Aadhaar can only deepen India’s socially embedded bureaucratic violence – A conversation with Tarangini Sriraman
This past year in India, questions around citizenship have been central to many of the political and constitutional issues starting from the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) in Assam to Aadhaar, the country’s ambitious biometric identification project. Who belongs and where? How do we prove it through material documents? And can the pursuit of proof override fundamental rights? Questions such as these have been debated but often, worryingly, settled not in favour of the citizen but the State. Deeply contentious political, social, and economic questions and their underlying conflicts are increasingly being erased in favour of the zeitgeist of techno-solutionism.
Tarangini Sriraman teaches politics and history at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and is author of “In Pursuit of Proof: A History of Identification Documents in India,” just published by Oxford University Press. She can be reached at [email protected]
Tarangini Sriraman’s book, In Pursuit of Proof, arrives at this important juncture when we continue to grapple with privacy, security, and corporatization of citizenship. A former journalist, she turns to history, ethnography, narrative, and archive to tell an important story about how IDs work and how the State and its citizens are shaped by these paper and digital genres and bureaucracy. In this conversation with Suchitra Vijayan, Dr Sriraman takes us through the questions that have occupied her since she first reported about the fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu following the devastating 2004 Tsunami, the hybrid nature of her work, and more crucially how IDs have transformed, and will continue to transform, both the State and citizenship.
Polis: Can you briefly tell us how and why this book came about?
Tarangini Sriraman: In my yesteryears as a student in Asian College of Journalism (Chennai, southern India), Aman Sethi and I co-wrote a series of investigative stories about the fisherfolk of Chennai and how they were affected by the 2004 tsunami. In their search for compensation, these fishermen were often stymied by the unremitting emphasis on proof of their identities by the then Jayalalithaa government. But it was not just boats, houses and hamlets that the tsunami claimed. Fishermen’s IDs, ration cards, and voter IDs—documented facts of their existence—were fair game too for the giant wave that engulfed the sea shores of Chennai. It is the stories of the rehabilitation of these fisherfolk that put me on a path of intimate historical association with IDs.
Again in 2005 as a reporter at The Hindu, I encountered the ration card in Hyderabad while interviewing officials and welfare applicants at a camp set up to determine the eligibility of the Below Poverty Line (BPL) applicants. All sorts of restrictive criteria, especially in verifying ownership of movable and immovable assets, were being implemented by the officials to ensure only a small pool of families qualified. However, the sea of humanity—overly anxious about their chances and returning to the site every time the camp was held—convinced me that the ration card was the centerpiece of a wider history of welfare distribution and an identification regime I had had no inkling about.
Later when I started researching IDs as part of my PhD, I could not help but return to some of these pivotal questions. Why is it a given that certain IDs are proof of residence? How do we end up characterizing people who clamour for IDs that shape their legal and material existence? Historically, do they feature only as welfare recipients, beneficiaries, the enumerated and the documented or, perversely, as potential imposters, ghost beneficiaries, frauds and doppelgangers? Are IDs the outcome of clinical binaries moulded between the monolithic units that go by the name of the ‘sovereign state’ and ‘passive citizens’? Or, are these relationships mutually constitutive?
Tell us about your initial research, the point where you felt that this needed to be a book. What kind of previously existing scholarship did you find, and where does your book take that body of work now?
I was keen to destabilize the nation-state as the site of marking, enumerating subjects and issuing documents. I was able to do this by narrating an urban history of intersecting administrative and popular practices and infrastructures of identification salient to welfare governance in the margins of the city. These historical churnings were located in the sites of food distribution and housing in Delhi. Instead of framing state processes of governance in institutional terms of how proof is issued bureaucratically, this approach enabled examining popular processes of claim-making and how they happen from below and on the ground. To this end, it was imperative to probe material aspirations, popular notions of identity, legalistic convictions, people’s emotions, and the subversive acts of those who apply for identification documents and search for proof.
While path-breaking, Western scholarship such as The Invention of the Passport by John Torpey, Documenting Individual Identity by Jane Caplan and John Torpey, and The Information State in England by Edward Higgs have not been able to tend to these concerns. As for Indian work on IDs, the only full-length book, which is also a historical treatment of the subject, features in Ornit Shani’s remarkable How India Became Democratic. She does something similar, tracing a history of Indian democracy by delineating the intimate involvement of ordinary people with the institutionalization of the electoral process and the vote.
