Tag Archives: privacy

Section 377 Referred to a Constitution Bench: Some Issues

In an order passed today, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the Chief Justice, referred the correctness of the judgment in Suresh Kumar Koushal vs Naz Foundation to a Constitution Bench. Because of the complex history of this case, some background is essential to understand the implications of today’s order. Recall that on December 11, 2013, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, in Koushal, had upheld the constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises carnal intercourse against the order of nature. In doing so, the Supreme Court overturned the 2009 judgment of the Delhi High Court in Naz Foundation vs NCT of Delhi, which had read down Section 377 and decriminalised consensual same sex relations between adults. Although the Supreme Court did not specify what constituted “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, its judgment was widely understood to recriminalise homosexuality in effect, if not in so many words.

Soon after the judgment in Koushal, a different two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered judgment in NALSA vs Union of India, where it upheld and affirmed the constitutional rights of transgender persons under Articles 14, 15, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. As I argued at the time, Koushal and NALSA rested on mutually irreconcilable foundations – the exact arguments that had been rejected in Koushal had been accepted in NALSA, and so, the only way out was to review the correctness of Koushal.

In the meantime, review petitions contesting the correctness of Koushal had been dismissed. Petitioners then took the last route open to them: they filed curative petitions. A curative petition is an extraordinary remedy developed by the Supreme Court in its 2002 judgment in Rupa Ashok Hurra. It is basically a remedy of the last resort: even after a review is rejected, the Court may still reconsider its judgment in certain exceptional circumstances. Hurra set out the exceptional circumstances:

“… this Court, to prevent abuse of its process and to cure a gross miscarriage of justice, may re-consider its judgments in exercise of its inherent power. The next step is to specify the requirements to entertain such a curative petition under the inherent power of this Court so that floodgates are not opened for filing a second review petition as a matter of course in the guise of a curative petition under inherent power. It is common ground that except when very strong reasons exist, the Court should not entertain an application seeking reconsideration of an order of this Court which has become final on dismissal of a review petition. It is neither advisable nor possible to enumerate all the grounds on which such a petition may be entertained. Nevertheless, we think that a petitioner is entitled to relief ex debito justitiae if he establishes (1) violation of principles of natural justice in that he was not a party to the lis but the judgement adversely affected his interests or, if he was a party to the lis, he was not served with notice of the proceedings and the matter proceeded as if he had notice and (2) where in the proceedings a learned Judge failed to disclose his connection with the subject-matter or the parties giving scope for an apprehension of bias and the judgment adversely affects the petitioner… we are of the view that since the matter relates to re- examination of a final judgment of this Court, though on limited ground, the curative petition has to be first circulated to a Bench of the three senior-most Judges and the Judges who passed the judgment complained of, if available. It is only when a majority of the learned Judges on this Bench conclude that the matter needs hearing that it should be listed before the same Bench (as far as possible) which may pass appropriate orders.”

The rarity of the curative remedy is reflected by the fact that in the fifteen years since Hurra, only four curative petitions have been allowed. However, in 2014, Petitioners won a significant victory when the Court agreed to hear the Naz curative in “open court” – most curative petitions are dismissed by circulation in judges’ chambers.

The Naz curative was then listed for hearing on the 2nd of February, 2016, before the three senior-most judges at the time – Chief Justice Thakur, and Justices Dave and Khehar. After some oral argument, the Court passed the following order:

“All that we need say is that since the issues sought to be raised are of considerable importance and public interest and since some of the issues have constitutional dimensions including whether the Curative Petitions qualify for consideration of this Court in the light of the Judgment in Rupa Ashok Hurra’s case (Supra), it will be more appropriate if these petitions are placed before a Constitution Bench comprising five Hon’ble Judges of this Court.”

In other words, all questions – including the question of whether the curative petition could be admitted for hearing – were to be decided by a five-judge bench.

Later that year, however, a fresh petition was filed challenging the constitutional validity of Section 377.  Navtej Johar vs Union of India was filed by five LGBT individuals as a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution (and not a public interest litigation, like Naz Foundation was), alleging direct violation of fundamental rights. When this petition came before a two-judge bench of the Court on 29th June 2016, the Court passed the following order:

“The issue pertains to the validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. We are informed that the Constitution Bench of this Court is hearing the issue. Post this matter before Hon’ble the Chief Justice of India for appropriate orders.”

Both the curative petitions and this petition then went into cold storage. In late August 2017, however, the nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court handed down the famous “Privacy Judgment”. As we have discussed before, the a majority of judges in the privacy judgment directly held that sexual orientation was a facet of privacy, and very publicly doubted the correctness of Koushal. In his plurality, Justice Chandrachud observed:

…  we disagree with the manner in which Koushal has dealt with the privacy – dignity based claims of LGBT persons on this aspect. Since the challenge to Section 377 is pending consideration before a larger Bench of this Court, we would leave the constitutional validity to be decided in an appropriate proceeding.” (para 128)

While, therefore, judicial propriety and discipline prevented the nine-judge bench from overruling Koushal, there was little doubt that the bottom was entirely knocked out of that judgment – and it was only a question of when – not if – Koushal would be overruled.

