The Government initiates a program on a national scale, which has far-reaching effects upon the lives of citizens. It stakes its credibility and prestige upon the program, and defends its transformative potential for the country. Critics disagree. Among other things, they argue that the program is illegal without the sanction of law, and also infringes constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights. The critics move the Court, and request an early hearing, since the government’s program is changing facts on the ground on a daily basis. The Court hears the case. Perhaps it agrees with the critics, and invalidates the program. The government then has to go back to the drawing board, iron out the illegalities, and come back with another program (if it considers it to be worth the effort). Or, the Court agrees with the government, and holds the program to be legally and constitutionally valid, and the government carries on. In both situations, the Court pronounces upon the scope and limitations of the fundamental rights at issue.
That is an example of a well-working system of checks and balances. However, over the last few months, there are indications that this system is not working in quite the manner that it should. This is a cause for significant concern.
The Aadhaar Hearing
The first substantive hearing in the constitutional challenge to the government’s Aadhaar Program took place on 23rd September, 2013 (all orders in Writ Petition 494/2012 can be accessed here). On that day, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court admitted the petition for hearing, and passed the following order:
“… no person should suffer for not getting the Adhaar card inspite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory.”
On 8th October, 2013, the case was listed for “final hearing” on 22nd October, 2013. On 26th November, 2013, the Court passed directions for impleadment of all states and union territories. The case then proceeded to a three-judge bench. Through the course of January to April 2014, the three-judge bench heard arguments by Mr Shyam Divan, senior counsel for the Petitioner, on a number of dates. At the end of April, the case was listed for July, but only came up for hearing next more than a year later, on 21st July, 2015. Through the last week of July and the first week of August, the three-judge bench heard arguments from both Mr Divan and Mr Gopal Subramaniam .
At this point, the Attorney-General argued that there was no fundamental right to privacy under the Indian Constitution, and cases that had consistently held to the contrary since Gobind vs State of MP in 1975 were wrongly decided, since they had ignored binding eight and six-judge bench decisions. He asked for a reference to a larger bench. The Court agreed. On 11th August, 2015, it passed a detailed reference order. In the order, it noted that:
“We are of the opinion that the cases on hand raise far reaching questions of importance involving interpretation of the Constitution. What is at stake is the amplitude of the fundamental rights including that precious and inalienable right under Article 21. If the observations made in M.P. Sharma (supra) and Kharak Singh (supra) are to be read literally and accepted as the law of this country, the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India and more particularly right to liberty under Article 21 would be denuded of vigour and vitality.”
The Court also stated:
“Having regard to importance of the matter, it is desirable that the matter be heard at the earliest.”
Until the time that the case could be heard by a larger bench, the Court also issued the following directions:
“The production of an Aadhaar card will not be condition for obtaining any benefits otherwise due to a citizen… [and] the Unique Identification Number or the Aadhaar card will not be used by the respondents for any purpose other than the PDS Scheme and in particular for the purpose of distribution of foodgrains, etc. and cooking fuel, such as kerosene. The Aadhaar card may also be used for the purpose of the LPG Distribution Scheme.”
There was one more substantive hearing, on 15th October, 2015. A five-judge bench of the Court added some more schemes to the ones listed out in the 11th August order, for which the Aadhaar Card could be used. The Court reiterated that:
“We will also make it clear that the Aadhaar card Scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or the other.”
“Since there is some urgency in the matter, we request the learned Chief Justice of India to constitute a Bench for final hearing of these matters at the earliest.”
A five-judge bench is constituted by the Chief Justice at his discretion. After the hearing of 15th October (fifteen months ago), the case has not been heard. In the meantime, the government’s conduct is well-known. The Aadhaar Act was passed, to give statutory sanction to the program (questions have been raised about the constitutionality of the Act as well, especially regarding excessive delegation and the fundamental right to privacy). Despite numerous Supreme Court directions that Aadhaar could not be made mandatory, there have been reports on an almost weekly basis that an Aadhaar Card is effectively a requirement for some or the other benefit (the most recent one being today, for the MGNREGA). Contempt petitions have been filed before the Court, which remain pending.
In light of the Government’s conduct over the last year and a half, the Court’s refusal to hear the case goes beyond ordinary situations of matters being stuck in the courts for long periods because of judicial backlog and pendency. Aadhaar is a classic case where the more the Court delays, the greater the Government’s ability to eventually present it with a fait accompli – the fait accompli being that Aadhaar coverage becomes so deep, pervasive and intertwined with citizens’ lives, that even if the Court was to hold it unconstitutional, it would be, virtually, a technical or physical impossibility to undo it – or, if not an impossibility, the cost of disruption would be so prohibitively high, that no Government could reasonably implement it, even if it wanted to.
