It is thus interesting to see the resounding judgment by India's Supreme Court in Justice K S Puttaswamy (Read) and Anor versus Union of India and Ors Writ Petition (Civil) No 494 of 2012, which articulates a strong right to privacy under that nation's constitution.
The judgment is at odds with the union (ie national) government's enthusiasm for the Aadhaar national identity registration regime as a solution to a wide range of perceived ills and with disregard at both the national and state levels of respect for sexual diversity.
The Supreme Court in its 547 page judgment [PDF] states that
i) the decision in M P Sharma which holds that the right to privacy is not protected by the Constitution stands over-ruled;
ii) The decision in Kharak Singh to the extent that it holds that the right to privacy is not protected by the Constitution stands over-ruled;
iii) The right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution.
iv) Decisions subsequent to Kharak Singh which have enunciated the position in (iii) above lay down the correct position in law.Basis
The Court begins by stating
Nine judges of this Court assembled to determine whether privacy is a constitutionally protected value. The issue reaches out to the foundation of a constitutional culture based on the protection of human rights and enables this Court to revisit the basic principles on which our Constitution has been founded and their consequences for a way of life it seeks to protect. This case presents challenges for constitutional interpretation. If privacy is to be construed as a protected constitutional value, it would redefine in significant ways our concepts of liberty and the entitlements that flow out of its protection.
Privacy, in its simplest sense, allows each human being to be left alone in a core which is inviolable. Yet the autonomy of the individual is co nditioned by her relationships with the rest of society. Those relationships may and do often pose questions to autonomy and free choice. The overarching presence of state and non-state entities regulates aspects of social existence which bear upon the freedom of the individual. The preservation of constitutional liberty is, so to speak, work in progress. Challenges have to be addressed to existing problems. Equally, new challenges have to be dealt with in terms of a constitutional understanding of where liberty places an individual in the context of a social order. The emergence of new challenges is exemplified by this case, where the debate on privacy is being analysed in the context of a global information based society. In an age where information techn ology governs virtually every aspect of our lives, the task before the Court is to impart constitutional meaning to individual liberty in an interconnected world. While we revisit the question whether our constitution protects privacy as an elemental principle, the Court has to be sensitive to the needs of and the opportunities and dangers posed to liberty in a digital world.
A Bench of three judges of this Court, while considering the constitutional challenge to the Aadhaar card scheme of the Union government noted in its order dated 11 August 2015 that the norms for and compilation of demographic biometric data by government was questioned on the ground that it violates the right to privacy. The Attorney General for India urged that the existence of a fundamental right of privacy is in doubt in view of two decisions : the first – M P Sharma v Satish Chandra, District Magistrate, Delhi (“M P Sharma”) was rendered by a Bench of eight judges and the second, in Kharak Singh v State of Uttar Pradesh (“Kharak Singh”) was rendered by a Bench of six judges. Each of these decisions, in the submission of the Attorney General, contained observations that the Indian Constitution does not specifically protect the right to privacy. On the other hand, the submission of the petitioners was that M P Sharma and Kharak Singh were founded on principles expounded in A K Gopalan v State of Madras (“Gopalan”) . Gopalan, which construed each provision contained in the Chapter on fundamental rights as embodying a distinct p rotection, was held not to be good law by an eleven - judge Bench in Rustom Cavasji Cooper v Union of India (“Cooper”). Hence the petitioners submitted that the basis of the two earlier decisions is not valid. Moreover, it was also urged that in the seven-judge Bench decision in Maneka Gandhi v Union of India (“Maneka”), the minority judgment of Justice Subba Rao in Kharak Singh was specifically approved of and the decision of the majority was overruled.