It is in this context that we must understand today’s referral order. The order was made in the Navtej Johar petition, which had been filed after the initial curative hearing, and had not been tagged with the curative petitions. In the order, the Court observes the existence of the NALSA judgment, and also Puttaswamy. It then notes:

“… the said decision [Puttaswamy] did not deal with the constitutional validity of Section 377 IPC as the matter was pending before the larger Bench. The matter which was pending before the larger Bench is a Curative Petition which stands on a different footing.”

After noting that the issue of consensual same-sex relations “needs to be debated”, the Court concludes as follows:

“Taking all the aspects in a cumulative manner, we are of the view, the decision in Suresh Kumar Kaushal’s case (supra) requires re-consideration. As the question relates to constitutional issues, we think it appropriate to refer the matter to a larger Bench.”

A few questions arise from this. The first and most important is: what is status now? In Puttaswamy, the Court specifically declined to overrule Koushal on the basis that it was already being considered by a Constitution Bench. Today’s order effectively authorises the Chief Justice to set up a parallel Constitution Bench that will also consider Koushal. In that case, what happens to the curative proceedings? Today’s order observes that the curative proceedings “stand on a different footing”; that is, of course, true. The curative petitions have to be argued according to the very strict Hurra standard (see above), and cannot also invoke NALSA or Puttaswamy. A judgment asking for reconsideration of Koushal, however, is not bound by the Hurra standard.

That, however, leads to a conceptual problem: given that a curative petition in Koushal is pending and has been specifically referred to a Constitution Bench, clearly, Koushal is already under reconsideration. Or, to put it another way, the judgment in Koushal has not yet attained finality – it is subject to the outcome of the curative proceedings. From that perspective, today’s order appears to either mandate the reconsideration of a judgment that is already being reconsidered (if you take the judgment itself as final), or to mandate the reconsideration of a judgment that is not yet final (if you take the conclusion of curative proceedings as the point of finality).

The situation is further clouded when you consider the fact that – as the Court held in Hurra “the curative petition has to be first circulated to a Bench of the three senior-most Judges and the Judges who passed the judgment complained of, if available. It is only when a majority of the learned Judges on this Bench conclude that the matter needs hearing that it should be listed before the same Bench.”

In other words, the task of a curative bench, if the curative petition succeeds, is to send the matter back for a fresh hearing (and not to decide the case on merits itself). That is, if a curative petition succeeds, then the judgment under challenge is to be reconsidered.

But that is exactly what today’s order, in effect, achieves, when it says that “the decision in Suresh Kumar Koushal’s case requires reconsideration.” Or, in other words, today’s order effectively allows the curative petitions by a side-wind. Suddenly, the most difficult hurdle before the original petitioners – to meet the threshold requirements under Hurra – has been swept away.

The upshot, therefore, is this: the pending curative petitions have now been made effectively infructuous (by that I mean that while the curative petitions are still pending, and technically due to be heard, their subject matter – crossing the Hurra threshold – has effectively been decided separately now, so in substance, there is nothing that remains to be argued when they do come up for hearing). By virtue of today’s order, the issue of the constitutional validity of Section 377 is to be heard afresh, and the correctness of Koushal to be reviewed from scratch. There will of course be some procedural issues to untangle – the petitioners in the curative petitions will now have to either get those petitions tagged with Johar or file fresh intervention applications. The basic point, however, is that today’s order marks a very significant advance in the legal struggle against Section 377.

One last point: today’s order calls for a reconsideration of Koushal primarily by invoking the judgments in NALSA and PuttaswamyPuttaswamy, of course, was entirely about the right to privacy, and the relevant portion of NALSA cited by the Court also refers to privacy (in the context of Article 21). This should not result in the future Supreme Court hearing reviewing Koushal only on the grounds of privacy; Koushal‘s analysis of Articles 14 and 15 was every bit as wrong-headed as its “understanding” of Article 21. If the Court is now going to hear the case afresh, then it will, hopefully, rule not only on Article 21, but on issues of equality and non-discrimination as well.

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Guest Post: The Trans Bill and its Discontents – I

(This is a guest post by Vasudevan Devadasan.)

This week the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill is up for vote in the Lok Sabha. The Bill has had a comparatively short but turbulent history. On the back of the National Legal Services Authority v UoI (NALSA) judgement and an Expert Committee Report by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (here) the Bill was first introduced and passed as a Private Member Bill by the Rajya Sabha in 2015. A year later however, the Ministry introduced a modified version of the Rajya Sabha Bill and referred it to committee. The Standing Committee (whose report can be found here) lambasted the Bill on several points that we will discuss here and on subsequent posts. Despite the Standing Committee’s report, the provisions of the bill have not been modified and continue to raise some troubling constitutional issues.

Beginning with the distinctions of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, as well as ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’, this post examines the interpretation of Articles 19 and 21 in NALSA. While there are a host of practical and legal ramifications of introducing such legislation, this post focuses on the constitutional issues raised by the definition of “transgender” in the current Bill and the ‘screening process’ that individuals have to undergo to secure legal recognition of their gender identity.

