Guest Post: Government of Delhi vs Union of India

(This is a guest post by Vasudev Devadasan.)

We have already discussed on this blog (here) the long delays that the Delhi v Union of India case has been subject to. With the hearings due to commence this Wednesday, this post will provide a recap of the constitutional issues raised by the Delhi Government’s tussle with the Centre, and the Delhi High Court’s decision in favour of the latter.

Soon after being elected, the Delhi government had taken issue with a Home Ministry notification that allowed the Lt. Governor to make appointments relating to ‘services’ (under this, the Chief Secretary had been appointed without the Chief Minister of Delhi being consulted.) The dispute escalated when several initiatives of the Delhi government (including commissions of inquiry set up to investigate corruption in certain sectors) were attacked on the grounds that they hadn’t received approval of the Lt. Governor. The controversy stemmed from Delhi’s unique position under Article 239AA and centred around the role of the Lt. Governor of Delhi (a central government appointee).

Barring a few exceptions (e.g. police and land) Article 239AA gives the legislative assembly of Delhi competence to pass laws on matters in List II and III of the seventh schedule. Notably, the appointment of the Chief Secretary fell under Entry 41 of List II (‘services’). The Delhi government argued that on matters which it was competent to legislate on, the Lt. Governor was bound to act on the ‘aid and advice’ of the elected government. Additionally, as he was a ‘rubber-stamp’ authority, there was no need for the Delhi government to secure the Lt. Governor’s approval on these matters. Thus, the Home Ministry notification empowering the Lt. Governor to make appointments was ultra vires, and the initiatives taken by the Cabinet were valid irrespective of whether it received the Lt. Governor’s approval.

The central government contended that Article 239AA did not take away the legislative supremacy of parliament to pass laws with respect to Union Territories (the default position under the Constitution) and the Lt. Governor, as an appointee of the central government, was the executive head of Delhi. Thus, the Lt. Governor was not bound to act on the ‘aid and advice’ of the Delhi government and every decision passed by the Cabinet was subject to the Lt. Governor’s approval.

The relevant provisions of Article 239 and 239AA are as follows:

  • Article 239 (1): Save as otherwise provided by Parliament by law, every Union territory shall be administered by the President acting, to such extent as he thinks fit, through an administrator to be appointed by him with such designation as he may specify.
  • Article 239AA (2a): There shall be a Legislative Assembly for the National Capital Territory and the seats in such Assembly shall be filled by members chosen by direct election from territorial constituencies in the National Capital Territory.
  • Article 239AA (3): Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the Legislative Assembly shall have power to make laws for the whole or any part of the National Capital Territory with respect to any of the matters enumerated in the State List or in the Concurrent List in so far as any such matter is applicable to Union territories except matters with respect to Entries 1, 2 and 18 of the State List and Entries 64, 65 and 66 of that List in so far as they relate to the said Entries 1, 2 and 18.
  • Article 239AA (4): There shall be a Council of Ministers consisting of not more than ten per cent. of the total number of members in the Legislative Assembly, with the Chief Minister at the head to aid and advise the Lieutenant Governor in the exercise of his functions in relation to matters with respect to which the Legislative Assembly has power to make laws, except in so far as he is, by or under any law, required to act in his discretion

Provided that in the case of difference of opinion between the Lieutenant Governor and his Ministers on any matter, the Lieutenant Governor shall refer it to the President for decision and act according to the decision given thereon by the President […]

Determining the scope of this Article, the Delhi High Court (the correctness of which will now be argued this week) effectively threw the book at the Delhi government, upholding all the principal submissions of the Centre and holding that the Lt. Governor is the executive head of Delhi. Let us examine the crux of the High Court’s reasoning.

Constitutional Position of Delhi

The High Court spent a notable amount of time emphasising that Delhi continues to be a Union Territory and not a “state”. The Centre was also understandably keen to highlight this narrative, because Article 246(4) grants parliament plenary power to legislate on all three lists of the seventh schedule for union territories, and Article 239(1) vests the administration of union territories in the President. Thus, it stands to reason that if Delhi were a ‘union territory’ simpliciter there would be no question of whether the Lt. Governor did or did not have complete executive powers.

However, Delhi is not a ‘union territory’ simpliciter. To provide some context, when the Constitution was originally enacted India was divided into Part A states, Part B states, Part C states, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Delhi was a ‘Part C’ state alongside the likes Coorg, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura. The States Reorganisation Commission ultimately removed the very conception of a ‘Part C’ state as ‘neither financially viable nor functionally efficient’. Thus, the Constitution, after the Seventh Amendment, came to recognise only two types of territories: states and union territories.

