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The Gujarat High Court Judgment on the Snoopgate Issue

Posted by Vipul Kharbanda at Oct 27, 2014 04:40 AM |

Pranlal N. Soni v. State of Gujarat, C/SCA/14389/2014

In the year 2013 the media widely reported that a female civil services officer was regularly spied upon in 2009 due to her acquaintance with the then Chief Minister of Gujarat (and current Prime Minister of India) Mr. Narendra Modi. It was reported that the surveillance was being supervised by the current president of the BJP, Mr. Amit Shah at the behest of Mr. Modi. The case took another twist when the officer and her father said that they had no problems with such surveillance, and had repeatedly conveyed to various statutory authorities including the National Commission for Women, the State Commission for Women, as also before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, that they never felt that their privacy was being interfered with by any of the actions of the State Authorities. Infact, para 3.5 of the petition indicated that it was at the behest of the father of the female officer that the State government had carried out the surveillance on his daughter as a security measure.

Inspite of the repeated claims of the subject of surveillance and her father, the Gujarat Government passed a Notification under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 appointing a two member Commission of Inquiry to enquire into this incident without jeopardizing the identity or interest of the female officer. This Notification was challenged in the Gujarat High Court by the very same female officer and her father on the ground that it violated their fundamental right to life and liberty. The petitioners claimed that they had to change their residential accommodation four times in the preceding few months due to the constant media glare. The print, electronic and social media, so called social workers and other busybodies constantly intruded into the private life of the petitioners and their family members. The petitioner's email accounts were hacked and scores of indecent calls were received from all over. Under the guise of protecting the petitioner's privacy, every action undertaken by the so called custodians for and on behalf of the petitioners resulted into a breach of privacy of the petitioners, making life impossible for them on a day to day basis.

After hearing the arguments of the petitioners, including arguments on technical points the Court struck down the Notification issued by the State government to enquire into the issue of the alleged illegal surveillance. However the Court also briefly touched upon the issue of violation of the privacy of the female officer in this whole episode. However, instead of enquiring into whether there was any breach of privacy in the facts of the case, the Court relied upon the statement made by the female officer that whatever surveillance was done did not cause any invasion into her privacy, rather it was the unwelcome media glare that followed the revelations regarding the surveillance which had caused an invasion of her privacy.

Thus we see that even though the whole snoopgate episode started out as one of “alleged” unwarranted and illegal surveillance this particular judgment is limited only to challenging the validity of the Inquiry Commission appointed by the State Government. In order to challenge the Notification in a PIL the female officer had to show that some fundamental right of hers was violated and in such circumstances privacy is the most obvious fundamental right which was violated.

Although this judgment talks about privacy, it does not have enough legal analysis of the right to privacy to have any significant ramifications for how privacy is interpreted in the Indian context. The only issue that could possibly be of some importance is that the we could interpret the Court’s reliance on the statement of the female officer that there was no breach of privacy rather than its own examination of facts to mean that in cases of breach of privacy, if the person whose privacy has been breached did not feel his or her privacy to have been invaded then the Courts would rely on the person’s statements rather than the facts. However this is only an interpretation from the facts and it does not seem that the Court has spent any significant amount of time to examine this issue, therefore it may not be prudent to consider this as establishing any legal principle.

Note: The details of the case as well as the judgment can be found at http://gujarathc-casestatus.nic.in/gujarathc/tabhome.jsp

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