The constitutional framework

Before looking at the multiple definitions of “transgender” that have been used by the bills in parliament, its crucial to understand the constitutional framework created by NALSA and Article 19 and 21. (There are other judgements before and after that contribute to this framework, but the relevant principles are discussed contextually in NALSA.) Firstly, the Court distinguishes between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. The former is determined by biological characteristics such as chromosomes and internal and external sex organs, and is assigned to individuals at birth while the latter is constituted by an individual’s own experience, developed through innate belief, upbringing, society and culture. In the case of a transgender person there is a conflict between their “gender identity” assigned to them at birth, and the one they develop through the course of their life. Secondly, while ‘gender identity’ refers to an individual’s internal experience of gender, ‘gender expression’ refers to their outward expression, as perceived by society.

It is the right of transgender persons to choose their gender identity that the Supreme Court upheld in NALSA. In the Court’s own words, “self-determination of gender is an integral part of personal autonomy and self-expression and falls within the realm of personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21”. Additionally, the Court held that ‘gender expression’ by way of dressing, speaking, or behaving was protected under Article 19. The invocation of ‘personal autonomy’ and ‘self-expression’ is crucial, because this means that the decision of a transgender person in choosing a gender (whether male, female) is made is made by the individual, as an expression of personal choice. In fact, the Court explicitly rejected an objective ‘medical’ or ‘pathological’ standard to determine an individual’s gender (¶75) The Court also recognised that “transgender” constituted its own, standalone, gender for individuals who did not wish to associate themselves with either the male or female gender. In summary, a transgender person could choose to be recognised as either male or female based on their choice, or alternatively could choose to be recognised as transgender.

Self-identification is a promising idea in principle and may work in practice as well. For example, Argentina passed a statute that recognises an individual’s right to gender identity, and allows a person to change their sex in public records by filing an affidavit. However, this is clearly more helpful to individuals who want to change their gender identity than individuals who wish to identify outside the male-female binary. Additionally, the Court in NALSA sought both non-discrimination and affirmative action to be taken for transgenders. To secure these goals, there needs to be some practicable process or method by which the State can identify transgender persons. The crux of the matter then becomes the suitable level of State-scrutiny over an individual’s decision to identify with a gender, be it male, female, or transgender. It is important to note that the purpose of scrutiny must not reach a level so as to interfere with the individual’s autonomy to choose a gender, but sufficient to enable recognition and efficient governance.

The (current) Transgender Bill

The primary issue with the current bill stems both from its definition of the term “transgender person”, but also from the fact that to be recognised as a “transgender person”, one must undergoe a ‘screening process’ conducted by, inter alia a medical officer and a psychologist/psychiatrist. Section 2(i) defines a “transgender person” as one who is:

  • Neither wholly female nor wholly male; or
  • a combination of female or male; or
  • neither female nor male; and

whose sense of gender does not match with the gender assigned to that person at the time of birth, and includes trans-men and trans-women, persons with intersex variations and gender-queers.

The use of the word “and” after clause (c) makes the definition conjunctive. Thus, to fall under the definition both the sexual characteristics and the gender characteristics of the definition must be met. By adding a pathological aspect to the definition of transgender, the Bill continues to view transgender as a medical or biological anomaly outside the normal duality of male and female. As we noted earlier, sex and gender are two distinct concepts; yet the definition in the Bill conflates them, both narrowing the scope of people who fall under the Bill’s protection, and distorting the definition of a transgender person in the national discourse. The definition also runs contrary to the rationale espoused in NALSA which explicitly ruled out the use of a ‘biological test’ to determine if a person is transgender. When looked at in contrast to the definition provided by the Expert Committee Report and the Rajya Sabha Bill, the conflation of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ is apparent. They specifically dispensed with the male/female binary, and defined “transgender person” as:

a person, whose gender does not match with the gender assigned to that person at birth and includes trans-men and trans-women (whether or not they have undergone sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy or laser therapy etc.), gender-queers and a number of socio-cultural identities…

In addition to the definition, the current Bill sets up a ‘screening procedure’. Section 4 states that a transgender person “shall have a right to self-perceived gender identity”. However, the recognition of this freely chosen gender identity is only possible when the procedures that the Bill stipulates are completed. Under Sections 5 through 7, a transgender person must approach a District Magistrate, make an application for issuing a ‘certificate of identity as a transgender person’. The application shall be evaluated by the ‘District Screening Committee’ which as noted above includes medical personnel. The inclusion of medical personnel as part of the identification procedure again hints at the legislature’s conflation of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. By not specifying the criteria upon which the ‘Screening Committee’ shall grant or reject an application, the Bill risks the identification procedure, (a deeply personal choice originating in an individual’s internal experience of gender) morphing into an objective medical assessment. In NALSA the Court also grounded the principle of self-identification in an individual’s dignity. The Bill runs the risk of violating this principle by subjecting transgender persons to unnecessary medical scrutiny.

The Bill also makes the State (through the ‘Screening Committee’), as opposed to the individual, the final arbiter on an individual’s gender identity. Under the Bill, the Screening Committee acts as a gatekeeper to an individual being able to fully experience their self-perceived gender identity in society. This runs against the rights of ‘self-expression’ and ‘personal autonomy’ that Article 19 and 21 confer on citizens. As ‘gender expression’ is protected under Article 19(1) and the Supreme Court has recognised that individuals have a ‘positive right to make decisions about their life’ under Article 21 the constitutional validity of the ‘Screening Committee’ will certainly raise some constitutional questions as it poses a restriction on the legal recognition of an individual’s gender identity.