While addressing these challenges, the Bench of three judges of this Court took note of several decisions of this Court in which the right to privacy has been held to be a constitutionally protected fundamental right. Those decisions include : Gobind v State of Madhya Pradesh (“Gobind”), R Rajagopal v State of Tamil Nadu (“Rajagopal”) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties v Union of India (“PUCL”). These subsequent decisions which affirmed the existence of a constitutionally protected right of privacy, were rendered by Benches of a strength smaller than those in M P Sharma and Kharak Singh. Faced with this predicament and having due regard to the far-reaching questions of importance involving interpretation of the Constitution, it was felt that institutional integrity and judicial discipline would require a reference to a larger Bench. Hence the Bench of three learned judges observed in its order dated 11 August 2015:
“12. We are of the opinion that the cases on hand raise far reaching questions of importance involving interpretation of the Constitution.
What is at stake is the amplitude of the fundamental rights including that precious and inalienable right under Article 21. If the observations made in M.P. Sharma (supra) and Kharak Singh (supra) are to be read literally and accepted as the law of this country, the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India and more particularly right to liberty under Article 21 would be denuded of vigour and vitality. At the same time, we are also of the opinion that the institutional integrity and judicial discipline require that pronouncement made by larger Benches of this Court cannot be ignored by the smaller Benches without appropriately explaining the reasons for not following the pronouncements made by such larger Benches. With due respect to all the learned Judges who rendered the subsequent judgments - where right to privacy is asserted or referred to their Lordships concern for the liberty of human beings, we are of the humble opinion that there appears to be certain amount of apparent unresolved contradiction in the law declared by this Court.
Therefore, in our opinion to give a quietus to the kind of controversy raised in this batch of cases once for all, it is better that the ratio decidendi of M.P. Sharma (supra) and Kharak Singh (supra) is scrutinized and the jurisprudential correctness of the subsequent decisions of this Court where the right to privacy is either asserted or referred be examined and authoritatively decided by a Bench of appropriate strength.”
On 18 July 2017, a Constitution Bench presided over by the learned Chief Justice considered it appropriate that the issue be resolved by a Bench of nine judges. The order of the Constitution Bench reads thus:
During the course of the hearing today, it seems that it has become essential for us to determine whether there is any fundamental right of privacy under the Indian Constitution. The determination of this question would essentially entail whether the decision recorded by this Court in M.P. Sharma and Ors. vs. Satish Chandra, District Magistrate, Delhi and Ors. 1950 SCR 1077 by an eight - Judge Constitution Bench, and also, in Kharak Singh vs. The State of U.P. and Ors. 1962 (1) SCR 332 by a six-Judge Constitution Bench, that there is no such fundamental right, is the correct expression of the constitutional position. ...
... While some state governments have supported the stand of the Union government, others have supported the petitioners.
The correctness of the decisions in M P Sharma and Kharak Singh, is to be evaluated during the course of the reference. Besides, the jurisprudential correctness of subsequent decisions holding the right to privacy to be a constitutionally protected right is to be determined. The basic question whether privacy is a right protected under our Constitution requires an understanding of what privacy means. For it is when we understand what interests or entitlements privacy safeguards, that we can determine whether the Constitution protects privacy. The contents of privacy need to be analysed, not by providing an exhaustive enunciation or catalogue of what it includes but by indicating its broad contours. The Court has been addressed on various aspects of privacy including :
(i) Whether there is a constitutionally protected right to privacy;
(ii) If there is a constitutionally protected right, whether this has the character of an independent fundamental right or whether it arises from within the existing guarantees of protected rights such as life and personal liberty;
(iii) the doctrinal foundations of the claim to privacy;
(iv) the content of privacy; and
Privacy for all(v) the nature of the regulatory power of the state
At page 216 the Court comments
The Attorney General argued before us that the right to privacy must be forsaken in the interest of welfare entitlements provided by the State. In our view, the submission that the right to privacy is an elitist construct which stands apart from the needs and aspirations of the large majority constituting the rest of society, is unsustainable. This submission betrays a misunderstanding of the constitutional position. Our Constitution places the individual at the forefront of its focus, guaranteeing civil and political rights in Part III and embodying an aspiration for achieving socio-economic rights in Part IV. The refrain that the poor need no civil and political rights and are concerned only with economic well-being has been utilised though history to wreak the most egregious violations of human rights. Above all, it must be realised that it is the right to question, the right to scrutinize and the right to dissent which enables an informed citizenry to scrutinize the actions of government. Those who are governed are entitled to question those who govern, about the discharge of their constitutional duties including in the provision of socio-economic welfare benefits. The power to scrutinize and to reason enables the citizens of a democratic polity to make informed decisions on basic issues which govern their rights. The theory that civil and political rights are subservient to socio-economic rights has been urged in the past and has been categorically rejected in the course of constitutional adjudication by this Court.
