Surveillance and Privacy in India – III: The Public/Private Distinction and the Supreme Court’s Wrong Turn

We have seen that Gobind essentially crystallized a constitutional right to privacy as an aspect of personal liberty, to be infringed only by a narrowly-tailored law that served a compelling state interest. After the landmark decision in GobindMalak Singh v State of P&H was the next targeted-surveillance history-sheeter case to come before the Supreme Court. In that case, Rule 23 of the Punjab Police Rules was at issue. Its vires was not disputed, so the question was a direct matter of constitutionality. An order of surveillance was challenged by two individuals, on the ground that there were no reasonable bases for suspecting them of being repeat criminals, and that their inclusion in the surveillance register was politically motivated.  After holding that entry into a surveillance sheet was a purely administrative measure, and thus required no prior hearing (audi alteram partem), the Court then embarked upon a lengthy disquisition about the scope and limitations of surveillance, which deserves to be reproduced in full:

    “But all this does not mean that the police have a licence to enter the names of whoever they like (dislike?) in the surveillance register; nor can the surveillance be such as to squeeze the fundamental freedoms guaranteed to all citizens or to obstruct the free exercise and enjoyment of those freedoms; nor can the surveillance so intrude as to offend the dignity of the individual. Surveillance of persons who do not fall within the categories mentioned in Rule 23.4 or for reasons unconnected with the prevention of crime, or excessive surveillance falling beyond the limits prescribed by the rules, will entitle a citizen to the Court’s protection which the court will not hesitate to give. The very rules which prescribe the conditions for making entries in the surveillance register and the mode of surveillance appear to recognise the caution and care with which the police officers are required to proceed. The note following R. 23.4 is instructive. It enjoins a duty upon the police officer to construe the rule strictly and confine the entries in the surveillance register to the class of persons mentioned in the rule. Similarly R.23.7 demands that there should be no illegal interference in the guise of surveillance. Surveillance, therefore, has to be unobstrusive and within bounds. Ordinarily the names of persons with previous criminal record alone are entered in the surveillance register. They must be proclaimed offenders, previous convicts, or persons who have already been placed on security for good behaviour. In addition, names of persons who are reasonably believed to be habitual offenders or receivers of stolen property whether they have been convicted or not may be entered. It is only in the case of this category of persons that there may be occasion for abuse of the power of the police officer to make entries in the surveillance register. But, here, the entry can only be made by the order of the Superintendent of Police who is prohibited from delegating his authority under Rule 23.5. Further it is necessary that the Superintendent of Police must entertain a reasonable belief that persons whose names are to be entered in Part II are habitual offenders or receivers of stolen property. While it may not be necessary to supply the grounds of belief to the persons whose names are entered in the surveillance register it may become necessary in some cases to satisfy the Court when an entry is challenged that there are grounds to entertain such reasonable belief. In fact in the present case we sent for the relevant records and we have satisfied ourselves that there were sufficient grounds for the Superintendent of Police to entertain a reasonable belief. In the result we reject both the appeals subject to our observations regarding the mode of surveillance. There is no order as to costs.”

Three things emerge from this holding: first, the Court follows Gobind in locating the right to privacy within the philosophical concept of individual dignity, found in Article 21’s guarantee of personal liberty. Secondly, it follows Kharak Singh, Malkani and Gobind in insisting that the surveillance be targeted, limited to fulfilling the government’s crime-prevention objectives, and be limited – not even to suspected criminals, but – repeat offenders or serious criminals. And thirdly, it leaves open a role for the Court – that is, judicial review – in examining the grounds of surveillance, if challenged in a particular case.

After Malak Singh, there is another period of quiet. LIC v Manubhai D Shah, in 1993, attributed – wrongly – to Indian Express Newspapers the proposition that Article 19(1)(a)’s free expression right included privacy of communications (Indian Express itself had cited a  UN Report without incorporating it into its holding).

