By Arpita Biswas
Last week, a nine-judge bench continued to hear arguments on whether a fundamental right to privacy exists. Our posts discussing last week’s hearings can be found here and here. Today, arguments were advanced on behalf of the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and also the UIDAI.
Mr. Sundaram, appearing for the state of Maharashtra, continued with his submissions from last week.
Referring to the arguments made last week, he agreed that interpretation had to be carried out in a manner which was compatible with changing times. However, he differentiated between interpretation and interruption.
He stated that if the Constitution was silent and if the founding fathers had introduced rights without an ambit then the judges could interpret. But since the founding fathers had considered a right and then rejected it, the intent was clear. Given this context, even if there are different considerations today, the basic structure doctrine, and the balance of powers had to be kept in mind. Reiterating a point made previously, Mr. Sundaram stated that if the right to privacy had to be introduced as a fundamental right, it would have to be introduced by the Parliament through a constitutional amendment.
With reference to the Constituent Assembly debates, where the right to privacy was allegedly considered and struck down, Justice Chandrachud brought up the point that what was considered in these debates was not the right itself, but two specific forms of the right. He stated that the debates referred to the secrecy of correspondence and search and seizure.
To this, Mr. Sundaram responded stating that these forms of privacy were integral to the right of privacy. He also stated that the reason the founding fathers struck down the right was because these specific forms were statutorily protected, which was similar to his contention about statutory protection being adequate, rather than elevation to fundamental right status. Drawing a comparison, he stated that the secrecy of correspondence could be compared to data protection. He also mentioned that data protection could be covered under Article 300A of the Constitution.
Justice Chandrachud stated that a statutory right could be easily abrogated.
Mr. Sundaram responded saying that the fear of abrogation denoted a suspicion and would not be enough.
At this point Justice Chelameshwar stated that data protection was not the only aspect sought to be protected.
Mr. Sundaram stated that the right was still an inchoate right that could not be elevated to the status of a fundamental right.
Furthering his point on the discrepancies that would accompany the right, he mentioned that public and private individuals would be treated differently, as individuals in the public eye may have the obligation to hand over data.
Chief Justice Khehar replied stating that this illustration was not acceptable, as asking a public individual to disclose information was different from the right to privacy and that state action would wholly differ.
Mr. Sundaram stated that the right of secrecy of correspondence was vital to the right to privacy. These aspects however, had been deleted from the Constituent Assembly debates. He also mentioned that the freedom of press was discussed in the debates, stating that while it wasn’t expressly identified, it was considered included in the freedom of expression. As opposed to which, the forms of privacy mentioned above were rejected. Reiterating the point, he mentioned that an individual status was not needed for the right to privacy.
Mr. Sundaram then stated that even if, in light of changing circumstances, the founding fathers intention of deleting the right to privacy was to be ignored – the right would have to be introduced via a constitutional amendment, after specifying that the aforementioned intention was no longer good.
Similar to the Attorney General’s argument in the previous hearings, Mr. Sundaram illustrated a situation where two rights are pitted against each other. One, where there is either a possibility of subsidized food, which would be the result of welfare schemes attached to the Aadhaar system, and the other, where there is the possibility of private information not leaking. Posing the two, he stated that perhaps the availability of subsidized food or welfare was more important.
In response to this point, Justice Chandrachud asked if civil and political rights would be subservient to economic interests. Justice Chelameshwar asked if it would be possible to balance the two needs, and have welfare without invading privacy.
Mr. Sundaram responded by differentiating between the two, stating that the former was a right, and privacy could not be afforded that status.
Referring to the forms of privacy, Mr. Sundaram stated that personal liberty of the physical person is covered under Article 21 and that ‘mind’ would not find its place here.
The Bench asked Mr. Sundaram whether international instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights would have any bearing on fundamental rights, in light of the Protection of Human Rights Act.
Refuting this point, Mr. Sundaram then mentioned that liberty as intended in Article 19, would be read down to only consider ‘personal liberty’ and that civil liberties were not a part of this. Mr. Sundaram stated that ‘personal’ would further constrict the meaning of liberty.
Justice Nariman stated that ‘personal’ should have the effect of contracting rather than expanding.
Mr. Sundaram pointed out that according to the Kharak Singh judgment, privacy would not amount to a fundamental right and ‘ordered liberty’ would be covered under personal liberty.
Mr. Sundaram stated that there was no room for interpretation. He stated that there was a definition distinction between civil liberty, liberty and personal liberty, and went on to a read excerpts that supported his contention.
Referring back to the point about data protection being covered under Article 300A of the Constitution, Mr. Sundaram stated that he supported this contention.
At this point, Justice Chelameshwar asked how Article 300A, which protects the right to property, would cover data protection. Mr. Sundaram stated that in some forms, data can be commercially viable. He referred to the judgment K.T. Plantation vs. State of Karnataka in support, stating that property could be construed widely.
