i) The Constitution, refreshed

When delivering the 12th Justice K.T. Desai Memorial Lecture on dissenting judgments in Mumbai last year, Justice Rohinton F. Nariman described the great dissenters on the Supreme Court of the 1950s and 1960s as persons who had chiselled and added meaning to the Constitution’s fundamental rights. They did this, he said, by, more than anything else, appealing to what the former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Charles Evans Hughes, had called the “brooding spirit of the law and the intelligence of a future day.” Now, on August 24, Justice Nariman and eight of his colleagues, who heard arguments in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) v. Union of India, have brought to life the brooding spirit of three such dissents. In doing so, they have not only consigned some of the court’s most regressive judgments to the dust heap of history, but have also delivered a rousing affirmation of the critical place that the right to privacy enjoys in the penumbra of liberties that the Constitution guarantees.

A slew of consequences

Perhaps it ought to be a matter of shame for us that well into our seventh decade as a constitutional democracy, we needed the Supreme Court to tell us whether we possess a fundamental right to privacy or not. But this unanimous verdict delivered through six separate opinions nonetheless marks a watershed moment in our constitutional history. Collectively, the judgments could well herald a new dawn. The verdict’s consequences for civil liberties are potentially enormous. They are likely to have an effect not only on the challenge to the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 — or the Aadhaar Act — that is presently pending but also on a slew of other issues, ranging from matters concerning the collection of private data to invasions that go to the root of our bodily integrity and individual autonomy. The reference to the nine-judge Bench emanated out of the larger challenge to the validity of the Aadhaar Act. There, during the course of hearings before a three-judge Bench, the Union of India raised a rather alarming plea: it said, in response to arguments that the legislation infringed the right to privacy, that there simply existed no such fundamental guarantee. The government predicated this argument on the basis of two previous judgments of the court, M.P. Sharma v. Satish Chandra (1954) and Kharak Singh v. State of U.P. (1962), rendered respectively by a Bench of eight and six judges, which, it said, had conclusively held that there existed no fundamental right to privacy. Accordingly, it contended that subsequent judgments rendered by Benches of lesser strength which had recognised a fundamental right to privacy were wrongly decided. Before the nine-judge Bench, in seeking to further its plea, the government made a number of claims, three of which were particularly noteworthy. First, it argued that the Constitution’s framers never intended to incorporate a right to privacy, and therefore, to read such a right as intrinsic to the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21, or to the rights to various freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, guaranteed under Article 19, would amount to a rewriting of the Constitution. Second, it claimed that since privacy, as a concept, was vague, amorphous, and incapable of precise definition, it cannot be elevated to the status of a fundamental right. Third, it contended that privacy was, at best, a purely elitist concern, and that, in a land like India, rife with poverty, it can never be considered as a value worth universally cherishing.

Unanimously rejected

Although the court speaks through six separate opinions, marked by occasionally disparate reasoning, each of the state’s arguments stands unanimously rejected. On the first argument, the court recognises that much of the text of the Constitution, particularly of the rights enlisted in part III, are abstract statements of privileges that, in any event, require interpretation for us to make sense of them. To hold, therefore, that privacy is intrinsic to personal liberty does not tantamount to rewriting the Constitution. On the other hand, it would merely be a natural product of a proper interpretive exercise, where the Constitution is seen as not merely representing a matter of social fact but of being a product of morality, of representing a set of larger ambitions and ideals. The court recognises that the constitutional guarantees of a right to personal liberty and of a right to freedom of expression, while abstract in their wording, are subsumed by deep moral values central to the very conception of citizenship. What’s more, as Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul notes in his separate opinion, “the Constitution was not drafted for a specific time period or for a certain generation, it was drafted to stand firm, for eternity.” The notions of “goodness, fairness, equality and dignity can never be satisfactorily defined,” he adds. They were left “abstract for the reason that these rights, by their very nature, are not static.” To disregard privacy as a fundamental right would, therefore, fail to make the best sense of the Constitution as a legitimate basis for government. The argument that privacy is a purely elitist concern is also found to be unsustainable. Here, Justice Chandrachud, for example, leans on Amartya Sen’s work to show us that liberty and freedom are values that are not only inherent in our constitutional order, but that they also serve a larger instrumental purpose, in creating conditions that best further the cause of equality and social justice. The idea that privacy is amorphous and vague is similarly made short shrift of. Privacy, as a concept, the court finds, involves not merely a simple right to be left alone, but extends to protecting a number of different values integral to a person’s most intimate choices; it constitutes a bundle of liberties, including, as Justice Nariman points ought, the right to abort a foetus, the rights of same-sex couples, the rights as to procreation, to contraception, and so forth. This holding, in and of itself, should be sufficient to overrule the court’s judgment in Suresh Kumar Koushal v. Naz Foundation, where it upheld the abominable Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which, among other things, criminalises homosexual activity. Ultimately, however, the judgments in Puttaswamy will perhaps be remembered best for their vindication of three glorious dissenting opinions of the past. First, Justice Fazl Ali’s opinion in AK Gopalan v. State of Madras (1950), where he ruled that fundamental rights cannot be slotted into watertight silos that are mutually exclusive, but rather that they have to be read as a collective whole, as rights that give and take meaning from each other. The rights to equality, to freedom of speech and expression, and to life and personal liberty, he therefore held, together stand as a bulwark against the tyrannical powers of the state. This foresight in Justice Fazl Ali’s finding, Justice Nariman writes, “simply takes the breath away.” Second, the court affirms Justice Subba Rao’s voice of dissent in Kharak Singh, where he held that “nothing is more deleterious to a man’s physical happiness and health than a calculated interference with his privacy.”

