Tag Archives: privacy

Guest Post: Decoding the WhatsApp/Privacy Case

(In this Guest Post, Praharsh Johorey examines some of the key issues in the pending WhatsApp/Privacy case before the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court)

Once the Supreme Court re-convenes after its vacation, it will begin hearing arguments on an appeal concerning privacy issues stemming from the use of ‘WhatsApp’, a popular instant messaging application. The petition against WhatsApp originally filed before the Delhi High Court challenged as unconstitutional a change made to WhatsApp’s Privacy Policy in August 2016, which allowed it to send all collected data to its parent company, Facebook. It was claimed that this breached the ‘Right to Privacy’ of all citizens under Article 21, and restricted their freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a). Recognising the legitimacy of these claims, the Delhi High Court issued the following directions to the owners of WhatsApp on the 23rd of September, 2016:

  1. i) If the users opt for completely deleting “WhatsApp” account before 25.09.2016, the information/data/details of such users should be deleted completely from “WhatsApp” servers and the same shall not be shared with the “Facebook” or any one of its group companies.
  2. ii) So far as the users who opt to remain in “WhatsApp” are concerned, the existing information/data/details of such users upto 25.09.2016 shall not be shared with “Facebook” or any one of its group companies.  

The Petitioners filed an appeal before the Supreme Court against these directions, claiming that they only do ‘partial justice’, and create an unreasonable distinction between WhatsApp users solely on the basis of when they began using its services. This petition invariably raises questions of the ‘Right to Privacy’, rights of digital users and freedom of speech online under Article 21 – and its position under the Indian constitution. However, there exists voluminous literature on the implied existence of such a right, such as here, here and here; and the question of reading this right under the Constitution is also sub-judice before a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court in K.S. Puttaswamy (Retired) and Anr. v. Union of India & Ors.

Instead, this essay concerns itself with the following questions:

  • Does the Supreme Court have the jurisdiction to intervene in a contract entered into between two private companies; i.e. WhatsApp and its subscribers?
  • Assuming such jurisdiction exists, whether the Supreme Court should intervene in contracts between private parties – and does the relationship between telecommunication companies and private consumers requires such intervention.

I will examine each question separately.

Special Leave Petitions and Jurisdictional overreach

The Petitioners have approached the Supreme Court under Article 136, which allows it the power to grant a ‘special leave to appeal’:

  1. (1) Notwithstanding anything in this Chapter, the Supreme Court may, in its discretion, grant special leave to appeal from any judgment, decree, determination, sentence or order in any cause or matter passed or made by any court or tribunal in the territory of India.

In the present case, the Supreme Court has constituted a Constitution Bench (Five Judges) to hear the appeal against the order of the Delhi High Court – having granted a special leave to appeal under Article 136. The original petition was filed as a Public Interest Litigation before the Delhi High Court under Article 226. The Respondents, WhatsApp and Facebook contended that the High Court did not have appropriate jurisdiction to hear the petition because neither company is a public body discharging public functions, and therefore not amenable to constitutional scrutiny. The observations of the High Court indicate an agreement with this contention:

  1. In fact, the users of “WhatsApp” and the Respondent No.2 (Whatsapp itself) are parties to a private contract and the users of “WhatsApp” having voluntarily opted to avail the services of the said Application, are bound by the terms of service offered by the Respondent No.2…. it appears to us that it is not open to the users now to contend that “WhatsApp” shall be compelled to continue the same terms of service.
  2. Even the ‘Right to Privacy cannot be a valid ground to grant the reliefs as prayed for since the legal position regarding the existence of the fundamental right to privacy is yet to be authoritatively decided.’
  3. Since the terms of service of “WhatsApp” are not traceable to any statute or statutory provisions, it appears to us that the issue sought to be espoused in the present petition is not amenable to the writ jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution of India.

However, the unambiguous conclusion arrived at by the Court concerning its jurisdiction under Article 226 was swiftly ignored, with the Court proceeding without explanation to issue directions binding upon Whatsapp. As a result of this demonstrably unclear stance, the question of jurisdiction has now been raised before the Supreme Court – questioning the very ability of the Court to intervene in private acts of private parties.

Whatsapp and Direct Horizontality

In his essay on ‘Horizontality under the Constitution’, which can be found here, Gautam Bhatia notes that constitutional rights are deemed to regulate the relationship between individuals and the state, i.e. ‘vertically’. However, with the gradual expansion in the role of the private sector in our daily lives coupled with the simultaneous withdrawal of the State from several sectors, there has emerged a need to subject private relationships to constitutional scrutiny; i.e. impose ‘horizontality’. With respect to Whatsapp, the situation involves regulating a private act (the contract to join Whatsapp) which private citizens consent to – which is different from the Court holding the State responsible for moulding conduct of private parties in accordance with the Constitution as in Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan, or altering laws to which private parties are subject such as in R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu. Thus, the Court could impose what is known as ‘direct horizontality’ – where the private act of a private party is challenged on grounds of the Constitution.

A similar question was posed to the Supreme Court in relation to the functioning of the Board of Cricket Control in India (“BCCI”) – and whether the legality of its activities could be judged on the cornerstone of the Constitution. In both cases relating to the BCCI, Zee Telefilms Ltd. & Anr vs Union Of India & Ors and BCCI v. Cricket Association of Bihar, extensive discussion took place as to whether the BCCI could be considered as a ‘State’ under Article 12. However, no question has been raised as to Whatsapp’s status as a private entity. Therefore, the Court’s observations in respect of the constitutional obligations of the BCCI as a non-state entity are crucial. In paragraph 30 of the Zee Telefilms case, Hegde J. notes:

‘But that does not mean that the violator of such right would go scot-free merely because it or he is not a State. Under the Indian jurisprudence there is always a just remedy for violation of a right of a citizen. Though the remedy under Article 32 is not available, an aggrieved party can always seek a remedy under the ordinary course of law or by way of a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution which is much wider than Article 32.’

Subsequently, in the BCCI judgement, Thakur J. observes:

Suffice it to say that if the Government not only allows an autonomous/private body to discharge functions which it could in law takeover or regulate but even lends its assistance to such a nongovernment body to undertake such functions which by their very nature are public functions, it cannot be said that the functions are not public functions or that the entity discharging the same is not answerable on the standards generally applicable to judicial review of State action.

A joint-reading of these two observations leads to the irresistible conclusion that only those private bodies that discharge ‘public functions’ are amenable to claims under Article 226, and not under Article 32. Thus, the Court’s interpretation contemplates a situation where the claim must change depending on the forum one is before; which surely was not contemplated by the drafters. Thus, the only permissible reconciliation of this position is that private parties performing public functions can be made subject to general public law standards (good faith, non-arbitrariness) which may overlap with Part III – particularly Article 14, 19 and 21; but does not imply Judicial review in respect of all provisions of Part III. At minimum, a litigant aggrieved with a Private party cannot go straight to the Supreme Court under Article 32, but must first go to the High Court under Article 226 to enforce the aforementioned administrative law standards.

Instant Messaging and the ‘Public Function’ Test

However, prior to examining which provisions of Part III the Privacy Policy may fall foul of, we must first examine whether Whatsapp can even be considered as fulfilling the ‘Public Function’ test. In Sukhdev and Ors. v. Bhagatram Sardar Singh Raghuvanshi and Anr. the Court was required to determine whether the Oil and Natural Gas Commission, Indian Finance Corporation and the Life Insurance Corporation, all of which are statutory organisations, were entitled to claim protection under Part III. The Court held that they were, stating:

Another factor which might be considered is whether the operation is an important public function. The combination of State aid and the furnishing of an important public service may result in a conclusion that the operation should be classified as a State agency. If a given function is of such public importance and so closely related to governmental functions as to be classified as a governmental agency, then even the presence or absence of State financial aid might be irrelevant in making a finding of State action. If the function does not fall within such a description, then mere addition of State money would not influence the conclusion.

As referenced earlier, there is no argument that WhatsApp is an instrumentality of the State under Article 12 – as it is neither part of the State apparatus, nor is it considered an instrumentality or agent of the State itself. Therefore, the question to be resolved is whether providing a platform for communication can be considered to be a ‘public function’ – making it amenable to 226 jurisdiction. Two facets of this question are important: first, the nature of communication services as a public good, and second, whether WhatsApp is necessarily required to exercise ‘control’ over this service to be regarded as discharging a public function.

It is undeniable that telecommunication plays a crucial role in 21st century society. A denial of all telecommunication services to society for a single day would impact global communication, impair business and disrupt the Economy – not to mention the significant mayhem it may cause in the process. Consequently, it is more than arguable to suggest that the organisations providing telecommunication services are collectively performing a ‘public function’. The Supreme Court noted that in the context of the BCCI, it was three factors – complete control over cricket, significant financial investments and state support – that lead to the determination of it discharging a public function. However, note must be made here of the unique nature of cricket in India, in that it represents a ‘primary cultural good’ (Parthasarathy); and that BCCI’s complete control over the sport in India represented its power to control access to this basic human good.

