Information Gatekeepers and Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution

I have put a draft of my paper titled ‘Gatekeeper Liability and Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution on SSRN. You can read it here. It will eventually be published in the NUJS Law Review.

Alternatively, this essay (written for a UPenn/ CIS/ ORF publication) based on the paper sets out my argument briefly.

Introduction

The press was once the most important medium of mass communication. Indira Gandhi understood this well and used the gatekeeping function of large media houses to prevent citizens from accessing critical information. The press’s function as an information gatekeeper is protected by jurisprudence, but this protection is articulated as ‘freedom of the press’, making it a medium-specific protection. As the Internet increasingly replaces the press as the most important source of information for citizens, structural protections need to extend online. The online intermediary may be the new avatar of the information gatekeeper, third parties who perform an essential function in transmitting information from speakers to audiences – they are potential choke points that the state can use to cut off flows of information.

Aside from the press freedom norms, much of our freedom of expression jurisprudence deals with the state’s relationship with the speaker. The contours of our freedom of expression rights have formed in this context. It is relatively easy for the judiciary to grasp how statutory provisions like section 66A of the Information Technology Act impact freedom of expression. Here the law targets the speaker directly and any unjust application or chilling effect is more visible. It is also more likely to be resisted by the target of regulation, since the speaker is always interested in her own right to speak.

Indirect regulation of speech is quite different. The law is aimed at information gatekeepers, who may choose not to publicise censorship and who may not be as interested in protected the speech as the original speaker. Scholars have described these gatekeepers as the ‘weakest link’, through which speech is most vulnerable to state excesses.

Information gatekeepers and Indian law

It is common enough for states to use ‘middle-men’ to enforce change in behaviour when it is difficult to control the primary offender’s conduct directly. For example, since it is difficult to directly compel minors to avoid drinking, the law targets alcohol-sellers, leveraging their gatekeeping function to cut off the supply of alcohol to minors.

Information gatekeepers were used to regulate the flow of information even in the pre-digital world. Publishers and booksellers were held liable for circulating banned publications in many countries including India. India has a particularly pernicious rule criminalizing the circulation of obscene content. This comes from the Supreme Court’s judgment in Ranjit Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra, that is well known for its interpretation of obscenity law in the context of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. The other critical element of this judgment received almost no attention – the liability of a bookseller for the circulation of obscene content.

D.H. Lawrence was never prosecuted in India for his book. The ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ case in the Supreme Court was about the liability of the owners of Happy Book Stall, a bookshop at which ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was sold. The Supreme Court said the booksellers were liable for circulation of the obscene content even if they argued that they were unaware that a book contained such content. Consider what this means: booksellers cannot plead ignorance of obscene content within any of the books they sell, and will be liable nonetheless. The state only has to prove that the booksellers circulated obscene content, and not that they did so knowingly. It is lucky that this part of the Supreme Court judgment went largely unnoticed since it could easily be used by the intolerant file criminal complaints that shut down large bookstores all over the country – all they need to do is look for a few books that the law would categorise as obscene. Booksellers would then have to scour every page and paragraph of each book they sell to weed it out content that might get them arrested – this would make it very difficult to do business.

Online intermediaries as information gatekeepers

Intermediary liability first received attention in India after the infamous ‘DPS-MMS’ explicit video, featuring two minors, ended up being sold on Baazee.com. The Managing Director of the company that owned the website was arrested. The fact that he had no knowledge that this content was shared on the website was irrelevant thanks to the Supreme Court’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ verdict. This situation made it clear that if the law applicable to bookshops continued to apply to online intermediaries, online platforms would not be able to function in India. A platform like Facebook or Youtube hosts too much user content to be able to sift through it and proactively filter out everything obscene.

Fortunately, the amendment of the Information Technology Act (IT Act) gave Internet intermediaries immunity from this liability for third party content. The immunity was conditional. Intermediaries that edit or otherwise have knowledge of the content that they transmit are not immune from liability. To remain immune from liability, intermediaries must comply with certain legal obligations to take down content or block it in response to government orders or court orders. These obligations also leverage the gate-keeping function of these intermediaries to regulate online content – internet service providers and online platforms can ensure that certain kinds of content are inaccessible in India.

Why gatekeepers matter

Although information intermediaries existed in the pre-internet information ecosystem, their role is critical in the context of online content – several intermediaries mediate our access to online content. Some of these, like the gateways through which the Indian network connects to the global network, are located in India and are easy for the government to control since they are subject to onerous licenses and are few enough in number for the state to be able to control all of them successfully. Other intermediaries like Facebook or Google, are online platforms, and most of these have offices outside Indian jurisdiction.

