New Delhi: Individual privacy is a guaranteed fundamental right, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, a landmark verdict that could now test the validity of Aadhaar, the controversial biometric identification project the government has been pushing but critics have opposed as intrusive.
Issuing a unanimous ruling, the nine-judge Bench said right to privacy was at par with right to life and liberty, and that the verdict will protect citizens’ personal freedom from intrusions by the state.
The Aadhaar law will now be tested against the right to privacy judgment, lawyers in the case said. The judgment 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.
“This right to privacy is protected under Article 21 and it is intrinsic to the Constitution,” said Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar, reading out the verdict for the nine-judge Bench. Article 21 guarantees the right to life and liberty as inviolable fundamental rights.
The central government has been pushing for the wide use of Aadhaar, saying it is necessary to plug leakages in its subsidy schemes and to ensure benefits reach those targeted. This led to multiple petitions in court challenging Aadhaar on the question of privacy.
In upholding privacy as a fundamental right, the top court overruled all earlier judgements that had said the right to privacy was not part of the Constitution.
In a quick reaction, the Opposition Congress, which had launched Aadhaar when it was in power, welcomed the verdict. “Path-breaking and seminal judgment. A great victory for liberty and freedom,” party spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala tweeted.
But Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the BJP-led government at the Centre was always in favour of the right to privacy but with limitations.
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.
HOW THE VERDICT AFFECTS YOU
The judges have said nothing about Aadhaar, but experts say this is because another Bench of the SC is hearing a petition challenging the parting of an individual’s biometric details.
Activists have argued that Section 377, which criminalises homosexuality, violates the Indian citizens’ fundamental rights to equality and to life with dignity and privacy. In its judgement, the SC said, “One’s sexual orientation is undoubtedly an attribute of privacy.”
“A woman’s freedom of choice whether to bear a child or abort her pregnancy are areas which fall in the realm of privacy,” the SC has ruled.
“Forced feeding of certain persons by the state raises concerns of privacy. An individual’s rights to refuse life prolonging medical treatment or terminate his life is another freedom which falls within the zone of the right of privacy,” the judges have observed.
“Telephone tapings and internet hacking by state is another area which falls within the realm of privacy. The instant reference arises out of such an attempt by the Union of India to collect biometric data regarding all the residents of this country,” the SC ruled.
From now on, unlimited right to search, seizure will be vulnerable. In its order, the SC said, “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.”