To apply this test of ‘control of basic goods’, one must understand the nature of instant messaging in India, and whether it can be said that WhatsApp exerts a comparable amount of control over this service. A majority of Indian internet users (63% of the people surveyed, MEF Survey 2016) currently rely upon WhatsApp as their primary communication device – nearly 200 million consumers. However, having significant market share is not a sufficient indicator of whether WhatsApp exercises ‘control’ over the utility in India. Unlike the BCCI, WhatsApp cannot be said to have any legitimate role to play in the governance, regulation or administration of this sector, and does not (yet) have a recognised monopoly over the utility. If WhatsApp were recognised as being the sole provider of all instant communication services to Indians, it could have been contended that its control over a public utility renders it amenable to 226 jurisdiction. However, holding so in the present context would set a dangerous precedent of all popular services being considered as effectively discharging a public function; not necessarily limited to the nature of service in question.

Re-writing Private Contracts

Even accepting that the Supreme Court has the jurisdiction to adjudicate the Whatsapp petition, one must consider the propriety of the Judiciary intervening in private contracts. It is undisputed that the millions of customers that accepted WhatsApp’s new privacy policy did so voluntarily, having accepted the terms and conditions clearly established. Resultantly, if the Supreme Court were to issue directions to WhatsApp changing the terms of such policy, it is intervening in a voluntary agreement entered into between two private parties.

However, such a situation is not unprecedented. The Supreme Court has made a number of determinations that change the very basis of private contracts – doing so particularly frequently in the context of labour contracts. In the year 2016, it mandated in State of Punjab v. Jagjit Singh that employers must ensure ‘equal pay for equal work’, holding:

It was held, that the Government cannot take advantage of its dominant position, and compel any worker to work even as a casual labourer on starvation wages. It was pointed out, that a casual labourer who had agreed to work on such low wages, had done so, because he had no other choice.

Any act, of paying less wages, as compared to others similarly situate, constitutes an act of exploitative enslavement, emerging out of a domineering position. Undoubtedly, the action is oppressive, suppressive and coercive, as it compels involuntary subjugation.

The justification for intervening in a private contract therefore stems from two factors – first, the coerced consent of the labourers who have ‘no other choice’ and second, from the ‘domineering position’ of the employers who have the power to ‘enslave’ these workers. As a result, the Court intervened to protect the otherwise defenceless labourers from the exploitative practices of the employers. A similar line of argumentation has been placed before the Supreme Court by the WhatsApp petitioners – in that WhatsApp enjoys a dominant position in the instant messaging space, and its consumers are therefore have no option but to be subject to its exploitative data practices. The Supreme Court also echoed this sentiment in one of the hearings, warning WhatsApp against ‘consumer entrapment’.

However, this line of argumentation misses the key facet of consumer choice – something evidently absent in the minimum-wage labour market. Consumers are constantly advertised a number of different services that provide nearly perfect competition to WhatsApp, and are allowed free migration across these platforms. Moreover, there is no legal reason why consumers who use a platform like WhatsApp should not be allowed to waive their right to keep their data secret in exchange for using an evidently useful service. Any consumer who is dissatisfied or uncomfortable with the terms of use of such an application is legally allowed to exit its operation – making the case for judicial intervention in such a contract untenable.

Conclusion

It is not my position that we should not have a right to privacy, or that WhatsApp’s Privacy Policy is desirable. However, to entertain and adjudicate such a petition on its merits would require the Supreme Court to significantly extend its jurisdiction – and begin upon an already slippery slope of subjecting private parties to constitutional provisions. Instead, it is my position that the legislature should enact a comprehensive Data protection framework that would forbid companies from transferring data of its consumers without their express authority – and then allow the Judiciary to adjudicate disputes on such basis. By broadly invoking Article 21 and Article 19 for all privacy disputes, we risk allowing several private companies from getting away with privacy violations that are actionable in most other jurisdictions.

Who said creating a ‘Digital India’ would be easy?

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Filed under Article 226 Remedies, Communications Technologies, Judicial Review, Jurisdiction, Public goods

The (Continuing) Doctrine of Judicial Evasion in the Aadhaar Case

On this blog, I have argued before that the ongoing Aadhaar litigation provides an example of the Supreme Court’s evolving doctrine of “judicial evasion”: faced with a dispute between individual and State that involves wide-ranging ramifications on civil and constitutional rights, the Court’s response is not to decide it one way or another, but to simply refuse to hear it at all. While legally this keeps the position of the parties at status quo, at the same time, it permits the State to take all steps on the ground to achieve a fait accompli that effectively makes the case academic and infructuous. In other words, by not deciding, the Court is, in effect, deciding in favour of the State, but without the public accountability that comes with the existence of a written, reasoned judgment.

The doctrine of judicial evasion ensured – as I pointed out in my posts about the Aadhaar/PAN litigation – that in the one constitutional challenge to Aadhaar that the Court did hear, the Petitioners had to argue as if they were playing a tennis match with one arm and one leg tied behind their backs. And today’s order – in Shanta Sinha vs Union of India – is another excellent example of how, by applying this doctrine, the Court has fundamentally abdicated its constitutional responsibility to protect the rights of Indian citizens.

Recall – yet again – the background. On 11th August 2015, after the Union of India argued that there was no fundamental right to privacy under the Indian Constitution, the three-judge bench of the Supreme Court referred the challenge to the Aadhaar scheme (at that point, a voluntary, executive scheme) to a larger bench for decision. The Court clarified that, pending the final decision, Aadhaar could not be made mandatory for availing of subsidies or benefits, and it recommended that the case be heard on an urgent basis. A Constitution Bench met in October 2015 to extent the list of subsidies for which Aadhaar could be used; after that, the case has not been heard, despite numerous attempts to “mention” it before the Chief Justice, and have it listed. It has been one year and nine months since the referral order.

In the meantime, the Union of India has gone full steam ahead with Aadhaar. In 2016, it passed an Aadhaar Act, providing statutory sanction to the scheme. Section 7 of the Act authorised the government to make Aadhaar mandatory for subsidies or benefits, which were paid out of the Consolidated Fund. Under the ostensible cover of Section 7, a number of notifications have been passed, making Aadhaar mandatory for a whole range of crucial, life-sustaining benefits: from schoolchildren’s midday meals to compensation for victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

Before the Supreme Court today, then, the case for the petitioners in Shanta Sinha vs Union of India was simple: seventeen notifications under the authority of S. 7 of the Aadhaar Act, which made Aadhaar mandatory for crucial subsidies and benefits, were illegal, and Section 7 itself was unconstitutional. Moreover, the case was one of utmost urgency: in most of these notifications, the last date for applying was June 30. Given that the Supreme Court was closing for the vacations today, unless some orders were passed, the case would become entirely infructuous. People entirely dependent on these subsidies for their basic survival would have no choice but to enrol for an Aadhaar number, whether they wanted to or not.

To this, the Court’s only response was to decline to hear the case, because the constitutional challenge to the Aadhaar Act was already pending before the Constitution Bench – the same Constitution Bench that had not been set up for a year and nine months, despite every attempt by numerous petitioners to persuade the Chief Justice to do so. Instead, it tagged this challenge to the already pending challenge before that Constitution Bench. Petitioners’ arguments that they would not rely upon the right to privacy – which was the reason why the referral had happened in the first place – had no impact.

Petitioners then requested the Court to at least hear the case on the issue of interim reliefs because – as pointed out above – the entire case would become infructuous by June 30. To this, the Court responded that the Petitioners could only raise the plea of interim reliefs before the Constitution Bench – that same unicorn Constitution Bench that nobody had seen a hoofprint of since August 2015. The Court then said that the Petitioners ought to approach the Chief Justice and mention this – the same Chief Justice who had publicly refused to list the case on a prior mentioning.

Needless to say, there’s going to be no Constitution Bench before June 30. In short, the Supreme Court has effectively decided the validity of seventeen notifications that make Aadhaar mandatory for accessing crucial services in favour of the government without hearing a single argument, not even arguments on an interim stay.

Presumably, judges of the Supreme Court do not live in individual silos. The two-judge bench of Justices Sikri and Bhushan who heard today’s case was surely aware of the non-progress of the Aadhaar case through the Supreme Court over nearly two years. Surely it was aware that there was going to be no listing of anything any time soon. And so, surely these judges knew that by “tagging” this case to the existing challenges before the mythical Constitution Bench, the effect was nothing other than to decide the case in favour of the government.

I have said before that the only proper description of the Supreme Court’s conduct in the Aadhaar case is institutional disingenuousness. In refusing to set up the Constitution Bench to hear Aadhaar, while simultaneously setting up three Constitution Benches in the vacations to hear three other cases (none of which carry the same urgency as this one) and in “tagging” new challenges to the main challenge that is never heard, thereby burying them as well, the Court has effectively ruled in favour of the government on Aadhaar without allowing the petitioners to argue their challenge, and without writing a reasoned judgment that would be subject to public scrutiny.

This, to me, seems nothing less than an abdication of constitutional responsibility through the doctrine of judicial evasion.

