CCG on the Privacy Judgment

Written by the Civil Liberties team at CCG

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:

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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.

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.

SC asks Govt to make sure Aadhar not mandatory to avail services

Author: Nikhil Kanekal

In a writ petition challenging the Indian government’s tacit insistence on citizens using Aadhar cards for public services,  the Supreme Court passed an interim order on Monday asking the government to make sure that no citizen is denied services for not possessing an Aadhar card.

A bench comprising justices B. S. Chauhan and S. A. Bobde directed the union government to ensure that “no person should suffer for not getting the Adhaar card inspite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory”.

The court also asked the government to make sure that Aadhar cards are not being given to illegal immigrants: “it may be checked whether that person is entitled for it under the law and it should not be given to any illegal immigrant.”

The government admitted before the Supreme Court that Aadhar cards were in fact not compulsory. To be sure, the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI), which issues the Aadar cards as a universal identity to citizens, has said Aadhar is not mandatory for public services. However, it increasingly appears that basic public services are not available to citizens that don’t have an Aadhar card. This is being achieved by linking services with Aadhar. In some parts of India this could mean that a person needs to have a UID to get subsidized cooking gas. Although citizens are normally able to avail public services through various other forms of state-issued identification (such as passport, driver’s licence, voter ID, PAN card), the processes being followed by the central government and some state governments on certain public services (registration of marriage) and subsidies (cooking gas) has led many to believe that it is only a matter of time before Aadhar becomes mandatory in order to deal with the state.

In the instant case, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court was told that he would not be paid his salary and dues, unless he got himself an Aadhar card. Unwilling to accept this, he filed a petition in the Bombay High Court.

An excerpt from a Press Trust of India report carried by Business Standard:

During the brief hearing, the bench of justices B S Chauhan and S A Bobde was told that despite the fact that the Aadhar card is “voluntary” in nature, an order has been issued by the Registrar of the Bombay High Court in pursuance of an order of the state government that it would be necessary for disbursal of salary of judges and staff also.

“The scheme is complete infraction of Fundamental Rights under Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (right to life and liberty). The government claims that the scheme is voluntary but it is not so.

“Aadhar is being made mandatory for purposes like registration of marriages and others. Maharashtra government has recently said no marriage will be registered if parties don’t have Aadhar cards,” senior advocate Anil Divan, arguing for Justice (retd) K S Puttaswamy, former judge of Karnataka High Court, said.