Right to Privacy- The Judicial Evolution

In this blog, the author has discussed about the evolution of the Right to Privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The right to privacy in a general sense means a person’s right to be left alone in matters that do not concern other people. To further elucidate this Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law defines right of privacy as the right of a person to be free from intrusion into or publicity concerning matters of a personal nature.[1] It is the most basic of human freedoms and any legal system that claims to be a protector of individual rights and liberty must have this right as an integral part of their system. In India there is no explicit right to privacy, but over the years through various judicial pronouncements this right has become an integral part of our legal system. This article tracks the evolution of this very important human right in the legal fabric of the Indian judiciary.

The right to privacy is an implicit right under the broad spectrum of article 21.[2] Article 21 of the constitution reads as “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” Various judicial pronouncements have interpreted this article in a broad sense, and have made the right to privacy an integral part of liberty and personal freedom as guaranteed by the constitution.

The evolution of this right begins with the case of Kharak Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh,[3] wherein it was held that the right to privacy is not a constitutional guarantee. The minority however held that while it maybe true that right to privacy is not expressly recognised as a fundamental right, but it is an important ingredient of personal liberty as envisaged under article 21. This judgement is significant because it was the first time in the Indian judicial setup that the right to privacy was recognised even though in a minority judgement.

Subsequently, came the case of Govind vs State of Madhya Pradesh,[4] wherein the supreme court confirmed that the right to privacy is indeed a fundamental right, but that it is not absolute and is subject to “compelling state interest”. It was held that for a law to infringe upon the right to privacy it would have to satisfy the test of compelling state interest. The test is to see if the state interest in question is of such importance that it would justify the infringement of the right.

The significance of this case cannot be understated. Not only did it recognize the right to privacy as a fundamental right, but it also presupposed a boundary for it. Moreover, it put forward a test to justify the infringement over such boundary. While this was truly a remarkable judgement it was the case that came after this pronouncement that would change Indian legal landscape forever.

This was the case that did the constitution justice by interpreting it in its truest essence[B1] . The case was Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India.[5] The apex court in this case held that the expression ‘pers