However – and this is the bone of contention – with the insertion of Article 239AA, Delhi entered a unique constitutional phase. The statement of objects and reasons attached to the bill inserting Article 239AA notes that while Delhi continues to be a union territory, it must be given an elected government capable of responding to the concerns of its citizens.

In its judgment, the High Court quoted extensively from the case of NDMC v Punjab to conclude that while Delhi has a unique setup for a union territory, ‘it is certainly not a state’ and is thus governed by Article 246(4) (which allows Parliament to make laws for any area included within a “state”). However, to acknowledge that the Constitution itself creates a legislature accountable to the people of Delhi, and yet argue that because Delhi continues to be a union territory parliament must retain plenary power on all matters, is attempting to push a square peg into a round hole. One has only to look at the other territories that were originally ‘Part C’ states to recognise that there exists a certain fluidity in the classification of territories. Article 239AA itself acknowledges the unique situation of Delhi by providing both parliament (Article 239AA (3)) and the President (proviso to Article 239AA(4)) a stake in the administration of Delhi. Thus, the contours of Article 239AA are a better place to look if understanding the constitutional position of Delhi is what is required.

‘Aid and advise’

Delhi has three political players: the elected legislative assembly, the council of ministers who are accountable to the legislative assembly, and the Lt. Governor, in whose name all decisions regarding the governance of Delhi are taken. A similar setup exists for Presidents at the national level and Governors at the state level. In examining the interaction between these actors, the Supreme Court in Shamsher Singh held that the President and the Governor are legally bound to act on the ‘aid and advice’ of the council of ministers.

One might have argued that the Lt. Governor is akin to a Governor of a state with respect to a union territory, and that would have been the end of the matter. However, there are slight differences between the President, the Governor, and the Lt. Governor. Article 74 states that the President ‘shall act in accordance with the advice tendered’ by the council of ministers, foreclosing the debate on its binding nature. Article 163 notes that at the state level, the council of ministers shall ‘aid and advise’ the Governor, except where he is required by the constitution to act on his own discretion. In the case of Delhi, Article 239AA (4) (above) lays out an arrangement whereby the council of ministers shall ‘aid and advise’ the Lt. Governor, except where he is required by statute to act on his discretion. The article also allows the Lt. Governor to, in event of a disagreement between him and the council of ministers, refer the matter to the President.

According to the High Court, these differences demonstrate that the relationship between a Governor and a state council of ministers, and the Lt. Governor and the Delhi council of ministers are materially different. Firstly, the Lt. Governor’s discretion extends to instances permitted by ordinary statute (as opposed to the Constitution, like the Governor), and secondly, the Lt. Governor can reference a ‘difference of opinion’ between himself and the council of ministers to the President. The fact that such a difference can exist was enough for the High Court to hold that the Lt. Governor was not bound by the ‘aid and advice’ of the council of ministers, who had to secure his approval on all matters.

Effectively, what the Court was doing was engaging in is a structural reading of the Constitution. Rather than focus on the text of specific provisions, it used the arrangement of several provisions to determine the ‘institutional arrangements’ that the Constitution contemplates. The reasoning of the Court, however, runs into several obstacles.

Firstly, it is understood that the exercise of discretion by a state Governor is not limited to instances where the constitution expressly authorises it but extends to situations where ‘by necessary implication’ he must exercise it. Secondly, an exhaustive list of when the Lt. Governor of Delhi can exercise his discretion is provided in Section 41 of the GNCTD Act. Importantly, Section 41 of that Act limits his discretion to ‘matters which fall outside the purview of the powers conferred on the Legislative Assembly’. Thus, while an instinctive resort to a hierarchy of authorities (where the Constitution is sacrosanct vis-à-vis ordinary legislation) might lead one to think that the Lt. Governor has been provided more discretion, an actual examination of the relationship shows that he is in a materially similar position to that of a state governor.

The Delhi government had also used structural interpretation to contend that because Delhi has an elected legislative assembly and a council of ministers, the Lt. Governor was no different from a state governor and, under the Shamsher Singh decision, was bound by the decision of the council of ministers. The power of this argument comes not only from similarities between a full-fledged state and Delhi but also from the idea that the Constitution promulgates a conception of democracy, the working hypothesis of which requires that executive power is given to representative bodies. In Ram Jawaya Kapoor the supreme court recognised this when it noted that: ‘executive power inheres in those which are collectively responsible to the legislature’. The constitutional text creates a legislature to be elected from the population of Delhi, and the council of ministers is accountable to this elected assembly. To vest the executive power of Delhi in an appointee of the central government over and above this elected body is an interpretation that goes against this working hypothesis and raises anti-democratic concerns.