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Filed under aadhaar, Access to Justice, Article 21 and the Right to Life, Judicial Evasion, Privacy

The Constitutional Challenge to Aadhaar/PAN – III: The Petitioners’ Rejoinder and the Issues before the Court

In the last two posts, we examined the case of the Petitioners and that of the Union of India before the Supreme Court in the constitutional challenge to S. 139AA of the IT Act. In this post, we shall conclude by discussing the Petitioners’ rejoinder, and outlining the issues that the Court must adjudicate.

Mr Shyam Divan’s Rejoinder

On Article 14 and the Collision Between the Aadhaar Act and S. 139AA

Mr Divan argued that the entire case rested upon the Attorney-General’s argument that S. 7 of the Aadhaar Act was virtually mandatory – an argument, he stated, he had heard for the first time during these proceedings. Mr Divan contended that the only way in which the Attorney-General had managed to reconcile the Aadhaar Act and S. 139AA was by arguing that S. 7 was mandatory. If that argument failed, then the entire edifice would crumble, and S. 139AA would have to be struck down.

Mr Divan argued that the entire scheme of the Aadhaar Act made it clear that it was voluntary. This was evident from the Statement of Objects and Reasons, from Section 3, which stipulated that “every resident shall be entitled” to an Aadhaar number. It was also evident from S. 3(2), which required the enrolling agency to inform the individual about the manner in which the information would be used and S. 8(2)(a), which required requesting entities to “obtain consent” . And S.7 only permitted the Government to make Aadhaar mandatory as a condition for receiving subsidies which were financed out of the Consolidated Fund of India. Mr Divan argued that the Attorney-General’s reliance on S. 57 was incorrect, because S. 57 clearly stated that it was subject to the rest of the Aadhaar Act. No coercive measures were contemplated by the Act. Furthermore, the voluntariness of Aadhaar was also evident from the enrolling form, which specified consent; from the UIDAI’s own website, which used the phrases “entitled to voluntarily obtain an Aadhaar number“, and “any person may choose to use Aadhaar“; and from the UIDAI’s advertisements.

Aadhaar, therefore, was a voluntary scheme. What flowed from this, according to Mr Divan, was that a legislative scheme which divided people into two categories – those who choose to have an Aadhaar, and those who don’t – and then burdened the latter category, was discriminatory on the face of it. And this was precisely what S. 139AA did. By dividing taxpayers into those who had freely chosen to get an Aadhaar number, and those who hadn’t, and by forcibly requiring the latter to get an Aadhaar, S. 139AA violated Article 14 because its very objective was discriminatory. Mr Divan argued that the petition should succeed on this count alone.

Compelled Speech 

Mr Divan clarified that his point about compelled speech was simply that, by parting with her biometric details and iris scan – the most personal of all information about oneself – the individual was being compelled to “speak” – and that too, not to the State, but to private enrolling agencies. Mr Divan conceded that there might be different considerations if the State was doing the collecting itself; but how, he asked, could the State compel the individual to “speak” to another individual with whom they did not wish to have any interaction? Reading out the list of private enrollers, Mr Divan argued that the entire architecture of Aadhaar – which required me to go and provide my most sensitive information not to the State, but to “Pankaj Shah of Bits and Bytes Co.” violated Article 19(1)(a).

Bodily Integrity, Compelling State Interest, Narrow Tailoring 

The Union of India’s entire argument – Mr Divan stated – essentially boiled down to “what’s the big deal about this? Other laws require you to part with personal information too.” To this, he responded that there could be laws which infringed bodily integrity in order to protect and preserve life: this is why there were laws mandating helmets and seatbelts. Likewise, there could be laws stipulating narrowly-tailored exceptions to the right, in service of a compelling State interest, such as passports (where an urgent need might arise to identify a person in case of an accident abroad). That, however, was a far cry from a centralised database, which – according to the Union’s own affidavit – involved seeding of information. This was also what distinguished Aadhaar from a provision such as S. 32A of the Registration Act. The Registration Act required you to give your fingerprints, but that was for your benefit and was only on the document; it did not go into a centralised database, with all the accompanying possibilities of misuse and data theft. Similarly, the Census Act accorded a very high degree of protection to census information: inspection of census registered, for instance, was prohibited. What this showed was that when the coercive power of the State is used to invade bodily integrity, there must be a consequently high degree of protection – something which Aadhaar, with the possibility of seeding, did not have.

Furthermore, Mr Divan argued, the State had failed to make out a compelling interest. The argument about “giving people an identity” was flawed, because 99.97% of Aadhaar applicants already had pre-existing identity documents. The logic of duplication was also flawed, because official information showed the presence of 1,69,000 duplicate Aadhaar numbers. Consequently, the large-sale infringement of bodily integrity in this case could not be sustained by the goal the State was trying to achieve.

Competence and Deference 

Mr Divan reiterated his argument that under the constitutional scheme, there was an implied limitation upon the State’s power to legislate when it came to the human body: only narrowly-tailored infringements, in service of a compelling interest, were permitted. Wholesale taking of biometric details and iris scans, and storing them in a centralised database for the purposes of seeding was neither narrowly-tailored, nor in service of a compelling interest. Mr Divan also pointed  out that this case had raised serious questions pertaining to the violation of Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution. Consequently, the Court ought not to follow its usual policy in dealing with “fiscal statutes”, and defer to legislative wisdom; although 139AA was a tax amendment, its nature was anything but purely fiscal.

Mr Divan concluded by arguing that the Union’s three-pronged case – that there was no right to privacy, that fingerprinting and iris scans were no more intrusive than a photograph, and that Aadhaar was mandatory – if accepted, would overturn the entire relationship between the individual and the State, concentrating great power in the hands of the latter at the expense of the former. That would result in a tremendous compromise of civil liberties. He would urge the Court to strike down S. 139AA.

Mr Datar’s Rejoinder

Legislative Overruling of Judicial Orders

Mr Datar argued that before the Supreme Court, the Union of India had always reiterated that Aadhaar was voluntary. On 11th August 2015, and then again on 15th October 2015, the Supreme Court itself had stated that Aadhaar could not be made mandatory. Now, it was open to Parliament to legislate in a way that took away the basis of these orders. Parliament, for instance, could simply stipulate, in a law, that henceforth, every individual was obligated to obtain an Aadhaar Number. However, Parliament had not done that. Parliament had simply enacted S. 139AA, which made it mandatory to quote an Aadhaar number while filing Income Tax returns. That did not amount to taking away the basis of the Supreme Court orders. Mr Datar took the example of a case in Bangalore, where notwithstanding building regulations prohibiting a height of more than 80m, a person had built up to 100m. The case was taken to Court, and he lost. However, before his building could be demolished, the Regulation was changed to make the legal height 110m, and applicable retrospectively, from the time that construction had commenced. That, argued Mr Datar, was an instance of how the basis of a judgment could be altered, and that was the only way known to law in which the Parliament or Executive could overcome a contrary court order. Similarly, in the Supreme Court’s recent judgment banning liquor within a specified distance from highways, some states had responded by denotifying their highways, and turning them into ordinary roads. That was permissible, because it removed the basis of the Court’s judgment; however, those states could not simply have said, “notwithstanding the Supreme Court judgment, alcohol will continue to be sold in these shops.” S. 139AA effectively amounted to state action of the latter kind.

Justice Sikri pointed out that what was unique about this case was that the Court’s earlier orders had been passed when Aadhaar was merely an executive scheme, and no law existed. So could it be said that the orders even applied to a law in the first place? Mr Datar responded by saying that in view of Ram Jawaya Kapoor’s Case, the executive and legislative powers of the State were co-extensive. Consequently, whether the original orders applied to an executive scheme, or to a law, the point remained that they could only be overcome through the specific mechanism outlined above. Justice Sikri and Mr Datar agreed that the Court was dealing with this kind of a situation for the first time in its history, and would have to lay down the law on the basis of first principles. Justice Sikri then asked what the “basis” of the earlier Court orders was, that the Parliament could have legislated to take away. Mr Datar responded that the basis was that since the validity of Aadhaar was yet to be tested on the constitutional anvil, in the meantime it could not be made mandatory for anything but a specified number of services. Consequently, the only way of removing this basis was to pass an Act that stated “Parliament may make Aadhaar mandatory…” Mr Arghya Sengupta interjected to state that S. 7 of the Aadhaar Act did this already. Mr. Datar replied that S. 7 did nothing of the sort.

Legislative Dichotomy

Mr Datar then pointed out that S. 139AA of the Aadhaar Act did not contain a non-obstante clause (“notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force…). In the absence of a non-obstante clause, there was a clear collision – or a dichotomy – between the Aadhaar Act and S. 139AA, a dichotomy that could be resolved only by striking down S. 139AA. Once Parliament had passed a law which made Aadhaar a right – it could not then pass a contrary law that made Aadhaar its jural opposite –  a duty without a non-obstante clause. Mr Datar read out numerous parliamentary statements – including one by Mr Jaitley – to demonstrate that at its core, Aadhaar was meant to be voluntary, and also pointed to the utter lack of debate in Parliament before passing S. 139AA.