Discussions about freedom of expression that focus on the direct relationship between the state and the speaker are not helpful in this context. This kind of reasoning tends to ignore the collateral effects of certain kinds of regulation of speech – the ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ case case is a classic illustration of this with its tremendous impact on the liability of all booksellers and later on Baazee.com and other web based platforms.

As the new media make gatekeepers and intermediaries more critical to the controlling the flow of information, we need to focus on other dimensions of freedom of expression if we are ensure that effective safeguards are put in place to protect speech. Our jurisprudence on freedom of the press offers some degree of protection to newspapers so that regulation of their business structure cannot be used to influence their content, but this form of gatekeeper protection is limited to the press. There are information gatekeepers other than the press in India, and it is time that we think carefully about protecting the information ecosystem. Free speech principles need to accommodate themselves to a media ecosystem that is increasingly dependent on information gatekeepers.

Freedom of expression and access to information

It is time that our jurisprudence started focusing more on citizens’ rights to access information. Although this right that has been recognized in India, it needs to be outlined in more detail. In the well-known judgment in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, which struck down section 66A of the Information Technology Act, the Supreme Court failed to deal with intermediary liability adequately because it did not use the lens of access to information and gatekeeper liability. Using traditional jurisprudence that focuses on the direct impact of regulation of speech, the court gave content-creators the right to a hearing and a right to appeal blocks and removals of their content wherever possible. However, it completely disregarded the rights of citizens to access online content.

The content blocking system in India makes all government blocking orders confidential. This means that when an intermediary is required to block content under the IT Act, users might imagine that the decision was a private decision made by the intermediary. Since the intermediary is unlikely to be willing to spend resources battling for the various kinds of content it hosts, any blocking process that counts on the intermediary to offer up sufficient resistance to unconstitutional blocking orders errs egregiously. The law must offer those who are actually affected – the publishers and the readers of the information – a chance to fight for content that they have the right to circulate and access. Of these, the publishers of information do have some right to make their case before the government committee making the blocking decision thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India. But this judgment does nothing for citizens who could lose access to a wealth of information if the government might unreasonably blocks content created by someone in another country. The content publisher would not be in a position to defend its content in India, and citizens have not been given any avenue to defend their rights to view the content before the government committee making the decision.

The focus on access to information has been discussed many scholars, from Alexander Meiklejohn onwards. Amartya Sen has written about the salience of public discourse in a democracy. Robert Post and Jack Balkin have articulated in the detail the importance of focusing on the free flow of information or access to information, rather than on the right of individual speakers. The right we refer to as ‘freedom of expression’ is about much more than the freedom to say what one pleases. It is the foundational principle from which our rules about free flow of information have been built.

Conclusion

Section 66A was an example of what Jack Balkin characterises as ‘old school’ regulation of speech. This consists of criminal penalties, injunction and damages aimed directly at the speaker or publisher. The Supreme Court’s treatment of section 66A reflects its comfort with this form of regulation and its implications for freedom of expression.

Intermediary liability, and the use of Internet gatekeepers to control the flow of online information follows a different system: it uses control over the infrastructure or platforms of speech to exercise control over speech. Jack Balkin characterizes this as ‘new school’ regulation. Through ‘collateral censorship’, a third party is made to block or remove a primary speaker or publisher’s speech. For example, a government order or a court order requiring that certain online content be blocked, does this by requiring and internet service provider or online platform to censor the information. New school regulation works necessitates co-operation of these third party intermediaries like internet service providers and online platforms with the government, and this can be achieved by compelling them to co-operate through the law or by using softer means to co-opt them.

New school regulation must be assessed in terms of the collateral harm that it causes. It is not a question of whether online pornography should be blocked or not anymore. It is a question of whether the process used to get intermediaries to block the pornography can be abused to block constitutionally protected speech. We have already recognized the collateral effects of structural regulation in the context of press freedom, and the Supreme Court has barred certain kinds of structural interference with the media that might impact their reporting. It is time to create a version of this principle for online speech, and to think in terms of access and free flow of information.

References

Ranjit Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra

Shreya Singhal v. Union of India

Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Govt. of India v. Cricket Association of Bengal, (1995) 2 SCC 161.