Lastly, Section 7 allows the District Magistrate to grant a “certificate of identity as [a] transgender person…” seeming to negate the possibility that a transgender person may choose to identify as a male or female. At its core, the idea self-identification would allow a transgender person to choose to identify with either the male, female, or transgender identity. Section 7 seems to relegate transgender persons as explicitly and eternally outside the male female binary that Indian society deems normal.

Conclusion

The current version of the Bill has received a lot of criticism on a wide range of issues. Since its inception it has seen the loss of several prominent aspects including exclusive courts for transgenders, reservation in educational institutions and incentives to the private sector to employ transgender persons. While these are notable lapses, far more troubling is that the Bill seems to misunderstand the very individuals it seeks to protect. By conflating the concepts of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, and imposing an opaque recognition procedure, the Bill does little to uphold the core principle of self-identification and dignity as articulated in Article 19 and 21.

 

 

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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.

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The Supreme Court’s Right to Privacy Judgment: Round-up

The essays discussing the judgment of the Supreme Court in Justice Puttaswamy vs Union of India can be accessed in the following orders:

  1. Part I: Foundations — Examining how the Court answered the two referral questions placed before it.
  2. Part II: Privacy, the Individual, and the Public/Private Divide — Analysing the judgment’s focus on the individual, and its construction and critique of the public/private divide
  3. Part III: Privacy, Surveillance, and the Body — Discussing the first of the three aspects of the Court’s formulation of privacy: privacy as bodily and mental integrity.
  4. Part IV: Privacy, Informational Self-Determination, and the Idea of Consent — examining the second aspect of privacy – informational self-determination – and the role of individual consent in data collection programs.
  5. Part V: Privacy and Decisional Autonomy — Discussing the third aspect of privacy – intimate decision-making – and its impact on issues of minority rights and others.
  6. Part VI: Limitations — Excavating the legal standards laid down by the judgment on the issue of State limitations upon privacy.
  7. Part VII: Privacy and Free Speech — Examining what, if any, would be the impact of the judgment on the freedom of expression
  8. Part VIII: Privacy and the Right to Information — Examining what, if any, would be the impact of the judgment on the right to information.
  9. Part IX: Living Constitutionalism, Natural Law, and Other Interpretive Issues — Discussing the judgment’s stand on some issues of constitutional interpretation
  10. Part X: Conclusion – the Proof of the Pudding — Arguing that Puttaswamy gives us a foundation for a progressive civil rights jurisprudence, but in the long run, its legacy will be determined by how the Court applies it in future cases.

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The Supreme Court’s Right to Privacy Judgment – X: Conclusion: The Proof of the Pudding

Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India is one of the most famous cases in the history of the Indian Supreme Court. It is the crown jewel of our constitutional canon, India’s answer to Brown vs Board of Education, the case that revolutionised the Court’s civil rights jurisprudence. It is the judgment that consigned the notorious A.K. Gopalan to the dustbin of history, inaugurated an era in which the Constitution’s fundamental rights were to be read in an integrated and holistic manner, and breathed life into the “colourless” due process clause of the Constitution.

But Maneka Gandhi did not win her case. Her constitutional challenge to Section 10(3)(c) of the Passports Act failed, and the Court accepted the Attorney-General’s “assurance” that she would be given a hearing about her passport being impounded. The operative order of the Court, which is rarely quoted, stated:

Having regard to the majority view, and, in view of the statement made by the learned Attorney-General to which reference, has already been made in the judgments we do not think it necessary to formally interfere with the impugned order. We, accordingly, dispose of the Writ Petition without passing any formal order. The passport will remain in the custody of the Registrar of this Court until further orders.”

Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India was the repentant Court’s mea culpa for its abdication during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, the first concrete embodiment of its will to make amends, a precursor to the age of public interest litigation. Maneka Gandhi was the point at which the Court abandoned three decades of formalist interpretation, and inaugurated a new path where Courts would expand the rights of individuals against the State, instead of limiting or contracting them.

But neither the Court’s repentance, nor its ringing words about interpreting Articles 14, 19, and 21 together, and not even its inauguration of the substantive due process doctrine was of any use to the petitioners in the constitutional challenges to the preventive detention provisions of the National Security Act in 1980; or, in 1994, to the constitutional challenges to the TADA’s departure from CrPC safeguards such as confessions to police officers, upheld on the justification of fighting terrorism; or, perhaps most glaringly, to the constitutional challenge to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act a few years later.

What then did Maneka Gandhi transform, exactly? How could the TADA and the AFSPA have been upheld by a Court serious about atoning for what happened during the Emergency? Which anti-civil rights statutes were struck down on the basis of the interrelationship-of-rights theory, or on grounds of substantive due process? To take just three examples, after Maneka Gandhi, the Supreme Court continued to uphold book bans, (total) cattle slaughter bans, and “anti-sodomy” legislation. For all its grand words, Maneka Gandhi was more a continuum along a long history of the Court saying many wonderful things, but when it came to the crunch, deferring to the State and finding a “public interest” that justified the limitation of rights (two exceptions to this general rule are Selvi vs State and Mohd Arif vs Union of India). The history of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence post-Maneka Gandhi warns us, therefore, that what matters more is not grandeur in words, but concrete application.

