A 9 judge bench of the Supreme Court of India passed a landmark judgment two weeks ago, which unanimously recognized the right to privacy as a fundamental right under the Constitution of India. The Court found the right to privacy to be a part of the freedoms guaranteed across fundamental rights, and an intrinsic aspect of dignity, autonomy and liberty.
In 2012, a petition was filed before the Supreme Court by Justice K. S. Puttuswamy (Retd.), challenging the validity of Aadhaar. During the course of the hearings, the Attorney General argued that the Supreme Court in M.P. Sharma v. Satish Chandra (1954) and Kharak Singh v. State of U.P. (1962) had found that there was no fundamental right to privacy in India, because of which its position in the Indian Constitution was debatable. As a consequence, the Court in its order on August 11, 2015 referred the question to a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court. Last month, the Constitution bench decided to refer the matter to a 9 judge bench, in view of M.P. Sharma and Kharak Singh being decided by an 8 judge bench, and a 6 judge bench respectively. A timeline of events, from the filing of the petition, to the constitution of the 9 judge bench, may be found here.
During the proceedings, the petitioners broadly argued that M.P. Sharma, and Kharak Singh were no longer good law; that privacy was an essential component of liberty, dignity and other core aspects of the Constitution; and the fundamental right to privacy could be located in a combined reading of the rights under Part III of the Constitution. Further, they argued that India’s international obligations presented an imperative to recognize the right. The respondents argued, among other things, that privacy was a vague concept, of which only certain aspects could be elevated to the status of a fundamental right, if at all. They argued that the right could be protected through the common law, or by statute, and did not need the protection of a fundamental right. Further, that the right to life, and the concomitant duty of the state to provide welfare, must trump privacy. An index of our posts reporting the arguments is also available below.
The petition and reference posed some critical questions for the Court. The Court had to evaluate whether privacy, as argued, was just an alien, elitist construct unsuitable to India, or a necessary protection in a digital age. It was further tasked with defining its safeguards and contours in a way that would not invalidate the right. Chinmayi Arun’s piece specifically addresses these concerns here.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court also has an illustrious history of recognizing and upholding the right to privacy. The Centre for Communication Governance recently published an infographic, illustrating the Court’s jurisprudence on the right to privacy across 63 years.
The Court eventually decided on an expansive articulation of the fundamental right to privacy. However, the judgment raises a few crucial implications. We at the Centre for Communication Governance have presented our analysis of the judgment in various news media publications. Chinmayi Arun, our Research Director, has presented her views on the judgment as part of a panel of experts here, and in an interview, here. She also argues that the Court seems to have left a significant leeway, presumably for intrusion by the state. Smitha presents a detailed assessment of the implications of the right to privacy here. The judgment has also been lauded for its critique of the Suresh Kumar Koushal v. NAZ Foundation, which recriminalized consensual same-sex intercourse. As Arpita writes here, a strong formulation of the right to privacy, with its close connection to bodily integrity, can forge a more progressive expression of the rights of women and sexual minorities.
While the judgment is a step forward, its effect and implementation are yet to be seen. Recently, in the ongoing matter of Karmanya Singh v. Union of India (WhatsApp data sharing case), the Puttaswamy judgment was visited. Following from the judgment, the petitioners argued that the state should protect an individual’s right to privacy even when it is being infringed by a non-state actor.
Reports of arguments made before the Supreme Court: