In the previous post, I detailed the petitioners’ arguments in the constitutional challenge to S. 139AA of the Income Tax Act, which effectively makes enrolling for an Aadhaar number compulsory for taxpayers. After Petitioners completed their arguments, the Union of India – through the Attorney-General, Mr Arghya Sengupta, and Mr Zoheb Hossain – responded in defence of S. 139AA. Mr Shyam Divan and Mr Arvind Datar then replied for the Petitioners. In this post, I shall provide a brief account of the arguments, isolate the issues that the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court must address, and outline the possible outcomes.
The Attorney-General’s Arguments: A Limited Right to Bodily Integrity
The Attorney-General argued that the Petitioners’ Article 21 challenge to S. 139AA – focusing on bodily integrity – was nothing but a camouflaged privacy challenge, which the Court could not examine at this stage (see previous post on the dropping of privacy arguments from the present proceedings). However, assuming that there was an independent right to bodily integrity under Article 21, the thrust of the Attorney-General’s argument was that this right could be limited by the State – and in fact, was limited by the State in a number of other domains, in ways equally, or more, intrusive than Aadhaar. For instance, Section 32 of the Registration Act, 1908, required all ten fingerprints as a pre-requisite for registering property. People routinely subjected themselves to biometric collection while traveling abroad. More broadly, the Attorney-General argued that Aadhaar only did something that was already normalised and routinised in society: in an era of ubiquitous photography, what was so unacceptably intrusive about an iris scan? Given the ubiquity of online transactions through smartphones, what was so intrusive about having to part with one’s data for the purpose paying taxes? To accede to the Petitioners’ arguments would be to set a legal standard that could only be fulfilled by hermits living alone in the mountains, and not citizens part of the modern, digital economy.
Although the Attorney-General did not specifically use the term, what he appeared to be doing was borrowing the American doctrine of “reasonable expectation of privacy“: that is, the scope of one’s right to privacy – or, in the language in which this case was argued – “bodily integrity” – is determined by what is socially sanctioned and understood as reasonable at any given time. Briefly put, the Attorney-General’s case was that Aadhaar calls upon citizens to give up only that which they voluntarily and regularly give up as part of their daily lives; consequently, there was no constitutional violation to start with.
The Attorney-General then argued that in any event, citizens had no absolute rights over their bodies. In this case, there was a larger public interest that justified the level of infringement. For instance, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act regulated the conditions under which a woman could abort her foetus. Random breath checks for drunken driving were required in the interests of road safety. At this point, Justice Sikri interjected, and wondered whether those examples were analogous, because in those cases, the restrictions were clearly reasonable. To this, the Attorney-General replied that in the present case as well, there was a larger public interest: the effective and efficient collection of taxes, which was an integral part of life in an ordered society.
To substantiate this argument, the Attorney-General took the Court through the history of PAN Cards, and the perceived need to replace them with Aadhaar. He argued that on a random verification of 0.2% of all PAN Cards, a number of duplicate PANs were thrown up. Besides, over the previous twenty years, the existence of shell companies, the presence of directors in multiple companies, and multiple PAN holders, had all come to light. India was a highly tax non-compliant society. Furthermore, in addition to tax dodging, there were also problems of black money, which was used to finance terrorism. For all these reasons, it was important to develop a system in which identification could not be faked. The Attorney-General submitted that the only way to accomplish this was to digitise fingerprints and iris scans, and keep them for posterity. At present, fingerprints and iris scans could not be duplicated, and consequently, the shift to Aadhaar was necessary. Furthermore, this data would be encrypted and stored in a centralised server, and shared only with the police in case it was needed for resolving a crime.
Aadhaar itself, the Attorney-General submitted, was originally conceputalised to prevent leakages in the public distribution system, in payment of wages under the NREGA, in the payment of pensions, and so on. He argued that with Aadhaar, more than Rs 50 crores had been saved by plugging leakages. Consequently, even if there was some infringement of individual rights, it was balanced by the larger public goal, as mandated – according to the Attorney-General – by Rousseau’s conceptualisation of the social contract. Individuals were in a contractual relationship with the State from their birth, reliant upon it for a host of benefits; how then could they refuse to pay their taxes in the manner mandated by the State?
Indeed – according to the Attorney-General – the Supreme Court had itself sanctioned the use of Aadhaar in PDS schemes in 2011, and in SIM card verification just a couple of months before. Furthermore, an accurate identification system such as Aadhaar was needed to ensure that India was in compliance with its obligations under international agreements such as the FATCA. For all these reasons, the Attorney-General submitted that Aadhaar was entirely within the parametres of Article 21 of the Constitution.
He concluded his arguments by submitting that within the contours of the social contract, nobody had a right to make themselves invisible: “you may want to be forgotten. But the State does not want to forget you.”
