Supreme Court verdict de-fangs Modi Govt’s vision of Aadhaar

The Supreme Court judgment is meant to safeguard against sale of sensitive private information about citizens to third parties. Aadhaar is valid but cannot be made mandatory except for welfare schemes


Raman Swamy/IPA

The Supreme Court has laid down important checks and balances to ensure that Aadhaar is used only for the genuine purposes for which it was created—for targeted delivery of financial benefits for the poor and the underprivileged.

The Modi government was trying to widen the original scope of Aadhaar by making it mandatory in a variety of activities and transactions for which it was never intended. The apex court has put a stop to such brazen attempts to use it as an instrument in the hands of the government to gain control over the lives of all citizens. In a nutshell, this is the substance of the 4-1 majority judgment of the five-judge Constitutional Bench.

Even though much is being made out of the fact that only one of the judges (Justice DY Chandrachud) has held Aadhaar to be unconstitutional and the other four judges have upheld the validity of the biometric identification scheme, a closer reading of what Justice AK Sikri has written (in concurrence with Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice AM Khanwilkar) reveals the focused manner in which sharp red lines have been drawn to curtail the government’s tendency to adopt a camel-in-the-tent strategy to enlarge its powers to surveillance, harassment and weaponisation of metadata.

Also very explicit in the majority judgment are the strictures against selling the sensitive private information about citizens to third parties as well as against allowing private business houses and service providers to demand compulsory Aadhaar verification. In other words, the court verdict has effectively de-fanged the ferocious tiger that Aadhaar was becoming.

The clearest proof of this is the prohibition of Aadhaar-linkage being made mandatory for bank accounts, mobile phone connections, appearing in public examinations, etc. An entire Section of the Aadhaar Act has been struck down by majority judgment.

In a very real sense this was at the heart of the “resistance movement” against the imposition of Aadhaar in such a draconian way. Many of the 29 petitions that were filed objected to this one point—why are banks insisting on the Unique Identification Number? Why are private companies like Airtel and Vodafone bombarding customers with deadlines and threats of disconnection?

The apprehensions of those opposing Aadhaar are also valid— excessive intrusion into the privacy of citizens, which could have the tendency to create a totalitarian state, impinging upon democratic and constitutional values

Justice Chandrachud has written very strongly and forcefully on this. But since his is a dissenting judgment in a minority of just one, it is more convincing to examine in detail what another judge, Justice Ashok Bhushan has said on the unconstitutionality of Section 57. But, Section 57 cannot be treated as a law which permits the use of Aadhaar number for any purpose whatsoever. The law providing for use of Aadhaar for any purpose has to be rational and proportional... If a state or body corporate is permitted to use Aadhaar it will be wholly uncontrolled, and, therefore, prone to violation of the Right of Privacy.

Significantly, Justice Bhushan says: “A contract entered between two parties, even if one party is a state, cannot be said to be a law”. He, therefore, concludes: “We are of the view that Section 57 is clearly unconstitutional and deserves to be struck down. We hold that Section 57 is unconstitutional and void”.

After the landmark Aadhaar judgment was delivered, there has been a great deal of debate, discussion and dissection. BJP spokespersons attempted to call it a “victory for the Modi government” but they sounded unconvincing even to themselves.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi was perhaps closer to the truth when he tweeted: “For Congress, Aadhaar was an instrument of empowerment. But for the BJP, Aadhaar is a tool of oppression and surveillance. Thank you Supreme Court for supporting the Congress vision and protecting India”.

Bodies such as CBSE, NEET, JEE, UGC etc. cannot make the requirement of Aadhaar mandatory as they are outside the purview of the Act and are not backed by any law

Then, two senior Modi ministers held a press conference. A grim-faced Arun Jaitley and a tense Ravi Shankar Prasad betrayed a body language that told its own story about whether the Aadhaar verdict was a ”victory” or a severe rap on the knuckles of the Modi government. The finance minister chose to just beat around the bush by listing a series of decisions taken by the Union Cabinet on Sept 26 morning. When he finally broached the subject, he chose to highlight the portion in which the majority verdict had held that treating the Aadhaar Bill as a Money Bill was constitutionally valid.

What the learned judges have said in their majority verdict is clear: Aadhaar is valid but cannot be made mandatory except for welfare schemes. The apprehensions of those opposing Aadhaar are also valid—excessive intrusion into the privacy of citizens, which could have the tendency to create a totalitarian state, impinging upon democratic and constitutional values.

The expanded Aadhaar project is destructive of the doctrine of limited government. The Constitution is not about the power of the state, but about the limits on the power of the state. The state cannot be allowed to completely dominate the citizen and alter the relationship between citizen and the state.

A significant portion of the majority judgment reads: The circular dated March 23, 2017 mandating linking of mobile number with Aadhaar is held to be illegal and unconstitutional as it is not backed by any law and is hereby quashed. We hold that the provision in the present form does not meet the test of proportionality and, therefore, violates the right to privacy of a person which extends to banking details.

This linking is made compulsory not only for opening a new bank account but even for existing bank accounts with a stipulation that if the same is not done then the account would be deactivated, with the result that the holder of the account would not be entitled to operate the bank account till the time seeding of the bank account with Aadhaar is done. This amounts to depriving a person of his property. We find that this move of mandatory linking of Aadhaar with bank account does not satisfy the test of proportionality. Similarly, bodies such as CBSE, NEET, JEE, UGC etc. cannot make the requirement of Aadhaar mandatory as they are outside the purview of the Act and are not backed by any law.

The entire aim behind launching this programme is the ‘inclusion’ of the deserving persons who need to get welfare benefits. When it is serving much larger purpose by reaching hundreds of millions of deserving persons, it cannot be crucified. What we are emphasising is that remedy is to plug the loopholes rather than axe a project, aimed for the welfare of large section of the society. Obviously, in order to address the failures of authentication, the remedy is to adopt alternate methods for identifying such persons, after finding the causes of failure in their cases.

No wonder that the landmark verdict gives Modi government no reason to celebrate.

This is an opinion piece; The views expressed are personal

Inputs by NH Web Desk

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