Sakal Papers v Union of India

Amartya Sen, Idea of Justice, 321-337 (2009)

Chinmayi Arun, Gatekeeper Liability and Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, NUJS Law Review [forthcoming-2015]

Jack Balkin, ‘Old School/ New-School Speech Regulation’, 127 Harv. L. Rev. 2296

Jack Balkin, ‘The first amendment is an information policy’, Hofstra Law Review 41 (2013)

Robert Post, Participatory Democracy and Free Speech, 97 Virginia L. Rev. 3 (2011).

Seth Kreimer, Censorship by Proxy: the First Amendment, Internet Intermediaries, and the Problem of the Weakest Link, Penn Law: Legal Scholarship Repository (2006)

The PornBan debate: our archived pieces on the subject

Sadly, the debate on banning pornography has not moved very far over the last two years. Here are pieces that CCG has published on the subject over time:

  1. The problem with blanket bans of  online pornography: filtering online content
  2. Blocking online pornography: who should make constitutional decisions about speech
  3. Porn and keyword filters, and how we will be sacrificing our public discourse (within this piece on the AIB petition)

A basic right is in danger

The post originally appeared in The Hindu on 31st July 2015.

The Attorney General’s argument questioning the right of Indians to privacy is wrong on two counts. But worse, it goes against the interests of the people on every count.

“While opinions may vary about Aadhar, the government is expected to act in the best interests of the people.” Picture shows biometric particulars being collected in Tamil Nadu. Photo: K. Ananthan

“While opinions may vary about Aadhar, the government is expected to act in the best interests of the people.” Picture shows biometric particulars being collected in Tamil Nadu. Photo: K. Ananthan

The last ten days have spelt dark times for the right to privacy. On one hand, the DNA Profiling Bill, which may result in a database of sensitive personal data with little to prevent its misuse, is being tabled in Parliament. On the other hand, the Attorney General took a shocking position in the Supreme Court of disputing the very existence of the right to privacy in the Aadhar case.

Undermining decades of evolution of this right through Supreme Court judgments, Mukul Rohatgi argued that it is necessary to put together a constitutional bench to determine whether the citizens of India have a right to privacy.

He is in the wrong for two reasons. The first is technical: he is mistaken in his assertion that M.P. Sharma v Satish Chandra and Kharak Singh v. the State of U.P. created legal doctrine that is no constitutional right to privacy. The second reason is political. A lawyer holding the Attorney General’s office should consider the appropriateness of using that office and public resources when denying that Indian citizens have privacy rights, which are universally recognised human rights. This is all quite apart from the fact that India has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which unequivocally supports the existence of the right to privacy. The United Nations has gone so far as to create a Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy this year. In the context of US surveillance of its citizens, the Indian government has acknowledged the existence of the right to privacy.

In the Constitution

The two decisions that Mr. Rohatgi references did not raise questions about the right to privacy as a whole. Both confined themselves to the limited question of whether principles mirroring the US Fourth Amendment may be read into the Indian Constitution, which is only one element of the right to privacy. The M.P. Sharma case did this while ascertaining if there are any constitutional limitations to the government’s search and seizure of people’s homes, persons and effects; and the Kharak Singh case did this in the context of physical surveillance of ‘history sheeters’.

In M.P. Sharma, the judgment states, “When the Constitution makers have thought fit not to subject such regulation to Constitutional limitations by recognition of a fundamental right to privacy, analogous to the American Fourth Amendment, we have no justification to import it into a totally different fundamental right by some process of strained construction” (emphasis added). This makes it clear that it is not the right to privacy as a whole that is being referred to. The American Fourth Amendment pertains to the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”, not to the right of privacy in its entirety.

The M.P. Sharma judgment goes further to say, “It is to be remembered that searches of the kind we are concerned with are under the authority of a Magistrate… When such judicial function is interposed between the individual and the officer’s authority for search, no circumvention thereby of the fundamental right is to be assumed.” This makes it evident that the court desisted from intervening because it saw the requirement of a Magistrate’s order as safeguard enough.

Similarly, although the judgment in Kharak Singh contains the sentence with the ominous beginning “as already pointed out, the right of privacy is not a guaranteed right under our Constitution”, this sentence cannot be taken out of context. The ‘already pointed out’ refers to an earlier portion of the same judgment in which the court quotes the U.S. Fourth Amendment, and then declares that our Constitution does not confer any ‘like constitutional guarantee’. This makes it clear that it is the Fourth Amendment text specifically that the court was referring to.

The court also belied its own position by finding that unauthorised intrusion into a person’s home violates the common law principle of “every man’s house is his castle”. The judgment explicitly takes the position that Article 21 is a repository for residual personal liberty rights, leaving it open for future reading of such rights into Article 21.