Referring back to the point on international instruments raised by Justice Nariman, Mr. Sundaram reads excerpts from a judgment, Malone vs. Metropolitan Police Commissioner ( Chancery Division 344)
“…First, he said that it was unlawful for anyone to intercept or monitor the telephone conversations of another without the consent of that other. He rested this contention on the right of property, on the right of privacy, and on the right of confidentiality. Second, he relied on article 8 of the Convention, as construed by the European Court of Human Rights, especially in Klass and Others, July 4, 1978. He relied on this in two respects. First, he said that it conferred a direct right on all citizens of the United Kingdom. Second, he said that it aided the courts of this country. It guided those courts in interpreting and applying English law so as to make it accord as far as possible with the Convention; and it provided a guide in cases of ambiguity or a lack of clarity in English law. Mr. Ross-Munro’s third main contention was based on the absence of any grant of powers to the executive to tap telephones, either by statute or by the common law…
…It was common ground that there was no English authority that in any way directly bore on the point. The only English authorities that could be adduced related to arguments for and against the right not to be tapped that the plaintiff claimed for his telephone lines, but did not decide it…
…It is not for me, sitting at first instance, to resolve the variant shades of meaning in the dicta, and I do not attempt to do so. For the present, all that I say is that I take note of the Convention, as construed in the Klass case, and I shall give it due consideration in discussing English law on the point. As for the direct right which the Convention confers, it seems to me to be plain that this is a direct right in relation to the European Commission of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights, the bodies established by the Convention, but not in relation to the courts of this country. The Convention is plainly not of itself law in this country, however much it may fall to be considered as indicating what the law of this country should be, or should be construed as being…”
At this point, Justice Chandrachud intervened, stating that this situation would be interpreted differently in India and that the Directive Principles of State Policy would require some form of adherence with international instruments.
To this Mr. Sundaram responded stating that, regardless, this could not give way to a fundamental right to privacy.
Referring to the cases relied on, Justice Nariman stated that they were not relevant, as an ‘intermediate’ path would be relevant in India, similar to the NALSA judgment.
Mr. Sundaram read out excerpts from a few more cases from other jurisdiction and concluded his arguments.
The Additional Solicitor General, Mr. Tushar Mehta appearing for the State of Madhya Pradesh and the UIDAI commenced his arguments.
He remarked on the nature of privacy, stating that the Kharak Singh judgment was to be followed and that privacy could not be afforded the status of a fundamental right. He stated that term was vague and subjective, and that there was a consensus amongst scholars on this point. He also stated that the concept could differ from one person to another. The vague nature of privacy would make it difficult to ascertain what one must abide by to not intrude on another person’s right to privacy.
He also stated that there was a recognized right to privacy, and there was no point in denying its ‘sanctity’. However, this right could be statutorily protected and there was no need to elevate it. He stated that different forms of privacy could be protected under different legislations – like health, financial, etc.
Justice Bobde stated that problems would arise when a legislature denied the right to privacy, not when it was protected.
The Additional Solicitor General replied stating that it could still be protected as a common law right.
At this point, Justice Nariman asked about the consequences of the word ‘unwarranted’ under Section 8(1)(j) of the Right to Information Act, 2005, being considered too vague. He stated that it would not be enough to say that Section 8(1)(j) protects the right to privacy, since the point of debate would be Section 8(1)(j) itself. [Section 8 specifies that certain information is exempt from disclosure ((j) information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual…)].
Reiterating the point, Justice Bobde stated that in these instances, only a fundamental right to privacy could protect such rights.
The Additional Solicitor General reiterates the point that it could be protected as a common law right, and that Article 14 could declare it arbitrary if there was an invasion of a common law right.
To this, Justice Bobde responded stating that if the state invaded such a right, the invasion could only be tested if there was a fundamental right – it would have to be a fundamental right for a statutory provision voided under Article 14.
The Additional Solicitor General also stated that the mere possibility of a statute being revoked, could not be grounds for a fundamental right being instated.
Justice Chandrachud asked if a citizen would have a right to a remedy if the Aadhaar Act was revoked.
The Additional Solicitor General stated that they could approach the judiciary.
Justice Chandrachud disagreed, stating that those decisions would not be subject to judicial control, and that a statutory repeal would not have to meet the test of Article 14.
The Additional Solicitor General furthered his argument, by discussing whether the right to property could be subject to the same treatment.
He then discussed the ‘hazards’ of elevating the right to privacy to a fundamental rights status. He also stated that the Aadhaar scheme would afford maximum protection of privacy. He then went on to discuss the status of privacy as a right in other jurisdictions.
At this point, Justice Chandrachud asked if there would be a way to protect data, under a data protection law, if there was no fundamental right to privacy – as it could not be tested under Article 14. The Additional Solicitor General responded saying there would be no way to protect such data.
