Surveillance and Privacy in India – II: Gobind and the Compelling State Interest test

After its judgment in Kharak Singh, the Court was not concerned with the privacy question for a while. The next case that dealt – peripherally – with the issue came eleven years later. In R.M. Malkani v State of Maharashtra, the Court held that attaching a recording device to a person’s telephone did not violate S. 25 of the Telegraph Act, because “where a person talking on the telephone allows another person to record it or to hear it, it can-not be said that the other person who is allowed to do so is damaging, removing, tampering, touching machinery battery line or post for intercepting or acquainting himself with the contents of any message. There was no element of coercion or compulsion in attaching the tape recorder to the telephone.” Although this case was primarily about the admissibility of evidence, the Court also took time out to consider – and reject – a privacy-based Article 21 argument, holding that:

“Article 21 was invoked by submitting that the privacy of the appellant’s conversation was invaded. Article 21 contemplates procedure established by law with regard to deprivation of life or personal liberty. The telephonic conversation of an innocent citizen will be protected by Courts against wrongful or high handed interference by tapping the conversation. The protection is not for the guilty citizen against the efforts of the police to vindicate the law and prevent corruption of public servants. It must not be understood that the Courts will tolerate safeguards for the protection of the citizen to be imperiled by permitting the police to proceed by unlawful or irregular methods.

     Apart from the fact that it joined Kharak Singh in refusing to expressly find a privacy right within the contours of Article 21, there is something else that unites Kharak Singh and R.M. Malkani: they hypothetical in Kharak Singh became a reality in Malkani – what saved the telephone tapping precisely because it was directed at “… a guilty person”, with the Court specifically holding that the laws were not for targeting innocent people. Once again, then, the targeted  and specific nature of interception became a crucial – and in this case, a decisive – factor. One year later, in another search and seizure case, Pooran Mal v Inspector, the Court cited M.P. Sharma and stuck to its guns, refusing to incorporate the Fourth Amendment into Indian Constitutional law.

It is Gobind v State of MP, decided in 1975, that marks the watershed moment for Indian privacy law in the Constitution. Like Kharak Singh, Gobind also involved domiciliary visits to the house of a history-sheeter. Unlike Kharak Singh, however, in Gobind the Court found that the Regulations did have statutory backing – S. 46(2)(c) of the Police Act, which allowed State Government to make notifications giving effect to the provisions of the Act, one of which was the prevention of commission of offences. The surveillance provisions in the impugned regulations, according to the Court, were indeed for the purpose of preventing offences, since they were specifically aimed at repeat offenders. To that extent, then, the Court found that there existed a valid “law” for the purposes of Articles 19 and 21.

By this time, of course, American constitutional law had moved forward significantly from eleven years ago, when Kharak Singh had been decided. The Court was able to invoke Griswold v Connecticut and Roe v Wade, both of which had found a “privacy” as an “interstitial” or “penumbral” right in the American Constitution – that is, not reducible to any one provision, but implicit in a number of separate provisions taken together. The Court ran together a number of American authorities, referred to Locke and Kant, to dignity, to liberty and to autonomy, and ended by holding, somewhat confusingly:

the right to privacy must encompass and protect the personal intimacies of the home, the family marriage, motherhood, procreation and child rearing. This catalogue approach to the question is obviously not as instructive as it does not give analytical picture of that distinctive characteristics of the right of privacy. Perhaps, the only suggestion that can be offered as unifying principle underlying the concept has been the assertion that a claimed right must be a fundamental right implicit in the concept of ordered liberty… there are two possible theories for protecting privacy of home. The first is that activities in the home harm others only to the extent that they cause offence resulting from the mere thought that individuals might he engaging in such activities and that such ‘harm’ is not Constitutionally protective by the state. The second is that individuals need a place of sanctuary where they can be free from societal control. The importance of such a sanctuary is that individuals can drop the mask, desist for a while from projecting on the world the image they want to be accepted as themselves, an image that may reflect the values of their peers rather than the realities of their natures… the right to privacy in any event will necessarily have to go through a process of case-by-case development.

But if no clear principle emerges out of the Court’s elucidation of the right, it was fairly unambiguous in stressing the importance of the right itself. Interestingly, it grounded the right within the context of the freedom struggle. “Our founding fathers,” it observed, “were thoroughly opposed to a Police Raj even as our history of the struggle for freedom has borne eloquent testimony to it.” (Para 30) The parallels to the American Fourth Amendment are striking here: in his historical analysis Akhil Amar tells us that the Fourth Amendment was meant precisely to avoid the various abuses of unreasonable searches and seizures that were common in England at the time.