The High Court also noted that the Lt. Governor had the power to refer a matter to the President if there was a ‘difference of opinion’. Does the mere fact that the Lt. Governor can have a difference of opinion with the council of ministers, and the fact that a procedure is laid out to resolve this dispute, lead to the conclusion that the advice is not otherwise binding? An interesting place to look is Article 74, which outlines the relationship between the President and his council of ministers. The proviso to Article 74(1) allows for the President to disagree with a decision of the union council of ministers. In the event of such a disagreement, the matter will be passed back from the President to the council of ministers. The council of ministers may choose to modify the proposal or resubmit it as it (in which case it would be binding on the President). However, the crucial takeaway is that allowing for disagreement doesn’t detract from the binding nature of the ministers’ ‘aid and advice’. This, of course, begs the question: why allow for a difference of opinion if the minister’s views are binding? Consider a situation where the Delhi government tabled a proposal that the Lt. Governor considered to violate a constitutional provision. Under his duty to protect the constitution he would likely be under an obligation to disagree and bring the matter to the President’s attention. However, to argue that because the Constitution permits a difference of opinion, the ‘aid and advice’ of the council of ministers is no longer binding is an understanding that runs contrary to the institutional arrangements created to operationalise democracy through a cabinet style of government.

Initiatives of the Delhi Government

The High Court’s reasoning in striking down the initiatives taken by the Delhi government was two-fold. Firstly, it noted that under the General Clauses Act the ‘appropriate government’ for a Union Territory was the central government. Secondly, it concluded that: if the Lt. Governor could differ with the views of the council of ministers, and the Lt. Governor was the executive head of Delhi, then it stood to reason that his consent was needed on all proposals before they could be put into action. As the proposals for the setting of commissions of inquiry and other initiatives had not been approved by the Lt. Governor, they were deemed to be invalid.

Using the General Clauses Act to determine the ‘appropriate government’ encounters the same difficulties that trying to determine the exact constitutional of Delhi position does. The statute only recognises the power of parliament and the state legislature. Looking at Article 239AA and the institutional practice of the constitution (a functional interpretation) however reveals while the first schedule only recognises states and union territories, there exists a wider spectrum of arrangements in the governance of territories.

The second argument accepted by the High Court is an extension of the conclusion that the ‘aid and advice’ of the ministers is not binding on the Lt. Governor. While suffering from the same infirmities relating to democracy, it also begs the question as to what the role of the Delhi government is if it can be overridden at any point in time. This is best exemplified by Article 239AB which allows for the President’s rule to be imposed in Delhi. If the Lt. Governor (a manifestation of the President’s authority) must approve all matters in the governance of Delhi, why does Article 239AB allow for the imposition of President’s rule in Delhi? Why would the President need to impose his rule in a territory, the governance of which is vested in him?

The Home Ministry Notification

Through a set of notifications in 2014 and 2015 the Home Ministry had declared that (1) the Lt. Governor was empowered to make appointments under Entry 41 of List II (‘state public service’) and, (2) that the anti-corruption bureau (ACB) of Delhi had no jurisdiction against central government employees.

The Delhi government had contended that Article 239AA (3) gave the Delhi legislature competence to make laws on List II, and the notification was an infringement on the legislative competence of Delhi which could only be achieved through a constitutional amendment. The High Court, however, sided with the Centre, noting that as Delhi did not currently have a state public service commission, the central government was free to legislate on the matter. This argument has two implications: firstly it effectively allows the central government to legislate on any matter in List II where a state (or in this case Delhi) has not yet acted upon. There is no constitutional bar on Delhi having a state public service commission, and one wonders how the High Court’s reasoning would have changed if Delhi already had such a commission. Secondly, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that given the nature of the cabinet system where legislative and executive power are collapsed, the Chief Minister must have a say in the appointments of key civil servants. This is essential to achieve the legislative goals of the elected government and ensure smooth governance. To grant the Lt. Governor this power is to throw a spanner in the workings of an elected government.

The exclusion of central government employees from the ACB’s jurisdiction was characterised as a ‘simple direction to a police station’ traceable to Entry 1 (‘police’) which the central government can legislate on under Article 239AA (3). Interestingly, the notification was challenged under both legislative competence (the Delhi government arguing that it was a matter under ‘criminal law’ in List III) and as violative of Article 14 because it created a separate class of citizens in Delhi. This latter challenge was completely ignored by the Court which limits its analysis to the issue of legislative competence.