Article 14

Mr Datar argued once again that the State had entirely failed to make out a rational nexus between making Aadhaar compulsory for individual taxpayers, and its stated goal(s) of preventing duplication, preventing black money, and preventing terrorism. He pointed out that only 0.4% of PAN Cards had been found to be duplicate, and that these figures from 2006. In response to Mr Sengupta’s interjection that this was only 0.4% of a very small sample, Mr Datar responded that that was exactly the point of statistical sampling. He observed there was no data after 2006, and asked on what basis the State had decided to take such a huge step – of mandatory Aadhaar – without analysing data, or sending the matter for consideration by a Parliamentary committee. The reason for the discrepancy between the number of PAN Cards and the number of taxpayers was simply that, after 1998, PAN began to be used for a wide number of transactions that had nothing to do with tax. Consequently, the Union had failed to discharge its burden under Article 14 that there existed a rational nexus between making individuals quote their Aadhaar numbers while filing tax returns, and checking duplication, tax evasion, or black money.

Mr Datar also addressed the Attorney-General’s arguments under FATCA, arguing that FATCA had nothing to do with Aadhaar numbers at all. Mr Arghya Sengupta interjected, saying that FATCA required handing over PAN numbers to US authorities, and that it would be embarrassing if duplicate PANs were handed over. Mr Datar pointed out that this had nothing to do with rational nexus under Article 14.

Article 19(1)(g) 

Mr Datar argued that the consequences of not having a PAN Card effectively locked an individual out of a number of economic transactions that were a lifeline (especially) for small traders and entrepreneurs. Apart from crores of individual taxpayers, it would be this class that would be affected the most: their entire economic life would grind to a halt. Consequently, for those who did not wish to get an Aadhaar number, S. 139AA was a serious infringement of their right to carry on trade and business under Article 19(1)9(g).

Now, if a law violated Article 19(1)(g), it could only be justified under Article 19(6): i.e., if it was a reasonable restriction in the interests of the general public. The correct test for assessing reasonableness had been laid down by Justice Sikri himself, in Modern Dental College vs State of MP (discussed on this blog here), and it was the test of “proportionality”:

“… a limitation of a constitutional right will be constitutionally permissible if: (i) it is designated for a proper purpose; (ii) the measures undertaken to effectuate such a limitation are rationally connected to the fulfillment of that purpose; (iii) the measures undertaken are necessary in that there are no alternative measures that may similarly achieve that same purpose with a lesser degree of limitation; and finally (iv) there needs to be a proper relation (‘proportionality stricto sensu’ or ‘balancing’) between the importance of achieving the proper purpose and the social importance of preventing the limitation on the constitutional right.” (paragraph 53)

Mr Datar pointed out that for 0.4% of duplicate PANs, 99.96% of taxpayers were being forced into Aadhaar. How, he asked, was this proportionate? In the balancing of interests between duplicate PANs and the freedom to do business, proportionality – in this case – clearly weighed in on the side of the former.

Mr Datar concluded by stating that this was a very serious case, with far-reaching consequences for civil liberties. Responding to the Attorney-General’s contention that all that had happened was that an extra “A” had been added to S. 139A, making it “Section 139AA”, he urged the Court to stop the encroachment on individual rights at its first step. He ended by quoting Justice Douglas of the US Supreme Court:

“As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

Issues before the Court

The Supreme Court has to resolve the following issues:

(a) Did S. 139AA “take away the basis” of the Supreme Court’s earlier orders on Aadhaar being voluntary, or is it an impermissible legislative overruling of a binding Court order?

(b) Does S. 139AA violate bodily integrity under Article 21? If it does, then does it serve a compelling State interest? And is it narrowly-tailored? Is it analogous to other laws such as the Registration Act, the Census Act, or the Passports Act, or is it much broader and far-reaching then those statutes? When deciding this issue, the Court will also have to decide how much to defer to the Union’s claims on duplication and black money, in view of the fact that the Petitioners strongly contested the validity of these claims. One interesting aspect here is how the Court will choose to allocate burdens of proof: will it, if it finds an infringement of bodily integrity, hold that the State must then justify it on the touchstone of compelling interest and narrow tailoring?

(c) Does S. 139AA violate Article 19(1)(g)? If so, is it proportionate, in view of statistics on the number of duplicate PANs and the existence of duplicate Aadhaars?

(d) In view of the fact that the Aadhaar Act makes Aadhaar voluntary, does S. 139AA fail the discriminatory purpose prong of Article 14 by classifying taxpayers into those who have voluntarily taken an Aadhaar number, and those who haven’t?

(e) Has the State shown a “rational nexus” under Article 14, with its goals of preventing black money and duplication? Here again, the issue of deference will become decisive: will the Court hold 139AA to be an economic statute, and take the Union’s claims at face value? Or will it, in view of the contentions involving fundamental rights, subject the Union to a stricter scrutiny in justifying its contention about Aadhaar being the panacea for preventing tax evasion?

(f) Does 139AA amount to compelled speech under Article 19(1)(a)?

(g) Does 139AA violate the principle of informational self-determination under Article 21?

(e) Is there an implied limitation upon legislative competence as far as laws concerning the human body are concerned? If yes, then does 139AA violate this implied limitation?

Options before the Court

The Court may do one of the following six things:

(a) Strike down S. 139AA as unconstitutional.

(b) Accept Mr Divan’s argument, and hold that S. 139AA is voluntary by reading “shall” as “may”.

(c) Accept Mr Datar’s argument and “harmoniously construe” S. 139AA and the Aadhaar Act by holding that those who have already procured and Aadhaar number might be required to quote it, but those who haven’t cannot be compelled to enroll.

(d) Find that issues or privacy are essential to decide the case, refer the matter to the pending Constitution Bench, and stay its operation in the meantime.

(e) Refer without staying

(f) Uphold S. 139AA entirely, but leave it open to the Petitioners to challenge it on the grounds of privacy, once the Constitution Bench finally decides the main Aadhaar challenge.

 

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Filed under aadhaar, Article 14, Article 21 and the Right to Life, Bodily Integrity, Bodily Privacy/Integrity, Equality, Privacy

‘O Brave New World’: The Supreme Court’s Evolving Doctrine of Constitutional Evasion

The Government initiates a program on a national scale, which has far-reaching effects upon the lives of citizens. It stakes its credibility and prestige upon the program, and defends its transformative potential for the country. Critics disagree. Among other things, they argue that the program is illegal without the sanction of law, and also infringes constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights. The critics move the Court, and request an early hearing, since the government’s program is changing facts on the ground on a daily basis. The Court hears the case. Perhaps it agrees with the critics, and invalidates the program. The government then has to go back to the drawing board, iron out the illegalities, and come back with another program (if it considers it to be worth the effort). Or, the Court agrees with the government, and holds the program to be legally and constitutionally valid, and the government carries on. In both situations, the Court pronounces upon the scope and limitations of the fundamental rights at issue.

That is an example of a well-working system of checks and balances. However, over the last few months, there are indications that this system is not working in quite the manner that it should. This is a cause for significant concern.

The Aadhaar Hearing

The first substantive hearing in the constitutional challenge to the government’s Aadhaar Program took place on 23rd September, 2013 (all orders in Writ Petition 494/2012 can be accessed here). On that day, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court admitted the petition for hearing, and passed the following order:

… no person should suffer for not getting the Adhaar card inspite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory.

On 8th October, 2013, the case was listed for “final hearing” on 22nd October, 2013. On 26th November, 2013, the Court passed directions for impleadment of all states and union territories. The case then proceeded to a three-judge bench. Through the course of January to April 2014, the three-judge bench heard arguments by Mr Shyam Divan, senior counsel for the Petitioner, on a number of dates. At the end of April, the case was listed for July, but only came up for hearing next more than a year later, on 21st July, 2015. Through the last week of July and the first week of August, the three-judge bench heard arguments from both Mr Divan and Mr Gopal Subramaniam .

At this point, the Attorney-General argued that there was no fundamental right to privacy under the Indian Constitution, and cases that had consistently held to the contrary since Gobind vs State of MP in 1975 were wrongly decided, since they had ignored binding eight and six-judge bench decisions. He asked for a reference to a larger bench. The Court agreed. On 11th August, 2015, it passed a detailed reference order.  In the order, it noted that:

“We are of the opinion that the cases on hand raise far reaching questions of importance involving interpretation of the Constitution. What is at stake is the amplitude of the fundamental rights including that precious and inalienable right under Article 21. If the observations made in M.P. Sharma (supra) and Kharak Singh (supra) are to be read literally and accepted as the law of this country, the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India and more particularly right to liberty under Article 21 would be denuded of vigour and vitality.”

The Court also stated:

“Having regard to importance of the matter, it is desirable that the matter be heard at the earliest.”

Until the time that the case could be heard by a larger bench, the Court also issued the following directions:

“The production of an Aadhaar card will not be condition for obtaining any benefits otherwise due to a citizen… [and] the Unique Identification Number or the Aadhaar card will not be used by the respondents for any purpose other than the PDS Scheme and in particular for the purpose of distribution of foodgrains, etc. and cooking fuel, such as kerosene. The Aadhaar card may also be used for the purpose of the LPG Distribution Scheme.” 

