SC sets up 9-judge Constitution bench to decide on right to privacy

New Delhi: A nine-judge constitution bench will decide whether privacy is a fundamental right or not under the Constitution of India, the Supreme Court said on Tuesday.

The bench will assemble on Wednesday to address the limited question: does privacy as a right exist in the realm of the Constitution?

“It is essential for us to define if the right to privacy is a fundamental right under the Constitution or not,” a five-judge bench headed by chief justice J.S. Khehar said.

This is in the context of the Centre’s 12-digit biometric identification project Aadhaar becoming the bedrock of government welfare programmes, the tax administration network and online financial transactions.

Once the privacy question is settled by the nine-judge constitution bench, the remaining issues related to Aadhaar would be heard by a smaller bench. If the large bench were to decide that Indian citizens indeed have the right to privacy, the smaller bench will define the boundaries of that right

To address the privacy question, the nine-judge bench would have to examine and determine if past precedents holding that privacy is not a fundamental right under the Constitution are acceptable.

Attorney general K.K. Venugopal submitted that the issue before the courts was restricted to the binding nature of past precedents.

A five-judge bench comprising chief justice Khehar and justices J. Chelameswar, D.Y. Chandrachud, S.A. Bobde and S. Abdul Answer was set up on 12 July to decide whether the privacy issue surrounding Aadhaar should be heard by a larger bench.

On 12 July, a total of 22 cases were tagged by the apex court to be heard by the five-judge bench. They challenge several aspects of Aadhaar and the use/sharing of data collected under the project.

Apart from grounds of infringement of privacy, activists have challenged the mandatory use of Aadhaar for doling out social welfare benefits, and for filing of income tax returns (ITRs) as well as for obtaining and retaining the personal account number (PAN) necessary for filing tax returns.

Under the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016, the unique identity number is mandatory only to receive social welfare benefits.

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