The Government and petitioners in the Aadhaar matter on Friday agreed to approach the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Jagdish Singh Khehar, requesting him to set up a Constitution Bench for early disposal of the main case.
The Supreme Court heard applications for interim relief to stay notifications, which make unique identification (UID) number or Aadhaar, a biometrics-linked identity number for residents, mandatory for availing of any benefits and entitlements. The applications are by the same petitioners whose challenge against the constitutionality of the Aadhaar Act is pending before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court.
The hearing began with the senior counsel for the petitioners, Shyam Divan, taking the Bench through the earlier orders of the Supreme Court, including those of 11 August 2015 and the 15 October 2015, which clearly stated that Aadhaar shall be purely voluntary.
Mr Divan emphasised that the case deals with a vital Constitutional question, as allowing the Aadhaar project to go ahead unchecked in this manner, seeking linking of Aadhaar to almost every transaction and aspect in life, is effectively reducing the citizen to a 12-digit number and transforming the country into a concentration camp for its citizens.
The Court was of the view that, given that the entire matter was before a Constitution Bench and that the litigation on Aadhaar has been going on for years, the correct course would be for both the parties, that is, the petitioners and the government, to jointly mention before and impress upon the Chief Justice to constitute a Constitution Bench to finally dispose of the entire batch of petitions. Attorney General KK Venugopal, who was present in Court, agreed to join Mr Divan for a mentioning before the CJI early next week for that purpose.
The Bench, headed by Justice Jasti Chelameswar, Justice AM Khanwilkar and Justice Navin Sinha, indicated that in the eventuality of the CJI not being able to form a Constitution bench, the petitioners may come back to the court and argue for interim relief.
Today's hearing marks the first time that the government has agreed to mention before the CJI to constitute a larger bench to finally hear the Constitutional challenge to the project and the Aadhaar Act. In October 2015, the government had mentioned before the then CJI, HL Dattu, to get the Constitution Bench only to hear and decide their applications for modifying the 11 August order.
The notifications make Aadhaar mandatory for a number of schemes, including for children to get hot cooked meals, several scholarships for disabled students and students in SC, ST, OBC categories, schemes for relief for women rescued from trafficking, bonded labourers, and relief for Bhopal gas leak victims. The notifications make possession of an Aadhaar number, or proof of enrolment in Aadhaar database, mandatory.
Petitioners have prayed that imposing enrolment in Aadhaar as a pre-condition for availing of social benefits violates the fundamental rights of citizens. It is causing denial of benefits to persons, who are otherwise legally entitled to the benefits, at enrolment stages, as well as when they face biometric rejection, data errors, network errors, and other problems.
These applications were earlier heard on 9 May 2017 and then on 27 June 2017 by a vacation bench consisting of Justice Khanwilkar and Justice Sinha.
Justice Chelameswar also headed the Bench that passed the order dated 11 August 2015 that referred the batch of petitions challenging the Aadhaar project to a Constitution Bench as it felt it required a definitive pronouncement on, among other issues, the issue of the existence and scope of a fundamental right to privacy under the Constitution of India.