Justice Puttaswamy vs Union of India has said many wonderful things about the right to privacy. That needs to be acknowledged and praised. However, it is equally important to note that Puttaswamy was a case decided in the abstract. The State’s arguments were limited to advocating a strict, originalist reading of the Constitution, and the protean nature of privacy – weak arguments at best, even when made by excellent counsel. And in deciding upon the pure proposition of law before it, the Puttaswamy bench did all that it could have done in the context of the proceedings before it: declared that a fundamental right to privacy existed, grounded it in Part III of the Constitution, and laid down rigorous standards for the State to meet if it wanted to limit the right to privacy.

However, when future benches of the Court are called upon to apply Puttaswamy, it will not be quite so straightforward. There will be challenges to dragnet surveillance, where the State will claim that the only way to catch terrorists is to surveil the entire population, and will submit “evidence” in a sealed envelop to the Court. There will be challenges to DNA profiling laws, where the State will argue that everyone must give up their privacy to help in the national effort to detect and prevent crime. There will be challenges to data collection and data mining, where the State will argue that the loss of privacy is a small price to pay for the gain in efficiency.

This is predictable, because it has happened before, for the last sixty-five years. The law of sedition was upheld because the Court believed that the State must have the means of “preserving itself”, and freedom of speech was an acceptable casualty. TADA was upheld because the Court felt that police abuse was an acceptable compromise in the fight against terrorism. The Court did not strike down police surveillance in Gobind, despite holding that there existed a fundamental right to privacy. In PUCL, the Court did not even mandate a judicial hearing as a pre-requisite to telephone surveillance under the Telegraph Act. As the Court itself has reminded us many times, in the last analysis, individual interests must “yield” to larger social interests — and that effectively, it is the State’s prerogative to both define the social interest, and to prescribe the means towards achieving it.

But it is the very point of individual rights that they prescribe limits upon what the State can do to achieve its goals. In a world without the right against self-incrimination or a right to personal liberty, law and order would be much more efficient. In a world in which the State could ban books and organisations without judicial scrutiny, no doubt counter-terrorism efforts would be facilitated greatly. When you agree that individuals have rights, that there are some things that the State cannot do to them no matter how laudable the goal, you agree that there may well be a net loss of efficiency. And you agree because there are other values that exist apart from security, law and order, and efficiency in plugging leaks in welfare programmes. In his book about the Snowden revelations, Glenn Greenwald puts the point perfectly, when he writes:

Nations and individuals constantly make choices that place the values of privacy and, implicitly, freedom above other objectives, such as physical safety. Indeed, the very purpose of the Fourth Amendment in the US Constitution is to prohibit certain police actions, even though they might reduce crime. If the police were able to barge into any home without a warrant, murderers, rapists, and kidnappers might be more easily apprehended. If the state were permitted to place monitors in our homes, crime would probably fall significantly. If the FBI were permitted to listen to our conversations and seize our communications, a wide array of crime could conceivably be prevented and solved.

But the Constitution was written to prevent such suspicionless invasions by the state. By drawing the line at such actions, we knowingly allow for the probability of greater criminality. Yet we draw that line anyway, exposing ourselves to a higher degree of danger, because pursuing absolute physical safety has never been our single overarching societal priority. Above even our physical well-being, a central value is keeping the state out of the private realm – our “persons, houses, papers, and effects”, as the Fourth Amendment puts it. We do so precisely because that realm is the crucible of so many of the attributes typically associated with the quality of life – creativity, exploration, intimacy.

Forgoing privacy in a quest for absolute safety is as harmful to a healthy psyche and life of an individual as it is to a healthy political culture. For the individual, safety first means a life of paralysis and fear, never entering a car or an airplane, never engaging in an activity that entails risk, never weighing the quality of life over quantity, and paying any price to avoid danger.” 

In its long history, the Supreme Court has invariably favoured the claims of the security State over the rights of individuals. And the crucial point is this: Puttaswamyin itself, is not going to change that. The standards that the Court has laid down – “legitimate purpose”, “necessity”, “proportionality”, and “procedural safeguards” – are commodious ones. For a Court still steeped in the institutional logic that upheld TADA and AFSPA, it is but a short step to argue that (for example) dragnet surveillance is constitutional because, well, anti-terrorism.

There is no doubt that without Puttaswamy, we would have been far worse off than we are today. And there is also no doubt that Puttaswamy has built a foundation for a new jurisprudence of civil rights. But we must all be equally clear about the fact that the real task will begin now: it will begin with the first bench that is asked to apply Puttaswamy to a concrete case where privacy runs up against reasons of State, and it will continue in the months, years, and decades to come. The task is not simply to apply Puttaswamy, but to use Puttaswamy to craft a genuinely progressive civil rights jurisprudence, where the original constitutional compact – that individual rights are not subordinate to “public good”, “social good”, “public interest” (or any other variant of the phrase) – is restored. And that, now, is the responsibility of citizens, of lawyers, and of course, of the judges who will be called upon to adjudicate privacy and liberty claims in the wake of this judgment. For judges, indeed, it is a challenge: to be true to the animating spirit of Puttaswamy, and make the hard decision to tell the State that although its aim may be laudable, its motives unimpeachable, and its method beneficial, under the Constitution of India, it nonetheless cannot have what it wants.