Tell us how you constructed the research methods.
The book was written as a historical ethnography—I bring ethnography to the service of historical narrative. The research is framed around a subject deeply familiar and mundane: identification documents. A historical ethnography on a subject like this, per force, would also have to be a multi-sited one. So instead of carrying out research in a bounded site of one community, one government office, or one subaltern space of dwelling, I have dispersed and strewn my research across what Mathew Hull terms ‘paper shrines’. Within the neat rubric and genre of ‘archival work,’ I have scoured both official sources like inquiry forms, census reports, survey questionnaires, memoranda, housing documents, and identity cards and popular sources such as association newsletters, petitions, application forms, and letters to officials.
Ethnographically, I draw a distinction between conventional fieldwork involving interviews with rural migrants and oral narratives involving interviews with slum residents. So I interviewed a community of rural migrants made up of bus porters, mainly to arrive at contemporary analyses of the material processes of identification meant for Aadhaar. While there were acts of remembering and recalling, they did not involve a dense self-insertion into another time lived and seen. On the other hand, I spent three years in the Govindpuri slum for extracting oral narratives where I asked residents to remember an enumeration initiative that took place in 1990 and imbue it with cultural and social meaning.
Finally, I tried to simultaneously humanize and microscopically critique the bureaucracy by interrogating the historical roles played by obscure lower-level officials. I was able to track down retired food officials who served during the License Raj. The food inspector, a relatively low-ranking official, enjoyed a mighty status contingent on occasions such as inspecting weddings. They fashioned themselves as annadata and believed their work fell in the league of disciplining even the powerful. Simultaneously, they flouted rationing rules meant to regulate the number of guests and ration food items used in parties in order to exempt Punjabi families from these norms so they could exercise their one-time right to hold extravagant weddings.
So what’s the locus of your fieldwork? Who are the people in this book, and what guided that choice? I’m left to wonder how class and caste come into play, and how the rich and more privileged classes in India came to identify themselves.
Delhi’s urban poor are the protagonists in this history. Depending on the moment under consideration—the partition of British India and its aftermath in the 1950s and 60s, an urban housing survey in the 90s, and the production of electronic numbers (Aadhaar) post 2000—this category has varied across refugees, slum residents, and rural migrants. In the 50s and 60s, I consider the close relationships that crystallized between state authorities and Hindu and Sikh “refugee squatters.” This is a term in official files used disparagingly to refer to those poor classes whose distinguishing characteristic is that they indiscriminately occupy vacant spaces and are primarily “encroachers” of land. These refugees were all part of associations that displayed great ingenuity in influencing governmental methods of identifying them and processing their documents. They were able to blur strong distinctions between the enumerator and the enumerated. This was because they, unlike Dalit refugees, enjoyed deep social affinities with the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation, which was often headed by upper-caste Punjabi Hindu refugees.
Among the refugees from West Pakistan of this time, Dalits accounted for a substantial figure—one figure puts those who left Punjab, Sindh and Northwest Frontier Provinces to come to India at 600,000. If one were to consider the applications for housing compensation made by Dalit squatters in Delhi many of whom were rural refugees from Pakistan, it is hard to escape the cascading effect of categories piled one on top of another, these being proof of refugee status, nationality, squatter status, or caste belonging. Here Dalits initially faced all sorts of discrimination in securing the registration certificate because they were not allowed to enter refugee camps occupied by upper-caste refugees. Authorities placed unreasonable and casteist demands on them to prove their caste-ness by inquiring into their pakka-rakka or legitimate refugee status. Such a definition implied that any Dalit who could not pay a housing deposit of twenty-five rupees for a loan of one thousand rupees could intrinsically not be trusted. Though they were able to secure considerable state assistance, the story of Dalit refugees in Delhi is also telling of how their claims to refugee empowerment were partially delegitimized through the conflation of caste and class.
