A nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court has on 24th August made it clear that Indian citizens have the fundamental right to privacy.
The historic verdict said that right to privacy is 'protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedom guaranteed by Part III of the Indian Constitution'.
The unanimous order of the bench will help redefine in significant ways India's concepts of liberty and the entitlements that flow out of its protection in the digital era. For a government that has gone overboard to digitialise every citizen interface programme and service through the biometric authentication channel the 12-digit unique identity number Aadhaar offers, the order may pose fresh challenges.
It will also influence the pending litigations against the central government's efforts to make Aadhaar enrolment and its use mandatory for citizens.
For instance, on 9th June, a Supreme Court bench had refused to grant a stay on the government's efforts to link the PAN numbers and the Aadhaar numbers of tax payers. The Court ruled the Income Tax law that mandates the sharing of Aadhaar numbers for applying for PAN cards in the income tax returns was well within the rights of the government. It wanted the change to be prospective, and also linked to the decision the nine-judge bench takes on the citizen's right to privacy.
The verdict will also impact a pending hearing in the Supreme Court - of 22 Aadhaar related petitions tagged together - as the government will never be able to argue that Aadhaar imposition cannot be considered as a privacy issue as privacy itself was not to be a fundamental right.
The wide ranging impact of the much awaited verdict was evident from the responses that started pouring in from the moment the verdict was pronounced today.
"This landmark judgment will ensure that the protection of citizen's privacy is a cardinal principle in our growing digital economy. Besides, it will enhance citizens' trust in digital services, a prerequisite for widespread digital adoption. The ruling also significantly boosts India's attractiveness as a safe destination for global sourcing."R Chandrashekhar, president of Indian software industry body, NASSCOM said.
Rama Vedashree, CEO of Data Security Council of India (DSCI) said that the body she represents had "always advocated for a stronger data security regime in the country and this judgement will further reinforce industry efforts and resolve to provide necessary assurance in this regard."
The government's attempt will also be to convince that Court that use of Aadhaar for identification purposes should not be considered as an intrusion into the citizen's privacy.
Incidentally, the 9-judge bench deciding this was constituted in August 2015 following a reference made in the Aadhaar/UID case (Puttuswamy & Anr WP Civil No. 494 of 2012) almost 2 years ago. Petitioners, activists, academics and lawyers skeptical of the Aadhaar project have been waiting since then for the resolution of the question of whether or not a fundamental right to privacy will be recognized by the Supreme Court. In the interim period, the Government of India had expanded the use Aadhaar in a significant way. The anti-Aadhaar petitioners cite the multiple shortcomings and the alleged threat such linkage poses to the security and welfare of the country as reasons to argue against the government move.
The bench of nine judges that pronounced the verdict included the Chief Justice of India, Justice Khehar, Justices Jasti Chelameswar, SA Bobde, RK Agarwal, Rohinton Nariman, AM Sapre, DY Chandrachud, SK Kaul and S Abdul Nazeer.