In that sense, the legacy of Puttaswamy is open. It could become what it promises to be – the foundation for a transformative civil rights jurisprudence. Or it could become only a rhetorical lodestar, a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void its luminous wings in vain.

Time will tell.

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The Supreme Court’s Right to Privacy Judgment – IX: Living Constitutionalism, Natural Law, and Other Interpretive Issues

The Puttaswamy case came to Court because the Indian Constitution does not have a textually guaranteed right to privacy. Each of the six judgments spent considerable time establishing why, despite the constitutional text, privacy was a fundamental right. Many different arguments were advanced, and in the first two posts in the series, we discussed one of them: privacy was a fundamental right because without it, effective enjoyment of textually guaranteed rights such as the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, personal liberty, and so on, was simply impossible. Consequently, as paragraph 3 of the operative order stated, “the right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution.” 

Living Constitutionalism

There were, however, other arguments as well. In all of the judgments, for example, we find references to how the constitutional meaning is not fixed or static at its point of origin, but must evolve with time; or, in other words, the Constitution is a “living document.” This argument was fleshed out in the greatest detail in Justice Kaul’s opinion, in a full section titled “The Constitution of India – A Living Document” (paras 23 – 49). Justice Kaul argued that the Constitution must be continuously updated to keep up with the times, and that it has certain “core values” that “manifest themselves differently in different ages, situations and conditions.” (para 40) The values themselves were derived from the Preamble, with dignity given pride of place.

The arguments against the living constitutionalism approach to constitutional interpretation are well-known, and need not be rehearsed here. What is disappointing about Puttaswamy is that (with a couple of exceptions that I shall come to), the judges did not address them at all. In one paragraph, Justice Kaul pointed out that the framers themselves were aware of changing realities, and consequently, faithfulness towards their “original intent” would itself require a dynamic and innovative approach to constitutional interpretation (para 31). That is not enough, however: one cannot simply argue that the Constitution should be interpreted dynamically, and stop at that. There must be standards that guide this organic interpretation, standards that go beyond invocations judicial wisdom. The Preamble itself, with its broad principles, underdetermines this enquiry. From time to time, the judgments referred to the freedom struggle (paragraphs 111 and 115, Chandrachud J; paragraph 18, Chelameswar J), but once again, there was little discussion on what, precisely, was the connection between the freedom movement, and the interpretation of the Constitution.

The problem is quite simply this: we may agree that the Constitution lives and grows, but in which direction ought it to grow, at what pace? How do we know what is “organic growth”? To simply say that the Constitution adapts and evolves with the times, and that judges are charged with updating it, is not enough (what if, for example, the change in social attitudes is towards the contraction of rights instead of their expansion?). There needs to be an interpretive approach that is grounded in the constitutional text, its structure, its history, and the social and political circumstances in which it was drafted, and the broad problems that it was designed to respond to.

It is perhaps in Chelameswar J.’s separate opinion that we do see an effort towards developing such a theory. In Footnote 19 of his opinion, during his discussion of the Constitution’s dark matter, he observed that:

“This court has progressively adopted a living constitutionalist approach. Varyingly, it has interpreted the Constitutional text by reference to Constitutional values (liberal democratic ideals which form the bedrock on which our text sits); a mix of cultural, social, political and historical ethos which surround our Constitutional text; a structuralist technique typified by looking at the structural divisions of power within the Constitution and interpreting it as an integrated whole etc. This court need not, in the abstract, fit a particular interpretative technique within specific pigeonholes of a living constitutionalist interpretation. Depending on which particular source is most useful and what the matter at hand warrants, the court can resort to variants of a living constitutionalist interpretation. This lack of rigidity allows for an enduring constitution.”

In the same footnote, he then pointed out:

“The important criticisms against the living constitutionalist approach are that of uncertainty and that it can lead to arbitrary exercise of judicial power. The living constitutionalist approach in my view is preferable despite these criticisms, for two reasons. First, adaptability cannot be equated to lack of discipline in judicial reasoning. Second, it is still the text of the constitution which acquires the requisite interpretative hues and therefore, it is not as if there is violence being perpetrated upon the text if one resorts to the living constitutionalist approach.”

This is crucial, because it acknowledges that no credible interpretation of the Constitution can afford to ignore its text. Issues of structure, purpose, political ethos, and framework values must supplement the text, but they cannot supplant it (readers will recognise a broad similarity with Dworkin’s approach of “law as integrity” here). Judicial discretion is, of course, a central part of the interpretive exercise, but that discretion must be shaped by the constitutional text, structure, history, and overall purposes. It cannot simply reflect a judge’s view of how the Constitution is to be updated with the changing times, within the over-broad framework of the Preamble.

