The Narendra Modi government can heave a sigh of relief that the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar Act has been upheld, but at the micro level there are clear setbacks for the government in terms of the Aadhaar card not being mandatory for private transactions, for mobile telephony, bank accounts, passports and even driving licences.
That a whopping one billion Indians have already signed up for Aadhaar, set up to be a secure form of digital identification for citizens to be used for government services shows in retrospect that perhaps the government was too hasty in making it compulsory for various private services too before the apex court dwelt on its legality.
Broadly, however, it can be said that Aadhaar would hold good for all government services but not for private ones.
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As it stands, the 12-digit Unique Identification Number is valid but not as a mark of identity as it was intended to be. Considering that it was made the overarching proof of identity and residence, overriding all other prior identity proofs, this is a blow to the government’s intentions.
As with many other initiatives, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can be credited with having introduced Aadhaar though the measure was first envisaged by the UPA government in 2010, but along the way it assumed a certain shape that many feared would have compromised the secrecy of data.
To Congressmen who are gloating over the setbacks to the governmental scheme of things, suffice it to say that the NDA government was bold enough to implement it like it did with the GST while under the Congress rule the measure had been hibernating.
Failure to anticipate how the judiciary would react did not deter the NDA from going ahead with the measure. Where it erred was to hastily extend it as identity proof and to pronounce it as mandatory for various schemes even going to the extent of mandating it for school and college admissions.
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While the government’s honour has been upheld in terms of legal validity, it is just as well that the Aadhaar card has not been mandated as a form of identity to the exclusion of other forms.
The Centre had defended Aadhaar on several grounds - the biggest being that it ensured proper distribution of benefits to millions and prevented siphoning of funds. Aadhaar data, the government and the Aadhaar authority, UIDAI, contended, is safe and cannot be breached. This contention has been upheld by the apex court in the majority verdict.
In 2017, the Supreme Court had ruled that the right to privacy is an "intrinsic part of life and personal liberty", which is guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. Without explicitly saying so, that principle has been upheld by outlawing the linkages to banking, mobile telephony, passports and driving licences.
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The Aadhaar link to the permanent account number (PAN) has been upheld as has the requirement for Aadhaar for issuing passports. The use of Aadhaar for filing tax returns has also been mandated.
Justice Ashok Bhushan read his separate judgment but clarified that he broadly agreed with the majority verdict by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, Justices A K Sikri and A M Khanwilkar. This meant Justice Chandrachud was the lone dissenter as the apex court upheld Aadhaar validity by 4:1.
Justice Chandrachud accepted every argument raised by anti-Aadhaar petitioners challenging the validity of Aadhaar and ran a judicial razor mercilessly through Aadhaar Act virtually declaring it unconstitutional in toto.
It has indeed become routine for the Congress and a section of the other Opposition to question every act of the government. While the Aadhaar verdict would be cited by them in their support, the cold reality is that the Supreme Court has struck a fine balance.