Burying ‘ADM Jabalpur’

Finally, though, comes the clincher: a specific, explicit avowal of Justice Khanna’s daring minority opinion in ADM Jabalpur v. Shivkant Shukla. Here, he ruled that the right not to be deprived of our life and personal liberty without the authority of law was not a creature of the Constitution. Such a right inheres in us as human beings. Now, the court in Puttaswamy has held that privacy is one such liberty, which is fundamental to our very existence. The court recognises that each of us has, at the least, a kernel of personality, of identity, that we have a right to preserve. How the court applies this verdict in the future, to different cases, not least the Aadhaar challenge, would no doubt present a significant test. But, for now, it’s time to celebrate, and to commend the Supreme Court for its truly momentous ruling.

ii) Mother Teresa’s universe of grace

In my long association of 23 years, some of the most enduring images that I have of Mother (now Saint) Teresa concerned her compassion for those afflicted by leprosy but cured of the disease, who still carried its ravages in their destroyed limbs and lives. Leprosy is a word that most people continue to dread. Yet this was St. Teresa’s special constituency within her world of abject poverty and destitution. To this day the Sisters and Brothers of the Missionaries of Charity continue to touch, feed, treat and offer succour to them just as their founder had done in her days.

Leprosy is back

Most of us are not aware that we continue to face a rising leprosy problem in our midst. In India the disease stood formally eliminated as a public health problem in 2005, when the caseload dropped to one case per 10,000 population, a target set by the World Health Organisation. Unfortunately, with this achievement dropped funding for critical medicines that were still needed to combat the remnants of the disease. The work done by the National Leprosy Eradication Programme (NLEP) has begun to erode as new cases have emerged. Late last year, a sustained campaign was conducted by the NLEP in as many as 149 districts in 19 States. This was the result of an astounding 127,326 new cases detected in 2016.

A life behind each case

For Mother Teresa, leprosy was not a matter of ‘cases’. Behind each ‘case’ was a human being who had suffered the misery of abject humiliation, not merely by society at large but most often by their own families. This would occur when the tell-tale signs of leprosy could no longer be hidden. By then, the disease had destroyed the nervous system. Fingers and feet could no longer feel pain or heat or cold. They became susceptible to injury. Eventually hands became stumps and the tell-tale bandages would give them away. The irony was (and remains) that the dread of the disease caused people to hide the early signs until it became too late to avoid deformity. Even those who may have been lucky to find a cure in city hospitals would continue to be shunned. The average city jhuggi cluster will seldom admit even the leprosy-cured in its midst: they must live as complete outcasts in their own ghettoes under the shadow of their own special stigma. It was for them that Mother Teresa knocked on the doors of the Delhi government in 1975 to plead for some land where she could build a shelter for them: proper dormitories and a small hospital to provide for reconstructive surgery. She was as good as her word. She fittingly named her Delhi ashram after Mahatma Gandhi, whom she once told me she wished she had met. She visited here almost each time she came to Delhi. I mostly accompanied her as she mingled with the residents listening to their sorrow, their little joys and often their anger, directed not at her but at the cruelty of a world that had abandoned them. One afternoon a woman reached out to her from her cot. She had hidden the early signs of leprosy. When they manifested themselves, her two sons threw her out of her house. Somehow someone brought her to this shelter. Through tears she repeatedly asked Mother Teresa whether her sons would visit her on Diwali, barely a few weeks away. Mother said she would pray that they’d come. As we left the hall, Mother told me that the lady had been a teacher in a renowned girls’ school. Her family had abandoned her to her fate. They would never come. She died soon after, I suspect not from leprosy, but from a broken heart.

