By Bikash Sarmah
In a landmark verdict on August 24, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy would now be a fundamental right. This is an extraordiry judgement, given the conservatism that characterizes our society and the all-pervading prudishness that adds to the fetters all around. A society, despite the tall claims of it being globalized and digitalized, which exhibits unexplained shock as and when matters pertaining to privacy seem to take centrestage in private or public discourses, is doubtless poised for a big leap in the wake of the apex court ruling. After all, is it not that ‘private’ is often deemed synonymous with something ‘profane’ – that is, something not in good taste so as to be in sync with the existing ‘moral’ values of the day? But, then, who defines ‘morality’? Is it absolute? Not at all. It is a relative notion. Something moral here may be – and often is – something immoral, or even amoral, somewhere else!
With this verdict, the highest court of the land has propelled India to a new societal height. India now stands among some of the most progressive societies of the world that ensure that their citizens have the right to privacy, which of course they ought to have in any society that aspires to progress not just in terms of societal norms (which are often vague and crippling) but also in terms of human indices.
A nine-judge Supreme Court bench has unimously ruled that privacy is a fundamental right, protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and persol liberty and as part of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. In the historic judgement, the bench headed by Chief Justice of India JS Khehar, including Justices J Chelameswar, A Bobde, RK Agrawal, RF riman, AM Sapre, DY Chandrachud, Sanjay K Kaul and S Abdul zeer, has upturned a 63-year-old ruling of an eight-judge bench that had refused to recognize privacy as a fundamental right.
The 547-page ruling has set up many landmarks. It gives an outline of what a dignified life is all about. More importantly, it has dwelt on the obligation of the state – or the system hitherto wedded to the obscurantist ideas of so-called societal norms based on a skewed interpretation of morality – to facilitate for its citizens a dignified life. The court has stressed the value of dissent and tolerance, besides the rights of minorities, including sexual minorities, paving the way for the possible annulment of its own controversial order to reverse the decrimilization of consensual gay sex by the Delhi High Court. Hence the extraordiriness of the latest apex court verdict.
The ruling is bold. It describes precisely the limits of the state’s intervention in the lives of citizens – that is, private lives. Nonetheless, there is a caution, which is justified: there do exist varied challenges thrown up by technology, especially information technology, and therefore there needs to be a balance between the right to privacy and the right of the state to impose reasoble restrictions on this right for legitimate aims. But what are these aims? Simple. They are tiol security, prevention and investigation of crimes, and distribution of welfare resources. So the domain of the workability of the Right to Privacy as a Fundamental Right has been defined aptly. Hardly does one find any room for disagreement.
What is truly remarkable is the manner in which the court has harped on one of the most important dimensions of human persolity, which is the ability of an individual to make choices and cultivate the associated values: “Once privacy is held to be an incident of the protection of life, persol liberty and of the liberties guaranteed by the unimoprovisions of Part III of the Constitution, the submission that privacy is only a right at common law misses the wood for the trees… Privacy postulates the reservation of a private space for the individual, described as the right to be let alone. The concept is founded on the autonomy of the individual. The ability of an individual to make choices (emphasis added) lies at the core of the human persolity... The body and the mind are inseparable elements of the human persolity. The integrity of the body and the sanctity of the mind can exist on the foundation that each individual possesses an ilieble ability and right to preserve a private space in which the human persolity can develop. Without the ability to make choices, the inviolability of the persolity would be in doubt. Recognising a zone of privacy is but an acknowledgement that each individual must be entitled to chart and pursue the course of development of persolity. Hence, privacy is a postulate of human dignity itself.”
There lies the crux of the matter: that privacy is a postulate of human dignity itself. Which means sans privacy you are sans your dignity itself! To put it simply, if you are deprived of your privacy, which this writer thinks is one’s birthright, or if someone is intruding into your private domain just because he thinks his ‘morality’ and other concomitant ‘values’ do not jell with yours, then this person is waging a war on your dignity, which is absolutely ucceptable in any civilized and progressive society. Thanks to the Supreme Court that we are at long last a private people – a people whose privacy is as fundamental as any of their other rights are, as guaranteed by the Constitution of the land, just as the right to life or the right to profess one’s religion is.
This takes us to the one of the profoundest deliberations on human dignity as the apex court has rightly pointed out: “Dignity cannot exist without privacy. Both reside within the ilieble values of life, liberty and freedom which the Constitution has recognized. Privacy is the ultimate expression of the sanctity of the individual. It is a constitutiol value which straddles across the spectrum of fundamental rights and protects for the individual a zone of choice and self-determition.” The cynic may still wonder what is really so great or profound about a zone of absolute privacy as a matter of it being now fundamental. The court gives a classic answer: “The ability of the individual to protect a zone of privacy ebles the realization of the full value of life and liberty. Liberty has a broader meaning of which privacy is a subset. All liberties may not be exercised in privacy. Yet others can be fulfilled only within a private space (emphasis added). Privacy ebles the individual to retain the autonomy of the body and mind. The autonomy of the individual is the ability to make decisions on vital matters of concern to life.”
This writer is of the firm opinion that bereft of privacy, which is now fundamental to our life and its dignity, an individual is deprived of the very scope to exploit his full potential, regardless of what the potential is. And to prick the many prudes around in a by-and-large pretentious and hypocritical society as ours, let it be said here that there is nothing moral or immoral about privacy, whatever privacy means, in whichever sense. Privacy is just privacy. That’s all. Simply put, it your right – now fundamental – to be left alone, because it is you who will mind your business, not others. Thanks to the Supreme Court, we are now on our way to us being a little bit progressive, if not more. And now it does not matter at all as to what the Taliban-minded ones think of us. A cheerful thought, this.
(Bikash Sarmah, a freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com)