On this blog, I have argued before that the ongoing Aadhaar litigation provides an example of the Supreme Court’s evolving doctrine of “judicial evasion”: faced with a dispute between individual and State that involves wide-ranging ramifications on civil and constitutional rights, the Court’s response is not to decide it one way or another, but to simply refuse to hear it at all. While legally this keeps the position of the parties at status quo, at the same time, it permits the State to take all steps on the ground to achieve a fait accompli that effectively makes the case academic and infructuous. In other words, by not deciding, the Court is, in effect, deciding in favour of the State, but without the public accountability that comes with the existence of a written, reasoned judgment.
The doctrine of judicial evasion ensured – as I pointed out in my posts about the Aadhaar/PAN litigation – that in the one constitutional challenge to Aadhaar that the Court did hear, the Petitioners had to argue as if they were playing a tennis match with one arm and one leg tied behind their backs. And today’s order – in Shanta Sinha vs Union of India – is another excellent example of how, by applying this doctrine, the Court has fundamentally abdicated its constitutional responsibility to protect the rights of Indian citizens.
Recall – yet again – the background. On 11th August 2015, after the Union of India argued that there was no fundamental right to privacy under the Indian Constitution, the three-judge bench of the Supreme Court referred the challenge to the Aadhaar scheme (at that point, a voluntary, executive scheme) to a larger bench for decision. The Court clarified that, pending the final decision, Aadhaar could not be made mandatory for availing of subsidies or benefits, and it recommended that the case be heard on an urgent basis. A Constitution Bench met in October 2015 to extent the list of subsidies for which Aadhaar could be used; after that, the case has not been heard, despite numerous attempts to “mention” it before the Chief Justice, and have it listed. It has been one year and nine months since the referral order.
In the meantime, the Union of India has gone full steam ahead with Aadhaar. In 2016, it passed an Aadhaar Act, providing statutory sanction to the scheme. Section 7 of the Act authorised the government to make Aadhaar mandatory for subsidies or benefits, which were paid out of the Consolidated Fund. Under the ostensible cover of Section 7, a number of notifications have been passed, making Aadhaar mandatory for a whole range of crucial, life-sustaining benefits: from schoolchildren’s midday meals to compensation for victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
Before the Supreme Court today, then, the case for the petitioners in Shanta Sinha vs Union of India was simple: seventeen notifications under the authority of S. 7 of the Aadhaar Act, which made Aadhaar mandatory for crucial subsidies and benefits, were illegal, and Section 7 itself was unconstitutional. Moreover, the case was one of utmost urgency: in most of these notifications, the last date for applying was June 30. Given that the Supreme Court was closing for the vacations today, unless some orders were passed, the case would become entirely infructuous. People entirely dependent on these subsidies for their basic survival would have no choice but to enrol for an Aadhaar number, whether they wanted to or not.
To this, the Court’s only response was to decline to hear the case, because the constitutional challenge to the Aadhaar Act was already pending before the Constitution Bench – the same Constitution Bench that had not been set up for a year and nine months, despite every attempt by numerous petitioners to persuade the Chief Justice to do so. Instead, it tagged this challenge to the already pending challenge before that Constitution Bench. Petitioners’ arguments that they would not rely upon the right to privacy – which was the reason why the referral had happened in the first place – had no impact.
Petitioners then requested the Court to at least hear the case on the issue of interim reliefs because – as pointed out above – the entire case would become infructuous by June 30. To this, the Court responded that the Petitioners could only raise the plea of interim reliefs before the Constitution Bench – that same unicorn Constitution Bench that nobody had seen a hoofprint of since August 2015. The Court then said that the Petitioners ought to approach the Chief Justice and mention this – the same Chief Justice who had publicly refused to list the case on a prior mentioning.
Needless to say, there’s going to be no Constitution Bench before June 30. In short, the Supreme Court has effectively decided the validity of seventeen notifications that make Aadhaar mandatory for accessing crucial services in favour of the government without hearing a single argument, not even arguments on an interim stay.
Presumably, judges of the Supreme Court do not live in individual silos. The two-judge bench of Justices Sikri and Bhushan who heard today’s case was surely aware of the non-progress of the Aadhaar case through the Supreme Court over nearly two years. Surely it was aware that there was going to be no listing of anything any time soon. And so, surely these judges knew that by “tagging” this case to the existing challenges before the mythical Constitution Bench, the effect was nothing other than to decide the case in favour of the government.
I have said before that the only proper description of the Supreme Court’s conduct in the Aadhaar case is institutional disingenuousness. In refusing to set up the Constitution Bench to hear Aadhaar, while simultaneously setting up three Constitution Benches in the vacations to hear three other cases (none of which carry the same urgency as this one) and in “tagging” new challenges to the main challenge that is never heard, thereby burying them as well, the Court has effectively ruled in favour of the government on Aadhaar without allowing the petitioners to argue their challenge, and without writing a reasoned judgment that would be subject to public scrutiny.
This, to me, seems nothing less than an abdication of constitutional responsibility through the doctrine of judicial evasion.