Natural Law

Both the plurality and Justice Nariman expressly overruled the notorious judgment of the Supreme Court in ADM Jabalpur vs Shivakant Shukla. Recall that in ADM Jabalpur, the Court had upheld the suspension of habeas corpus during a proclamation of Emergency, on the basis – among other things – that the source of rights was confined to the four corners of the Constitution itself – and given that the Constitution itself authorised their suspension in an Emergency, there was no basis on which detainees could move Court and claim any rights. In Puttaswamy, a majority overruled ADM Jabalpur on this specific point, and held that there were certain rights that could be called “natural rights”, inhering in people simply by virtue of their being human. The Constitution did not create such rights, but only recognised them.

In a full section dedicated to this argument (Section G), Chandrachud J, writing for the plurality, observed that “privacy is a concomitant of the right of the individual to exercise control over his or her personality. It finds an origin in the notion that there are certain rights which are natural to or inherent in a human being. Natural rights are inalienable because they are inseparable from the human personality. The human element in life is impossible to conceive without the existence of natural rights.” (para 40)

Variants of this statement were repeated at various points in his judgment, and in paragraph 119, ADM Jabalpur was overruled on this ground.

In his separate opinion, Justice Bobde noted that “privacy, with which we are here concerned, eminently qualifies as an inalienable natural right, intimately connected to two values whose protection is a matter of universal moral agreement: the innate dignity and autonomy of man.” (para 12) Justice Nariman observed that “we do not find any conflict between the right to life and the right to personal liberty. Both rights are natural and inalienable rights of every human being and are required in order to develop his/her personality to the fullest.” (para 45) He also overruled ADM Jabalpur on this point (paras 90 and 91). Justice Sapre held that “in my considered opinion, “right to privacy of any individual” is essentially a natural right, which inheres in every human being by birth. Such right remains with the human being till he/she breathes last. It is indeed inseparable and inalienable from human being. In other words, it is born with the human being and extinguish with human being.” (para 25) And Justice Kaul noted that “primal natural right which is only being recognized as a fundamental right falling in part III of the Constitution of India.” (para 76)

But if privacy is a “natural right” whose existence is only recognised by the Constitution, then two questions arise, neither of which (in my view) were answered satisfactorily by the bench. The first is: how do you determine the content of natural rights? In the history of natural law theorising, at one point, the doctrines of the church were believed to be the source of natural rights; at another point, human reason replaced canon law; Justice Bobde referred to “universal moral agreement”; and Justice Nariman invoked international law (in particular, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). In my view, however, if the judgments were going to take the significant step of overruling ADM Jabalpur, and unequivocally stating that the source of (at least a few) fundamental rights is natural law, then it was incumbent upon them to develop at least the basics of an interpretive approach towards identifying the content of natural law. We face here the same problem as we did with the living constitutionalism approach: ultimately, without clear standards, there is too much power in the hands of the judges. Today, liberal judges may seek to expand rights by incorporating a “natural right” to privacy, that predates and pre-exists the Constitution; but what is to stop a judge, in the future, from invoking his own conception of natural rights (or, for that matter, natural duties) to contract liberty?

Interestingly, Justice Chelameswar seemed to recognise the problem, because throughout his judgment, there is not one reference to “natural rights”. This was surely not an unintentional omission. And indeed, in para 19, he noted that:

“To comprehend whether the right to privacy is a Fundamental Right falling within the sweep of any of the Articles of Part-III, it is necessary to understand what “fundamental right” and the “right of privacy” mean conceptually. Rights arise out of custom, contract or legislation, including a written Constitution.”

He then went on to observe that:

“All such Constitutions apart from containing provisions for administration of the State, contain provisions specifying or identifying certain rights of citizens and even some of the rights of non-citizens (both the classes of persons could be collectively referred to as SUBJECTS for the sake of convenience). Such rights came to be described as “basic”, “primordial”, “inalienable” or “fundamental” rights. Such rights are a protective wall against State’s power to destroy the liberty of the SUBJECTS.” (para 20)

This is a crucial paragraph, because while Chelameswar J used the same language as his brother judges had used (“primordial” and “inalienable”), he consciously used it not to signify natural rights that pre-existed the Constitution, but rights that, after Constitutions had been created “came to be described as” primordial and inalienable. And again:

Fundamental rights are the only constitutional firewall to prevent State’s interference with those core freedoms constituting liberty of a human being. (para 40)

Consequently, on the issue of whether natural rights, which pre-date the Constitution, are the sources of fundamental rights, the Court was not unanimous; rather, it split 8 – 1, with Chelameswar J the lone dissent. This, however, raises another question: what if, tomorrow, a fresh constitutional convention was called, the Constitution replaced, and a new Constitution brought in to substitute it? What if that Constitution (for example) expressly stated that privacy was not a fundamental right, or expressly espoused an hierarchical, anti-egalitarian ordering of society? Would the natural rights continue to exist and be enforced by the Court, notwithstanding the terms of the new Constitution? On the majority’s view, the answer would have to be yes.

Perhaps, though, if things came to that, we’d all have more pressing worries.

Conclusion 

Puttaswamy advanced two important theoretical propositions about constitutional law. The first was the doctrine of living constitutionalism, and the second was the endorsement of natural rights. I have my reservations about both propositions, but in this essay, my point has been that they needed a substantially stronger defence than what we find in Puttaswamy. That task, perhaps, is now left to future benches.

