Most popular meaning of right to privacy is ‘the right to be left alone’, says judge part of 9-member bench
New Delhi: A nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that privacy was intrinsic to the fundamental right of life and liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
“Privacy is a constitutionally protected right which emerges primarily from the guarantee of life and personal liberty in Article 21 of the Constitution. Elements of privacy also arise in varying contexts from the other facets of freedom and dignity recognised and guaranteed by the fundamental rights contained in Part III (of the Constitution),” the bench said.
While delivering the verdict, the judges asked the government “to examine and put into place a robust regime for data protection as threats can originate not only from the state but from non-state actors as well.”
“We commend to the Union Government the need to examine and put into place a robust regime for data protection. The creation of such a regime requires a careful and sensitive balance between individual interests and legitimate concerns of the state.
“The legitimate aims of the state would include for instance protecting national security, preventing and investigating crime, encouraging innovation and the spread of knowledge, and preventing the dissipation of social welfare benefits. These are matters of policy to be considered by the union government while designing a carefully structured regime for the protection of the data,” Justice DY Chandrachud, who penned 266 of the total 547-page judgement, said.
“In the context of Article 21, an invasion of privacy must be justified on the basis of a law which stipulates a procedure which is fair, just and reasonable. The law must also be valid with reference to the encroachment on life and personal liberty under Article 21,” the judges said.
Elaborating further, Justice Chandrachud said “life is precious in itself” but life is worth living because of the freedoms which enable each individual to live life as it should be lived. The duty of the state is to safeguard the ability to take decisions, the autonomy of the individual and not to dictate those decisions, the judge said.
“Life within the meaning of Article 21 is not confined to the integrity of the physical body. The right comprehends one’s being in its fullest sense. That which facilitates the fulfilment of life is as much within the protection of the guarantee of life.
“To live is to live with dignity. The draftsmen of the Constitution defined their vision of the society in which constitutional values would be attained by emphasising, among other freedoms, liberty and dignity. So fundamental is dignity that it permeates the core of the rights guaranteed to the individual by Part III.
“Dignity is the core which unites the fundamental rights because the fundamental rights seek to achieve for each individual the dignity of existence.
“Privacy with its attendant values assures dignity to the individual and it is only when life can be enjoyed with dignity can liberty be of true substance. Privacy ensures the fulfilment of dignity and is a core value which the protection of life and liberty is intended to achieve,” the bench said.
Chief Justice JS Khehar and Justices RK Agrawal, SA Nazeer and DY Chandrachud said elements of privacy arise in varying contexts from other facets of freedom and dignity recognised and guaranteed by the fundamental rights contained in Part III of the Constitution.
Justice Chandrachud, who wrote a separate judgement on behalf of himself and three other judges, said privacy safeguards an individual’s autonomy and recognises the ability of the individual to control vital aspects of life.
However, the four judges, who concurred with five others in declaring the right to privacy as the fundamental right under the Constitution, said, like other fundamental rights, the “right to privacy is not an absolute right.”
Interestingly, Justice Chandrachud overruled a judgement on privacy authored by his father Justice YV Chandrachud in the famous case of ADM Jabalpur vs Shivakant Shukla in 1976.
Justice Abhay Manohar Sapre, who wrote a separate but concurring judgement declaring the right to privacy as a fundamental right, said it cannot be conceived that an individual enjoys a meaningful life with dignity, without such a right.
However, he also said that this right was not absolute and was “subject to certain reasonable restrictions” which the State was entitled to impose.
“In my considered opinion, right to privacy of any individual is essentially a natural right, which inheres in every human being by birth. Such right remains with the human being till he/she breathes last. It is indeed inseparable and inalienable from human being. In other words, it is born with the human being and extinguishes with the human being,” Justice Sapre said in his 24-page separate judgement, which formed part of the 547-page verdict.
He said ‘right to privacy’ is not defined in law except in the dictionaries and the courts, by process of judicial interpretation, have assigned meaning to this right in the context of specific issues on a case-to-case basis.
Justice Sapre added that the most popular meaning of right to privacy is “the right to be left alone.”
“Indeed, it is one of those cherished rights, which every civilised society governed by rule of law always recognises in every human being and is under obligation to recognise such rights in order to maintain and preserve the dignity of an individual regardless of gender, race, religion, caste and creed.
“It is, of course, subject to imposing certain reasonable restrictions keeping in view the social, moral and compelling public interest, which the State is entitled to impose by law,” he said.
The judge was full of praises for all the counsel who addressed the matter before the apex court and said they argued with “brevity, lucidity and with remarkable clarity”.
“The hard work done by each counsel was phenomenal and deserves to be complimented. Needless to say, but for their able assistance both in terms of oral argument as well as written briefs (containing thorough submissions, variety of case law and the literature on the subject), it was well nigh impossible to express the views,” he said.