In an epoch-making judgement delivered by a nine-judge Constitution bench, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that privacy is a fundamental right. This was a unimous ruling of the nine judges who asserted that the State could not dictate what people should eat or wear or who they should associate with persolly, socially or politically. The ruling acquires special significance considering that Thursday’s ruling went counter to the rulings of two earlier Constitution benches that had said that a citizen had no fundamental right to privacy. One of the earlier contrary verdicts had been delivered by an eight-judge Constitution bench in the M.P.Sharma vs. Satish Chandra case of 1954. The other case that evoked a similar contrary verdict was delivered by a six-judge Constitution bench in the Kharak Singh vs. State of UP case in the year 1964. Thursday’s verdict comes as a complete surprise to most people, considering that in the past the judiciary had indicated that it was totally opposed to the idea of regarding persol privacy as a fundamental right. On Thursday, the nine-bench Constitution bench of the Supreme Court stressed the need to prevent the State from “intruding” into people’s lives, and thereby sent out an indirect message also to the moral police and vigilante groups (concerned mainly with cows) that are often suspected to be working with government support and connivance in some States. One of the clear indications of the Supreme Court’s verdict of Thursday is that the right of privacy will be enjoyed equally by even the smallest minority groups regardless of their political affiliations or preferences. For instance, the judgement will be hailed even by the small LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, since the court ruled that the rights of minorities, however small, were as “sacred” as those of the rest. “I do not think that anybody in this country would like to have the officers of the State intruding into their homes or private property at will or soldiers quartered in their houses without their consent,” said Justice J.Chelameswar, the second senior-most judge on the bench. He elaborated on this by adding, “I do not think that anybody would like to be told by the State as to what they should eat or how they should dress or whom they should be associated with either in their persol, social or political life.”
What must be clearly understood, however, is that the right to privacy (as a fundamental right) can be invoked only against the State and not against private individuals. Besides, while the Supreme Court rejected the government’s stand that a citizen had no fundamental right to privacy, it clarified that like any other fundamental right, the right to privacy too was subject to reasoble restrictions. It is significant that a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court that was hearing petitions challenging the constitutiolity of the Aadhaar scheme had referred to the nine-judge bench the larger issue of whether there was a fundamental right to privacy that the Aadhaar scheme is alleged to violate. Thursday’s verdict of the nine-judge bench will doubtless have a positive impact on that case since the issue of privacy was referred to the larger bench because of the government’s contention that the right to privacy is not a fundamental right. However, apart from implications of Thursday’s judgement on matters like the application of the Aadhaar scheme, the most significant gain for a citizen is that he or she can now petition a high court of the Supreme Court to challenge any act of the government that is deemed to encroach on one’s fundamental right to privacy. Thursday’s verdict also leaves very little room for the government to dictate on an individual citizen’s preferences in matters of food, dress or associates as long as the exercise of one’s fundamental right does not threaten to jeopardize the fundamental rights of others. The fundamental right to privacy should have come long ago, soon after the Indian Constitution came into being. That it has come, albeit belatedly, indicates that the tion is evolving in the desired ways.