Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union of India: Case Summary

Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union of India, (2017)

Facts:

In 2012, Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retired) filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of Aadhaar on the grounds that it violates the right to privacy. The Government argued that there was no constitutional right of privacy in view of a unanimous decision of eight judges in M.P. Sharma v. Satish Chandra, (1954) SCR 1077 and a decision by a majority of four judges in Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, (1964) 1 SCR.

The case came before a three-judge Bench of the Court which, on 2015, ordered that the matter should be referred to a larger Bench August, of the Court. Consequently, on 18 July, 2017, this bench referred the matter to a five-judge Bench to ensure “institutional integrity and judicial discipline Thereafter, the five-judge Bench referred the constitutional question to an even larger bench of nine judges to pronounce authoritatively on the status of  the right to privacy.

The Petitioner argued before the nine-judge Bench that this right was an independent right, guaranteed by the right to life with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution. The Respondent submitted that the Constitution only recognized personal liberties which may incorporate the right to privacy to a limited extent.

Issue:

Whether the Aadhaar Act violates right to privacy and is unconstitutional on this ground?

Decision:

On 24th August, 2017, a nine-judge Bench of the Supreme Court unanimously passed a historic judgment affirming that the right to privacy is a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution.

The one-page order signed by all nine judges declares: “The 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 freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution.”

The Supreme Court has, however, clarified that like most other fundamental rights, the right to privacy is not an “absolute right “. Subject to the satisfaction of certain tests and benchmarks, a person’s privacy interests can be overridden by competing state and individual interests. The judgment, spanning 547 pages, contains six opinions and a lot of interesting observations. At the outset, however, it is important to note that only the majority opinion in a judgment is binding on future cases.

Thus, the operative part of the judgment, i.e., the binding part, is only the order that has been signed by all nine judges, which holds:

  • The eight-judge Bench decision in M.P. Sharma (1954), which held that the right to privacy is not protected by the Constitution stands over-ruled;
  • The Court’s subsequent decision in Kharak Singh (1962) also stands over-ruled to the extent that it holds that the right to privacy is not protected under the Constitution;
  • The 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 freedoms guaranteed by Part II of the Constitution.

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