The dispute between the Delhi government and the Centre is undoubtedly political at its core. But it is precisely within these circumstances of politics that the constitutional text and doctrine can provide some de-minimus level of consensus on how Delhi is to be governed. The crux of the debate centres around the place of Delhi in the constitution, and the fact that it has a legislature elected by the people of Delhi. In evaluating the institutional arrangements that govern Delhi, the High Court was faced with an interpretation of Article 239AA that granted legislative and executive supremacy to the elected government of Delhi government while also granting the central government a say in certain issues. The interpretation ultimately favoured upon by the High Court however cuts the legs out from the elected legislature of the territory.

Asking the Right Questions: The Supreme Court’s Referral Order in the Sabarimala Case

In April 2016, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court had heard arguments in a PIL challenging the Sabarimala Temple’s practice of barring menstruating-age women (between the ages of 10 and 50) from entering the precincts of the temple. In a brief order delivered today, the case has been referred to a five-judge bench for adjudication.

As we have discussed previously on this blog, the Sabarimala Case is a particularly complex one, involving the interaction of statutes, government rules, custom, religious practice, and the Constitution. For a satisfactory adjudication of the case, therefore, it is important that the Court ask the right questions. As we shall see below, today’s referral order succeeds in that enterprise, and lays the foundation for a clear verdict on the constitutional issues involved.

Recall that the justification for excluding menstruating-age women from entry into the Sabarimala is grounded in religious custom and usage. What complicates the issue is that there is also an existing legislation: the Kerala Hindu Places of Worship (Authorisation of Entry Act) of 1965. Section 3 of that Act stipulates that places of public worship must be open to all sections and classes of Hindus, notwithstanding any custom or usage to the contrary. Section 4 of the Act authorises persons in charge of places of public worship to make regulations for the “due performance of rites and ceremonies, with the proviso that the Regulations cannot discriminate against Hindus of “any class.” Acting under Section 4, in 1965, the Kerala Government framed certain rules. Rule 3 of these Rules deprived certain classes of people from offering worship, and Rule 3(b) included within this class “women at such time during which they are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship.”  

Keeping in mind this statutory framework, we are now in a position to understand the issues involved in the Sabarimala Case. The first – and simplest – issue is whether Rule 3(b) is legally valid, given that Section 3 of the Parent Act – i.e. – the primary legislation – mandates that places of public worship must be open to all “sections and classes”. If women constitute a “section” or a “class” of Hindus, then clearly Rule 3(b), being subordinate legislation, is ultra vires the parent statute, and must fall. Consequently, the first question that the Court must answer is whether, for the purpose of temple entry, women constitute a “section” or a “class” of Hindus. To answer this question, the Court must undertake a historical examination of temple entry legislations, the kinds of exclusion that they were trying to combat, and the social movements that necessitated their enactment. While at the core of the temple entry movements was the exclusion of Dalits and other castes, it is also important to note that the root of such exclusion was ideas of ritual pollution and purity; notably, that is exactly the justification being offered for the exclusion of menstruating age women from Sabarimala. Consequently, if temple entry laws were framed for the purpose of making ideas of pollution and purity irrelevant to temple entry, then there is a strong case for including women – as a class – within their protective ambit.

Now, in the event that Section 3(b) is consistent with the parent Act, the larger question of constitutionality arises. The 1965 Act – and the Rules – are pieces of primary and subordinate legislation respectively, and are therefore subject to the provisions of the Constitution. Insofar as the Act and the Rules are invoked to justify the exclusion of women from the Sabarimala Temple, therefore, there is a clear violation of Articles 14 and 15(1) of the Constitution.

That, however, does not settle the issue, because the further argument is that the Act and the Rules merely codify the practice of existing religious mandates. These religious mandates, however, are grounded in something beyond merely the 1965 law: they are protected by Article 25(1) of the Constitution, which protects the freedom of religion. Or, in brief: the exclusion of menstruating age women is a religious mandate protected by Article 25(1) of the Constitution.

This raises a few difficult issues. The first issue is this: once the Kerala legislature passed the 1965 Temple Entry Act, then does there remain any independent right of places of public worship to regulate entry? Or, in other words, is the 1965 Act a “complete code” on the issue of temple entry? Readers will recall that a somewhat similar issue was at stake in the recent Triple Talaq judgment. The question there was whether the 1937 Shariat Act codified Muslim personal law, or whether it only recognised it. If it was the former, then if the 1937 Act was struck down as unconstitutional, the practice of triple talaq would go along with it; if the latter, however, then triple talaq was grounded not in a statute (which could be challenged and struck down for being unconstitutional), but was a part of “uncodified personal law”.

