FACTS OF THE CASE
- This case was initiated through a petition by Justice K.S. Puttaswamy, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court, concerning the Aadhaar Project led by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).
- Aadhaar numbers were 12-digit identification issued to Indian residents, linked to welfare schemes for streamlined service delivery and fraud prevention. Justice Puttaswamy’s petition challenged the Aadhaar card scheme’s constitutional validity, and additional petitions addressing various aspects of Aadhaar were referred to the Supreme Court.
- In 2015, a three Judge Bench questioned the government’s collection of demographic biometric data, citing potential privacy rights violations. The Attorney General of India argued against the fundamental right to privacy, relying on M.P. Sharma and Kharak Singh judgments.
- However, the three Judge Bench acknowledged subsequent Supreme Court decisions affirming privacy as a constitutionally protected right, rendered by benches of smaller strength than those in M.P. Sharma and Kharak Singh. Consequently, a Constitution Bench was appointed to assess these precedents’ validity and correctness. On 18 July 2017, it was decided that a nine-judge bench would resolve the issue.
- Does the “Right to Privacy” possess a legally entrenched status as a guaranteed right within the constitutional framework?
- Should such a legally guaranteed right be construed as a distinct, self-contained fundamental right or would its recognition emanate from the protective ambit of existing rights, such as the right to life and personal liberty?
- Does the pronouncement of the Supreme Court in P. Sharma & Ors. v. Satish Chandra, & Ors. and Kharak Singh v. The State of U.P., which contends the absence of such foundational rights, accurately reflect the constitutional stance on this matter?
The Controlling Rule of Law: Its Implications & Safeguards
The controlling rule of law in the Aadhaar case is that the right to privacy is a fundamental right under the Constitution of India. This determines the legal meaning to be attributed to the facts in two ways. Firstly, it means that the government cannot collect or use biometric data without a legitimate purpose and without adequate safeguards to protect the privacy of individuals. Secondly, it means that individuals have the right to refuse to provide their biometric data to the government, even if doing so would mean that they would be denied access to essential services.
Foundational Bedrock: The Indissoluble Link between Privacy and Constitutional Rights
In the Aadhaar case, the foundational bedrock for its controlling rule of law draws from several critical constitutional provisions, notably Article 14, Article 19, and Article 21. Under the purview of Article 14, the right to equality, the court upholds that the government is barred from discriminatory practices based on an individual’s personal data. Concurrently, Article 19, encompassing the right to freedom of speech and expression, secures the unencumbered articulation of one’s thoughts, free from the spectre of government surveillance. Likewise, Article 21, enshrining the right to life and personal liberty, safeguards individuals’ sovereignty over their private information.
Significantly, the Court’s discernment proclaims the indissoluble link between the right to privacy and the aforementioned constitutional rights. This acknowledgment resonates across each aspect. Thus, equality mandates impartiality in personal data handling, freedom of speech necessitates protection from intrusive monitoring, and personal liberty requires self-determination over private information.
Transforming Data Collection Landscape & Paving the Way for Privacy
This landmark ruling in the Aadhaar case marks a profound milestone in Indian jurisprudence, recognizing privacy as an intrinsic fundamental right. It empowers individuals with enhanced control over their personal data, profoundly shaping the landscape of data collection and utilization by the government in India. The ruling’s far-reaching ramifications are poised to instigate a profound and lasting transformation in the realms of privacy and data protection within the nation’s legal framework.
Evolution & Recognition of the ‘Right to Privacy’
The concept of the “Right to Privacy” under Article 21 of India’s constitution has evolved significantly over the years. The Allahabad High Court’s ruling in B. Nihal Chand v. Bhawan Dei during the pre-independence era first recognized the “Right to Privacy” as an inherent birthright of every human being. Subsequently, in Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, the contours of this right were defined, with the court striking down laws that allowed domiciliary visits, asserting the significance of an individual’s right to privacy as enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. In the landmark case of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) & Anr v. Union of India & Ors, the Supreme Court aptly highlighted that the omission of the “Right to Privacy” as a constitutional right would undermine an individual’s right to liberty under Article 21, a consequence never intended by the framers of the constitution.