There was one more substantive hearing, on 15th October, 2015. A five-judge bench of the Court added some more schemes to the ones listed out in the 11th August order, for which the Aadhaar Card could be used. The Court reiterated that:

We will also make it clear that the Aadhaar card Scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or the other.”

And:

“Since there is some urgency in the matter, we request the learned Chief Justice of India to constitute a Bench for final hearing of these matters at the earliest.”

A five-judge bench is constituted by the Chief Justice at his discretion. After the hearing of 15th October (fifteen months ago), the case has not been heard. In the meantime, the government’s conduct is well-known. The Aadhaar Act was passed, to give statutory sanction to the program (questions have been raised about the constitutionality of the Act as well, especially regarding excessive delegation and the fundamental right to privacy). Despite numerous Supreme Court directions that Aadhaar could not be made mandatory, there have been reports on an almost weekly basis that an Aadhaar Card is effectively a requirement for some or the other benefit (the most recent one being today, for the MGNREGA). Contempt petitions have been filed before the Court, which remain pending.

In light of the Government’s conduct over the last year and a half, the Court’s refusal to hear the case goes beyond ordinary situations of matters being stuck in the courts for long periods because of judicial backlog and pendency. Aadhaar is a classic case where the more the Court delays, the greater the Government’s ability to eventually present it with a fait accompli – the fait accompli being that Aadhaar coverage becomes so deep, pervasive and intertwined with citizens’ lives, that even if the Court was to hold it unconstitutional, it would be, virtually, a technical or physical impossibility to undo it – or, if not an impossibility, the cost of disruption would be so prohibitively high, that no Government could reasonably implement it, even if it wanted to.

For these reasons, when the new Chief Justice assumed office this week, the case was mentioned before him for an urgent hearing. The request was declined (with observations that are deeply concerning, if they reflect the Court’s institutional position on fundamental rights). Presumably, it will not be heard any time soon – despite two judicial observations from the middle of 2015 highlighting the urgency of the case, and the need for a quick hearing.

Demonetisation

On November 8, 2016, the Prime Minister announced that Rs. 500 and 1000 notes would cease to be legal tender from midnight. In the coming weeks, this announcement was followed by a slew of notifications from the Reserve Bank that placed various restrictions on what citizens could or could not do with their money – how much they could withdraw from ATMs, how much they could withdraw from banks etc. At the time, the Prime Minister made the prediction – which now appears to be a little optimistic – that normalcy would return within fifty days – that is, by the end of the year.

As Namita Wahi argues, there are substantive legal arguments for the proposition that the demonetisation policy violated both law and the Constitution. On the first, arguably, the policy was ultra vires the RBI Act, and consequently, required the sanction of either a law, or an Ordinance (there is an Ordinance now). And secondly, that the Policy violated the right to property (Article 300A), as well as the fundamental rights to trade and life.

These arguments were raised by various petitioners challenging various aspects of the policy, who moved the Court soon after November 8. A number of abortive hearings took place over the course of the last week of November, and the first half of December. Finally, the Court referred the case to a five-judge bench, and formulated a number of questions about the legality and constitutionality of demonetisation.

It is now almost two months after the initial announcement. The Prime Minister’s self-imposed time limit of 31 December has expired. Many deaths have been reported. Much of the cash that was supposed to have been taken out of circulation is – reportedly – back in banks; whether or not it is true, surely, if not now, then soon enough, demonetisation will begin to wind itself down. In the meantime, there is no sign of the Constitution Bench.

Judgment by Evasion

Rarely – if ever – are contesting parties before a Court on equal terms. Before the Supreme Court, one party will always have the judgment of the lower Court in its favour, and consequently (absent a stay) will benefit from the case getting held up in the Court. In that sense, Aadhaar and Demonetisation are simply incidents of a broader problem of delay and backlog, where failure to hear and decide cases expeditiously does not cause equal harm to both sides, but benefits one at the cost of the other.

However, there is something more here. First of all, Aadhaar and Demonetisation are not ordinary cases – they are classically about the exercise of immense coercive State power against citizens. Adjudicating the legal validity of such State action is at the heart of why we have an independent judiciary. It is the reason why there is a system of checks and balances: because when power on such a scale is unrestrained by the rule of law and by constitutional norms, history has told us more than enough times what follows.

Secondly, as discussed above, this is not a case involving disputed property where, ten years later, the Court can decide the case and order the person in possession of the property to hand it over the victorious litigant. Aadhaar and Demonetisation are cases where, if the Court does not decide the issue within a certain period of time, any future decision will be an exercise in futility. It makes no sense to decide Demonetisation next year, after the policy has run its course – whatever rights were violated (if, that is, rights are being violated) cannot then be redressed. Similarly, it makes no sense to decide the constitutionality of Aadhaar after the program has begun to be used to avail virtually all (public, and some private) social services, and can no longer feasibly be disentangled from the daily lives of citizens.

Consequently, by refusing to decide, the Supreme Court effectively does decide – in favour of the Government. In effect, it upholds the validity of Aadhaar without hearing arguments on the constitutional questions, and without passing a reasoned judgment on Aadhaar and the right to privacy. In effect, it upholds the Government’s Demonetisation policy without deciding whether it is open to the State to place onerous restrictions on what citizens are allowed to do with their own money. In effect, it takes the side of State power, against citizen.

It is open to the Supreme Court to do so. But if that is what it is doing, then it ought to have the moral courage to defend its position in a reasoned judgment. It ought to explain – publicly – to citizens the scope of their fundamental right to privacy, and the manner in which Aadhaar is consistent with it. Once the Supreme Court decides, then its judgment can be engaged with, defended, criticised, its reasoning scrutinised closely, its positions critiqued. That is how it ought to be. But by simply refusing to hear and decide the case, where the consequences of non-decision are both terribly high and absolutely decisive, the Court only ends up abdicating its role as the organ of the State that is meant to stand between citizen and government power, and to keep the latter within its constitutionally-defined spheres.

The fact that this is how two of the most important constitutional issues in recent times have fared in the Supreme Court suggests that scholars of the Court can no longer make do simply with studying what the Court has held, and the jurisprudence that it has created through its judgments. Scholars must now also study this evolving jurisprudence of Constitutional evasion, which is defined by refusal, and by silence.

 

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Privacy and Functional Constitutionalism

“… the functional–pragmatic view is normative… in the… sense of making predictions about the necessities acting on present practices. It could claim, for instance, that the commitments laid out in the [Constitution] cannot be consistently met without a further right to privacy. This would be a functional argument: a right to privacy is necessary to protect speech and property and to prohibit unreasonable search and seizure and self-incrimination. Such a move displaces the normative burden to a conception of dysfunction —to the idea that the difficulties encountered by democratic practice will undermine it if they are not resolved. The functional–pragmatic view reveals contradictions implicit in such practices and makes the claim, for example, that “if you’re really serious about protecting free political speech, you must institutionalize something functionally equivalent to a right to privacy.” In the case of free speech and the right to privacy, then, we would have to know when speech was not being properly protected and how a right to privacy could ameliorate the situation. A sound analysis of the particulars of the case would provide a functional argument for such a right. Absent some observable dysfunction, however, no such argument could be made.”

Kevin Olson, ‘Do Rights Have a Formal Basis?’ 11(3) The Journal of Political Philosophy 2003, pp. 284 – 285.

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The Bombay High Court’s beef ban decision

In a significant judgment delivered yesterday, the Bombay High Court struck down Sections 5D and 9B of the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act, while upholding the other provisions of the act. Section 5D penalised the possession of beef, even if it had been brought from outside the state of Maharashtra. Section 9B reversed the presumption of innocence, and required that in a trial for the contravention of the Act, it would be for the accused to show that he had not violated the provisions of the law.

The Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act of 1976 had placed a ban upon cow slaughter in the state of Maharashtra. An Amendment Act – passed in 1995, but that only received Presidential assent in 2015 – extended the ban to the slaughter of bulls and bullocks as well. The Preamble to the Act was amended to specify that the Act’s purpose was the preservation of “cows, bulls and bullocks useful for milch, breeding, draught or agricultural purposes and for restriction on slaughter for the preservation of certain other animals suitable for the said purposes.” In addition to Section 5 of the Act, which now prohibited the slaughter of cows, bulls, and bullocks, the legislature added four sections: 5A, which prohibited transportation or export of cows, bulls or bullocks from within the State to any place outside the State for the purpose of slaughter “in contravention of the provisions of this Act“; 5B, which prohibited the purchase or sale of cows, bulls or bullocks for slaughter; 5C, which prohibited possession of the flesh of any cattle slaughtered in contravention of the Act; and 5D, which prohibited possession of cattle flesh brought from outside the State. To enforce these provisions, an amended Section 8 authorised Sub-Inspectors and higher-ranking police officers to search and stop vehicles, seize cattle flesh, and inspect any place. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Amendment Act specified that Maharashtra was a predominantly agricultural state, and that therefore, preserving animals for milch, draught and breeding purposes was specifically important.