For these reasons, when the new Chief Justice assumed office this week, the case was mentioned before him for an urgent hearing. The request was declined (with observations that are deeply concerning, if they reflect the Court’s institutional position on fundamental rights). Presumably, it will not be heard any time soon – despite two judicial observations from the middle of 2015 highlighting the urgency of the case, and the need for a quick hearing.
On November 8, 2016, the Prime Minister announced that Rs. 500 and 1000 notes would cease to be legal tender from midnight. In the coming weeks, this announcement was followed by a slew of notifications from the Reserve Bank that placed various restrictions on what citizens could or could not do with their money – how much they could withdraw from ATMs, how much they could withdraw from banks etc. At the time, the Prime Minister made the prediction – which now appears to be a little optimistic – that normalcy would return within fifty days – that is, by the end of the year.
As Namita Wahi argues, there are substantive legal arguments for the proposition that the demonetisation policy violated both law and the Constitution. On the first, arguably, the policy was ultra vires the RBI Act, and consequently, required the sanction of either a law, or an Ordinance (there is an Ordinance now). And secondly, that the Policy violated the right to property (Article 300A), as well as the fundamental rights to trade and life.
These arguments were raised by various petitioners challenging various aspects of the policy, who moved the Court soon after November 8. A number of abortive hearings took place over the course of the last week of November, and the first half of December. Finally, the Court referred the case to a five-judge bench, and formulated a number of questions about the legality and constitutionality of demonetisation.
It is now almost two months after the initial announcement. The Prime Minister’s self-imposed time limit of 31 December has expired. Many deaths have been reported. Much of the cash that was supposed to have been taken out of circulation is – reportedly – back in banks; whether or not it is true, surely, if not now, then soon enough, demonetisation will begin to wind itself down. In the meantime, there is no sign of the Constitution Bench.
Judgment by Evasion
Rarely – if ever – are contesting parties before a Court on equal terms. Before the Supreme Court, one party will always have the judgment of the lower Court in its favour, and consequently (absent a stay) will benefit from the case getting held up in the Court. In that sense, Aadhaar and Demonetisation are simply incidents of a broader problem of delay and backlog, where failure to hear and decide cases expeditiously does not cause equal harm to both sides, but benefits one at the cost of the other.
However, there is something more here. First of all, Aadhaar and Demonetisation are not ordinary cases – they are classically about the exercise of immense coercive State power against citizens. Adjudicating the legal validity of such State action is at the heart of why we have an independent judiciary. It is the reason why there is a system of checks and balances: because when power on such a scale is unrestrained by the rule of law and by constitutional norms, history has told us more than enough times what follows.
Secondly, as discussed above, this is not a case involving disputed property where, ten years later, the Court can decide the case and order the person in possession of the property to hand it over the victorious litigant. Aadhaar and Demonetisation are cases where, if the Court does not decide the issue within a certain period of time, any future decision will be an exercise in futility. It makes no sense to decide Demonetisation next year, after the policy has run its course – whatever rights were violated (if, that is, rights are being violated) cannot then be redressed. Similarly, it makes no sense to decide the constitutionality of Aadhaar after the program has begun to be used to avail virtually all (public, and some private) social services, and can no longer feasibly be disentangled from the daily lives of citizens.
Consequently, by refusing to decide, the Supreme Court effectively does decide – in favour of the Government. In effect, it upholds the validity of Aadhaar without hearing arguments on the constitutional questions, and without passing a reasoned judgment on Aadhaar and the right to privacy. In effect, it upholds the Government’s Demonetisation policy without deciding whether it is open to the State to place onerous restrictions on what citizens are allowed to do with their own money. In effect, it takes the side of State power, against citizen.
It is open to the Supreme Court to do so. But if that is what it is doing, then it ought to have the moral courage to defend its position in a reasoned judgment. It ought to explain – publicly – to citizens the scope of their fundamental right to privacy, and the manner in which Aadhaar is consistent with it. Once the Supreme Court decides, then its judgment can be engaged with, defended, criticised, its reasoning scrutinised closely, its positions critiqued. That is how it ought to be. But by simply refusing to hear and decide the case, where the consequences of non-decision are both terribly high and absolutely decisive, the Court only ends up abdicating its role as the organ of the State that is meant to stand between citizen and government power, and to keep the latter within its constitutionally-defined spheres.
The fact that this is how two of the most important constitutional issues in recent times have fared in the Supreme Court suggests that scholars of the Court can no longer make do simply with studying what the Court has held, and the jurisprudence that it has created through its judgments. Scholars must now also study this evolving jurisprudence of Constitutional evasion, which is defined by refusal, and by silence.