Civil and political rights and socio-economic rights do not exist in a state of antagonism. The conditions necessary for realising or fulfilling socio-economic rights do not postulate the subversion of political freedom. The reason for this is simple. Socio-economic entitlements must yield true benefits to those for whom they are intended. This can be achieved by eliminating rent-seeking behaviour and by preventing the capture of social welfare benefits by persons who are not entitled to them. Capture of social welfare benefits can be obviated only when political systems are transparent and when there is a free flow of information. Opacity enures to the benefit of those who monopolize scarce economic resources. On the other hand, conditions where civil and political freedoms flourish ensure that governmental policies are subjected to critique and assessment. It is this scrutiny which sub-serves the purpose of ensuring that socio-economic benefits actually permeate to the under-privileged for whom they are meant. Conditions of freedom and a vibrant assertion of civil and political rights promote a constant review of the justness of socio-economic programmes and of their effectiveness in addressing deprivation and want. Scrutiny of public affairs is founded upon the existence of freedom. Hence civil and political rights and socio-economic rights are complementary and not mutually exclusive. ...
We need also emphasise the lack of substance in the submission that privacy is a privilege for the few. Every individual in society irrespective of social class or economic status is entitled to the intimacy and autonomy which privacy protects. It is privacy as an intrinsic and core feature of life and personal liberty which enables an individual to stand up against a programme of forced sterilization. Then again, it is privacy which is a powerful guarantee if the State were to introduce compulsory drug trials of non-consenting men or women. The sanctity of marriage, the liberty of procreation, the choice of a family life and the dignity of being are matters which concern every individual irrespective of social strata or economic well being. The pursuit of happiness is founded upon autonomy and dignity. Both are essential attributes of privacy which makes no distinction between the birth marks of individuals.As part of its conclusion the Court states
The judgment in M P Sharma holds essentially that in the absence of a provision similar to the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, the right to privacy cannot be read into the provisions of Article 20 (3) of the Indian Constitution. The judgment does not specifically adjudicate on whether a right to privacy would arise from any of the other provisions of the rights guaranteed by Part III including Article 21 and Article 19. The observation that privacy is not a right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution is not reflective of the correct position. M P Sharma is overruled to the extent to which it indicates to the contrary.