Binding Nature of the Judgement
To comprehend the significance of the judgment, it is crucial to understand the binding nature of opinions in such cases. Only opinions agreed upon and signed by more than half of the judges on the bench are considered binding on future cases and lower courts. In this particular case, a nine-judge bench, comprising J. Chandrachud, J. Kehar, J. Agrawal, J. Nazeer, J. Nariman, J. Kaul, J. Bobde, J. Sapre, and J. Chelameswar, delivered their opinions. While a plurality opinion was put forth by J. Chandrachud and agreed upon by J. Kehar, J. Agrawal, and J. Nazeer, the other five judges expressed concurring opinions. As the required minimum of five judges did not sign any single opinion, neither the plurality opinion nor the other concurring opinions hold binding status.
However, it is important to note that all nine judges did sign a single binding order, collectively ruling that the judgments in the cases of M.P. Sharma (1954) and Kharak Singh (1962), which held the Right to Privacy unprotected by the Indian constitution, stand overruled. The court firmly established that Article 21 safeguards the Right to Privacy as an integral part of the right to life and personal liberty, and further reinforces the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Indian Constitution. This landmark judgment effectively rectified previous interpretations, firmly establishing the Right to Privacy as a fundamental and protected right under the Indian Constitution.
Privacy as an Integral Facet of Dignity
The plurality opinion penned by Justice Chandrachud in the landmark Indian Supreme Court ruling on the “Right to Privacy” underscores the integral role of privacy as an essential facet of an individual’s dignity, emphasizing that it should not be an alienated right but rather a fundamental freedom guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution. Justice Chandrachud also highlights the pressing need to address the implications of privacy in the digital era, particularly concerning data protection laws. The opinion further delves into the dual nature of privacy, with positive elements safeguarding individuals from unwarranted government intrusion without consent, and negative elements necessitating a legal framework to protect individuals from privacy violations by others.
Expounding the dimensions of the ‘Right to Privacy’
Justices Chelameswar and Nariman expound upon the three main elements that define the “Right to Privacy“: the notions of “repose,” “sanctuary,” and “intimate decision.” Moreover, they categorize the right into three distinct dimensions, encompassing protection from state intrusion into an individual’s physical body, safeguarding against unauthorized use of personal information (information privacy), and preserving individual autonomy over fundamental personal choices (privacy of choice).
Emphasis on Non-State Actors & the Role of Preamble
In contrast, Justice Kaul underscores the significance of not only keeping personal data away from the state but also from non-state actors due to concerns surrounding digitalization, surveillance, and the pervasive influence of technology in generating vast amounts of data. Additionally, Justice Sapre emphasizes the importance of the Preamble and its principles of liberty, dignity, and fraternity, stressing that the “Right to Privacy” may be justifiably limited by the government in the interest of social, religious, and compelling public benefit, provided it remains within the boundaries of the statute.
Nuanced Approach on Proposals for Privacy Tests and Proportionality Measures
Justice Chelameswar proposes a set of tests applicable to various situations, including cases concerning fundamental rights and privacy violations, while Justice Nariman suggests a case-by-case approach, considering the combination of rights involved in each specific instance. Justice Kaul introduces the “proportionality” measure, consisting of legality, legitimate target, and proportionality of legitimate goals to the objective desired, while also adding procedural protections against rights interference, in line with the European standards.
In conclusion, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision establishes that privacy is not an inherent privilege, but the determination of privacy violations necessitates a nuanced and complex analysis. While the contours of the proportionality test will be shaped by future decisions, it is evident that privacy issues will be examined under existing statutory or court-developed requirements, adhering to the “just, equitable, and rational” criterion. This ruling marks a pivotal step in defining and safeguarding the intrinsic value of privacy within the framework of Indian constitutional rights.
The case represents a pivotal advancement in the realm of freedom of expression, as it attributes autonomous enforceability to privacy, transcending its previous dependent status on constitutionally safeguarded freedoms. This transformative recognition affords protection to freedom of expression, encompassing rights that shield individuals from unwarranted state surveillance, uphold the right to express one’s sexual orientation and religious beliefs, and safeguard personal data. The ruling emanates from a historic nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court, thereby establishing a binding precedent for all courts, unless superseded by a larger bench. Its broader significance lies in its pivotal role in elevating the right to privacy to the core of constitutional deliberations within the world’s largest democracy, serving as a potential source of guidance and inspiration for privacy advocates across the globe.
 B. Nihal Chand & Anr. vs Mt. Bhagwan Dei AIR 1935 ALL 1002.
 Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 14.
 Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 19.
 Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 21.
 M.P. Sharma and Others v. Satish Chandra and Others (1954) SCR 1077.
 Kharak Singh v. The State of Uttar Pradesh (1964) SCR (1) 332.