Understanding the Right to Privacy: The Puttaswamy Judgment-I

In 2017, the 9 judges of the Indian Supreme Court adjudicated a matter Puttaswamy v. Union of India (‘Puttaswamy’) and unanimously held that under the Indian Constitution, the Right to Privacy is a fundamental right. The Supreme Court declared that its previous judgments in MP Sharma (8 judges) and Kharak Singh (6 judges) are overruled as they did not recognise privacy as a fundamental right. Those judgments relied on the logic used in the A.K. Gopalan case which stated that every fundamental right to be read separately and individually. But that position got changed in R.C. Cooper v. Union of India, and subsequently in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, in which the Court held that fundamental rights cannot be read in water-tight compartments. In Cooper, the Court said that the fundamental rights ‘do not attempt to enunciate distinct rights’, rather they are interlinked. Hence, this article must be read in light of the principle enunciated in the Cooper case. In this article, I will try to highlight the reasoning behind Puttaswamy as to why the Court declared Right to Privacy as a fundamental right.

Understanding Right to Life and Dignity

Every human being by the virtue of her existence has a Right to Life which is a natural right guaranteed by the ‘Nature’. Further, this natural right to life is also guaranteed by the Indian Constitution under Article 21 which elucidates that the ‘state’ shall not violate any person’s right to life and personal liberty without the procedure established by law. The Right to life is not just the right of a person’s physical body, but also over her mental being. In Golaknath case, Justice Rao observed that ‘Fundamental Rights are the modern name for what has been traditionally known as Natural Rights’ [The usage of the word ‘natural’ here is opposed to the societal opinion/understanding of the rights ‘as they are since time immemorial’, rather it is based on the transformative nature of rights which are always evolving]. These rights, including the right to life, cannot be excluded or separated from human existence. Hence, the rights guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution are the natural rights of every human being, which it aims to preserve.

Dignity, as an expression, finds its place in the Preamble of the Constitution as it states that ‘ensuring the dignity of every individual’. An individual is the focal point of the Constitution and human dignity weaves through the provisions of the Constitution. [Article 14: Guarantee against arbitrariness; Article 19: Individual Freedoms; Article 21: Life and personal liberty] The Court in the Francis Mullin case strongly observed that the fundamental rights must be interpreted to enhance the human dignity and ‘worth of the human person’. The Right to Life is not just animal existence and it is much more than just mere survival. On human dignity, the five-judges bench in M. Nagraj exposits that, “no exact definition of human dignity exists. It refers to the intrinsic value of every human being, which is to be respected. It cannot be taken away. Every human being has dignity by virtue of his existence.” Further, observing about dignity, it has been observed in Selvi’s Case that forcible intrusion into a person’s mental processes is also a violation of Human Dignity.

Privacy and Human Dignity

Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle distinguishes private life from public life. He distinguishes the spheres where the government can intervene and where it cannot; certainly as he observes that government cannot intervene in an individual’s privacy.  Individual’s private life is mainly for “private reflection, familial relations and self-determination” (refer to the constitutional database to read the hyperlinked article). The individual is sovereign over her mind and body. As Justice Chandrachud posits (Puttaswamy ¶32),

“If the reason for protecting privacy is the dignity of the individual, the rationale for its existence does not cease merely because the individual has to interact with others in the public arena.”

An individual has all the freedom and liberty over his body and mind and she must be set free from any kind of intrusion. Privacy, as a right, is important for an individual to exercise control over his or her personality. ‘Privacy ensures that a human being can lead a life of dignity by securing the inner recesses of the human personality from unwanted intrusion.’ (Puttaswamy ¶113) Life without dignity, privacy and liberty is no life as they are inalienable to a human being. No state can violate these rights as they exist even before the advent of the Constitution. The constitution is ‘not the sole repository of the right to life.’ India has signed and ratified UDHR and its Article 12 recognises the Right to Privacy which cannot be taken away by anyone.

 Further, the argument that the right to privacy is not available under the text of the Constitution is based on a primitive understanding of it. The Constitution is a transformative text which evolves over time and it cannot be viewed as a document ‘written in ink to replace one legal regime with another’. It is a document which rests on the goals enshrined in the Preamble and the aim is to realise those goals. The Constitution does not tells us what is a right or do we have a right or not? It only puts the limitations on the power of the state. It is not the source of liberty of man as liberty exists by the mere virtue of existence in the world.

Therefore, the right to privacy is a part of the liberty of an individual and privacy protects the individual’s autonomy and dignity. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ which everyone seeks is founded upon liberty and dignity of an individual. ‘Both are essential attributes of privacy which makes no distinction between the birthmarks of an individual.’ The guarantee of the right to privacy liberates the individual and helps her in realising her potential and autonomy.

In conclusion, while embracing the Supreme Court’s judgment in Puttaswamy v. Union of India, a paragraph from Max Planck Encyclopaedia of Comparative Constitutional Law (2015) is something to look forward to:

“The right to privacy can be both negatively and positively defined. The negative right to privacy entails the individuals are protected from unwanted intrusion by both the state and private actors into their private life, especially features that define their personal identity such as sexuality, religion and political affiliation, i.e., the inner core of a person’s private life….. The positive right to privacy entails an obligation of states to remove obstacles for an autonomous shaping of individual identities.”

[Note: There are certain reservations about the Court’s judgment with regard to ‘declaring Privacy as a Natural Right and not merely a Fundamental Right’. This has been argued here and here]