Returning to this argument at a later point in his submissions, the Attorney-General also argued that a number of Supreme Court cases – such as Kathi Kalu Oghad – had held that compelling persons accused of a crime to provide their fingerprints had been held not to violate the constitutional right against self-incrimination. So why couldn’t the State put in preventive measures to check tax dodging in advance? Justice Sikri interjected to say that the Kathi Kalu line of cases might not be apposite, because they involved accused in criminal cases; surely it was not right to treat the entire country as presumptively accused of tax dodging. The Attorney-General replied that he was only arguing that the right to bodily integrity was not absolute – it could be taken away in certain cases. “Which cases, is the question“, Justice Sikri responded. “Even your life can be taken away under Article 21“, the Attorney-General continued. “But only with due process,” Justice Sikri replied. “We must balance individual dignity with State interests.” The Attorney-General responded: “at the end of the day, if you can give your fingerprints for registering property, why can’t you give your fingerprints for this?”
Still later in his submissions, the Attorney-General cited precedents from the American Supreme Court about urine testing for school athletes, DNA testing of a rape accused, and – perhaps paradoxically – Roe vs Wade – to reiterate that the right to bodily integrity was not absolute.
The Attorney-General’s rebuttal to Mr Datar’s argument on Article 19(1)(g) was brief. He stated that there was no violation of Article 19(1)(g), and expressed surprise that in this day and age, someone was making a constitutional argument based on Article 19(1)(g).
S. 139AA and the Aadhaar Act
The Attorney-General submitted that there was no conflict between Section 139AA and the Aadhaar Act. Responding to Mr Shyam Divan’s submission that the coercive character of 139AA could not stand alongside the voluntary nature of Aadhaar, the Attorney-General argued that Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act was at least partially mandatory: the State could tell citizens “either you should have an Aadhaar Act, or you jolly well apply for it.” Furthermore, under S. 57 of the Aadhaar Act, Aadhaar could be used for purposes other than those stipulated in the Act itself. And in any event, he argued, Parliament’s power to prescribe uses for Aadhaar was plenary, and subject only to the Constitution. The Attorney-General added that the Aadhaar Act came built in with safeguards: Section 29, for instance, prohibited the sharing of information. True, there had been some leaks of late; but those leaks, he argued, had not come from the UIDAI, or the central government, but the Jharkhand state government; and in any event, biometric details had not been compromised – only bank account information had.
Parliamentary Legislation and Court Orders
The Attorney-General’s final argument was that whatever the status of the pre-2016 Supreme Court orders stipulating that Aadhaar could only remain voluntary, all these were overridden by subsequent legislation. There was no such thing as “legislative estoppel“. No Court could injunct Parliament from passing laws as it deemed fit. By passing the Aadhaar Act – and then s. 139AA – the Parliament had simply exercised its plenary powers, and passed validating legislation taking away the basis of the prior court orders.
The Attorney-General concluded his arguments by citing a World Bank Report praising the Aadhaar system. Everyone needed an identity, he argued. Many people in India had no identity. Aadhaar was a method to bring them into the mainstream, prevent exclusion, and guarantee them their dignity.
The Arguments of Mr. Arghya Sengupta: Article 14 and Proportionality
Continuing the case for the Union, Mr Arghya Sengupta argued that Mr Datar’s claim that 139AA violated Article 14 of the Constitution was incorrect, because Article 14 did not require the Court to undertake a proportionality analysis. He cited K.T. Plantations for the proposition that a proportionality test effectively amounted to judges substituting their wisdom for that of Parliament. Taking the Court through comparative law, Mr Sengupta submitted that traditional judicial review claims in the United Kingdom had never included a proportionality test. While the European Court of Human Rights did incorporate a proportionality analysis into its rights-analysis, this only caused greater confusion than resolution. Relying upon Lord Pannick and Lord Hoffman, Mr Sengupta submitted that “the reasons for not treating people equally often involve considerations of social policy.” Justice Sikri interjected to observe that equality claims in the United Kingdom – which didn’t have a Constitution – might be treated differently from how they were in India. Mr Sengupta responded that the broader point was that proportionality only entered the picture when some balancing of rights was involved. Article 14 only required the Courts to ask whether there existed a valid reason for treating people differently from one another. There was no question of balancing. In fact, Article 14 was not about “rights” at all; fundamentally, it was about “wrongs”. Mr Sengupta concluded this argument by citing Professor Rebecca Dixon for the proposition that even the proportionality test had begun to collapse into the traditional test, and argued for the retention of the traditional Indian test of intelligible differentia and rational nexus.
On the merits of Article 14 itself, Mr Sengupta argued that Mr Datar was incorrect in arguing that the disproportionate penalty for not complying with Article 139AA rendered it violative of Article 14. Relying upon the McDowell Case, he repeated his submission that proportionality could not be invoked to strike down a statute under Article 14. Nor could a statute be struck down on grounds of arbitrariness. Justice Sikri interjected that, by virtue of Mardia Chemicals, it might be possible to invalidate a statute on grounds of arbitrariness. In response, Mr Sengupta cited Rajbala vs State of Haryana, which had rejected the arbitrariness doctrine (for a previous discussion of this debate on this blog, see here; for an analysis of Rajbala, see here).
