Needless appeal

HC rap for violating citizens’ privacy through banners has had no effect on Yogi’s regime

It is regrettable that the Uttar Pradesh government has appealed against the Allahabad High Court order directing the removal of hoardings in Lucknow that displayed details of those who participated in the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Further, it has approved an ordinance that provides for recovery of compensation from those suspected of involvement in rioting for any damage to property. In a quick and well-reasoned response, the court curbed the administration’s gross misuse of power. Even though the Supreme Court’s vacation judges were sceptical about the legal basis of the government’s action, they referred it to a larger Bench, observing that crucial questions of law were involved. It is difficult to see what arcane legal question has arisen, considering that the High Court’s order was on the grounds that the erection of the hoardings lacked statutory backing and that it was a gross violation of citizens’ privacy. The Lucknow administration had displayed the photographs, names and addresses of those who, it claimed, owed compensation for the alleged destruction of public property during the protests. There has been no judicial finding that those named were involved in such violence; and there is no law that authorises such public “naming and shaming”. It was quite apparent that the government was humiliating the protesters and exposing them to danger from the CAA’s supporters and the government.

Once the High Court Bench, headed by Chief Justice Govind Mathur and Justice Ramesh Sinha, took suo motu cognisance of the development, the government could not justify its action on any legal ground. All it could do was come up with weak objections to the court acting on its own motion, arguing that those featured in the banners had the capacity to seek legal redress themselves, and also questioning whether the principal seat in Allahabad could take cognisance of developments in Lucknow, which has its own Bench. At a time when the higher judiciary is seen to be passive before a powerful executive, the court’s resolve to act on its own against a case of obvious injustice and violation of fundamental rights is quite commendable. Its approach was rooted in the revivified privacy rights jurisprudence established by a nine-Judge apex court Bench in K.S. Puttaswamy . Applying the tests laid down in that verdict, the top court ruled that there was no necessity for a democratic government to disclose anyone’s identity and particulars without a legitimate purpose. And that choosing a small group among hundreds arrested in connection with the violence during the protests for the public display was a “colourable exercise” of power. That the State government went on appeal shows that the judicial order hardly had any chastening effect on the regime that has been displaying unusual stridency in its crackdown on the anti-CAA protests.

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