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The Supreme Court’s Right to Privacy Judgment – VIII: Privacy and the Right to Information

In the aftermath of the Puttaswamy judgment, it was reported that a committee of MPs had written to the election commission, asking that the disclosure of the assets of candidates’ spouses should not be required. They made their request on the basis of Puttaswamy. This has led to (legitimate) worries that privacy can now be invoked to stifle or hobble the right to information.

For the reasons I advanced in the previous essay (dealing with the right to privacy and free speech), I believe that this concern is mistaken. To briefly recap the previous essay: the judgment(s) in Puttaswamy are concerned only with privacy as a fundamental right, that is, as a shield for individuals against intrusive State action. They do not deal with when and how privacy may be used as a sword to limit the amplitude of other rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, and its cognate right, the right to information. In a number of judgments at both the High Court and the Supreme Court level, Courts were engaged in balancing privacy against freedom of speech and the right to information even before Puttaswamy. The question then is whether Puttaswamy added anything to that debate – i.e., whether it granted privacy an even higher pedestal than it occupied before. As I argued in the last essay, it did not: Puttaswamy only stated that privacy is a fundamental right, clarified its contours, and indicated when the State might be justified in limiting it. Nothing more.

The Right to Information Act 

In the case of the right to information, the issue is even more straightforward, because the Right to Information Act already protects privacy. Section 8(j) of that Act exempts from disclosure:

“… information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information.”

Section 8(j) lays down the uncontroversial proposition that as far as “personal information” goes (and the Section specifically makes this clear through the succeeding phrase – “which has no relationship to any public activity or interest“) – the presumption is against disclosure, unless a larger public interest exists. Section 8(j) requires information officers and Courts to interpret the scope of terms such as “personal information”, “public activity or interest”, “unwarranted invasion”, and to also create a jurisprudence balancing the right of individuals to protect their personal information against the larger public interest.

Does the judgment in Puttaswamy affect any of this? The only aspect that it might possibly impact is the meaning of the phrase “personal information.” But even here, a close reading of the judgment dispels that impression. The phrase “personal information” occurred and recurred multiple times through the separate opinion, but it was only Justice Bobde’s opinion that defined it in any meaningful way, and that too in the context of State surveillance (“…the non-consensual revelation of personal information such as the state of one’s health, finances, place of residence, location, daily routines and so on efface one’s sense of personal and financial security.”) Justice Kaul, who had a full section dealing with the concept of “personal information” (in the context of data collection) refrained from defining it either.

In fact, more importantly, the separate opinions in Puttaswamy specifically acknowledged the Right to Information Act as an example of how the legislature had balanced the two constitutional values of access to information, and the right to privacy. For example, Justice Chandrachud observed that “legislative protection is in many cases, an acknowledgment and recognition of a constitutional right which needs to be effectuated and enforced through protective laws… for instance, the provisions of Section 8(1)(j) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 which contain an exemption from the disclosure of information refer to such information which would cause an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual.” (para 153) Justice Nariman cited Section 8(j) for the proposition that, in the Right to Information Act, the legislature had recognised the right to privacy (para 89). Both Justice Chandrachud and Justice Nariman cited the prior judgment of the Supreme Court in Bihar Public Service Commission vs Saiyed Hussain Abbas Rizwi, where Justice Swatenter Kumar had specifically held that “thus, the public interest has to be construed while keeping in mind the balance factor between right to privacy and right to information with the purpose sought to be achieved and the purpose that would be served in the larger public interest, particularly when both these rights emerge from the constitutional values under the Constitution of India.”

The point, therefore, is this: the judgments in Puttaswamy acknowledge the fact that, in the Right to Information Act, the legislature has already struck a balance between two competing constitutional values: the right to privacy, and the right to information. This balance has been struck in the following manner: (1) define “personal information” in terms of that which has no relationship to any public interest or public activity; (2) presumptively protect personal information in cases where disclosure would amount to an “unwarranted interference in privacy”, and (3) override this presumption where the larger public interest requires it. To come back for a moment to the candidates’ spouses assets question: this disclosure does not fall within Section 8(j) because, given the social realities in India, spouses’ assets are often inseparable, and often deliberately so. In disclosing a spouse’s assets, there is, therefore, a definite relationship with a “public activity” (that is, candidature for public office), and even if not, a larger public interest exists.

Conclusion

The Right to Information Act contains a detailed and fine-grained legislative balancing act between the right to privacy and the right to information. Puttaswamy does not in any way override this balance, because the judgments in Puttaswamy expressly affirm and endorse it. Nor does Puttaswamy modify or change the balance, tilting it towards privacy: as we have seen, the issue of balancing privacy against public interest in the context of disclosure of information is not addressed in the judgment at all, and the definition of “personal information” is considered in only one opinion.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the existing jurisprudence under Section 8(j) is satisfactory. On the contrary, it has been seriously – and legitimately – criticised as providing far too much sanctuary to privacy, at the cost of the right to information. The purpose of this post, however, has been to show that that jurisprudence is entirely independent of the judgments in Puttaswamy. All that Puttaswamy does is recognise privacy as a fundamental right – or, in other words, all it does is affirm the fact, as already held before, that the Right to Information Act balances two constitutional values through Section 8(j). How that balance is to be achieved in concrete terms is the task of future benches.

 

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