1. Facts

In the year 2009, the Government of India introduced the Aadhaar Card scheme to the citizens of India. The Aadhaar card was introduced to provide a unique 12-digit identification number to the country’s citizens. Various data of individuals were collected under the Aadhaar card scheme including iris scans, face scans, biometrics, and personal information such as name, date of birth, address, etc. This unique identification number was created to serve as a universal identity proof for various government welfare schemes and to curb corruption. Justice Puttaswamy, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court, filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India challenging the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar card scheme which was handled by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Several petitions challenging different aspects of the Aadhaar card scheme were filed in the Supreme Court over time. The petitioner opinionated that the right to privacy is a fundamental right and the Aadhaar scheme is inconsistent with this fundamental right. The Attorney General of India argued against the existence of the fundamental right to privacy, these arguments were based on the decisions given in M.P. Sharma v. Satish Chandra (an eight-judge bench) and Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh (a six-judge bench). However, a future eleven-judge bench found that elementary rights weren’t to be construed as distinct, unrelated rights, thereby upholding their dissenting view in Kharak Singh. This also served as the foundation for later rulings by smaller benches of the Supreme Court that explicitly acknowledged the right to privacy (Maneka Gandhi case). Hence, in 2017, a Constitution bench deemed it appropriate for a nine-judge bench to resolve this issue.

  1. Issues raised
  • The issue before the court was whether the right to privacy should be considered a fundamental right under Part III of the Constitution even if the Constitution does not claim so.
  • If the right to privacy should be declared a fundamental right, then what is the constitutional validity of the judgments passed in previous cases where the Court refused to recognise the right to privacy as a fundamental right under Part III of the Constitution?
  1. Contention

Arguments by Petitioner

The petitioners argued for a multi-dimensional model of privacy. The petitioner argued that the right to privacy of an individual was an integral part of the right to life and personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. They contended that the gathering and keeping of an individual’s demographic, biometric, and other sensitive information violated their fundamental rights. One of the arguments presented by the petitioners was the mandatory requirement of Aadhaar for accessing various government welfare schemes such as subsidies, pension, mid-day meals, etc. They argued that forcing people to link their Aadhaar with various services such as bank account, mobile number, tax returns, etc. violated their freedom of choice.

Arguments by Respondent

The respondents mainly relied upon the judgments in the cases of M.P. Sharma as well as Kharak Singh which had observed that the Constitution did not specifically protect the right to privacy. The respondent argued that the Indian Constitution framers did not explicitly lay down the right to privacy, therefore, it does not exist. The respondents argued that the judgment in the M.P. Sharma case and Kharak Singh case, given by an eight-judge bench and six-judge bench respectively, should be binding over the judgments of smaller benches given simultaneously. The respondents defended the Aadhaar scheme as a necessary tool for enhancing the efficiency of welfare delivery mechanisms. They argued that Aadhar was instrumental in eliminating duplication and fraud in social welfare programs, thereby ensuring targeted delivery of benefits to intended beneficiaries.

  1. Rationale

On 24th August 2017, the Supreme Court of India gave its decision on the case.  The Supreme Court conducted a thorough examination of the Indian Constitution, specifically focusing on Article 21, which guarantees the right to life and personal liberty. The bench of nine judges overruled the judgments passed in the MP Sharma case and Kharak Singh case. The Court has interpreted that privacy is an independent fundamental right under Article 21. The Court stated that the right to privacy includes decisions, choices, and freedom covering both the body and mind, rather than being a narrow right against physical invasion or Article 21 rights. The judgment says-

“Life and personal liberty rights are inalienable rights. These are rights that 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…

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.”

 Privacy was held to be a right of Part III of the Constitution and enforceable. The Court explained how the laws will be applicable against the State if they violate the right to privacy of an individual. However, the court did not consider the right to privacy as an absolute right. It may be subject to certain restrictions in cases of national interest, sovereignty of India, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, incitement to an offence, or any other restrictions mentioned in Article 19 of the Constitution. In this case, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud laid down a test of proportionality that shows exceptions to the right to privacy. The exceptions are as follows:

  • The invasion of privacy must be legally permitted. Such a law must be fair and reasonable.
  • The invasion must be restricted to necessity. Invasion of people’s privacy more than necessary is not permissible.
  • There must be a rational nexus (connection) between the means chosen and the objective to be achieved.

The Court stated how the sexual orientation of an individual is a significant aspect of the right to privacy. On the concerns of misuse of data and data protection, the Court stated that-

“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 like protecting national security, preventing and investigating crime, encouraging innovation and the spread of knowledge, and preventing the dissipation of social welfare benefits .”

  1. Defects of Law

In the right to privacy case, there were not any defects in the law as the Court announced a landmark judgment and recognised the crucial right to privacy. However, the judgment did not provide a detailed description of the scope or limitations of the right to privacy. Even though privacy was recognised as a fundamental right, there still is a need for a precise regulatory framework regarding the invasion of privacy. Without proper rules & regulations, individuals might face difficulties in achieving justice in case of infringement of their right to privacy by the State or private individuals. The Supreme Court requested that the Union Government establish a strong framework to prevent leakage of data, but it hasn’t been put into action yet. It proves that no matter how many judgments are passed by the Supreme Court, a change occurs only when the executive body obeys the Court’s decisions. 

  1. Inference

It is a must for the Constitution to evolve to adapt to the challenges and uncertainties of the present and the future. The decision by the nine-judge bench in the right to privacy case is considered to be a landmark judgment. The Court declared the intrinsic value of privacy in protecting an individual’s integrity and dignity. The Court overruled the judgments passed in M.P. Sharma and Kharak Singh. Aadhaar card was not made mandatory for school admissions, however, linking an Aadhaar card with a PAN card was declared mandatory. The Hon’ble bench also declared that having an Aadhar card is mandatory and citizens will not have any choice regarding this. To avail of various government schemes, possessing an Aadhaar card is a must. In this case, the significance of privacy was recognised but at the same time, the Hon’ble Bench did not uphold the Aadhar Act as the Aadhar scheme was introduced for the betterment and welfare of the citizens of India. This Judgment of the Hon’ble bench paved the way for many other significant claims over time such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India and declaring section 497 constitutionally invalid in Joseph Shine v. Union of India. The Indian Judiciary system has acted like a true custodian by recognising privacy as a fundamental right and guiding the Union Government to establish data protection laws.