It is apparent that the two cases do not rule out a broad constitutional right to privacy. It is almost impossible to consider the right to privacy in its entirety in a single case since it is a bundle of rights including everything from safeguards against unauthorised collection of personal data to restrictions on intrusion into private spaces. The cases that have emerged from the Supreme Court over the years make this apparent.

Different elements of privacy rights have been read into our right to life and our right to free expression. We have a right against untrammelled interception of our communication, and against doctors divulging personal medical information. Long before the Constitution or the Constituent Assembly came into being, the right to privacy of women in purdah was acknowledged by common law, which forbade the building of balconies above their quarters. We do, therefore, have a rich history of enforcing the right. Like many other nations, we called it by different names and have found it within legal and cultural norms unique to India.

It is common for lawyers to use every strategy they can to win cases but the Attorney General is no ordinary lawyer. S/he is a constitutional authority. It is inappropriate for someone of that stature to argue that the people of India do not have a right to privacy. Former Attorney General Niren De was criticised sharply for telling the Supreme Court that it could be helped if the right to life was violated during Emergency. Mr. Rohatgi’s argument is comparable.

This is a democracy, and while opinions may vary about Aadhar, the government is expected to act in the best interests of the people. Here, we have the Attorney General stepping away from arguing that the government’s actions are in the interests of the people to say that the people do not have rights in the first place.

It is not a case of the government’s lawyer arguing for the prevalence of the wider community’s interests over individual rights, or disputing what is in the interests of the majority of citizens. Mr. Rohatgi, on behalf of the Indian government, is making an argument that is blatantly against the rights and interests of all citizens of India.

Interestingly, the argument runs contrary also to the Minister of Communications and Information Technology’s statements recognising citizens’ right to privacy in the context of both US and Indian surveillance.

Time to clarify

This incident is about more than an argument made in court. It is a serious problem if the Union government makes statements that respect privacy and then takes actions that attempt to destroy it. It is also inconsistent for the government to argue internationally that the U.S. has violated Indian citizens’ right to privacy and then to argue before the Supreme Court that Indian citizens do not have the right to privacy.

Under the circumstances, it is necessary for the government to issue a statement clarifying its stand, which I hope will consist of some form of support for citizens’ privacy rights. Once this is clear, perhaps the Attorney General could continue the arguments that take his client’s wishes into account.

A clear statement from the Prime Minister’s office might also enable other ministries to ensure that they embed this right in their policies. This, for example, might have gone a long way in ensuring that cast-iron privacy safeguards were added to the DNA Profiling Bill.

Ignoring the right to privacy will not only affect India’s ‘global image’ more than any critical documentary does, it will also complicate international commercial relations. Who would send their information or employees to a country that disregards its residents’ right to privacy?

Private Censorship and the Tethered Media

DNA newspaper’s removal of Rana Ayyub’s brave piece on Amit Shah with no explanation is shocking. It is reminiscent of the role that media owners played in censoring journalists before publication during the Emergency, prompting L.K. Advani to say, “You were asked to bend, but you crawled.” The promptitude with which some media houses are weeding out political writing that might get them into trouble should make us reconsider the way we think about the freedom of the press. Discussions of press freedom often concentrate on the individual’s right to speak, but may be better served if they also accommodated another perspective – the audience’s right to hear.

It is fortunate that Ayyub’s piece was printed and reached its audience before attempts were made to bury it. Its removal was counterproductive, making DNA’s decision widely visible in what is popularly known as the Streisand Effect. The controversy emerging from DNA’s taking down the piece has generated much wider attention for Ayyub’s article, which is now mirrored on multiple websites, its readership expanding as outrage at its removal ricochets around the Internet.

This incident is hardly the first of its kind. Just weeks ago, news surfaced of Rajdeep Sardesai being pressurized to alter his news channel’s political coverage before the national election.  The Mint reported that the people pressurizing Sardesai wanted a complete blackout of Kejriwal and the Aam Admi party from CNN-IBN’s reportage. Had Sardesai capitulated, significant news of great public interest would have been lost to a large audience. CNN-IBN’s decision would have been chalked down to editorial discretion, and we the public be none the wiser.

Luckily for their audience, Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose quit the channel that they built from scratch instead of compromising their journalistic integrity.  However, the league of editors who choose to crawl remains widespread.  Their decisions are protected by the Indian constitution.