More recently, in 1990, Delhi’s slum residents were enumerated in a survey and issued a bundle of ID cards meant to be proof for claiming housing compensation in the foreseeable future. Such a survey, not unlike those undertaken in other cities, put into effect datelines of entry and a resident who failed to show she or he had moved into the slum before this date would be adversely affected during housing allocation. All this only triggered an emotional economy of claims and counter-claims to prove urban belonging.
Suddenly, residents of this cluster in South Delhi no longer desired to be merely “slum residents.” They were either old pradhans (leaders present well before 1990), or the most authentic families as they bore all the requisite documents from that year, or those who had lost one critical document issued in that year, or those who had counterfeited documents to not be tricked out of a housing entitlement.
How do we understand the term proof, and how do you employ it to excavate legal archives, lives, and histories of the people you interview?
Well, there were reasons for using the term proof as against the term evidence though both are explored felicitously in the book. Proof would suggest something absolute, both in mathematical and social science terms. What is produced as proof in a bureaucratic capacity is irrefutable and not contingent on circumstance, regional context, historical milieu, or class of people in question. The term evidence on the other hand comes from a culture of permissiveness. It carries circumstantial and contextual relevance, what I term bureaucratic latitude, and a relatively expansive attitude to what constitutes identity.
The title In Pursuit of Proof also captures simultaneously bureaucratic, administrative and popular quests for infrastructures and forms of identification. But the book seeks to show that proof is not a fact that states are able to unilaterally establish about the people they govern, it is rather the outcome of popular engagement with the welfare bureaucracy. For instance, in the wake of the partition, the government wanted the refugee authorities to take on board whatever evidence sprang from what I term as the “itineraries, narrations, and narratives of refugees” post-partition. It was through these porous mechanisms that authorities went about determining proof of nationality, proof of refugee status, proof of urban presence, and proof of caste.
So even though the term proof is used both after the partition and at other moments in the urban history of identification documents, postcolonial authorities admit into the record all sorts of constructions of identity. Of course, these sorts of gestures, if at times greatly enabling of wide-ranging claims by the poor, could also be extremely power-laden and codified discretion. I witnessed a food official, for instance, scornfully reject a slum resident’s housing application because she suspected the ID card submitted by the female applicant was counterfeit for “how old it looked.” Another official who was part of the 1990 VP Singh initiative of issuing IDs to Delhi’s slum residents told me if there was only one charpoy (bed) in the house, and the mother-in-law was also included in the ration card application, there was “something wrong.”
How does ID proof become and function as a political tool? In the state’s capacity to discipline, punish, and control, how do you see this political function play out?
Well, this book historically plots IDs within the shifting political regimes of the partition, License Raj, and post-liberalization Delhi but it does not feature spectacular and large-scale events of disenfranchisement, deportation, policing, profiling, and persecution. The story of the production of ration cards, electoral rolls, and housing documents must be read at a considerable remove from the stupendous and the haunting tales of Nazi-era Volkskartei (registries of non-Aryans), the punch-card machinery developed by IBM to hunt down Jews in Germany, the apartheid-era Bewysburo (bureau of proof) and the Dompas (pass system) in South Africa, or the Soviet-era Propiska (internal passports to implement collectivization of agriculture), or the ID cards developed in close correlation to the work of the Israel Central Statistics Bureau (ICSB).
Elia Zureik does a marvelous job of showing how Israel carefully engineered its bureaucratic categories of Jews and Arabs and issued identity cards so as to enable “de-coupling of the indigenous population from both the land of Palestine and the rest of the Palestinian people.” Zureik indicates that identity cards, while objects of surveillance, also sow the seeds of desire to escape harassment. But all these systems of identification were bureaucratically designed to maniacally and brutally pursue the alienation and the persecution of ethnic and rural minorities. These histories, with the exception of the National Register of Citizens of Assam, do not resonate in India.
While there is no doubt that IDs exclude and arbitrarily classify subjects in India too, this coupling of bureaucratic and political projects, and the conception of censuses and creation of identification documents particularly to ideologically and systematically keep out minorities has no entrenched history in India. There have rather been sporadic moments where IDs have been purposed to marginalize minorities willfully as for instance during the Emergency and in the Gujarat riots where electoral rolls were used to track down Muslims. Emma Tarlo talks about the use of sterilization certificates to legitimize violent state acts of sanctioning housing and their appropriation by Delhi’s slum residents. Moyukh Chatterjee’s work on procedural violence and the role of documentation in prosecuting those who killed Muslims during the riots is particularly revealing. He shows us how the Gujarat police filed FIRs that deliberately omitted incriminating names of the killers and the details of weapons and resorted to filing “omnibus” cases that purposefully obscured the specificity of a crime. The FIRs also did not foreground the exclusively Muslim identity of the victims.
My own work does not feature these explicit and stark forms of politically deploying IDs to enforce, defy, or contest state violence. I have rather contoured the structural forms that state violence can take in various dispensations of welfare governance. I do this by tracing the politics of identification of the poor within a matrix of deep official suspicion of welfare fraud, urban citizen claim-making, popular contestations of procedures and bureaucratic norms, and practices of brokerage.
I have also sought to capture the molds through which there has been a deliberate de-politicizing of an identification infrastructure like Aadhaar. We are witnessing the willful efforts of the telecom industry, banks, insurance firms, corporate agencies, and the biometrics industry to use the narrative of technological efficiency to commodify people’s information and monetize people’s identities. How does Aadhaar work to fulfill political mandates to ensure universal compliance to a technological platform? This number identifier has been politically key to legitimizing triumphalist narratives of enormous government savings, success stories of plugging welfare fraud, and assertions of increased welfare benefits through a correct identification mechanism.
Also, what are the ways in which dignity of self is eroded through the collection of biometrics, relentless biometric linkage to benefits and lifelines of the poor and the ceaseless corporate and governmental clamour for storing information? So I’ve tried to trace the more subtle forms of power that IDs can enable within the changing welfare ecology.
It’s interesting to know about these colonial dispensations and how things changed in the post-colonial time. Tell us more about it.
The colonial state does not rule free subjects, it is not held back by liberal constraints of sovereign citizenship, rule of law, at least nowhere resembling its moral compulsions back home. (Uma Kalpagam, in her article titled ‘Colonial Governmentality and the Economy’ helped me mould my initial thoughts on this. Rather, Kalpagam says, that pastoral power was yoked to the significant enhancement of the wealth of colonial rulers.)
So, whether it was welfare functions of providing for colonial subjects reeling under famine by invoking the Famine Code or whether it was granting pensions to several classes of Indians, especially sepoys and the lower orders of the colonial military edifice, or the question of providing rations to wartime subjects, there was a semblance of welfare thinking among the colonizers. (Poorva Rajaram’s MPhil dissertation is really illuminating on the question of pensions and the life certificate replete with the fingerprint in 19th-century British India.)
But such thinking was tied to ensuring subsistence, preventing what Srimanjiri calls dissent induced by hunger, and engendering legitimacy for imperial war efforts. By providing rations, colonial authorities wished to secure the “priority sections” whose nourishment was vital to the long-term foundations of colonial rule.
Post-colonial welfare dispensations on the other hand have been underpinned by several considerations such as supporting a planned, state-directed economy which made its peace with capitalists, ensuring commodity control through staggered phases of economic austerity—during the Nehru and Shastri eras. But the post-partition Nehruvian state was also distinctive in the care that it assigned to Hindu and Sikh refugees and whose citizenship claims became the foundational ethic of its republican existence.
How does this governmentality function in relation to IDs in India? Can you tell us how this ID granting and conferring function can itself transform into a kind of governance in marginal spaces?
Well, to begin with, in the classical Foucauldian sense the whole conception of governmentality is centred around the acceptance of the body and the population as the two poles of preserving what Foucault terms “the mechanics of life” itself. In his analysis, the family is useful as a category of knowledge only in conjunction with the population. It deserves consideration only because of its utility in regulating, say, the sexuality, demography, criminality, productivity, and consumption of the population. However, other scholars have demonstrated that states in the non-Western world, and occasionally even in the West, create social orderings of citizens that are derived from the disciplining of the family. Estelle Lau, for instance, discusses the policing of Chinese immigrant families and their genealogies in America.
In India, too, the state has been deeply preoccupied with the enumeration of families and it has rendered the family into a bureaucratic and administrative cornerstone of welfare governance. The ration card, for example, as an ID was responsible for the consolidation of the welfare norms of family and address. So rationing of essential items like foodgrains, sugar, cloth, and kerosene saw the use of terms like individual, head of household, dependents, consumer, and distributor.
Even though the family ration card was introduced in Delhi only in May 1944, Henry Knight, advisor to the government of Bombay during the Second World War and author of the book Food Administration in India, was convinced of the bureaucratic indispensability of the family norm. He writes that family ration cards were seen to be particularly useful because the inquiries were less inquisitorial. Though there was a greater risk of free-loading, visitors who went unreported, fictitious names, deaths, and departures, they were still seen to be more useful in the long term.
Retaining the family norm post-partition also translated into privileging the male head of the household. The Delhi Refugee Registration Ordinance, 1947 for example gave the male refugee the mandate to register all those in his care, including women, children, lunatics and idiots. Not only governments, the logic of family as a category of identification made eminent sense also to refugee families and associations. Ornit Shani’s How India became Democratic talks of how refugee associations asked that male heads of the household fulfill electoral procedures to exempt purdanasheen women in the family from public gaze. Possibly for similar reasons women ended up registering themselves as voters not in their own names but in relational terms such as “wife of,” “daughter of,” and “mother of.” During the Emergency, ration cards were utilized to trick men into adopting sterilization.
Certificate sanctioning supplementary/extra rations for the pregnant woman in Andaman and Nicobar islands during the Second World War (National Archives, India)
Most recently, under Narendra Modi’s Pradhan Mantri Matritva Vandana Yojana (a scheme floated under the National Food Security Act, 2013), pregnant and lactating mothers are given Rs 6,000 provided they furnish Aadhaar numbers. One incumbent minister, Maneka Gandhi, even suggested that pregnancies be tracked. A few other doctors have recommended that pregnant women’s medical records be linked to Aadhaar to prevent gender-based sex selection. Now, the moment you link anything that falls within the realm of reproductive health with the mandate to concede essential data, you sabotage in one go the bodily autonomy and informational privacy and vitiate the chances of poor mothers to secure public health. So you can see the insidious ways in which the family norm has perpetuated unkind patriarchies against women.
Tell us more on how Aadhaar affects existing practices of identification.
The Aadhaar marked a very distinctive shift in that it addresses what I term “the messianic need of the hour for welfare overhaul and the precise delivery of citizen entitlement.” The bulk of the work of identifying subjects has happened through the verification architecture and industrial complex supported by companies meant for providing authentication, identity, and database services. The government’s claims that it has produced a foolproof and unassailable identity authentication mechanism are grounded in cloud-based authentication, production of biometrics, and centralized database that allows for de-duplication.
However, if one were to examine its premises, Aadhaar has made it extremely difficult for beneficiaries to cope with a welfare ecology without possessing the number identifier and without complying with all the infrastructural requirements of cross-walked databases. I examined the technological, epistemological, and political implications of Aadhaar for a community of rural migrants (bus porters in this case) by carrying out fieldwork over eight months in a bus terminal, the Food and Supplies Office, and an enrollment centre set up by the government. On all three fronts, I was able to show that Aadhaar, in all its glorious claims of being paperless, did not ease them into urban welfare networks even as it intensified excruciating bureaucratic processes. Technologically they were precluded from various schemes which relied on convergence with Aadhaar; epistemologically the porter’s personhood as a rural migrant was suspect when he was not knowable through Aadhaar; and politically populist schemes like Jan Dhan Yojana seemed tantalizingly within reach but they could not meet the demanding conditions of ensuring regular transactions.
How does it complicate the existing bureaucracy of authentication around caste?
It is all too common for the architects of a technological system like Aadhaar to pretend that it is caste-neutral. Such a claim is enabled by a larger history of secular disavowal that caste does not function in modern urban spaces such as company offices, universities, real estate, resident welfare associations, etc. But the deep emphasis on English (spoken and written), elimination of non-vegetarian tenants, sociality of discrimination in eating, sharing common facilities, forming friendships, networking, and hiring makes caste a deeply mired and inescapable reality in urban India.