Justice Bobde asked about factors that would qualify a right to be a fundamental right. Justice Chandrachud stated that privacy relays to the core of a human’s existence. Justice Nariman stated that rather than strictly interpreting the Constitution, like a statute, the provisions should be interpreted to give way to the principles. For instance, not actually interpreting the word ‘liberty’ but the principle therein.
Justice Chandrachud referred to a situation where a statute allowed for a strip search and cavity search in a public place and how that would affect a person’s dignity. He stated that this may be a lawful exercise of power.
The Additional Solicitor General stated that the manner of exercising that law was in question, Justice Chandrachud disagreed.
The Additional Solicitor General moved on to discuss how the Aadhaar scheme upheld privacy and would not invade the right at all.
He then went on to discuss certain American judgments, to which Justice Nariman responded stating that the judgments relied on had been heavily criticized.
The Additional Solicitor General went on to read excerpts from cases, like United Stated vs. Graham, where the ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ was discussed.
He mentioned once again that only a citizen’s name and biometrics were essential, and other details like phone numbers were optional.
He then referred to Indian cases, A.K. Roy vs. Union of India and Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India. He stated that as per the Shreya Singhal judgment, Section 66A was struck down for being vague, suggesting that vague provisions could not be protected.
He also stated that rights under the garb of privacy could cross into hazardous territory.
He then discussed the case of Manoj Narula vs. Union of India, a 2014 Supreme Court case. He read out excerpts from the case:
…Dixon, J, in Australian National Airways Pty Ltd. v Commonwealth, said: ‘I do not see why we should be fearful about making implications’. The said principle has been approved in Lamshed v Lake, and thereafter, in Payroll Tax Case. Thus, the said principle can be taken aid of for the purpose of interpreting constitutional provision in an expansive manner. But, it has its own limitations. The interpretation has to have a base in the Constitution. The Court cannot re-write a constitutional provision. In this context, we may fruitfully refer to Kuldip Nayar’s case wherein the Court repelled the contention that a right to vote invariably carries an implied term, i.e., the right to vote in secrecy. The Court observed that where the Constitution thought it fit to do so, it has itself provided for elections by secret ballot e.g., in the case of election of the President of India and the Vice-President of India…
The Additional Solicitor General then stated that public interest would be seriously harmed, since nearly 98 percent of the population was covered by the Aadhaar scheme.
At this point, Justice Nariman stated that Aadhaar is not the matter being heard before the Bench and that a fundamental right to privacy which co-exists with the Aadhaar scheme can also be recognized.
The Additional Solicitor General discussed a few Aadhaar related cases, and then concluded.
Senior Advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, appearing for the state of Gujarat commenced his arguments.
Mr. Dwivedi stated that privacy would have different aspects and each one of these would have to be considered in their own contexts to determine whether there could be a reasonable expectation to these claims. He stated that the entirety of the context would have to be considered. He also mentioned a ‘threshold’ that would need to be crossed to get to Article 21.
He then stated that aspects of privacy would arise from a ‘legitimate expectation of privacy’, which would be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Justice Chandrachud made three points about determining privacy in certain contexts:
1) Privacy has to be considered in relation to the individual. We live in a society and interact, we share information and ideas, and any balancing act must take into consideration the corresponding socio-cultural context.
2) All information is a source of knowledge. Privacy cannot be conceptualised to be so far-fetched so as to stifle knowledge.
3) There is a need for innovation, for which the sharing of knowledge is also important.
Mr. Dwivedi accepted these points and went on to discuss the contours of the ‘legitimate expectation’ test, stating that if it was found that there was a legitimate expectation of privacy in a certain case, it could be traced to Article 21. He also stated that a fundamental right to privacy, under Article 21, cannot be considered.
He then discussed how personal information was being handed over voluntarily, often in the context of the Aadhaar scheme.
At this point, Justice Chandrachud asked about autonomy and to what extent it could be recognized.
Mr. Dwivedi responded stating that ‘decisional autonomy’ and the ‘right to choose’ were not aspects of the right to privacy, but would come directly under Article 21. The right to choose a way of life was not relevant to the right to privacy.
Referring to ‘decisional autonomy’ being covered under Article 21, Justice Nariman asked what role ‘legitimate expectation’ played in determining privacy.
Mr. Dwivedi mentioned that it would be covered if someone was being compelled to handover information.
Justice Nariman stated that every time information is handed over, there should be a reasonable expectation that it is only being used specific purposes.
To this Mr. Dwivedi replied stating that it would depend on the context.
Justice Nariman stated that if certain data was not made fully public and only handed over for a specific purpose, there should seemingly be a reasonable expectation that it would only be used for that purpose.
Justice Chandrachud stated that there must be an ‘overarching principle’ across the board, one that would guarantee that information was being used for its intended purpose.
The hearing will continue tomorrow (2/8).
Arpita Biswas is a Programme Officer at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi