In a landmark decision the Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously declared that right to privacy was a Fundamental Right under the Constitution.
A nine-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice JS Khehar unanimously ruled that “right to privacy is an intrinsic part of Right to Life and Personal Liberty under Article 21 and entire Part III of the Constitution”.
The nine judges unanimously overruled the two earlier judgements of the apex court that right to privacy is not protected under the Constitution. The bench overruled the M P Sharma verdict of 1950 and that of Kharak Singh of 1960.
The ruling came on a batch of petitions challenging the Centre’s move to make Aadhaar mandatory for availing the benefits of various social welfare schemes.
While the Centre had argued that right to privacy is not a Fundamental right, the petitioners had contended that when a citizen gives his biometrics and personal details to the government and when in turn it is used by commercial organisations, it is a breach of privacy.
The judgement was limited to the issue of right to privacy and the question whether Aadhaar violates right to privacy will be dealt with by the five-judge bench which has been hearing the petitions since 2015.
Apart from Chief Justice JS Khehar, the 9-judge bench included Justices J Chelameswar, SA Bobde, RK Agrawal, RF Nariman, AM Sapre, DY Chandrachud, SK Kaul and S Abdul Nazeer.
Petitioners include former Karnataka High Court judge Justice K S Puttaswamy, first Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and Magsaysay award recipient Shanta Sinha, feminist researcher Kalyani Sen Menon and others who have challenged the validity of the Aadhaar scheme on grounds of it being violative of the right to privacy.
The Centre had termed privacy as a “vague and amorphous” right which cannot be granted primacy to deprive poor people of their rights to life, food and shelter.
Meanwhile, the petitioners had contended that the right to privacy was “inalienable” and “inherent” to the most important fundamental right which is the right to liberty. They had said that right to liberty, which also included right to privacy, was a pre-existing “natural right” which the Constitution acknowledged and guaranteed to the citizens in case of infringement by the state.
The apex court favoured overarching guidelines to protect private information in public domain and said there was a need to “maintain the core of privacy” as the notion of privacy was fast becoming irrelevant in an all-pervading technological era.
Initially, on July 7, a three-judge bench had said that all issues arising out of Aadhaar should finally be decided by a larger bench and the CJI would take a call on the need for setting up a constitution bench. The matter was then mentioned before CJI Khehar who set up a five-judge constitution bench. However, the five-judge constitution bench on July 18 decided to set up a nine-judge bench to decide whether the right to privacy can be declared a fundamental right under the Constitution.
The decision to set up the nine-judge bench was taken to examine the correctness of two apex court judgements delivered in the cases of Kharak Singh and M P Sharma in which it was held that this right was not a fundamental right.
The verdict, which came out today, was earlier reserved after hearing marathon arguments for six days over a period of three weeks.
While reserving the verdict, the bench had voiced concern over the possible misuse of personal information in the public domain and said that protection of the concept of privacy in the all-pervading technological era was a “losing battle”.
The Attorney General had also contended that right to privacy cannot fall in the bracket of fundamental rights as there were binding decisions of larger benches that it was only a common law right evolved through judicial decisions.
(With inputs from PTI)