The freedom of press in India only protects the press from the government’s direct attempts to influence it. Both big business and the state have more instruments at their disposal than direct ownership or censorship diktats. These include withdrawal of lucrative advertisements, defamation notices threatening journalists with enormous fines and imprisonment; and sometimes even physical violence. Who can forget how Tehelka magazine’s ‘exposure of large-scale government wrongdoing resulted in the Tehelka’s financiers being persecuted by the Enforcement Directorate, with one of them even being jailed for some time.

The instruments of harassment work best when the legal notices are sent to third party publishers or intermediaries. Unlike the authors who may wish to defend their work or modify it a little to make it suitable for publication, a publishing house or web platform would usually prefer to avoid expensive litigation. Third-party publishers will often remove legitimate content to avoid spending time and money fighting for it.  Pressurising them is a fairly effective way to silence authors and journalists.

Consider the different news outlets and publishing houses that control what reaches us as news or commentary. If they can be forced to bury content, citing editorial discretion, consider what this means for the quality of news that reaches the Indian public. Indira Gandhi understood this weakness of the press, and successfully controlled the Indian media by managing the proprietors.

Although media ownership still remains concentrated in a few hands, the disruptive element offering hope for free public dialogue is the Internet.  The World Wide Web gives journalists access to the public sphere through blogs, small websites and social media. This means that when DNA deletes Rana Ayyub’s article, copies of it are immediately posted in other places.

However online journalism is also vulnerable. Online intermediaries receiving content blocking and take down orders tend to over-comply rather than risk litigation. Like publishers, these intermediaries can easily prevent speakers from reaching their audiences. Consider the volume of information online that is dependent on third parties intermediaries like Rediff, Facebook, WordPress or Twitter. The only thing that keeps the state and big business from easily controlling information flow on the Internet, is that it is difficult to exert cross-border pressure on online intermediaries located outside India.

However, the ease with which most of the mainstream media is controlled makes it easy to construct a bubble of fiction around audiences, leaving them in blissful ignorance how little they really know. Very little recourse is available against the publishers or intermediaries if these private parties censor an author’s content unreasonably.  Unlike state censorship, private censorship is invisible, and is protected by the online and offline intermediaries’ rights to their editorial choices.

Ordinarily, there is nothing wrong with editorial discretion or even with a media house choosing a particular slant to its stories. However, from the audience’s point of view, it is important that the public sphere ends up containing a healthy range of perspectives and interests, with a diversity of content across the media. If news of public significance is regularly filtered out of the public sphere, this affects the state of our democracy. The citizens of this country cannot participate in its governance without access to critical information.

 It is therefore very important to acknowledge the harm caused by private censorship. It endangers the democracy when just a few parties disproportionately control access to the public sphere. We need to think of how to ensure that the voices of journalists and scholars reach their audience. Media freedom is meaningful if considered in the context of the right of the audience, the Indian public, to receive information.

Govt pushes UID Bill through to quash SC case

Author: Nikhil Kanekal

The union government’s swift approval of the National Identification Authority of India Bill through the cabinet of ministers on 8 October, even as its law officers stood before the Supreme Court in a related case, is a strategic move that could make the public interest petition infructuous.

If the bill clears Parliament during the winter session, then the United Progressive Alliance’s Unique Identity scheme will finally attain legitimacy and statutory backing. The bill could fashion conditions under which it is mandatory to get an Aadhar card to avail certain public services. This was the stance taken by the government before the court, which is scheduled to hear the matter on 22 October. The supply of subsidised gas is likely to temporarily cease, since the court decided not to modify its order of 23 September.

The current case is causing controversy because certain government departments have made it mandatory to possess an Aadhar card to avail of basic public services. The petition was brought by a retired judge of the Karnataka high court who was asked to obtain an Aadhar card to be paid his dues.

One of counsels for the petitioner admitted that if Aadhar gets Parliamentary approval, the case would fall apart. But the counsel added that they would challenge the newly formed law in that scenario. “Yes, the case will become infructuous. We will have to challenge the law.”

Meanwhile, a fresh news report reveals that thousands of school students not being able to get access to benefits of scholarships announced by the government in Jharkhand:

Data from the district welfare office show that 23, 817 children availed themselves of post-matric scholarships for the SC/ST and OBCs — one of the seven schemes linked to Aadhaar — in 2011-12. But in 2012-13, after Aadhaar was made mandatory for students, this dropped by 35 per cent to 15,638. The sharpest reduction is in the number of beneficiaries from tribal families. In 2011-12, 16,058 ST students got scholarships, while the next year this fell to 8,985.