Consequently, the Court will have to decide whether, after the 1965 Act, it can be claimed that there exists an independent right under Article 25(1) to prohibit menstruating women from entering Sabarimala. If the Court decides that it cannot, then there is no further issue: insofar as the 1965 Act bans menstruating women from entering Sabarimala, it clearly violates Articles 14 and 15(1) (it may be argued that banning only menstruating women, and not all women, does not constitute sex discrimination; however, on this blog, it has repeatedly been pointed out how such arguments are flawed, and I will not rehearse them here).

However, if the Court holds that the claim can be made, then under existing Indian jurisprudence, it must ask a further question: is the banning of menstruating women an “essential religious practice” under Article 25(1), and is it consonant with the requirements of “public order, morality, and health”, to which Article 25(1) is subject. This will require the Court to go into the doctrines of the religion, and adjudicate whether the practice in question is essential, or merely peripheral.

Lastly, Article 26(b) of the Constitution guarantees to “religious denominations” the right to manage their own affairs in matters of religion. Two questions arise, therefore: do the worshippers at Sabarimala constitute a “religious denomination”? And is the question of temple access a question of “religion”? On the first issue, there exists substantial jurisprudence. My own suspicion is that in view of the fact that Sabarimala is governed by the Travnacore Devaswom Board (a State institution), and a State legislation, the religious denomination argument will not succeed. There is also a clear public element involved here (to an even greater extent than in the Bombay High Court’s Haji Ali Dargah decision).

The last sub-issue – whether temple access is a pure question of “religion” or not – appears straightforward, but is actually rather complex. This is because, historically – right from Ambedkar’s temple entry movements of the 1920s – issues of temple entry have always been framed as issues of civil rights, involving access to public spaces (for an account, see Anupama Rao’s book, Caste Question). Exclusion from temples has been understood to be an embodiment of social hierarchies and deeper social exclusions, and has been opposed in these terms. In fact, temple entry movements were so politically successful, that the Constitution contains a specific exception to the freedom of religion clause (Article 25(2)(b)) that categorically authorises the State to throw open religious institutions to all classes of Hindus. Consequently, a nuanced analysis might have to acknowledge that for historical, political and social reasons, the issue of temple access is no longer restricted to the purely religious domain, but is inextricably linked with civil status and civil rights.

In my view, therefore, the Court would have to answer the following questions in the Sabarimala Case:

(1) Is Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Rules ultra vires the 1965 Act?

(2) If the answer to (1) is “no”, then is the Act – to the extent that it authorises the exclusion of women from temples – constitutionally valid?

(3) If the answer to (2) is “no”, and the Act is invalid, can a right to exclude be claimed under Article 25(1) of the Constitution?

(4) If the answer to (3) is “yes”, then is the exclusion of menstruating women from Sabarimala an “essential religious practice” protected by Article 25(1)?

(5) If the answer to (4) is “yes”, then is the exclusion of women nonetheless barred by reasons of “public order”, “health”, “morality”, or because of “other clauses of Part III”, which take precedence over Article 25(1)?

(6) Do Sabarimala worshippers constitute a separate religious denomination under Article 26?

(7) If the answer to (6) is yes, then is temple entry a pure question of religion?

In its referral order, the questions that the Court has framed are as follows:

“1. Whether the exclusionary practice which is based upon a biological factor exclusive to the female gender amounts to “discrimination” and thereby violates the very core of Articles 14, 15 and 17 and not protected by ‘morality’ as used in Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution?

2. Whether the practice of excluding such women constitutes an “essential religious practice” under Article 25 and whether a religious institution can assert a claim in that regard under the umbrella of right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion?

3. Whether Ayyappa Temple has a denominational character and, if so, is it permissible on the part of a ‘religious denomination’ managed by a statutory board and financed under Article 290-A of the Constitution of India out of Consolidated Fund of Kerala and Tamil Nadu can indulge in such practices violating constitutional principles/ morality embedded in Articles 14, 15(3), 39(a) and 51-A(e)?

4. Whether Rule 3 of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules permits ‘religious denomination’ to ban entry of women between the age of 10 to 50 years? And if so, would it not play foul of Articles 14 and 15(3) of the Constitution by restricting entry of women on the ground of sex?

