Thursday’s pronouncement by a nine-judge Constitution bench that right to privacy is very much a part of the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21 is not just historic. The judgement is, more importantly, an instruction to the State on how to deal with its citizens. It demolishes the belief of those in power, irrespective of political ideology, that Man is a creature of the State, and reinforces what has been stated in the Preamble – “We the People” of this country are the intended beneficiaries of the Constitution. There are many lessons to be drawn from this judgment, written concurrently and separately by the cream of our judiciary; and the lessons apply equally to those who have ruled this country in the past, those in power now and such of those who are eager to occupy the throne in future.
Lesson 1: Within a couple of hours after the unanimous judgement was delivered, Congress prince-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi, saw enough reason to attack the government of the day, forgetful as he might be that the first attempt to trample on the fundamental rights of citizens and stifle institutions came in the form of the Emergency imposed in 1975 by his grandmother.
Today’s judgment has rewritten history. If a majority of judges on the then Constitution bench ruled in the infamous ADM Jabalpur case that rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution stand suspended in the wake of Emergency, Justice D Y Chandrachud, who wrote a common judgement on behalf of four judges on the current bench, had this to say: “The judgement in the Jabalpur case is seriously flawed. Life and personal liberty are inalienable to human existence. Neither life nor liberty are bounties conferred by the State nor did the Constitution create these rights.”
Lesson 2: A few hours later, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad expectedly lashed out at Rahul Gandhi and claimed that this government has always recognised right to privacy as a part of the Fundamental Rights. But this is not what the Attorney General told the Supreme Court. The judgement quotes the AG as having said that right to privacy is basically an elitist construct and must be forsaken in the interests of the welfare entitlements provided by the State. The bench was unequivocal in saying that it is an unsustainable argument and the refrain that the poor need no civil or political rights has been utilized throughout history to wreak human rights violations.
Lesson 3: It is always in the interest of those in power -- again, irrespective of ideology, present or past -- to develop tolerance for criticism as it acts as a checks-and-balances mechanism. As the judgement says, “Those who are governed are entitled to question, have a right to scrutinize and right to dissent. And, this right cannot be taken away on grounds of better development which cannot be seen as a process of inanimate object of convenience such as GNP per head, promoting industrialization or technological advancement. It has to be expansion of people’s freedom.”
Today’s verdict is, however, bound to open up a huge debate on what constitutes privacy, what are the reasonable restrictions that the State can impose on grounds of national interest since no right is absolute in nature and whether fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution should be limited to State vs individual relationship or go beyond touching upon even family issues. For the people of this country, this judgement is a classic victory. It may not be so for political leaders. The people’s interest must win.