The Unique Identification Authority of India, the government body for Aadhaar, states that it does not collect caste-based information and that by streamlining processes of authentication they have removed the avenues for caste-based discrimination. But as it is widely known, Aadhaar’s issues lie only very partially with how it collects, stores and processes information. By supporting and facilitating a whole ecosystem of welfare provisioning that entrenches caste and relies on caste performativity, Aadhaar can only deepen socially embedded bureaucratic violence.
In 2013, when I did my fieldwork with the bus porters, I found administrative offices in Delhi insisted on linking Aadhaar with the caste certificate. The authority handling applications for the caste certificates, i.e. the sub-divisional magistrate’s branches in Delhi, were emphatic that even if they wished to waive Aadhaar as a pre-requisite, the computer software was prone to rejecting the application unless it contained the unique number. Opacities and the obstinacies of technology were cited to justify the encumbrances of Aadhaar linkage at a time when the standing Supreme Court orders were to prevent arbitrary linkage. The chief information commissioner had to show that this only violated the right to transparent information before a halt was put to this compulsory linkage.
Apart from institutional coercion, the linkage of caste certificates with Aadhaar can also be extremely debilitating because certain enumerative logics tying region, state, and caste cannot be severed in India. So, for instance, a porter told me that he had in his possession a caste certificate plus an Aadhaar yet he couldn’t get a bank loan concession for the Scheduled Castes (SC) in Delhi because he belonged to the Kumhar caste. This caste was recognized as SC recently in Uttar Pradesh but had not been added to the list of SCs in Delhi. So, the inter-caste politics of inclusion will only suck Dalits and other lower-caste poor into technological quagmires.
What are your thoughts on the recent Supreme Court judgment on Aadhaar?
The 4:1 judgment does a great disservice to the exciting and expansive interpretations of privacy upheld in the Puttaswamy judgment. While the present judgment claims to extoll similar virtues of dignity, informational privacy, and bodily autonomy, it came up with a much more restrictive explanation of these predicates. But Justice Sikri considered these arguments only to infer that there was no essential threat to these ideals and if anything, Aadhaar only deepened the “dignity” of the poor in providing them a painless service of quick and unique authentication. The problem, however, is that privacy is now no longer being yoked to the poor’s right to know how they are being governed and their right to dissent and it was only Justice Chandrachud who reiterated this. Even in the Puttaswamy judgment, he indicated that the political rights of the poor couldn’t be seen to be less important than their socio-economic and civil rights.
The rest of the judges also chose to diminish, and at other times simply ignore, the dire threats posed by the technological architecture such as the excessive potential for surveillance and extraordinary leakages of essential information. I can give several examples of this but the most recent ones are the various media reports of anonymous sellers able to gain access to the UIDAI portal and the software patch that allows external parties to potentially add entries.
Moreover, the judges also chose to overlook the fine print of the great investigative journalism and activism around the subject in recent times. (See this and this.)
Your book also comes at a time when India is in the middle of the fraught 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC). Is this also a battle over how old ID documents can produce new identities? Can you tell us your thoughts on the process and what we can learn from this exercise?
I spell out my views on this subject with some reservations. Given my mainlander, South Indian upper-caste status, I must confess that I know nothing about what it means to have lived in a state with a strong past of colonially driven demographic and ethnic change and fraught ethnic identities. But I can speak from a position of having undertaken a lengthy historical survey and ethnography of identity documents. I am not convinced there can be any just historical argument that validates the integration of people’s legal existence and their regional inclusion with datelines, parental genealogies and documents. Here, any single document like the ration card must be compatible with all other documents like entries in the electoral roll while some documents like the Gaon Panchayat Certificate are simply more suspect (because they are issued by less authoritative state bodies and are seen to be the resort of the truly marginalized). The accent that this initiative puts on proving the father’s parentage is regressive as it entrenches and reverts to patriarchal authority that more progressive ID systems today are rightly wary of. The cut-off date (24 March 1971, or the date of formation of Bangladesh) only ensures that the “temporal” is now cast into a lasting marker of legal personhood and the date becomes a document all by itself, which then encourages deep legalisms of denial.
