City City Bang Bang, Columns

Year of the number

An abiding memory of 2017 is that of being actively pursued by Aadhaar by every service provider that one has been dealing with. It began with pleas to connect one’s account/credit card/mobile phone to one’s Aadhaar number, that turned into requests that became urgent reminders before morphing into demands, and moved quickly into warnings before settling into the form of dire threats.

Never has the government wanted anything this badly from us. Given that the question of the mandatory nature of Aadhaar is pending in court, the state’s persistence gives rise to suspicions, even among those that would normally have no particular ideological position on the question of privacy.

Paradoxically, while Aadhaar is increasingly being used as a certificate of identity, it is in truth a weak instrument given the reality of its usage. It is after all simply a print out, without a hologram or a mark of authenticity, and can be easily falsified. It is not, by design, a proof of address or of citizenship, but it gets used in these contexts. And this is without accounting for the security concerns and possibilities of data leakage and misuse that many critics worry about. It is perplexing as to why it is being oversold when its limitations for this purpose are so obvious.

It appears that the state is not as interested in its actual everyday efficiency as much as in its potential use. For the purpose for which it is being used, it has obvious limitations, but for the purpose for which it can be used by the state, the possibilities are endless. It might be a weak instrument in the way in which it is used today, but it is potentially a powerful weapon.

It certainly did not start this way. As a member of a committee looking at the task of branding UID when it was first conceived, one can vouch for the fact that in the early discussions, there was no hint of Aadhaar taking the shape it has. It was always spoken of through the lens of entitlement which was in line with the policy approach followed by the previous government. It was meant only to be a direct pipeline, without leakages, that linked the state with the individual by giving her an identity that was irrefutable. The very idea of thinking about branding and the programme was rooted in the need that was felt to market the idea so as to invite voluntary enrolment.

Conceptually, in its current form, Aadhaar is like a master key to the self that is handed over not only to the state, but in part, also to private sector players. The state has a right to patrol the boundaries of our lives and to pull us up in appropriate ways when we cross the lines that have laid down.

When, in the name of keeping us in check, it begins to examine all our lives, then it oversteps its role. The implicit assumption is that we are all presumed suspicious all the time without exception. In the world of Aadhaar, we are known by our fingerprints, and it is a measure of how deeply the idea of surveillance has been normalised that we do not react more violently to this idea.

Privacy is the ability to fragment our lives into pieces with varying degrees of public visibility. Nobody watches us all the time, and so we can construct a life for ourselves that only we are fully privy to. The reason we do not mind other documents that certify some things about us, is because they are used in specific contexts for specific reasons. The problem with Aadhaar is that it is an omnibus all-access pass that we are giving the state to our lives.

Increasingly, the state is imagined as the air we breathe, as an enclosing ecosystem within which we are contained. This is a constructed mental model that has insidiously become our default view that needs to be resisted. We don’t live ‘inside’ the state; we are not its fully compliant subjects. The state is an enabling mechanism, not a confining one. The agency that the state exercises is the one that its citizens grant it.

The paradox is that while the state is so keen to track our actions, it is becoming increasingly averse to sharing information about itself. This is altogether curious, because in a democracy, the state is accountable to the citizen much more than the other way around. In India, we have seen the state systematically sidestepping the provisions of the RTI act, and refusing to share its inner workings transparently.

It boils down to the asymmetry of power. The powerful clam up, and force the others to share information that further consolidates their power. The trouble with Aadhaar today is that far from being a facility for its users, it has become a sign of our submission to the power of the state.

As an instrument of entitlement, which is voluntary in nature, a unique identification system like Aadhaar can be invaluable in the Indian context, but today, the overriding concern seems to be to use it to track citizens as they go about their everyday lives. The dangers of Aadhaar in its current form, regardless of which government is in power, cannot be overstated.

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