The handloom centre

To this day the handloom saris worn by the Missionaries of Charity sisters are woven by former leprosy patients at a weaving centre set up by Mother Teresa in a leprosy colony near the industrial town of Titagarh near Kolkata. Over the years, the leprosy-stricken, driven further and further away from Kolkata, had no choice but to built their huts on the edge of this town, along the railway lines. Over 500 families had found refuge here. When Mother Teresa learned of this, she arrived and helped them with shramdan, to build dormitories, a hospital and a weaving centre. Today the centre is a hive of activity as dozens of men and women produce the distinctive white saris with three blue stripes for which the Missionaries of Charity hold the copyright. I sometimes encounter criticism of Mother Teresa but to all those who do so I would ask one question: how many of us actually bend down to help those in need with our own hands? How many of us offer succour to these unfortunate brethren? Like Baba Amte, St. Teresa — her birth anniversary falls today — spent her life in actually living Swami Vivekananda’s concept of ‘Daridra Narayan’, in the service of god through service to the poor, destitute and marginalised.


1) Dissenting

Meaning: Hold or express opinions that are at variance with those commonly or officially held.

Example: Two members dissented from the majority.

Synonyms: Differ, Demur

Antonyms: Assent, Agree

2) Chiselled

Meaning: Strongly and clearly defined.

Example: He’s chiselled me out of my dues.

3) Brooding

Meaning: Think deeply about something that makes one unhappy, angry, or worried.

Example: She had brooded over the subject a thousand times.

Synonyms: Worry about, Fret about

4) Consigned

Meaning: Put someone or something in (a place) in order to be rid of it or them.

Example: She consigned the letter to the waste-paper basket.

Synonyms: Send, Deliver

5) Regressive

Meaning: (of tax) lower on large amounts of money, so that the rich are less affected.

Example: Indirect taxes are, as a group, regressive.

6) Rousing

Meaning: Bring out of inactivity.

Example: Once the enemy camp was roused, they would move on the castle.

7) Affirmation:

Meaning: Accept or confirm the validity of (a judgement or agreement); ratify.

Example: The Court of Appeal affirmed a decision of the High Court.

8) Penumbra

Meaning: A peripheral or indeterminate area or group.

Example: An immense penumbra of theory surrounds any observation.

9) Unanimous

Meaning: (of an opinion, decision, or vote) held or carried by everyone involved.

Example: This requires the unanimous approval of all member states.

Synonyms: Uniform, Consistent

10) Watershed

Meaning: An event or period marking a turning point in a situation.

Example: These works were a watershed in the history of music.

11) Herald

Meaning: Be a sign that (something) is about to happen.

Example: The speech heralded a change in policy.

Synonyms: Signal, Indicate

12) Invasions

Meaning: An unwelcome intrusion into another’s domain.

Example: Random drug testing of employees is an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Synonyms: Violation, Infringement

13) Emanated

Meaning: (of a feeling, quality, or sensation) issue or spread out from (a source); Give out or emit.

Example: Warmth emanated from the fireplace.

Synonyms: Emerge, Flow

14) Legislation

Meaning: The process of making or enacting laws.

Example: It will require legislation to change this situation.

Synonyms: Law-making, Codification

15) Infringed

Meaning: Actively break the terms of (a law, agreement, etc.).

Example: Making an unauthorized copy would infringe copyright.

Synonyms: Contravene, Violate

Antonyms: Obey, Comply with

16) Predicated

Meaning: Declare or affirm (something) as true or existing; postulate or assert.

Example: The Pleistocene colonization of Tasmania has long been predicated.

17) Contended

Meaning: Assert something as a position in an argument.

Example: He contends that the judge was wrong.

Synonyms: Assert, Maintain

18) Subsequent

Meaning: Coming after something in time; following.

Example: The theory was developed subsequent to the earthquake of 1906.

Synonyms: Following, Succeeding

Antonyms: previous, Prior

19) Rendered

Meaning: Deliver (a verdict or judgement).

Example: The jury’s finding amounted to the clearest verdict yet rendered upon the scandal.

Synonyms: Deliver, Return

20) Intrinsic

Meaning: Belonging naturally; essential.

Example: Access to the arts is intrinsic to a high quality of life.

Synonyms: Inherent, Innate

Antonyms: Extrinsic, Acquired

21) Amorphous

Meaning: Lacking a clear structure or focus.

Example: An amorphous and leaderless legislature.

22) Elitist

Meaning: Relating to or supporting the view that a society or system should be led by an elite.

Example: Older men with an elitist attitude about music

23) Disparate

Meaning: Essentially different in kind; not able to be compared.

Example: They inhabit disparate worlds of thought.

Synonyms: Different, Differing

Antonyms:  Homogeneous

24) Tantamount

Meaning: Equivalent in seriousness to; virtually the same as.

Example: The resignations were tantamount to an admission of guilt.

Synonyms: Equivalent to, Equal to

25) Interpretive

Meaning: Relating to or providing an interpretation.

Example: Activities designed to reinforce students’ interpretative skills.

26) Subsumed

Meaning: Include or absorb (something) in something else.

Example: Most of these phenomena can be subsumed under two broad categories.

