The right to individual privacy is a fundamental right under the Constitution, a 9-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a landmark verdict that could have wide-reaching implications for the government’s flagship biometric programme or Aadhaar.
The Constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice J S Khehar, ruled that “right to privacy was an intrinsic part of Right to Life and Personal Liberty under Article 21 and entire Part III of the Constitution”.
The Supreme Court in its verdict Thursday overruled the M P Sharma (1950) and Kharak Singh (1960) judgements that said there was no fundamental right to privacy in the Constitution.
Justice Khehar, who read the operative part of the judgement, said that subsequent verdicts pronounced after M P Sharma and Kharak Singh have laid down the correct position of the law.
Following this, a five-judge Constitutional bench will decide whether Aadhaar violates right to privacy.
The nine-judge bench, comprising Chief Justice of India J S Khehar and Justices J Chelameswar, S A Bobde, R K Agrawal, Rohinton Nariman, A M Sapre, D Y Chandrachud, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and S Abdul Nazeer, had reserved the verdict on August 2 after arguments over six days.
The question of right to privacy rose over making the Aadhaar card — a unique 12-digit ID for every citizen — mandatory. Petitions challenged the Aadhar Act and claimed it violated people’s right to privacy. The programme has recorded the fingerprints and iris scans of more than one billion Indians.
Privacy is not explicitly mentioned in the Indian Constitution, and the government had argued that India’s 1.25 billion citizens cannot expect an absolute right to privacy.
On July 26, the Centre told the apex court that there was a fundamental right to privacy, which was a ‘wholly qualified right’ too.
In special circumstances, the government can interfere in a matter that comes under a ‘wholly qualified right’. An absolute right cannot be reduced or amended.
Aadhaar was set up as a voluntary scheme to streamline benefit payments to the poor and curtail fraud. But in recent years it has become compulsory for a growing number of services, including opening a bank account or paying taxes.
From July 1, the government made it mandatory for every citizen eligible for Aadhaar to link their cards with the Permanent Account Number (PAN).
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan said the judgement would likely impact the Aadhaar programme. “Any fundamental right is subject to reasonable restrictions by law. Whether the Aadhaar Act imposes unreasonable restrictions will have to be examined,” he told reporters outside the court on Thursday.