Coming to the traditional classification test under Article 14, Mr Sengupta opposed Mr Datar’s argument that by making Aadhaar compulsory only for individual assessees, S. 139AA violated the rational nexus test. He argued that, by definition, only individuals could have Aadhaar numbers (as opposed to companies, or HUFs). Consequently, Parliament had chosen to first focus on the problem of black money and tax evasion committed by individuals, and had brought in Aadhaar to check that. No enactment, Mr Sengupta argued, could completely solve a social problem. Parliament had decided to make a start with individuals, and at a future date, would devise ways for dealing with the other categories of assessees as well.
Justice Sikri said that he understood that there was no discrimination if companies were incapable of even having Aadhaar numbers. However, the question was why discriminate between two people, both of whom were willing to pay tax, if one of them was willing to enrol for an Aadhaar number, and the other was not. Mr Sengupta replied that the purpose of 139AA was not to discriminate, but to prevent duplication of PAN cards. So the discriminatory object test under Article 14 – as Mr Shyam Divan had argued – was inapplicable. In fact, much like in the US, when TIN was replaced by SSN, in future, the State might choose to replace PAN with Aadhaar entirely.
Mr Sengupta submitted that Mr Divan calling his clients “conscientious objectors” who were being discriminated against was entirely misplaced. Citing texts on civil disobedience and conscientious objection, he argued that what Mr Divan was essentially arguing for was a license to break the law. You may not want to stand up for the national anthem, he pointed out, but that did not mean you could sit down. Justice Sikri observed that that might not be an entirely accurate framing; the petitioners had, after all, approached the Court to have the law struck down. Mr Sengupta replied that there could be conscientious objection to all kinds of laws, but that in itself did not make them discriminatory.
Mr Sengupta’s final argument was on informational self-determination. He submitted that there was no absolute right to informational self-determination. The State could – and did – collect a wide range of information from individuals: births, deaths, marriages. The information that the State required from its citizens was extensive, and nobody challenged it. In any event, Mr Sengupta argued, whatever right to informational self-determination – in the apparent guise of privacy – did exist, it would have to be conditioned and defined by cultural factors. India was very different from Germany, from where Mr Divan had drawn his doctrine. There would have to be devised an Indian doctrine of informational self-determination, drawn from Indian conditions. Citing Mark Tushnet on the dangers of comparative law, Mr Sengupta argued against “importing” the conception of privacy into India.
At this point, Mr Divan interjected and said that his argument was not a privacy argument, but an argument about his right to his body. Justice Sikri observed that there might be overlaps between the two concepts. Mr Divan responded that there might indeed be overlaps, but that his right to bodily integrity was not subsumed within his right to privacy. Mr Sengupta argued that it was not open to this Court to draw a distinction between privacy and informational self-determination; given that the very question of privacy was pending before the Constitution Bench, it was for the Constitution Bench to decide what the scope of privacy was, and whether or not it included informational self-determination. Returning to his argument about importing foreign law into India, Mr Sengupta cited Justice Antonin Scalia of the American Supreme Court who, in a death penalty case, had resisted the use of comparative precedent, arguing that in judging whether the death penalty in a particular case was “cruel and unusual punishment”, only “American standards of decency” ought to be looked at.
In any event, Mr Sengupta continued, even the German Constitutional Court required a balancing between individual and community interests. He repeated his submission that the right to informational self-determination was fundamentally about privacy, since the right to control information about oneself was a facet of privacy. If the Court was going to go into that, then there was a compelling State interest in the present case: that of preventing duplicate PANs, and ensuring efficient collection of taxes. Justice Sikri stated that the Petitioners would have to show why they had a right to pay taxes in the manner that they desired. Mr Sengupta continued by saying that biometric collection was the most sophisticated system presently known. PAN was the technology of 1975, he concluded; but Aadhaar was the technology of 2016.
The Arguments of Mr Zoheb Hossain
Mr Zoheb Hossain observed that India is a progressive tax regime. Progressive taxation was itself a facet of Article 14 of the Constitution. 139AA served this progressive goal by eliminating the inequality between taxpayers and tax evaders, by making duplication of PANs impossible. There was no discrimination against individuals; in fact, there were other provisions of the Income Tax Act – such as dividend distribution tax – applicable only to companies.
Mr Hossain then argued that Mr Divan was incorrect to argue that compelled taking of biometric details and iris scans amounted to compelled speech. Citing United States vs O’Brien, he argued that not every act or conduct amounted to “speech”.
Mr Hossain concluded by arguing that the standard for injuncting a parliamentary legislation was extremely high. There could be no injunction unless the statute was manifestly unconstitutional. Consequently, if the Court was inclined to refer the case to the larger bench, it ought not to grant a stay on the operation of S. 139AA.
(Disclaimer: The writer assisted the Petitioners in the constitutional challenge before the Court.)