All these provisions were challenged in a number of writ petitions, on grounds of Articles 19(1)(g), 21, 25, and 29 of the Constitution. These were heard and disposed off together by a two-judge bench of the High Court. To start with, it is important to note that to a large extent, the Bombay High Court’s hands were tied by a number of judgments of the Supreme Court that had upheld complete bans on cattle slaughter. From Mohd Hanif Qureshi to Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kasab Jamat, numerous benches had consistently rejected arguments based upon the freedom of trade and the freedom of religion, and had held, instead, that the preservation of cattle in an agrarian economy was a matter of overriding public interest. Consequently, the Petitioners were very much swimming against the tide, and the rejection of most of their submissions cannot come as any great surprise.

The Court’s consideration of the substantive arguments begins at paragraph 92, on page 88 of the judgment. The first issue before the Court was whether the addition of “bull or bullock” to “cow” under Section 5 was constitutionally valid. Inevitably, the Court’s analysis largely mirrors that if Mirzapur Moti Kasab Kureshi Jamat, where a near-identical provision in Gujarat was upheld. In Mirzapur Moti, the Court had relied extensively on the Directive Principles of State Policy (in particular, Article 48) to uphold the prohibition. It had held that the importance of cattle to an agrarian economy justified a complete ban in the public interest, even though it did infringe Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution. Following this, the Bombay High Court takes on board evidence (in the form of affidavits filed by the State) in order to determine the importance of cattle to the economy of Maharashtra (Paragraphs 101 – 109). It then proceeds to examine the challenge based on Article 19(1)(g), and after citing precedent, concludes:

“The question is whether the restriction imposed by Article 19(1)(g) is unreasonable. We find nothing unreasonable about the said restriction. It is for giving effect to Article 48 and Clause (g) of Article 51A of the Constitution of India. The restrictions are not arbitrary and therefore, do not infringe Article 14. Therefore, the challenge based on violation of Article 19(1)(g) to the amendment made to Section 5 of the Animal Preservation Act completely prohibiting the slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks is without any merit.”

Unfortunately, this finding perpetuates a continuing confusion about the relationship between Parts III and IV of the Constitution. Under Article 19(6), there are two separate elements of a valid restriction upon the freedom of trade: public interest, and reasonableness. Over the years, the Courts have invoked the Directive Principles to hold both that a restriction is in the public interest, and that it is reasonable. This is very obviously incorrect. The Directive Principles are framed as goals that the State should take steps to accomplish. It therefore makes sense that a law directed towards fulfilling a Directive Principle must be held to be in the public interest. The requirement of reasonableness, however, has nothing to do with the goal that is sought to be achieved. Rather, it has everything to do with the methods applied to achieve that goal. In this enquiry, the DPSPs – which, by definition, are framed as goals – cannot help (for an examination of some of the cases, see here).

The use of DPSPs to find reasonableness denudes the enquiry of its substantive content. Just recently, the Supreme Court held that reasonableness, under 19(6), involves a “proportionality” enquiry. That enquiry did not happen in Mirzapur Moti, and it does not happen here. It is not simply enough to show that cows, bulls and bullocks play an important role in the agrarian economy – that only speaks to the public interest prong of the 19(6) enquiry. It is equally important to show that a complete ban on cattle slaughter is a proportionate way of addressing the problem, and that there do not exist other ways that could be equally efficacious, but which do not involve the same extent of infringement of Article 19(1)(g). This would require the Court to go beyond the affidavits submitted by the State, and engage in a first-level enquiry (something which, I’ve argued before, it ought to do when it comes to fundamental rights). Unfortunately, however, we only have a continuation of the same manner of deference to the State that has been the hallmark of previous cattle slaughter cases. Once again, though, it is difficult to see what else the High Court could have done, in the teeth of fifty-five years of consistent Supreme Court precedent.

The Court then goes on to reject the Article 25 challenge (again, following previous judgments that have held that cow sacrifice is not an “essential” part of Islam), as well as the Article 29 challenge (paragraphs 134 and 135). This brings the Court then, to consider the constitutional validity of Sections 5A, B, C, and D. The Court upholds Sections 5A (transport/import), B (sale/purchase) and C (possession) on the ground that they all have a direct and proximate nexus with the legislation’s goal of preventing cattle slaughter.

There are, however, two serious problems with this analysis. Consider, first, Section 5A, which prohibits transport to another State for the purpose of slaughter. The Court observes that “the object of the amendment to Section 5 is to preserve cows, bulls or bullocks inside the State. It can be said that this provision has a direct and proximate nexus with the object sought to be achieved by making amendment to Section 5 for imposing prohibition on slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks in the State.” This, however, makes no sense. If the purpose is to preserve cattle inside the State, then the ban should be on all transport outside the State – what happens to the cattle once it exits the borders of Mahrashtra makes no difference to the fact that the moment it does, the cattle population of Maharashtra accordingly decreases. The Court understands this, acknowledging that the provision makes “little practical sense” (paragraph 137). But it then gets around that by holding that the Section covers “cover a hypothetical case of such transport of animals outside the State so as to slaughter it within the State, of course, after it is brought back to the State possibly by the slaughterer himself, the transporter and slaughterer being different persons.” 

But that is not what Section 5A, plainly worded, says. It penalises all transport outside the State for the purposes of slaughter, wherever that slaughter might take place. The Court’s construction of Section 5A, to save it from unconstitutionality, is strained to say the least.

Similarly, when examining Section 5C (possession), the Court holds that penalising possession is, likewise, required to effectively implement the ban on slaughter (paragraph 144). Matters are not so simple, however. What the Court fails to take into account is that enforcing the ban on possession will inevitably infringe the privacy of the possessor under Article 21 of the Constitution. This adds an extra layer to the balancing process. For instance, in Stanley vs Georgia, the American Supreme Court held that even though obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment, the criminalisation of mere possession of obscene materials could not be countenanced, on privacy grounds. While there are some important differences between the two cases, the basic argument is this: while the State may legitimately ban cattle slaughter under Article 19(6) of the Constitution, criminalising possession will require invasions of privacy that need to be separately justified under Article 21’s compelling State interest-narrow tailoring test (the Court does hold, however, that “possession” under 5(C) is limited to “conscious possession, and the burden of proving that is upon the State (paragraphs 149 – 150).

The Court’s failure to deal with privacy in its Section 5C enquiry is all the more disappointing, since it proceeds to do so extensively while discussing Section 5D (possession of the flesh of cattle slaughtered outside the State). Notwithstanding the pending Constitution Bench reference about whether or not privacy is a fundamental right, the Court exhaustively considers precedent on the point. It finds (correctly, in my opinion) that M.P. Sharma vs Satish Chandra was decided on different grounds, and Kharak Singh, while disclaiming an express right of privacy, nonetheless effectively derives a right of that nature from personal liberty under Article 21. Consequently, neither M.P. Sharma, nor Kharak Singh, can overturn the last forty years of established jurisprudence holding that privacy is a fundamental right under the Constitution (paragraphs 155 – 173). The Court then holds:

“As far as the choice of eating food of the citizens is concerned, the citizens are required to be let alone especially when the food of their choice is not injurious to health. As observed earlier, even a right to sleep is held as a part of right to privacy which is guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In fact the State cannot control what a citizen does in his house which is his own castle, provided he is not doing something which is contrary to law. The State cannot make an intrusion into his home and prevent a citizen from possessing and eating food of his choice. A citizen has a right to lead a meaningful life within the four corners of his house as well as outside his house. This intrusion on the personal life of an individual is prohibited by the right to privacy which is part of personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21. The State cannot prevent a citizen from possessing and consuming a particular type of food which is not injurious to health (or obnoxious). In the decision in the case of Hinsa Virodhak Sangh, the Apex Court has specifically held that what one eats is one’s personal affair and it is a part of privacy included in Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Thus, if the State tells the citizens not to eat a particular type of food or prevents the citizens from possessing and consuming a particular type of food, it will certainly be an infringement of a right to privacy as it violates the right to be let alone. If a particular food is injurious to health or a particular food is illegally manufactured, it will be a case of compelling public interest which will enable the State to deprive citizens of the right to privacy by following the procedure established by law. In the present case, Section 5D prevents a citizen from possessing and from consuming flesh of a cow, bull or bullock even if it is flesh of a cow,bull or bullock slaughtered in territories where such slaughter is legal. Hence, Section 5D is certainly an infringement of right to privacy which is implicit in the personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21.” (paragraph 176)

In this paragraph, the Court endorses two different (and complementary) conceptions of privacy. The first is a spatial vision: “the State cannot make an intrusion into his home… the citizen has a right to lead a meaningful life within the four corners of his house…” In other words, invasion of an individual’s “private space” in order to discover whether or not he is eating beef violates privacy (readers will not that this argument applies exactly to Section 5C as well). The second is a vision of privacy as decisional autonomy – “what one eats is one’s personal affair, and it is part of privacy… [Section 5D] violates the right to be let alone.” At first glance, it might not seem that dietary choices hardly implicate those kinds of fundamental life decisions that are normally associated with individual autonomy. This is perhaps why it might be more helpful to think of this not in terms of how central dietary choice is to individual autonomy, but in terms of something that Jed Rubenfeld has called the “anti-totalitarian principle” (previously discussed here): State power ought not to be used for “forcing of lives into well-defined and highly confined institutional layers.” Control over diet is one instance of State shaping lives into a rigid pattern (often justified by ideological considerations).

