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Privacy a fundamental right: SC ruling to impact Aadhaar, beef ban, gay rights

In a unanimous ruling, the nine-judge bench said the right to privacy was inherent in the right to life, liberty and speech, but not without “reasonable restrictions” when it came to national security, fighting crime and distribution of state benefits.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2017 08:16 IST
Bhadra Sinha
Bhadra Sinha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Privacy,Fundamental right,Supreme Court
Television journalists parked outside the premises of the Supreme Court in New Delhi, on August 22, 2017. The court made a watershed ruling on Thursday when it upheld right to privacy as a fundamental right.(Reuters Photo)

Individual privacy is a fundamental right, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, a watershed verdict that will test the validity of a controversial biometric identification project as well as other draconian restrictions over eating beef and gay sex.

In a unanimous ruling, the nine-judge bench said the right to privacy was inherent in the right to life, liberty and speech, but not without “reasonable restrictions” when it came to national security, fighting crime and distribution of state benefits.

“The right to privacy is inextricably bound up with all exercises of human liberty,” justice SA Bobde said in his personal conclusion that is part of the unanimous judgment.

Thursday’s judgment becomes the touchstone for the validity of Aadhaar, a 12-digit biometric identification card the government is pushing for use in everything from operating bank accounts and buying property to tax declarations. Critics have opposed the move as an intrusive tool open to misuse by the government, which has already collected finger prints, iris scans and personal details of more than 80% of the country’s 1.25 billion people.

A separate three-judge bench is already hearing a challenge to Aadhaar that the government says is necessary to plug leakages in its subsidy programmes and prevent corruption.

Thursday’s verdict also has a bearing on broader civil rights as well as a law criminalising homosexuality. A ban imposed on the consumption of beef in many states and alcohol in some could also come up for review.

“I do not think that anybody would like to be told by the State as to what they should eat or how they should dress or whom they should be associated with either in their personal, social or political life,” said justice J Chelameswar in his personal conclusion.

The hearing took an unusual turn when justice DY Chandrachud, one of the nine judges, overruled a 1976 order co-authored by his father, late justice YV Chandrachud, that upheld the suspension of fundamental rights by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during Emergency.

“The judgments rendered by all the four judges… are seriously flawed,” he noted. “Life and personal liberty are inalienable to human rights. No civilised state can contemplate encroachment on life and personal liberty.”

In upholding privacy as a fundamental right, the top court overruled earlier judgements in 1954 and 1962 that said the right to privacy was not part of the Constitution. The judges cited instances of privacy and personal freedom from Ramayana and Quran to the Bible.

All hail privacy

Thursday’s verdict was welcomed by both the government and opposition parties with each saying its stand had been vindicated.

Calling the verdict a “positive development”, finance minister Arun Jaitley said the matter went to court because Aadhaar was brought by the previous Congress-led UPA government without a law, so there were no safeguards.

“I am sure the Aadhaar act has fair, just and reasonable restrictions that further the objective of social welfare,” he said.

The Congress said the ruling heralded a new era for personal freedom and human dignity.

“It strikes a blow on the unbridled encroachment and surveillance by the state and its agencies in the life of the common man,” party president Sonia Gandhi said.

Civil liberties activists also hailed the decision as an important milestone in shaping how citizens are treated in the world’s largest democracy whose constitution has been largely silent on protecting individual privacy.

“It is a historic and watershed moment in the fight for the deprived sections,” said Reetika Khera, development economist at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and anti-Aadhaar activist.

“Our next fight is to ensure that the court strikes down unconstitutional Aadhaar law”.

Thursday’s verdict comes two days after the court in a landmark judgment struck down the Islamic divorce practice of instant triple talaq as unconstitutional.

First Published: Aug 24, 2017 23:03 IST