The parallels with the United States become even more pronounced, however, when the Court examined the grounds for limiting the right to privacy. “Assuming that the fundamental rights explicitly guaranteed to a citizen have penumbral zones and that the right to privacy is itself a fundamental right, that fundamental right must be subject to restriction on the basis of compelling public interest.” “Compelling public interest” is an interesting phrase, for two reasons. First, “public interest” is a ground for fundamental rights restrictions under Article 19 (see, e.g., Article 19(6)), but the text of the Article 19 restrictions do not use – and the Court, in interpreting them, has not held – that the public interest must be “compelling”. This suggests a stricter standard of review for an Article 21 privacy right violation than Article 19 violations. This is buttressed by the fact that in the same paragraph, the Court ended by observing: “even if it be assumed that Article 19(5) [restrictions upon the freedom of movement] does not apply in terms, as the right to privacy of movement cannot be absolute, a law imposing reasonable restriction upon it for compelling interest of State must be upheld as valid.” The Court echoes the language of 19(5), and adds the word “compelling”. This surely cannot be an oversight.

More importantly – the compelling State interest is an American test, used often in equal protection cases and cases of discrimination, where “suspect classes” (such as race) are at issue. Because of the importance of the right at issue, the compelling state interest test goes hand-in-hand with another test: narrow tailoring. Narrow tailoring places a burden upon the State to demonstrate that its restriction is tailored in a manner that infringes the right as narrowest manner that is possible to achieve its goals. The statement of the rule may be found in the American Supreme Court case of Grutter v Bollinger:

Even in the limited circumstance when drawing racial distinctions is permissible to further a compelling state interest, government is still constrained under equal protection clause in how it may pursue that end: the means chosen to accomplish the government’s asserted purpose must be specifically and narrowly framed to accomplish that purpose.”

 To take an extremely trivial example that will illustrate the point: the State wants to ban hate speech against Dalits. It passes legislation that bans “all speech that disrespects Dalits.” This is not narrowly tailored, because while all hate speech against Dalits necessarily disrespects them, all speech that disrespects Dalits is not necessarily hate speech. It was possible for the government to pass legislation banning only hate speech against Dalits, one that would have infringed upon free speech more narrowly than the “disrespect law”, and still achieved its goals. The law is not narrowly tailored.

Crucially, then, the Court in Gobind seemed to implicitly accept the narrow-tailoring flip side of the compelling state interest coin. On the constitutionality of the Police Regulations itself, it upheld their constitutionality by reading them narrowly. Here is what the Court said:

Regulation 855, in our view, empowers surveillance only of persons against whom reasonable materials exist to induce the opinion that they show a determination, to lead a life of crime – crime in this context being confined to such as involve public peace or security only and if they are dangerous security risks. Mere convictions in criminal cases where nothing gravely imperiling safety of society cannot be regarded as warranting surveillance under this Regulation. Similarly, domiciliary visits and picketing by the police should be reduced to the clearest cases of danger to community security and not routine follow-up at the end of a conviction or release from prison or at the whim of a police officer.”

    But Regulation 855 did not refer to the gravity of the crime at all. Thus, the Court was able to uphold its constitutionality only by narrowing its scope in a manner that the State’s objective of securing public safety was met in a way that minimally infringed the right to privacy.

Therefore, whether the Gobind bench was aware of it or not, its holding incorporates into Indian constitutional law and the right to privacy, not just the compelling State interest test, but narrow tailoring as well. The implications for the CMS are obvious. Because with narrow tailoring, the State must demonstrate that bulk surveillance of all individuals, whether guilty or innocent, suspected of crimes or not suspected of crimes (whether reasonably or otherwise), possessing a past criminal record or not, speaking to each other of breaking up the government or breaking up a relationship – every bit of data must be collected to achieve the goal of maintaining public security, and that nothing narrower will suffice. Can the State demonstrate this? I do not think it can, but at the very least, it should be made to do so in open Court.

In the next post, we shall continue with the development of privacy law post-Gobind.

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2 Comments

Filed under Privacy, Surveillance

2 responses to “Surveillance and Privacy in India – II: Gobind and the Compelling State Interest test

  1. Karan Lahiri

    Follow the Ratan Tata writ pending in SC. It was filed a couple of years back. I expect it be the next important privacy judgment. Unless the bench says that the facts don’t warrant an inquiry into the contours of privacy under the Indian Constitution.

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