the court held that the right to privacy was not guaranteed under Article 21 and so there is no such violation. The judgement, in this case, played an important part in establishing the position of ‘personal liberty’ in our constitution. The court established that ‘personal liberty’ in Article 21 encompasses the right of migration and travel abroad, but the right to move throughout the territory of India is not covered in Article 19.
  4. Rabindernath Malik v. The Regional Passport Office[5]The Delhi High Court, in this case, took a stand for the previous judgments passed in this respect. The Court held that personal liberty under Article 21 does not guarantee the right to travel outside India and then re-enter India. This was held because Article 21 applies to non-citizens as well and the scope of Article 19 restricts the movement within the territory of India. So, if the right to travel was declared a fundamental right under Article 21. Then it would apply to non-citizens as well and they have a limited right to move within the territory of India. Hence, if the right to travel was made fundamental then it would give all the rights to non-citizens also. Thus, the Delhi High Court opined that the right to travel was not a part of personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. 

Analysis and Conclusion of Judgement

The judgment was a landmark judgment pronounced by the Apex Court as after so many continuous judgements denying the right to travel, this judgment has finally recognized the right to travel and has changed the scenario of this right in India. The bench, in this case, has taken a crucial step by declaring the right to travel as a facet of Article 21 of the constitution. This case has been a precedent to many landmark cases like Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[6] where the Hon’ble Supreme Court restated the right to travel as a fundamental right under the ambit of Article 21 of the Constitution of India by a complete majority and the Court further discussed various procedures established by the law right to travel has been hammered out. The judgment is valid in today’s context also and is a part of each one’s life, its existence lies in nothing but the fact that we are freely traveling abroad without any restrictions. 

However, the instant case is merely used as a precedent now after the case of Maneka Gandhi but the essence of including the right to travel under the Constitution will remain in the hands of this case as this was the first case in which such a right was recognized even after so many negative judgements in this prospect. Thus, the Supreme Court has always played a key role in establishing our constitution and the fundamental rights within them will continue to do so. Further, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has never compromised the right of one for the right of another by maintaining harmony in their decisions, so one should always respect the law and the judiciary as it is the only means to access free and fair justice. 


[1] Satwant Singh Sawhney v. D. Ramarathnam, Assistant Passport Officer, 1976 AIR 1836.

[2]  1950 AIR 27.

[3] 1960 AIR 1080.

[4] 1963 AIR 1295.

[5] AIR 1967 Delhi 1.

[6] 1978 AIR 597.

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