At last, after so much hesitation over the years, the Supreme Court has said it in irrevocable terms – privacy is an inviolable fundamental right. In the free world elsewhere it is treated as an important human right, at least since 1948.
I proffer a big salute to the nine judges who unanimously pronounced a landmark judgment which is good news for the 134 crore Indians, i.e., We the People. I also pay my tributes to the hallowed memory of Justices Subba Rao and K K Mathew who showed the way to the Supreme Court to reach this pinnacle.
It was Mathew who in Gobind revitalized and extended the memorable minority opinion of Subba Rao in Kharak Singh and elevated those values to high constitutional status in unmistakable terms. From Gobind to NALSA, the Supreme Court was painfully tottering to arrive at this point and now it has happened. By overruling the 1954 M P Sharma and 1962 Kharak Singh judgments, the Supreme Court has reached the zenith of judicial creativity – and glory.
The Supreme Court has given meaning and content to the word dignity contained in the Preamble. And the Preamble is part of the Constitution. Articles 19 and 21 have been explored in a most innovative manner to expand the frontiers of freedom.
It is a setback to the Union Government which took a very regressive and repressive position by saying that the citizens cannot claim privacy as a fundamental right. It is a pity that K K Venugopal, a staunch champion of personal freedom, in his capacity as Attorney General, had to argue against the right to privacy and got himself arrayed with discredited AGs of the past. Now a smaller bench will test the validity of Aadhar in light of this judgment. Many more good things will sprout from this seminal judgment.
It was in 1948 George Orwell wrote his epic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which he envisioned a dystopian future. Three decades later Orwell’s vision hardly became a reality. The Internet Superhighway heralded a brave new world where citizens became better informed, freer, and the society became more egalitarian and democratic. Fast forward another three decades to today. The penetration of every aspect of life by new technologies has brought society closer to the dystopian future Orwell had envisioned. No thought police, but thought tracking; no centralised Big Brother, but an unprecedented level of surveillance and infringements on personal privacies through an omnipresent recording, digitization, and increasing centralisation of almost every facet of our lives.
The Supreme Court has made a courageous and historic effort to prevent the world’s biggest democracy sliding into a twenty-first-century version of an Orwellian surveillance society. Privacy in the cyber context is a state of being free from unauthorised access. But it is more than that. It is a multi-faceted concept compendiously described as the right “to be let alone”.
In the memorable words of Justice William O Douglas the right to be let alone is, indeed, the beginning of all freedom. It is critical in maintaining the quality of life that citizens in a free society expect. It shall not be violated unless the government can show some compelling reason to do so – such as by providing evidence that the safety of the nation is at risk. When fascism is rearing its ugly head in many forms, we were badly in need of this judgment to protect our individual autonomy, our mind and body, our kitchens and bedrooms. This will empower and embolden us in checking the looming Big Brother. And there lies the importance of this historic constitutional interpretation.