5. Whether Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 is ultra vires the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 and , if treated to be intra vires, whether it will be violative of the provisions of Part III of the Constitution?”

While my own framing is almost exactly the reverse of how the Court has chosen to go about it, readers will note that the ground covered is virtually identical. One thing that is particularly interesting to note is that in Question 1, the Court refers not only to Articles 14 and 15, but to Article 17 as well. Article 17 bans the practice of “untouchability”. In framing the question, therefore, the Court has at least acknowledged the possibility that banning women on grounds of menstruation creates and perpetuates a stigma that is similar in character to the stigma faced by caste-untouchability (during the hearings last year, this argument was advanced by Ms Indira Jaising).

The invocation of Article 17 is crucial for another reason. In the recent Triple Talaq judgment, the dissenting opinion by Justices Khehar and Nazeer, after holding that triple talaq was an “essential practice” under Islam and therefore protected by Article 25(1), went on to hold that the phrase “subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part“, which prefaced the Article 25(1) right, could not make triple talaq subject to Articles 14 and 15(1). This was because these Articles only protected the individual against the State, while Triple Talaq was an issue between two private individuals. Note, however, that Article 17 is horizontally applicable – that is, it prohibits untouchability between private parties. If, therefore, the Court is to find that excluding menstruating women from temple access amounts to “untouchability” within the meaning of Article 17, then even if that exclusion is an “essential religious practice” under Article 25(1), it will fall. This, of course, is assuming that Khehar and Nazeer JJ’s views in Triple Talaq, on this point, were correct; my own view is that they were not.

Consequently, the Court’s framing of the referral questions has set up a host of fascinating constitutional questions. And at its heart, the issue is this: should the question of temple access be left purely to the discretion of religious heads, or is it something that should be governed by constitutional norms of equality and non-discrimination? In my view, given the role played by religion in private and public life in India, given how religious status is often inextricably linked with civil and social status, and given the unique history of temple entry movements in India, constitutional norms should apply, and the exclusion of menstruating women from Sabarimala should be stuck down.

In view of the importance of the issues involved, however, it is to be hoped that the Constitution Bench is set up swiftly, and the case heard and decided finally.


Guest Post: Cracks in the Foundation – Two Fundamental Issues in the Puttaswamy Decision that threaten its legacy

(This is a guest post by Karan Lahiri, a practicing advocate based in New Delhi.)

[This essay assumes that the reader has read the 10-part series on the Puttaswamy decision on this blog]

The decision handed down by nine judges of the Supreme Court of India in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India has been received with much optimism. It is being seen as a milestone, not only in how it removes two unsightly stains on the Supreme Court’s legacy [i.e. the express overruling of A.D.M Jabalpur v. Shivakant Shukla (See Part IX), and the dismantling of Suresh Kumar Koushal v. Naz Foundation (See Part V]], but also in how it carves out the various facets of the larger – and more abstract – concept of privacy.

The edifice built by this judgment, however, has two deep flaws (both in Justice Chandrachud’s plurality opinion, joined by three other judges), which should not be lightly glossed over.

The first flaw is that there is a huge hole in the judgment, which looks distinctly like an Aadhar-shaped hole. Nowhere is this more apparent than Paragraph 181 of Justice Chandrachud’s opinion, where he discusses the idea of what constitutes a “legitimate state interest”, one of the three prongs of the test laid down by him to justify incursions into the zone of privacy: –

“Apart from national security, the state may have justifiable reasons for the collection and storage of data. In a social welfare state, the government embarks upon programmes which provide benefits to impoverished and marginalised sections of society. There is a vital state interest in ensuring that scarce public resources are not dissipated by the diversion of resources to persons who do not qualify as recipients. Allocation of resources for human development is coupled with a legitimate concern that the utilisation of resources should not be siphoned away for extraneous purposes.[Emphasis supplied]

This idea is repeated in his conclusion: –

 “The legitimate aims of the state would include for instance protecting national security, preventing and investigating crime, encouraging innovation and the spread of knowledge, and preventing the dissipation of social welfare benefits. These are matters of policy to be considered by the Union government while designing a carefully structured regime for the protection of the data.” [Emphasis supplied]

The idea expressed, in itself, does not seem problematic. Compare this, however, with the Union of India’s position at the time the matter was being referred to a larger bench (recorded in the interim order passed on August 11, 2015): –

“20. The learned Attorney General has further submitted that the Aadhaar card is of great benefit since it ensures an effective implementation of several social benefit schemes of the Government like MGNREGA, the distribution of food, ration and kerosene through PDS system and grant of subsidies in the distribution of LPG. It was, therefore, submitted that restraining the respondents from issuing further Aadhaar cards or fully utilising the existing Aadhaar cards for the social schemes of the Government should be allowed.”