The Court ends by concluding that even if there is no right to privacy under the Constitution, intrusion into private dietary choices clearly violates personal liberty under Article 21 (paragraph 193).

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the Bombay High Court did not have very much choice when it came to upholding the cattle slaughter ban, generally. There were, however, good reasons to strike down Sections 5A and 5C, and to that extent, the judgment is disappointing. It is also disappointing that the well-documented discriminatory effect of the ban on certain castes and classes, in terms of economics and affordability (leading to a possible Article 14 and 15 claim), was discussed cursorily at best  The strong endorsement of a robust privacy right, however, is certainly encouraging.

(A guest post tomorrow will discuss the concurring opinion, which strikes down Section 9B’s reverse burden as unconstitutional)

 

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T. Sareetha vs T. Venkata Subbaiah: Remembering a Revolutionary Decision

On July 1, 1983, Justice P.A. Choudary of the Andhra Pradesh High Court struck down Section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act, which allowed the Court to pass an order for ‘restitution of conjugal rights.’ In simple language, if the Court was convinced that either a husband or a wife had ‘without reasonable cause, withdrawn from the society‘ of their spouse, then it could decree that the defaulting spouse was required to go back to the company of their partner – a decree that could be enforced by attaching the defaulter’s property. Justice Choudary held that Section 9 violated the rights to equality and privacy under the Constitution, and was accordingly void. Within five months, the Delhi High Court handed down a judgment disagreeing with this conclusion. And a little over a year later, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Delhi High Court, bringing the legal controversy to a close.

Sareetha remains as a footnote in family law courses, a passing reference in discussions about the restitution of conjugal rights. This is a pity. Sareetha was one of those rare cases in Indian constitutional history where a Court understood the Constitution as a radically transformative document, and struck out in a direction that was unfamiliar, bold, and creative – while remaining constitutionally tethered. Its interpretations of equality and privacy anticipated similar developments in other jurisdictions by years, or decades; and in some respects, it is still ahead of the time. Quite apart from the actual decision, it is its reasoning that constitutional lawyers should not forget; because even though the Supreme Court overruled the judgment, and perhaps closed off the window to a certain kind of legal change, Sareetha’s reasoning remains a template for other cases that might attempt to shape equality and privacy in an emancipatory and progressive direction.

Polis and Oikos: The Privacy of the Ancients

To understand the radicalism of Sareetha, we need to begin at the beginning. The distinction between the public and the private sphere, which is one of the most controversial issues today, and which was at the heart of Sareetha, had its origins in classical Athens.  As Don Slater writes, “The public sphere – the polis or res publica – was the realm of free association between citizens. Men [and only men] were deemed free in the polis not because it was unregulated, but because it was kept rigidly separated from the private sphere of the household and the domestic economy (oikos): the domestic sphere was regarded as the realm of mere physical reproduction, and therefore of the compulsion and slavery of needs.” In her book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt records that the public sphere (which Humphrey’s defines by its ‘impersonality’) was the arena of “equals” – men, who came together to debate and discuss issues affecting their City-State were neither “to rule, nor to be ruled.” In fact, the very idea of ‘rule’ was at odds with the idea of the polis. In the oikos, on the other hand, the male head of the household had absolute dominion over his slaves, the women, and the minor children. It was these who would ensure the satisfaction of his bodily needs, thus liberating him from ‘necessity’, and freeing him to participate in the public sphere with other, equally situated men.

The public/private divide, therefore, mapped on to the dichotomy between freedom and necessity, equality and inequality. The claims of equality were restricted to the public sphere (polis), and simply weren’t applicable to the household (oikos), which was defined by its inequality.

Public and Private: The Privacy of the Moderns

The public/private divide largely disappeared during feudal times (the manorial households, in a sense, came to embody characteristics of both spheres), and then made a reappearance after the Enlightenment and the revolutionary era. The modern era – Arendt argues – saw economic activities and market transactions taken out of the domain of the private sphere, which was now defined as the site of intimacy, or intimate relationships. At this time, as Seyla Benhabib records, the American and French Revolutions had brought into public consciousness the ideas of basic rights, and the idea of autonomy. Quoting the philosopher Lawrence Stone, she observes that:

“… from the beginning there were tensions between the continuing patriarchal authority of the father in the bourgeois family and developing conceptions of equality and consent in the political world. As the male bourgeois citizen was battling for his rights to autonomy in the religious and economic spheres against the absolutist state, his relations in the household were defined by nonconsensual, nonegalitarian assumptions. Questions of justice were from the beginning restricted to the ‘public sphere’, whereas the private sphere was considered outside the realm of justice.”

Unlike the Ancients, who accepted that the private sphere was essentially inegalitarian, the moderns held that it was simply not subject to the claims of equality. Benhabib further points out that “power relations in the ‘intimate sphere’ have been treated as though they did not even exist.” It is this idea of privacy that culminated in judicial holdings in the 20th century that viewed privacy as a question of a space of seclusion, a space that the State could not enter. After Warren and Brandeis wrote their famous article at the end of the 19th century, viewing the right to privacy as a right to seclusion, or a right to be let alone, the American Supreme Court held that the right extended to “areas” where there was a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

It was this spatial concept of privacy that was strongly criticised by feminist legal scholars over the second half of the 20th  century. In light of the fact that the “private sphere” is itself a hierarchically structured space, Martha Nussbaum points out that “recognizing a sphere of seclusion into which the state shall not enter means that males may exercise unconstrained power.” A classic example of this is the marital rape exception which deems that forcible sexual intercourse within the marital relationship does not amount to rape.

Community and Individual: Privacy in Colonial India

In colonial India of the late nineteenth century, where – in the words of historian Tanika Sarkar, there first began to emerge a “pre-history of rights“, privacy took on yet another form: here, it became the right of communities to determine certain issues – including the treatment of women – free from the interference of the colonial State. Tanika Sarkar, Lata Mani, Partha Chatterjee, and other scholars recount the debates around the abolition of Sati, the raising of the Age of Consent, and indeed, on restitution of conjugal rights. Chatterjee notes, for instance, that “the so-called women’s question in the agenda of Indian social reform in the early 19th century was not so much about the specific condition of women as it was about the political encounter between a colonial state and the supposed “tradition” of a conquered people.” In other words, community “traditions”, which centrally involved the rights, positions, and social roles of women, were deemed to be off limits, since they came to represent, or embody, the “inner life” of the community. So the idea of privacy (although it was not framed in so many words) became connected with group rights; or, it was groups that – as bearers of value in themselves – that became the holders of something like a right to privacy.

The Ambiguity of Gobind v State of MP

Therefore, when the Indian Supreme Court began to take up issues relating to the right to privacy, it was adjudicating in the context of a number of different – although somewhat complementary – traditions. The case that first held that there existed a constitutional right to privacy in India reflected this problem. In Gobind v State of MP,  the Supreme Court held, in sphinx-like tones, that:

“Any right to privacy must encompass and protect the personal intimacies of the home, the family, marriage, motherhood, procreation and child rearing.”

As I have noted before, part of the reason why this definition sounds confusing is that it was lifted by the Supreme Court from an American decision delivered in an entirely different context – that of adult theatres. In any event, a quick reading of this sentence reveals at least four possible underlying themes:

(a) A spatial idea of privacy, flowing from the use of the word “home”, and the fact that all the terms that follow it refer to activities normally undertaken within the home

(b) An institutional, or relational idea of privacy: the home (in the sense of a household), the family, marriage, and motherhood are all social institutions. The right to privacy, then, protects the sanctity of these institutions by insulating them against State interference.

(c) A functional idea of privacy: motherhood, procreation, and child-rearing, in particular, seem to suggest domestic activities (and the absence of ‘fatherhood’, in turn, suggests the gendered nature of the division).

(d) An individualistic idea of privacy that focuses upon bodily integrity and decisional autonomy: a few years before Gobind, the American Supreme Court in Griswold v Connecticut and Roe v Wade  had upheld the right to contraceptives and the right to abortion, on grounds of privacy; privacy, here, refers to the right of the individual to make her own choices about decisions that directly affect her bodily integrity.

As we can see, while the first three interpretations reflect the various conceptions of privacy discussed above, the fourth marks something of a break. In Sareetha, the Justice Choudary would take this fourth idea, and use it to develop a transformative vision of privacy.

Sareetha; Reasoning and Outcome

A. Privacy as Individual Dignity

Justice Choudary held that “a decree of restitution of conjugal rights thus enforced offends the inviolability of the body and the mind subjected to the decree and offends the integrity of such a person and invades the marital privacy and domestic intimacies of such a person.” According to him, at the heart of the issue was the fact that the law, essentially, was a law compelling sexual intercourse. “The consequences of the enforcement of such a decree”, he observed, “are firstly to transfer the choice to have or not to have marital intercourse to the State from the concerned individual and secondly, to surrender the choice of the individual to allow or not to allow one’s body to be used as a vehicle for another human being’s creation to the State.” 