Soon afterwards, R. Rajagopal v State of TN involved the question of the publication of a convicted criminal’s autobiography by a publishing house; Auto Shankar, the convict in question, had supposedly withdrawn his consent after agreeing to the book’s publication, but the publishing house was determined to go ahead with it. Technically, this wasn’t an Article 21 case: so much is made clear by the very manner in which the Court frames its issues: the question is whether a citizen of the country can prevent another person from writing his biography, or life story. (Paragraph 8) The Court itself made things clear when it held that the right of privacy has two aspects: the tortious aspect, which provides damages for a breach of individual privacy; and the constitutional aspect, which protects privacy against unlawful governmental intrusion. (Paragraph 9) Having made this distinction, the Court went on to cite a number of American cases that were precisely about the right to privacy against governmental intrusion, and therefore – ideally – irrelevant to the present case (Paras 13 – 16); and then, without quite explaining how it was using these cases – or whether they were relevant at all, it switched to examining the law of defamation (Para 17 onwards). It would be safe to conclude, therefore, in light of the clear distinctions that it made, the Court was concerned in R. Rajagopal about an action between private parties, and therefore, privacy in the context of tort law. It’s confusing observations, however, were to have rather unfortunate effects, as we shall see.

We now come to a series of curious cases involving privacy and medical law. In Mr X v Hospital Z, the question arose whether a Hospital that – in the context of a planned marriage – had disclosed the appellant’s HIV+ status, leading to his social ostracism – was in breach of his right to privacy. The Court cited Rajagopal, but unfortunately failed to understand it, and turned the question into one of the constitutional right to privacy, and not the private right. Why the Court turned an issue between two private parties – adequately covered by the tort of breach of confidentiality – into an Article 21 issue is anybody’s guess. Surely Article 21 – the right to life and personal liberty – is not horizontally applicable, because if it was, we might as well scrap the entire Indian Penal Code, which deals with exactly these kinds of issues – individuals violating each others’ rights to life and personal liberty. Nonetheless, the Court cited Kharak Singh, Gobind and Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, further muddying the waters, because Article 8 – in contrast to American law – embodies a proportionality test for determining whether there has been an impermissible infringement of privacy. The Court then came up with the following observation:

    “Where there is a clash of two Fundamental Rights, as in the instant case, namely, the appellant’s right to privacy as part of right to life and Ms. Akali’s right to lead a healthy life which is her Fundamental Right under Article 21, the RIGHT which would advance the public morality or public interest, would alone be enforced through the process of Court, for the reason that moral considerations cannot be kept at bay.”

    With respect, this is utterly bizarre. If there is a clash of two rights, then that clash must be resolved by referring to the Constitution, and not to the Court’s opinion of what an amorphous, elastic, malleable, many-sizes-fit “public morality” says. The mischief caused by this decision, however, was replicated in Sharda v Dharmpal, decided by the Court in 2003. In that case, the question was whether the Court could require a party who had been accused of unsoundness of mind (as a ground for divorce under the wonderfully progressive Hindu Marriage Act) to undergo a medical examination – and draw an adverse inference if she refused. Again, whether this was a case in which Article 21 ought to be invoked is doubtful; at least, it is arguable, since it was the Court making the order. Predictably, the Court cited from Mr X v Hospital Z extensively. It cited Gobind (compelling State interest) and the ECHR (proportionality). It cited a series of cases involving custody of children, where various Courts had used a “balancing test” to determine whether the best interests of the child overrode the privacy interest exemplified by the client-patient privilege. It applied this balancing test to the case at hand by balancing the “right” of the petitioner to obtain a divorce for the spouse’s unsoundness of mind under the HMA, vis-à-vis the Respondent’s right to privacy.

In light of the above analysis, it is submitted that although the outcome in Mr X v Hospital Z and Sharda v Dharmpal might well be correct, the Supreme Court has misread what R. Rajagopal actually held, and its reasoning is deeply flawed. Neither of these cases are Article 21 cases: they are private tort cases between private parties, and ought to be analysed under private law, as Rajagopal itself was careful to point out. In private law, also, the balancing test makes perfect sense: there are a series of interests at stake, as the Court rightly understood, such as certain rights arising out of marriage, all of a private nature. In any event, whatever one might make of these judgments, one thing is clear: they are both logically and legally irrelevant to the Kharak Singh line of cases that we have been discussing, which are to do with the Article 21 right to privacy against the State.

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One response to “Surveillance and Privacy in India – III: The Public/Private Distinction and the Supreme Court’s Wrong Turn

  1. Pingback: The Supreme Court’s Right to Privacy Judgment – VII: Privacy and the Freedom of Speech | Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy

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