27) Conception

Meaning: The way in which something is perceived or regarded.

Example: Our conception of how language relates to reality.

28) Legitimate

Meaning: Conforming to the law or to rules.

Example: His claims to legitimate authority.

Synonyms: Legal, Lawful

Antonyms: Illegal, Illegitimate

29) Foetus

Meaning: An unborn or un-hatched offspring of a mammal, in particular an unborn human more than eight weeks after conception.

Example: Use a barrier contraceptive the first month: female fetuses may be adversely affected.

30) Procreation

Meaning: The production of offspring; reproduction.

Example: In general animals copulate purely for the purpose of procreation.

31) Abominable

Meaning: Causing moral revulsion.

Example: The uprising was suppressed with abominable cruelty.

Synonyms: Loathsome, Detestable

Antonyms: Good, Admirable

32) Vindication

Meaning: The action of clearing someone of blame or suspicion.

Example: I intend to work to ensure my full vindication.

33) Watertight

Meaning: (of an argument or account) unable to be disputed or questioned.

Example: Their alibis are watertight.

Synonyms: Indisputable, Unquestionable

Antonyms: Flawed

34) Bulwark

Meaning: A person or thing that acts as a defence.

Example: The security forces are a bulwark against the breakdown of society.

Synonyms: Protector, Protection

35) Tyrannical

Meaning: Exercising power in a cruel or arbitrary way.

Example: A tyrannical government.

Synonyms: Dictatorial, Despotic

Antonyms: Democratic, Liberal

36) Avowal

Meaning: a statement in which you say or admit something that you believe, support, or intend to do

Example: They were imprisoned for their avowal of anti-government beliefs.

Synonyms: Assertions and asserting

37) Deprived

Meaning: Prevent (a person or place) from having or using something.

Example: The city was deprived of its water supplies.

Synonyms: Dispossess, Strip

38) Enduring

Meaning: Remain in existence; last.

Example: These cities have endured through time.

Synonyms: Last, Live

Antonyms: Fade, Short-lived

39) Compassion

Meaning: Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

Example: The victims should be treated with compassion.

Synonyms: Pity, Sympathy

Antonyms: Indifference, Heartlessness

40) Ravages

Meaning: The destructive effects of something; Acts of destruction..

Example: His face had withstood the ravages of time.

Synonyms: Damaging effects, Destruction

41) Destitution

Meaning: Poverty so extreme that one lacks the means to provide for oneself.

Example: The family faced eviction and destitution.

Synonyms: Poverty, Impoverishment

Antonyms: Wealth

42) Remnants

Meaning: A part or quantity that is left after the greater part has been used, removed, or destroyed.

Example: The bogs are an endangered remnant of a primeval landscape.

Synonyms: Remains, Remainder

43) Astounding

Meaning: Surprisingly impressive or notable.

Example: The summit offers astounding views.

Synonyms: Amazing, Astonishing

44) Humiliation

Meaning: The action of humiliating someone or the state of being humiliated.

Example: They suffered the humiliation of losing in the opening round

Synonyms: Embarrassment, Mortification

Antonyms: Honour

45) Stumps

Meaning: Be at a loss; not know what to do or say.

Example: Detectives are stumped for a reason for the attack.

46) Deformity

Meaning: A deformed part, especially of the body; a malformation.

Example: Deformities of the hands or feet.

Synonyms: Malformation, Disproportion

47) Shunned

Meaning: Persistently avoid, ignore, or reject (someone or something) through antipathy or caution.

Example: He shunned fashionable society.

Synonyms: Avoid, Evade

Antonyms: Accept, Seek

48) Outcasts

Meaning: A person who has been rejected or ostracized by their society or social group.

Example: She went from trusted pal to ostracized outcast overnight.

Synonyms: Pariah, Reject

Antonyms: Insider

49) Ghettoes

Meaning: A part of a city, especially a slum area, occupied by a minority group or groups.

Example: The relative security of the gay ghetto.

50) Dormitories

Meaning: A large bedroom for a number of people in a school or institution.

Example: He visited the boarders in their dormitory.

51) Manifested

Meaning: (of an ailment) become apparent through the appearance of symptoms.

Example: A disorder that usually manifests in middle age.

Synonyms: Indicate, Show

Antonyms: Mask, deny

52) Distinctive

Meaning: Characteristic of one person or thing, and so serving to distinguish it from others.

Example: Juniper berries give gin its distinctive flavour.

Synonyms: Distinguishing, Characteristic

Antonyms: Common

53) Succour

Meaning: Assistance and support in times of hardship and distress.

Example: The wounded had little chance of succour.

Synonyms: Aid, Help

54) Brethren

Meaning: A man or boy in relation to other sons and daughters of his parents.

Example: He recognized her from her strong resemblance to her brother.

Synonyms: Colleague, Associate