25/08/2017 9:01 AM IST | Updated 25/08/2017 9:01 AM IST

Indians Don’t Care About Privacy, But Thankfully The Law Will Teach Them What It Means

Three cheers for western ideas.

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Privacy sign and word on a computer keyboard button conceptual 3d illustration.

In 2013, Edward Snowden blew the lid off the mass surveillance that the United States' National Security Agency had placed the world under. The NSA, it was revealed, was tracking the entire world and their personal lives through technology. It was doing so in breach of law, violating privacy of citizens, both American and foreign.

Amongst other things, the exposé was scandalous as it revealed how the NSA had put world leaders under surveillance. The world was livid. In much of Europe and other countries like Canada, Snowden was considered a hero, even as he was forced to leave the US and take asylum in Russia.

In 2014, a Pew Research Center survey asked people across 44 countries if American monitoring of their country's citizens was acceptable. In India, the word of the question was, "In your opinion, is it acceptable or unacceptable for the American government to monitor communications from Indian citizens?"

In Greece, 97% respondents thought American surveillance was unacceptable. In China, 85%. In Israel, 82%. In Bangladesh, 70%. Within US, 47%. In India, only 33% objected to being a subject of surveillance by the United States. In fact, 35% respondents said it was acceptable. The rest couldn't care enough to decide either way. There was only one country whose respondents were more okay than Indians with American surveillance: Nigeria.

Privacy what?

This was not surprising. Indians don't care about privacy. Anyone who has travelled overnight on a train in India knows this. On train journeys, I have learnt of the triumphs of travails of entire joint families. People open up on their own and don't see anything wrong in asking you your caste and marital status, your salary and your address.

When people migrate to big Indian cities, they love the anonymity of the big city, and sometimes loathe it too, as social support structures are absent. In Delhi or Bombay it is possible to not know how your neighbour is. In most of India, you will know why exactly the neighbor is fighting with their spouse, without even trying to.

As for government surveillance, if 35% per cent Indians are ok with American surveillance I'm sure at least 90% will be okay with surveillance by their own government. I have never met any ordinary Indian — except left-liberal, globally-aware intellectuals — who objected to surveillance cameras that have covered Indian streets, neighbourhoods, markets and malls like the air pollution has covered the sky. (Heck, Indians don't even seem to object to the dirty air they breathe.)

What is the meaning of privacy in a country where men don't mind urinating on the pavements?

What is the meaning of privacy in a country where men don't mind urinating on the pavements? What is the meaning of privacy in a country where entire joint families live together in small homes?

The government wasn't wrong that privacy is a concern of the elites. It is true that the elites care a little more about it, for one, they can afford to. It is a behavioral change that's part of people asserting their individuality over family and community, caste and kinship.

Proof that the government's assertion wasn't too wrong was in the lack of outrage. The Modi government repeatedly argued in court that citizens don't have the right to privacy, not even the "absolute right to their bodies". Yet it was a matter of outrage only for the intellectual elites.

As for welfare, if a poor Indian was told to choose between privacy laws and a few kgs of food, there is no doubt what the answer will be.

Western ideas

But we are not a country run by a khap panchayat. The majority isn't always right, and that's why we have the Constitution and its guardian, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court judgement on privacy yesterday said, "Our Constitution places the individual at the forefront of its focus." The judges also pointed out how the word 'personal' was a deliberate insertion by the makers of the Indian Constitution into the phrase 'personal liberty' in Article 21.

That it took India 70 years of independence to declare privacy as a fundamental right, that this happened through judicial interpretation of fundamental rights and not by popular demand, is proof of how little Indians care about privacy.

"Our Constitution places the individual at the forefront of its focus."

The good news is, they will learn. The law is a great teacher. It will take another few decades for this judgement to be used again and again against all kinds of invasion of privacy, from the collection of personal data by the government to unsolicited advertising and marketing by companies. The Supreme Court judgement itself discussed how far-reaching the implication of the right to privacy will be.

It will affect not just Aadhaar, but also laws on sexual orientation, abortion and euthanasia. It will affect all sectors of the Indian economy, from banking to software.

The revolutionary far-reaching nature of yesterday's judgement will no doubt help percolate in Indian society the importance of privacy in individual development. "This is the call of today," the judges conclude, "The old order changeth yielding place to new."

The government even argued that privacy was a vague idea, "so amorphous as to defy description." In defining privacy, the apex court began with not some ancient Indian philosopher but Aristotle of Greece.

The court also quoted John Stuart Mill: "The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

Three cheers to western ideas such as fundamental rights, electoral democracy and now, privacy.

The judgement quotes from American and British jurisprudence, it quotes from the European Charter of Human Rights and it cites dozens of cases from Indian case law. It is not surprising they couldn't find anything from Indian philosophical and intellectual tradition.

Three cheers to western ideas such as fundamental rights, electoral democracy and now, privacy.

"To live is to live with dignity," the judges write. "Privacy with its attendant values assures dignity to the individual and it is only when life can be enjoyed with dignity can liberty be of true substance."