Centre for Internet & Society

It seems to have become quite a fad, especially amongst journalists, to use this headline and claim that the right to privacy which we consider so inherent to our being, is under attack. However, when I use this heading in this piece I am not referring to the rampant illegal surveillance being done by the government, or the widely reported recent raids on consenting (unmarried) adults who were staying in hotel rooms in Mumbai. I am talking about the fact that the Supreme Court of India has deemed it fit to refer the question of the very existence of a fundamental right to privacy to a Constitution Bench to finally decide the matter, and define the contours of such right if it does exist.

In an order dated August 11, 2015 the Supreme Court finally gave in to the arguments advanced by the Attorney General and admitted that there is some “unresolved contradiction” regarding the existence of a constitutional “right to privacy” under the Indian Constitution and requested that a Constitutional Bench of appropriate strength.

The Supreme Court was hearing a petition challenging the implementation of the Adhaar Card Scheme of the government, where one of the grounds to challenge the scheme was that it was violative of the right to privacy guaranteed to all citizens under the Constitution of India. However to counter this argument, the State (via the Attorney General) challenged the very concept that the Constitution of India guarantees a right to privacy by relying on an “unresolved contradiction” in judicial pronouncements on the issue, which so far had only been of academic interest. This “unresolved contradiction” arose because in the cases of M.P. Sharma & Others v. Satish Chandra & Others,[1] and Kharak Singh v. State of U.P. & Others,[2] (decided by Eight and Six Judges respectively) the Supreme Court has categorically denied the existence of a right to privacy under the Indian Constitution.

However somehow the later case of Gobind v. State of M.P. and another,[3] (which was decided by a two Judge Bench of the Supreme Court) relied upon the opinion given by the minority of two judges in Kharak Singh to hold that a right to privacy does exist and is guaranteed as a fundamental right under the Constitution of India.[4] Thereafter a large number of cases have held the right to privacy to be a fundamental right, the most important of which are R. Rajagopal & Another v. State of Tamil Nadu & Others,[5] (popularly known as Auto Shanker’s case) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) v. Union of India & Another.[6] However, as was noticed by the Supreme Court in its August 11 order, all these judgments were decided by two or three Judges only.

The petitioners on the other hand made a number of arguments to counter those made by the Attorney General to the effect that the fundamental right to privacy is well established under Indian law and that there is no need to refer the matter to a Constitutional Bench. These arguments are:

(i) The observations made in M.P. Sharma regarding the absence of right to privacy are not part of the ratio decidendi of that case and, therefore, do not bind the subsequent smaller Benches such as R. Rajagopal and PUCL.

(ii) Even in Kharak Singh it was held that the right of a person not to be disturbed at his residence by the State is recognized to be a part of a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21. It was argued that this is nothing but an aspect of privacy. The observation in para 20 of the majority judgment (quoted in footnote 2 above) at best can be construed only to mean that there is no fundamental right of privacy against the State’s authority to keep surveillance on the activities of a person. However, they argued that such a conclusion cannot be good law any more in view of the express declaration made by a seven-Judge bench decision of this Court in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India & Another.[7]

(iii) Both M.P. Sharma (supra) and Kharak Singh (supra) were decided on an interpretation of the Constitution based on the principles expounded in A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras,[8] which have themselves been declared wrong by a larger Bench in Rustom Cavasjee Cooper v. Union of India.[9]

Other than the points above, it was also argued that world over in all the countries where Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence is followed, ‘privacy’ is recognized as an important aspect of the liberty of human beings. The petitioners also submitted that it was too late in the day for the Union of India to argue that the Constitution of India does not recognize privacy as an aspect of the liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

However these arguments of the petitioners were not enough to convince the Supreme Court that there is no doubt regarding the existence and contours of the right to privacy in India. The Court, swayed by the arguments presented by the Attorney General, admitted that questions of far reaching importance for the Constitution were at issue and needed to be decided by a Constitutional Bench.

Giving some insight into its reasoning to refer this issue to a Constitutional Bench, the Court did seem to suggest that its decision to refer the matter to a larger bench was more an exercise in judicial propriety than an action driven by some genuine contradiction in the law. The Court said that if the observations in M.P. Sharma (supra) and Kharak Singh (supra) were accepted as the law of the land, the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India would get “denuded of vigour and vitality”. However the Court felt that institutional integrity and judicial discipline require that smaller benches of the Court follow the decisions of larger benches, unless they have very good reasons for not doing so, and since in this case it appears that the same was not done therefore the Court referred the matter to a larger bench to scrutinize the ratio of M.P. Sharma (supra) and Kharak Singh (supra) and decide the judicial correctness of subsequent two judge and three judge bench decisions which have asserted or referred to the right to privacy.

[1] AIR 1954 SC 300. In para 18 of the Judgment it was held: “A power of search and seizure is in any system of jurisprudence an overriding power of the State for the protection of social security and that power is necessarily regulated by law. When the Constitution makers have thought fit not to subject such regulation to constitutional limitations by recognition of a fundamental right to privacy, analogous to the American Fourth Amendment, we have no justification to import it, into a totally different fundamental right, by some process of strained construction.”

[2] AIR 1963 SC 1295. In para 20 of the judgment it was held: “Nor do we consider that Art. 21 has any relevance in the context as was sought to be suggested by learned counsel for the petitioner. As already pointed out, the right of privacy is not a guaranteed right under our Constitutionand therefore the attempt to ascertain the movement of an individual which is merely a manner in which privacy is invaded is not an infringement of a fundamental right guaranteed by Part III.”

[3] (1975) 2 SCC 148.

[4] It is interesting to note that while the decisions in both Kharak Singh and Gobind were given in the context of similar facts (challenging the power of the police to make frequent domiciliary visits both during the day and night at the house of the petitioner) while the majority in Kharak Singh specifically denied the existence of a fundamental right to privacy, however they held the conduct of the police to be violative of the right to personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21, since the Regulations under which the police actions were undertaken were themselves held invalid. On the other hand, while Gobind held that a fundamental right to privacy does exist in Indian law, it may be interfered with by the State through procedure established by law and therefore upheld the actions of the police since they were acting under validly issued Regulations.

[5] (1994) 6 SCC 632.

[6] (1997) 1 SCC 301.

[7] (1978) 1 SCC 248.

[8] AIR 1950 SC 27.

[9] (1970) 1 SCC 248.

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