This article was originally published in The Economic Times.
Right to privacy is important not only for our negotiations with the information age but also to counter the transgressions of a welfare state. A robust right to privacy is essential for all citizens in India to defend their individual autonomy in the face of invasive state actions purportedly for the public good. The ruling of this nine-judge bench will have far-reaching impact on the extent and scope of rights available to us all.
In a disappointing case of judicial evasion by the apex court, it has taken over 600 days since a reference order passed in August 11, 2015, for this bench to be constituted. Over two days of arguments, the counsels for the petitioners have presented before the court why the right to privacy, despite not finding a mention in the Constitution of India, is a fundamental right essential to a person’s dignity and liberty, and must be read into not one but multiple articles of the Constitution. The government will make its arguments in the coming week.
One must wonder why we are debating the contours of the right to privacy, which 40 years of jurisprudence had lulled us into believing we already had. The answer to that can be found in a series of hearings in the Aadhaar case that began in 2012. Justice KS Puttaswamy, a former Karnataka High Court judge, filed a petition before the Supreme Court, questioning the validity of the Aadhaar project due its lack of legislative basis (since then the Aadhaar Act was passed in 2016) and its transgressions on our fundamental rights. Over time, a number of other petitions also made their way to the apex court, challenging different aspects of the Aadhaar project. Since then, five different interim orders by the Supreme Court have stated that no person should suffer because they do not have an Aadhaar number. Aadhaar, according to the court, could not be made mandatory to avail benefits and services from government schemes. Further, the court has limited the use of Aadhaar to specific schemes: LPG, PDS, MGNREGA, National Social Assistance Programme, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna and EPFO.
The real spanner in the works in the progress of this case was the stand taken by Mukul Rohatgi, then attorney general of India who, in a hearing before the court in July 2015, stated that there is no constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy. His reliance was on two Supreme Court judgments in MP Sharma v Satish Chandra (1954) and Kharak Singh v State of Uttar Pradesh (1962): both cases, decided by eight- and six-judge benches respectively, denied the existence of a constitutional right to privacy. As the subsequent judgments which upheld the right to privacy were by smaller benches, Rohatgi claimed that MP Sharma and Kharak Singh still prevailed over them, until they were overruled by a larger bench.
The reference to a larger bench has since delayed the entire matter, even as a number of government schemes have made Aadhaar mandatory. This reading of privacy as a unidimensional concept by the courts is, with due respect, erroneous. Privacy, as a concept, includes within its scope, spatial, familial, informational and decisional aspects. We all have a legitimate expectation of privacy in our private spaces, such as our homes, and in our personal relationships. Similarly, we must be able to exercise some control over how personal data, like our financial information, are disseminated. Most importantly, privacy gives us the space to make autonomous choices and decisions without external interference. All these dimensions of privacy must stand as distinct rights. In MP Sharma, the court rejected a certain aspect of the right of privacy by refusing to acknowledge a right against search and seizure. This, in no way prevented the court, even in the form of a smaller bench, from ruling on any other aspects of privacy, including those that are relevant to the Aadhaar case.
The limited referral to this bench means that the court will have to rule on the status of privacy and its possible limitations in isolation, without even going into the details of the Aadhaar case (based on the nature of protection that this bench accords to privacy, the petitioners and defendants in the Aadhaar case will have to argue afresh on whether the project does impede on this most fundamental right). There are no facts of the case to ground the legal principles in, and defining the contours of a right can be a difficult exercise. The court must be wary of how any limits they put on the right may be used in future. Equally, it is important to articulate that any limitations on the right to privacy due to competing interests such as national security and public interest must be imposed only when necessary and always be proportionate.
It will not be enough for the court to merely state that we have a constitutional right to privacy. They would be well advised to cut through the muddle of existing privacy jurisprudence, and unequivocally establish the various facets of the right. Without that, we may not be able to withstand the modern dangers of surveillance, denial of bodily integrity and self-determination through forcible collection of information. The nine judges, in their collective wisdom, must not only ensure that we have a right to privacy, but also clearly articulate a robust reading of this right capable of withstanding the growing interferences with our autonomy.