It is almost as if the Union’s position on the legitimacy of Aadhar’s aims has been upheld, despite the narrow scope of the reference and the fact that the constitutionality of the Aadhaar scheme was not under challenge before this bench of nine-judges. Indeed, Justice Sapre, in his separate opinion, has rebuffed attempts by those challenging Aadhar to bring up the specifics of the Scheme in the following terms: –

“39) Some learned senior counsel appearing for the petitioners, however, argued that the law laid down by this Court in some earlier decided cases though not referred for consideration be also overruled while answering the questions referred to this Bench whereas some senior counsel also made attempts to attack the legality and correctness of Aadhar Scheme in their submissions.

 40) These submissions, in my view, cannot be entertained in this case. It is for the reason that firstly, this Bench is constituted to answer only specific questions; secondly, the submissions pressed in service are not referred to this Bench and lastly, it is a settled principle of law that the reference Court cannot travel beyond the reference made and is confined to answer only those questions that are referred.”

If, indeed, the bench was expected to cleave close to the reference when Senior Counsel appearing for the Petitioners attempted “attack the legality and correctness of Aadhar Scheme in their submissions”, then equally, it should not have overreached itself in endorsing a hypothetical government objective which, in effect, sounds a lot like the Union of India’s justification of the Aadhar Scheme. Depending on how smaller benches of the Court act in this future, this overreach, whatever the reason, might be seen by future generations as nothing short of sophistry.

The second flaw is the deployment of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test in Justice Chandrachud’s plurality opinion, where he writes, under the heading “Essential Nature of Privacy”: –

“The lives which individuals lead as members of society engender a reasonable expectation of privacy. The notion of a reasonable expectation of privacy has elements both of a subjective and objective nature. Privacy at a subjective level is a reflection of those areas where an individual desire to be left alone. On an objective plane, privacy is defined by those constitutional values which shape the content of the protected zone where the individual ought to be left alone. The notion that there must exist a reasonable expectation of privacy ensures that while on the one hand, the individual has a protected zone of privacy, yet on the other, the exercise of individual choices is subject to the rights of others to lead orderly lives… Hence while the individual is entitled to a zone of privacy, its extent is based not only on the subjective expectation of the individual but on an objective principle which defines a reasonable expectation.” [Emphasis supplied]

 This basically attempts to limit the privacy right of the individual to that, which, as a member of society, she can reasonably expect. The degree of privacy thus, which one can reasonably expect, is that which does not interfere with “the rights of others to lead ordinary lives”. The problems with this line of reasoning are twofold, one of which is textual and the other doctrinal.

1. The Textual Problem

The Constitution has already defined, in its text, the social interests or “the rights of others” that can be invoked by the State in justifying incursions into fundamental rights. For example, in a given case, if there is an interference with a facet of the right to privacy emanating from Article 19(1)(a), the only “reasonable restrictions” recognized are those contained in Article 19(2), “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”, which do not recognize any broader social or public interest. This is why Justice Nariman, in his separate opinion (which I personally feel is the one which is most doctrinally sound), writes that “when it comes to restrictions on this right, the drill of various Articles to which the right relates must be scrupulously followed.” Justice Chandrachud’s opinion, however, uses these “rights of others” not merely to restrict the right to privacy, but to limit the very contours of the meaning of privacy. This is nothing but a variation of the Supreme Court’s notorious “balancing” test (critiqued on this blog here), where unenumerated public or social or community interests are used to restrict fundamental freedoms.

2. The Doctrinal Problem

The doctrinal inconsistency in Justice Chandrachud’s deployment of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test lies in the fact that he uses it to limit the scope of an individual’s right to privacy based on “the rights of others”. However, this test, originating in American jurisprudence, has not been used in the United States to subordinate individual rights to amorphous social interests (“the rights of others”), but has been used to identify places where individuals can claim a Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The test itself is traceable to the US Supreme Court’s decision in Katz v. US. The Fourth Amendment of the American Constitution protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” In Olmstead v. US, this was read strictly to mean that an unreasonable search and seizure only occurs when there is a physical “entry” into the “houses or offices of the defendants”.

