India's Supreme Court Upholds Privacy As "Fundamental Right"

Unanimous ruling protects bodily autonomy, could help decriminalize homosexuality



The Supreme Court of India declared privacy a "guaranteed fundamental right" of citizens Thursday.

The landmark ruling, a unanimous 9-0 decision, overturns two previous Supreme Court opinions undermining Indian privacy rights, while its comprehensive language carries far-reaching implications for areas such as LGBT rights.

The decision came in response to a lawsuit challenged the implementation of the Indian government's massive biometric data collection scheme, known as Aadhaar, Hindi for "foundation." Initially voluntary, the program was designed to help the government save money and combat corruption by reducing welfare and tax fraud.

Over the past eight years, the program collected fingerprints and iris scans from more than a billion citizens, storing them in a high security data center, and issuing those participating citizens a unique 12 digit "UID" number. In recent years, however, Aadhaar faced criticism for becoming increasingly mandatory for citizens to gain access to welfare benefits and routine transactions.

Indian citizens now need UIDs to secure certain loans, buy and sell property, file income tax returns, make purchases of $780 dollars or more, apply for railway jobs, or even receive welfare benefits like free midday meals and tuberculosis patient allowances.

The program's security has come under fire after a provincial government accidentally leaked over 20,000 Aadhaar numbers. The leak came on the heels of several data breaches and accusations of individuals illegally storing biometric information.

The ruling was high-stakes for the personal liberties of Indian citizens under their constitution. Citing previous precedents, the government argued against citizens' right to privacy and bodily autonomy, saying it was the state's prerogative to collect biometric data. Plaintiffs contended Aadhaar provided the Indian government with a detailed profile of citizens' spending habits and personal data, and that it would be all-too-easy for a government not committed to privacy to misuse the data.

The Court's reasoning was firmly libertarian, invoking "life and personal liberty" as "inalienable rights" fundamentally "inseparable from a dignified human existence." The Court broadly defended privacy among "family, marriage procreation, and sexual orientation" as "important aspects of dignity."

This last definition by the Court is a boon to advocates of decriminalizing homosexuality in India. The opinion left the door open to future legal challenges against existing laws, declaring "the right to privacy and the protection of sexual orientation lie at the core of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the [Indian] Constitution."

Thursday's ruling represents a significant leap forward for the individual rights of 17 percent of the world's population, who live in the world's largest democracy. As it continues a decades-long process of economic liberalization with a sweeping tax reform, India, unlike China, appears positioned to join the developed world as a liberal nation respectful of personal liberties. That's cause for celebration.