2 Kharak Singh has correctly held that the content of the expression ‘life’ under Article 21 means not merely the right to a person’s “animal existence” and that the expression ‘personal liberty’ is a guarantee against invasion into the sanctity of a person’s home or an intrusion into person al security. Kharak Singh also correctly laid down that the dignity of the individual must lend content to the meaning of ‘personal liberty’. The first part of the decision in Kharak Singh which invalidated domiciliary visits at night on the ground that they violated ordered liberty is an implicit recognition of the right to privacy. The second part of the decision, however, which holds that the right to privacy is not a guaranteed right under our Constitution, is not reflective of the correct position. Similarly, Kharak Singh’s reliance upon the decision of the majority in Gopalan is not reflective of the correct position in view of the decisions in Cooper and in Maneka. Kharak Singh to the extent that it holds that the right to privacy is not protected under the Indian Constitution is overruled.A basis for flourishing
The Court comments
3 (A) Life and personal liberty are inalienable rights. These are rights which are inseparable from a dignified human existence. The dignity of the individual, equality between human beings and the quest for liberty are the foundational pillars of the Indian Constitution;
(B) Life and personal liberty are not creations of the Constitution. These rights are recognised by the Constitution as inhering in each individual as an intrinsic and inseparable part of the human element which dwells within;
(C) Privacy is a constitutionally protected right which emerges primarily from the guarantee of life and personal liberty in Article 21 of the Constitution. Elements of privacy also arise in varying contexts from the other facets of freedom and dignity recognised and guaranteed by the fundamental rights contained in Part III;
(D) Judicial recognition of the existence of a constitutional right of privacy is not an exercise in the nature of amending the Constitution nor is the Court embarking on a constitutional function of that nature which is entrusted to Parliament;
(E) Privacy is the constitutional core of human dignity. Privacy has both a normative and descriptive function. At a normative level privacy sub - serves those e ernal values upon which the guarantees of life, liberty and freedom are founded. At a descriptive level, privacy postulates a bundle of entitlements and interests which lie at the foundation of ordered liberty;
(F) Privacy includes at its core the preservation of personal intimacies, the sanctity of family life, marriage, procreation, the home and sexual orientation. Privacy also connotes a right to be left alone. Privacy safeguards individual autonomy and recognises the ability of the individual to control vital aspects of his or her life. Personal choices governing a way of life are intrinsic to privacy. Privacy protects heterogeneity and recognises the plurality and diversity of our culture. While the legitimate expectation of privacy may vary from the int imate zone to the private zone and from the private to the public arenas, it is important to underscore that privacy is not lost or surrendered merely because the individual is in a public place. Privacy attaches to the person since it is an essential facet of the dignity of the human being;
(G) This Court has not embarked upon an exhaustive enumeration or a catalogue of entitlements or interests comprised in the right to privacy. The Constitution must evolve with the felt necessities of time to meet the challenges thrown up in a democratic order governed by the rule of law. The meaning of the Constitution cannot be frozen on the perspectives present when it was adopted. Technological change has given rise to concerns which were not present seven decades ago and the rapid growth of technology may render obsolescent many notions of the present. Hence the interpretation of the Constitution must be resilient and flexible to allow future generations to adapt its content bearing in mind its basic or essential features;
(H) Like other rights which form part of the fundamental freedoms protected by Part III, including the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21, privacy is not an absolute right. A law which encroaches upon privacy will have to withstand the touchstone of permissible restrictions on fundamental rights. In the context of Article 21 an invasion of privacy must be justified on the basis of a law which stipulates a procedure which is fair, just and reasonable. The law must also be valid with refer ence to the encroachment on life and personal liberty under Article 21. An invasion of life or personal liberty must meet the three-fold requirement of (i) legality, which postulates the existence of law; (ii) need, defined in terms of a legitimate state aim; and (iii) proportionality which ensures a rational nexus between the objects and the means adopted to achieve them; and
(I) Privacy has both positive and negative content. The negative content restrains the state from committing an intrusion upon the life and personal liberty of a citizen. Its positive content imposes an obligation on the state to take all necessary measures to protect the privacy of the individual.
Decisions rendered by this Court subsequent to Kharak Singh, upholding the right to privacy would be read subject to the above principles.
Informational privacy is a facet of the right to privacy. The dangers to privacy in an age of information can originate not only from the state but from non-state actors as well. We commend to the Union Government the need to examine and put into place a robust regime for data protection. The creation of such a regime requires a careful and sensitive balance between individual interests and legitimate concerns of the state. The legitimate aims of the state would include for instance protecting national security, preventing and investigating crime, encouraging innovation and the spread of knowledge, and preventing the dissipation of social welfare benefits. These are matters of policy to be considered by the Union government while designing a carefully structured regime for the protection of the data. Since the Union government has informed the Court that it has constituted a Committee chaired by Hon’ble Shri Justice B N Srikrishna, former Judge of this Court, for that purpose, the matter shall be dealt with appropriately by the Union government having due regard to what has been set out in this judgment