New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday reserved its order for Friday on a clutch of interim pleas seeking a stay on government's decision of mandatory linking of Aadhaar with welfare schemes, as the Centre conceded saying it would extend the deadline up to March 31 next year.
Hoever, the Centre vehemently pressed before the five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra for allowing the national biometric identifier to remain mandatory for opening new bank accounts.
The bench, also comprising Justices A K Sikri, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan, heard arguments in support and against the mandatory linkage of Aadhaar for nearly three hours in a packed courtroom and said it would pronounce its interim order on Friday morning.
The top court, which fixed the main petitions challenging the Aadhaar scheme itself for final hearing on January 17 next year, said it would consider the submission of Attorney General K K Venugopal that deadline of February 6, 2018 for mandatory linking of Aadhaar with mobile services can also be extended up to March 31 next year.
Venugopal referred to an earlier apex court order asking the Centre to ensure verification of existing and new mobile users by February 6 and hence, the government, on its own, cannot extend the deadline.
"The deadline for almost everything has been extended," the top law officer said, adding that Aadhaar was mandatory for new bank accounts and several crores of existing bank accounts have already been linked.
"If everything is extended till March 31, we can take it (matter) up in the second week of January," the bench said. This led a battery of senior lawyers including Shyam Divan, Gopal Subramanium, Arvind Datar, K T S Tulsi, Meenakshi Arora, K V Vishwanathan and Anand Grover, representing those opposing Aadhaar, to plead in unison for a direction to the Centre that no coercive action be taken if a person refuses to provide Aadhaar to avail services and benefits.
At the outset, Divan referred to various orders passed since 2013 by several benches of the apex court to highlight his point that Aadhaar was "voluntary" and not "mandatory" and it was meant to be used in few schemes like PDS, LPG, MGNREGA and Jan Dhan Yojna.
The apex court had time and again made it clear that no person shall be deprived of any benefit, which otherwise accrue to him, for want of Aadhaar, but these orders have been violated with impunity by the Centre which has come out with as many as 139 notifications making Aadhaar mandatory for almost everything, he said.
"The government went on a notification spree curtailing individual freedom and privacy despite interim orders from the Supreme Court that Aadhaar is voluntary" while continuing to assure the court that it will be a voluntary scheme, he said. Divan passionately argued and referred to various notifications and reports on making Aadhaar mandatory for HIV patients, CBSE, JEE, UGC scholarship, nursery admissions and said these actions "diminished the majesty and authority" of the Supreme Court orders.
The CJI cut short Divan's arguments, saying he should stick to the pleadings rather than "hyperbole, rhetorics" and said the court will not be guided by news reports. "You may have a point on constitutionality, legality. You have a point that these circulars deprive persons dependant on social welfare. But all this material should be on record before us and the other side (Union) should be in the know," the bench observed.
Venugopal said he may not be able to defend authorities like Uttar Pradesh and UGC as they are not parties here and notices have not been issued on those interim applications. Subramanium and other lawyers also said that the Aadhaar legislation cannot take away the basis of the apex court orders that the scheme was voluntary.
Senior advocate Anand Grover raised the issue of data safety and said some persons and companies involved with the scheme, were connected to US agencies like the FBI and the CIA and were also providing services to some Pakistani departments or authorities.
The government had on Wednesday issued a notification to extend till March 31 the deadline for mandatory quoting of Aadhaar and Permanent Account Number (PAN) for bank accounts and certain financial transactions. However, there is no word on extending the February 6, 2018 deadline for linking mobile SIM cards with Aadhaar.
Recently, a nine-judge constitution bench of the apex court had held that Right to Privacy was a Fundamental Right under the Constitution. Several petitioners challenging the validity of Aadhaar had claimed it violated privacy rights. Some petitioners in the top court have termed the linking of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) number with bank accounts and mobile numbers as "illegal and unconstitutional".
They have also objected to the CBSE's alleged move to make Aadhaar mandatory for students appearing for examinations, a contention denied by the Centre.