I would say that the NRC is deeply unjust both in what it sets out to achieve and the methods it deploys to do so. It does not matter that the government promises ample time for claims and corrections. It does not matter that all 4,000,000 persons (the legendary number being cited of persons potentially rendered stateless by the NRC) are not actually “endangered” or that they are not immediately at risk of being deported. The very process (much like the process of establishing a person as seditious that mainland India undertakes) is also the punishment. The NRC’s history cannot be seen in isolation of ineffable human rights violations like the unlivable detention camps under the Foreigners’ Tribunals Order, 1964 and the extremely dubious category of the D voter (D being “doubtful,” an insidious construct of a mainland body like the Election Commission).
The NRC is also contingent on too many past and contemporary processes and variables working well simultaneously. The chances of making it to the register are hinged on the efficiency of the election commission in the 1950s and 60s, a gender-equal society where identification processes and families do not discriminate against women. The authorities behind the NRC assume that other states will cooperate to provide information about migration of their residents into Assam. There are also assumptions made about standardized surnames, historical inferences made about birth certificates and how easy it is to obtain them.
Let us, for a moment, compare this with the post-partition drives of rehabilitating displaced squatters and the survey of slum residents in Delhi and the housing policy of slum demolition that emerged afterwards. We notice that even with the most flexible mechanisms of determining proof of identity, these initiatives forced all sorts of performative inquiries on applicants and potential beneficiaries. Citizenship inquiries are never going to exhaust themselves. In the case of the NRC, women who were able to win cases in the foreigners’ tribunals and contest their D statuses in voters lists are still fighting to enter the NRC. Besides, there is no saying if the NRC or some other authority in future will recast timelines and temporal criteria of Assamese citizenship, inaugurating fresh threats of frightening exile.
All this said, we should also be opposing with equal vigour the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 with its provisions of rendering select minorities from Muslim countries eligible for citizenship. This Bill stems from a rabid ideological move on the part of the current government to normalize the selective rights of Hindu immigrants to put down roots in Assam.
How do you see technology affecting not only the nature of ID formulations in future but also how these modes become entrenched with questions of surveillance?
Several stakeholders from security researchers to lawyers to journalists have pointed out that the UID allows free cross-walking of data collected by different agencies at varying levels of security. So it is not enough for the engineers of the UIDAI to say that they collect minimal information and they do not compile additional demographic data of beneficiaries of government schemes.
What is concerning is not just the potential of surveillance but the legal consolidation of the systems for surveillance. And while these legal frameworks are being rapidly firmed up, challenges to them in certain domains are also not holding up. Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act mandates Aadhaar linkages with welfare schemes on whose basis the government has made Aadhaar necessary for 140 public welfare schemes and subsidies including food rations, mid-day meals, scholarships, pensions, and disability stipends. The Supreme Court has not read down these parts of the Act and has agreed in principle with the raison d’etre of the biometric number in welfare matters. This effectively normalizes the extensive linkages between databases such as the Aadhaar database with those maintained by other government departments. So, apart from the more obvious linkages, the Rajasthan government’s Bhamashah database collects the phone numbers and the Aadhaar numbers of pension applicants.
Government departments can and have displayed unique numbers freely and wantonly, and made the data they collected available on publicly accessible websites. For example, an Andhra Pradesh government website listed the names and Aadhaar numbers of people along with the sensitive information such as their religion, caste, and the GPS coordinates of their homes.
The Supreme Court judgment does, to a certain extent, curb the potential for surveillance by disallowing private agencies from collecting and storing data and gives clear directives that curb the use of Aadhaar for generating meta-data. At the same time most private entities are simply choosing to ignore the court verdict saying that until their regulatory bodies (such as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or the Reserve Bank of India) issue notices, they cannot make any changes. This is a long running problem in India, where people are still being arrested under the now defunct Section 66-A of the Information and Technology Act, which was struck down in 2015.
Besides, the powers that be can find a way of getting around this by passing legislation such that e-wallets, mobile apps and payment gateways like Paytm, Ola Money and UPI become impossible to access without Aadhaar. This government is after all ingenious in hacking away at judicial injunctions and institutions that do not suit them.