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This week, a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court will adjudicate on limited questions of stay orders in the Aadhaar case. After numerous attempts by the petitioners in the Aadhaar case, the court has agreed to hear this matter, just shy of the looming deadline of December 31 for the linking of Aadhaar numbers to avail government services and benefits.

The article was published in Deccan Herald on December 9, 2017.

Getting their day in the court to hear interim matters is but a small victory in what has been a long and frustrating fight for the petitioners. In 2012, Justice K S Puttaswamy, a former Karnataka High Court judge, filed a petition before the Supreme Court questioning the validity of the Aadhaar project due its lack of legislative basis (the Aadhaar Act was passed by Parliament in 2016) and its transgressions on our fundamental rights.

Over time, a number of other petitions also made their way to the apex court challenging different aspects of the Aadhaar project. Since then, five different interim orders of the Supreme Court have stated that no person should suffer because they do not have an Aadhaar number.

Aadhaar, according to the Supreme Court, could not be made mandatory to avail benefits and services from government schemes. Further, the court has limited the use of Aadhaar to only specific schemes, namely LPG, PDS, MNREGA, National Social Assistance Program, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna and EPFO.

The then Attorney General, Mukul Rohatgi, in a hearing before the court in July 2015 stated that there is no constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy. But the judgement by the nine-judge bench earlier this year was an emphatic endorsement of the constitutional right to privacy.

In the course of a 547-page judgement, the bench affirmed the fundamental nature of the right to privacy, reading it into the values of dignity and liberty.

Yet months after the judgement, the Supreme Court has failed to hear arguments in the Aadhaar matter. The reference to a larger bench and subsequent deferrals have since delayed the entire matter, even as the government has moved to make Aadhaar mandatory for a number of government schemes.

At this point, up to 140 government services have made linking with Aadhaar mandatory to avail these services. Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra has promised a constitution bench this week, likely to look only into interim matters of stay on the deadline of Aadhaar-linking. It is likely that the hearings for the final arguments are still some months away. The refusal of the court to adjudicate on this issue has been extremely disappointing, and a grave disservice to the court's intended role as the champion of individual rights.

It is worth noting that the interim orders by the Supreme Court that no person should suffer because they do not have an Aadhaar number, and limiting its use only to specified schemes, still stand.

However, since the passage of the Aadhaar Act, which allows the use of Aadhaar by both private and public parties, permits making it mandatory for availing any benefits, subsidies and services funded by the Consolidated Fund of India, the spate of services for which Aadhaar has been made mandatory suggests that as per the government, the Aadhaar Act has, in effect, nullified the orders by the Supreme Court.

This was stated in so many words by Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in the Rajya Sabha in April. This view is an erroneous one. While acts of Parliament can supersede previous judicial orders, they must do so either through an express statement in the objects of the Act, or implied when the two are mutually incompatible. In this case, the Aadhaar Act, while permitting the government authorities to make Aadhaar mandatory, does not impose a clear duty to do so.

Therefore, reading the orders and the legislation together leads one to the conclusion that all instances of Aadhaar being made mandatory under the Aadhaar Act are void.

The question may be more complicated for cases where Aadhaar has been made mandatory through other legislations, such as Prevention of Money Laundering Act, as they clearly mandate the linking of Aadhaar numbers, rather than merely allowing it. However, despite repeated appeals of the petitioners, the court has so far refused to engage with the question of the legality of such instances.  

How may the issues finally be resolved? When the court deigns to hear final arguments, the Aadhaar case will be instructive in how the court defines the contours of the right to privacy. The right to privacy judgement, while instructive in its exposition of the different aspects of privacy, does not delve deeply into the question of what may be legitimate limitations on this right.

In one of the passages of the judgement, "ensuring that scarce public resources are not dissipated by the diversion of resources to persons who do not qualify as recipients" is mentioned as an example of a legitimate incursion into the right to privacy. However, it must be remembered that none of the opinions in the privacy judgement were majority judgements.

Therefore, in future cases, lawyers and judges must parse through the various opinions to arrive at an understanding of the majority opinion, supported by five or more judges. While the privacy judgement was a landmark one, its actual impact on the rights discourse and on matters like Aadhaar will depend extensively on the how the judges choose to interpret it.

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