Allegation that BJP’s Puducherry unit misused Aadhaar data to boost election campaign credible: Madras HC
It expressed reservations over the stand of BJP, Puducherry that it had obtained the mobile numbers through door-to-door campaigns carried out by the party’s karyakartas
The Madras High Court on Thursday said that the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) should enquire into how the confidential information held by it may have been leaked, in view of credible allegations that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Puducherry unit had misused Aadhaar data to boost election campaigns through bulk SMSes sent to Aadhaar-linked numbers.
The Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy also expressed reservations over the stand of BJP, Puducherry that it had obtained the mobile numbers through door-to-door campaigns carried out by the party's karyakartas (workers).
"There is a credible allegation which has been squarely levelled that only mobile phones linked to Aadhaar cards have received the SMS messages. It is squarely for the UIDAI to provide an adequate answer. There is no doubt that such a body which would treat the information that it possesses regarding citizens with a degree of responsibility that an appropriate enquiry would be conducted to ascertain the source of the leak, if any. It is not acceptable that such information would have been obtained by karyakartas as suggested by the 6th respondent political party (BJP, Puducherry)", the order states, as per a report carried by Bar & Bench.
The court passed the order on a petition moved by president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), Puducherry, A Anand, who has submitted that bulk SMS messages were sent to Puducherry voters whose mobile numbers were linked to Aadhaar with a link to join WhatsApp groups run by the BJP. There were around 952 such groups, he has alleged.
Expressing concern over a possible leak of confidential Aadhaar information, the court observed: "Apart from the unfair mileage that the 6th respondent political party (BJP, Puducherry) may have gained in resorting to a form of campaigning without obtained prior permission therefore as required, there is the serious matter of the privacy of the citizens being breached. This huge aspect of the matter should not be lost in the politics of the season or the hullaballoo of the attendant campaigning."
Appearing for the BJP, Puducherry, Senior Advocate V Karthic today re-asserted that the number collected were either available in the public domain or collected by Karyakartas through door-to-door campaigns over a period of time. He pointed out that it is also the UIDAI's stance that no security breach has taken place.
Further, he argued that permission for sending bulk SMSes was sought by the BJP, Puducherry on March 2 and March 8, contrary to the Election Commission's stance that no such permission was sought. He also presented before the court documents that bore the signature and rubber stamp of an election official.
For the petitioner, Senior Advocate R Vaigai said that it is highly unlikely that the entire citizenry of Puducherry gave their personal numbers upon door-to-door campaigns. She referred to a chart containing details of six persons having two mobile numbers, where the SMS was only sent to their Aadhaar-linked number.
"Nobody gives their mobile number to anybody who just walks into their doors. That is not how it happens", Vaigai argued.
She added that the bulk SMSes were from an ID denoting that it was a transactional SMS, which is generally sent by entities such as banks to consumers upon their giving consent for the same. In this backrop, she queried how the BJP got access to send such transactional messages, when consent was not given.
The court ultimately opined that even if the documents submitted by the BJP, Puducherry were taken at face value, it is, at best, an application seeking permission.
"... what is undeniable is that the sixth respondent political party (BJP, Puducherry) resorted to a mode of campaigning that required prior permission to be obtained, without obtaining such permission", the court said.
The court has left it to the Election Commission of India to decide on whether the BJP, Puducherry has violated the Model Code of Conduct (MCC).
The Election Commission had informed the court yesterday that the matter is being examined by the ECI at Delhi and that a decision would be taken shortly, in a day or two.
The matter has been posted next after six weeks, for the respondent-authorities to give answers to the court. The Bench observed that the criminal investigation already initiated and the Election Commission's decision on the perceived breach of MCC would continue in accordance with the law.
Most importantly, the court added that the UIDAI is required to answer how it may have failed to protect details and particulars furnished to it in confidence by citizens "in the hope that confidentiality would be preserved."
"The matter will appear six weeks hence and after the forthcoming elections are done and dusted for the appropriate answers to be received... If only to not undermine the faith in the democratic process and to ensure the conduct of free and fair elections, all respondent authorities need to provide answers as sought", the court said.
When Senior Advocate Vaigai urged the court to direct the authorities to respond before the elections, Chief Justice Banerjee observed that the court's powers are limited in election matters in view of the provisions under Article 329 of the Constitution.
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