Notice, however, that the law itself does not require sexual intercourse. It only authorises a decree for cohabitation, which can be enforced through attachment of property. This is why Justice Choudary spoke of the consequences of enforcing a decree – and it is here that we see the first major break with traditional conceptions of privacy. Because Justice Choudary was not content simply to end his enquiry at the point of cohabitation – but to go further, to find that given the deeply unequal structure of the family, and given the myriad pressures – not simply physical, but of every other kind – that could be brought to bear upon a woman who is shorn from the protection of her own family, a decree for cohabitation would, in all likelihood, lead to compelled intercourse. Taking the example of a Madhya Pradesh High Court decision where a woman called Tarabai was required by decree to go back to her husband, Justice Choudary observed that “what could have happened to Tarabai thereafter may well be left to the reader’s imagination.” This, for him, was completely unacceptable, because:

Sexual expression is so integral to one’s personality that it is impossible to conceive of sexuality on any basis except on the basis of consensual participation of the opposite sexes. No relationship between man and woman is more rested on mutual consent and freewill and is more intimately and personally forged than sexual relationship.”

And for a women, who would be the one to conceive, “in a matter which is so intimately concerns her body and which is so vital for her life, a decree of restitution of conjugal rights totally excludes her.” Here, for the first time, we see a vision of privacy that focusses upon a combination of bodily integrity and decisional autonomy. Soon afterwards, Justice Choudary cited Gobind, and then focused on one particular line in Gobind:

“There can be no doubt that privacy-dignity claims deserve to be examined with care and to be denied only when an important countervailing interest is shown to be superior.”

Latching upon the concept of privacy-dignity (and dignity, it will be noticed, speaks to the individual), Justice Choudary then noted “any plausible definition of right to privacy is bound to take human body as its first and most basic reference for control over personal identity… [the] right to privacy belongs to a person as an individual and, is not lost by marital association.”

This is a crucial observation, since it completely rejects the view that the site of privacy claims are social institutions, such as the marriage or the family, and accepts, instead, the opposite claim that the right-bearer is the individual. Privacy, therefore, is to be understood not as an exalted space within which the State cannot enter (no matter what happens within that space), but as a right accorded to each individual, which guarantees her autonomy in all fundamental decisions concerning her body.

B. Justice Brandeis and the Balance of Power

Interestingly, during the course of his argument, Justice Choudary also referred to Justice Brandeis’ dissenting opinion in the case of Olmstead vs New York.  Olmstead was a 1928 American Supreme Court decision concerning the admissibility of evidence obtained through a wiretap. The majority held that the wiretap did not offend the Fourth Amendment, which was limited to  prohibiting illegal searches of “persons, houses, papers, and effects”. Justice Brandeis, however, refused to read the Fourth Amendment in such a literal way. He observed:

“When the Fourth and Fifth Amendments were adopted, “the form that evil had theretofore taken” had been necessarily simple. Force and violence were then the only means known to man by which a Government could directly effect self-incrimination. It could compel the individual to testify — a compulsion effected, if need be, by torture. It could secure possession of his papers and other articles incident to his private life — a seizure effected, if need be, by breaking and entry. Protection against such invasion of “the sanctities of a man’s home and the privacies of life” was provided in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments by specific language. But “time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes.” Subtler and more far-reaching means of invading privacy have become available to the Government. Discovery and invention have made it possible for the Government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet.”

Justice Brandeis’ basic point was that as invasive State technologies increase in scope and reach, the law must correspondingly evolve to continue effectively protecting the individual. Underlying this is the idea that there must, at all times, remain a balance of power between State and individual. The more power the State acquires, the further must the law reach to constrain its use, lest we arrive at a totalitarian society in which State power has completely overwhelmed the individual.

The innovation in Sareetha is that it takes Brandeis’ idea of a parity of power between individual and State, and extends that to apply horizontally, in the private realm. The link between cohabitation and compelled intercourse is based upon a difference in power: and Sareetha’s striking down of S. 9 is a Brandeisian attempt to restore the balance. In a truly radical fashion, therefore, Justice Choudary’s attempt was to bring about – in the smallest of ways possible – a democratisation of the private sphere.

C. Article 14 and Indirect Discrimination

Justice Choudary’s last argument was with respect to Article 14. Section 9, of course, was facially neutral: the remedy, in theory, was open to both husbands and wives. But, Justice Choudary held, ” “Bare equality of treatment regardless of the inequality of realities   is neither justice   nor homage to the constitutional principle”… the question is how this remedy works in life terms In our  social reality, this matrimonial remedy   is found used almost exclusively by the husband  and is rarely resorted to by the   wife. A passage in Gupte’s Hindu law in British India’ page 929 (second edition) attests to this   fact…  the reason for this mainly lies in the fact of the differences between the man and the woman. By enforcing a decree for restitution of conjugal rights the life pattern of the wife is likely to be altered irretrievable whereas the husband’s can remain almost as it was before this is so because it is the wife who has to beget and bear a child. This practical but the inevitable consequence of the enforcement of this remedy cripples the wife’s  future  plans of life and prevents her from using that self-destructive remedy… The pledge of equal protection of laws is thus inherently incapable of being fulfilled by this   matrimonial remedy in our Hindu society. As a result this remedy words in practice only as an engine of oppression to be operated by the husband for the benefit of the husband against the wife.”

On this blog, we have often discussed the question of whether, to prove discrimination, once must show that the law was intended, or had a motivation to, discriminate; or is it adequate to show that the law, although neutral in its terms, has a disproportionate impact upon a certain group of people. The former views discrimination as a result of a discrete, intentional act; the latter, as the result of long-standing structures and institutions. The former understands social realities as independent of law, providing a neutral background within which law operates; the latter insists that these social realities are always constructed by, and complementary to, the legal system – and that therefore, laws which reproduce or endorse such social realities are equally suspect (or, in the words, of Justice Albie Sachs, the purpose of a Constitution is to transform “misfortune to be endured into injustice to be remedied“). In his analysis of the differential effects of Section 9 based upon a social reality that placed the cost of child-bearing and rearing disproportionately upon women, Justice Choudary firmly endorsed the latter, more nuanced understanding, of equality.

The Radicalism of Sareetha

We are now in a position to understand the full extent to which Sareetha was a transformative and radical judgment. In specifically applying Article 14 to the private sphere, Justice Choudary repudiated the privacy of the Ancients, according to which equality was a value only in the public sphere. In specifically invoking the power hierarchies and inequalities in the private sphere to justify his decision, he repudiated the spatial conception of the privacy of the moderns, that turns a blind eye to the realities of domination and subordination within the home. In invoking Justice Brandeis, he brought the idea of maintaining an egalitarian balance of power between State and individual into private relationships, and took a small step towards the democratisation of the private sphere. And in finding an Article 14 violation, he advanced a view of equality that was grounded in structures and institutions, rather than individual acts. One may disagree with his final conclusion – and in fact, Flavia Agnes, among others, has made arguments defending S. 9 – but the reasoning remains powerful, and a clarion call for a progressive vision of privacy and equality.

Aftermath

Soon after Sareetha, the Delhi High Court came to the opposite decision. In Harvinder Kaur v Harmender Singh Chaudhary, it held that:

“Introduction of constitutional law in the home is most inappropriate. It is like introducing a bull in a china shop. It will prove to be a ruthless destroyer of the marriage institution and all that it stands for. In the privacy of the home and the married life neither Article 21 nor Article 14- have anyplace. In a sensitive sphere which is at once most intimate and delicate the introduction of the cold principles of constitutional law will have the effect of weakening the marriage bond. That the restitution remedy was abolished in England in 1970 by Section 20 of the Matrimonial Proceedings and Properties Act 1970. on the recommendation of the Law Commission headed by Justice Sharman is no ground to hold that it is unconstitutional in the Indian set-up. In the home the consideration that really obtains is that natural love and affection which counts for so little in these cold courts. Constitutional law principles find no place in the domestic code.” 

In its blanket refusal to apply equality and privacy to the “home”, the Delhi High Court reinstated the traditional, spatial view of privacy, that closed off a physical space from State intervention. This was upheld by the Supreme Court, which also added that “the right of the husband or the wife to the society of the other spouse is not merely creature of the statute. Such a right is inherent in the very institution of marriage itself” – thus reinforcing the position that the sanctity of privacy is accorded not to the individual, but to the institution of marriage.

Conclusion

Sareetha, undoubtedly, was buried thirty years ago, and cannot be brought back to life. But while a judgment remains in ashes, its arguments can certainly become phoenixes and rise again. Justice Choudary’s insights are relevant for the ongoing struggle against the non-criminalisation of marital rape, against numerous inequitable provisions in personal law codes, and for the continuing efforts to persuade the Court to understand Articles 14 and 15 in structural terms (another, abortive, effort was made in Naz Foundation, which was also overruled). At the very least, Sareetha should not be forgotten: it should remain in historical memory as a landmark of Indian constitutional law, taught and discussed as a brilliant – if unsuccessful – attempt at radically transforming our constitutional jurisprudence of privacy and equality.

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Filed under Article 14, Bodily Privacy/Integrity, Disparate Impact, Equality, Marital Rape, Non-discrimination, Privacy, Sexuality