Exercising freedom of expression by NOTA voting

Author: Nikhil Kanekal

A recent judgment by the Supreme Court of India has elevated the right to vote was to a constitutional right by connecting it with the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to liberty under Articles 19(1)(a) and 21, respectively. Previously the right to vote was a statutory right granted to citizens under the Representation of People’s Act, 1950.

More significant from the court’s recent order is voters now have the option to push the none of the above (NOTA) button on the electronic voting machine (EVM). This will allow citizens who choose NOTA to continue to retain the secrecy of their ballot, something that was previously not possible. But even if NOTA secures the maximum number of votes in a constituency, it currently does not have any consequences for the formation of the government. India and her states continue to follow the first past the post principle and even a candidate who garners merely half as many votes (or fewer) than NOTA will go on to represent the people of that constituency.

Former Chief Election Commissioner of India, N. Gopalaswami believes this is only the beginning in a step towards giving citizens the actual right to reject candidates in an election. In an article published in The Hindu he concludes that “NOTA will not remain a small matter for long.”

If parties keep imposing tainted candidates on voters or, while selecting candidates, pay scant regard to their performance or integrity, the electorate can hit back with NOTA. A time will come with demands for fresh election with a fresh set of candidates if, in the first election, NOTA scores the highest votes. If that happens, even if the lawmakers are reluctant, the Supreme Court may not be unsympathetic given the contours of this judgment. With 12 crore first time voters who will have NOTA before them in the coming election to Parliament, the stage is set for the electorate to challenge political parties’ commitment to decriminalising the legislative bodies. A comprehensive electoral reform is the need of the hour but if the political class keeps dragging its feet, courts may be willing to clean the Augean stables. For their part, those who moved the Supreme Court in this matter and other civil society organisations would do well to educate voters of the power the court has placed in their hands and let the button beep louder and speak for them. NOTA will not remain a small matter for long.

Read the full article here.

Government says it cannot provide subsidies without Aadhar

Author: Nikhil Kanekal

The union government’s position on Aadhar attained some clarity during a hearing before the Supreme Court on Tuesday. Attorney General Goolam E. Vahanvati told the bench, “You (citizens) need not take Aadhar. It is not mandatory. But if you want to get a benefit, if you want to get a subsidy, then you need to get Aadhar.”

The court, however, refused to vacate its interim order of 23 September, causing much heartburn to the union government, which simultaneously moved a bill through the union cabinet to legitimize the Unique Identity program or Aadhar. The bill is expected to be tabled in Parliament during the upcoming winter session and finally give Aadhar a statutory status. Justices B. S. Chauhan and S. A. Bobde said the court would hear the case at length on 22 October.

The government submitted to the court that Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoPNG) relies on Aadhar to provide subsidies to the public. “There is a problem now. MoPNG distributes subsidised cooking gas to the tune of Rs. 40,000 crores,” said Vahanvati to the bench, adding, “Aadhar is the only foolproof mechanism through which we can do this.”

Justice Bobde observed: “You are saying it is a condition of supply. But there was a series of problems.” – referring to the non-payment of salaries by the Bombay High Court to those who did not possess an Aadhar card, as well as other controversial policies by some departments, who made it mandatory to receive basic public services. “This is a double-edged sword. You file you affidavit with all the other applicants, then we will see,” said the court.

The government approached the court for a modification in its order which said “no person should suffer for not getting the Adhaar card inspite of the fact that some authority had  issued a circular making it mandatory”. This has caused the government concern because it has begun using Aadhar to provide direct cash transfers (Direct Benefit Transfer) to residents so that they can avail subsidies on cooking gas.

Additional Solicitor General Nageshwar Rao, who appeared for three companies engaged in the distribution of cooking gas to consumers, told the court that unless it vacates, at least partially its order, “the distribution of subsidised gas would come to a grinding halt”.

Vahanvati pleaded, “Please see my application; if you can give me some relief today, then thousands of people will benefit.” However, when the court continued to refuse on the ground that it would hear the case later, Vahanvati accepted, but cautioned, “In the meantime people will not get subsidised gas.”

Earlier, a procedural controversy briefly stalled proceedings with Anil B. Divan, counsel for the petitioner, accusing the government’s law officers of “mentioning the matter behind our backs” before different benches of the court. He said the government was attempting to get an order from the court without the presence of the other side. He also claimed that the government had failed to serve its affidavit to all the petitioners in advance, thereby denying them a chance to respond in writing or come prepared to the hearing.

The court adjourned the matter directing the government to serve and respond to all petitioners in the case.