The decision in Katz untethered the Fourth Amendment from the home (reflected in its text which covers persons, houses, papers, and effects), moving beyond the idea that unreasonable searches and seizures could only happen when there were physical intrusions into a home or office. It is in this context, while reversing a conviction based on evidence gathered with a listening device attached to the outside of a phone booth, that Justice Potter Stewart observed that “the Fourth Amendment protects people, not places”. In his concurrence, Justice Harlan speaks of the “reasonable expectation of privacy”, connecting the Fourth Amendment protection afforded to people once again to the dynamics of spaces: –

“As the Court’s opinion states, “the Fourth Amendment protects people, not places.” The question, however, is what protection it affords to those people. Generally, as here, the answer to that question requires reference to a “place.” My understanding of the rule that has emerged from prior decisions is that there is a twofold requirement, first that a person have exhibited an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy and, second, that the expectation be one that society is prepared to recognize as “reasonable.” Thus, a man’s home is, for most purposes, a place where he expects privacy, but objects, activities, or statements that he exposes to the “plain view” of outsiders are not “protected,” because no intention to keep them to himself has been exhibited. On the other hand, conversations in the open would not be protected against being overheard, for the expectation of privacy under the circumstances would be unreasonable. Cf. Hester v. United States, supra.

 The critical fact in this case is that “[o]ne who occupies it, [a telephone booth] shuts the door behind him, and pays the toll that permits him to place a call is surely entitled to assume” that his conversation is not being intercepted. Ante at 389 U. S. 352. The point is not that the booth is “accessible to the public” at other times, ante at 389 U. S. 351, but that it is a temporarily private place whose momentary occupants’ expectations of freedom from intrusion are recognized as reasonable. Cf. Rios v. United States, 364 U. S. 253.” [Emphasis supplied]

 Therefore, the question that Justice Harlan was answering, purely in the context of the Fourth Amendment was ­– in what places does the Fourth Amendment protect people against unreasonable searches and seizures? His answer is, first, that this protection is available where the individual subjectively expects privacy. So, for instance, there would be no Fourth Amendment protection if a Federal Agent overhears a loud public conversation in a crowded restaurant, since the speakers do not expect privacy. The additional limb is that society must recognize as reasonable the expectation of privacy of an individual in that space. Therefore, even if the person speaking openly in a crowded restaurant expects not to be overheard, this expectation would be an objectively unreasonable one based on prevailing social standards, as opposed to, let us say, a reasonable expectation of privacy that would be objectively valid if a private conversation was taking place in an enclosed private dining area.

Justice Chandrachud’s opinion, emphasizing the “rights of others”, has used this test to limit the very meaning of the broader right to privacy using the “reasonable expectation” test, in a manner which is completely at odds with US jurisprudence. This is despite the fact that in the United States, this is a pure Fourth Amendment test, and is not used to adjudicate cases where a broader right to privacy is involved, as emerging from the “penumbras” of the Bill of Rights (à la Griswold etc.). Secondly, in the United States, this test is only used to analyze whether the subjective expectation of privacy in the context of unreasonable searches and seizures, in Fourth Amendment cases, is objectively valid within particular physical spaces, based on social mores surrounding such spaces. There are no “rights of others” being balanced against the right to privacy. In fact, in the US, the “rights of others” is not even an ingredient in the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test.

Therefore, in Katz, a Fourth Amendment claim can be made in respect of a conversation in a phone booth, a “temporarily private place” which, based on social standards is recognized as a space where “momentary occupants’ expectations of freedom from intrusion are recognized as reasonable.” If Katz were to be decided based on the test which Justice Chandrachud has laid down, the Court would have ascertained the social interests or the “rights of others” involved, in order to determine whether a law enforcement agency could eavesdrop. So, for instance, the subject matter of the conversation or the identity of the defendant as a suspect could be used to justify an unconstitutional intrusion, perhaps based on a broad social interest in crime prevention. This is never what Justice Harlan intended when he laid down the reasonable expectation of privacy test.

Fortunately, in a case like Puttaswamy, where there is no single majority opinion rendered by five out of nine judges, what can be considered binding law must be arrived at by parsing the six plurality opinions, and understanding which propositions command the support of five or more judges, to form a determinative majority. Therefore, no proposition laid down in Justice Chandrachud’s opinion (on which a total of four judges have signed off, including Justice Chandrachud) can be considered to be binding unless supported by one of the other plurality opinions. A lot, therefore, will depend on what reading of Puttaswamy is advanced by future lawyers, and how future benches deal with it.

It therefore remains to be seen, in individual cases, whether these blemishes become mainstreamed, tarnishing the legacy of Puttaswamy, or whether they fade into oblivion.