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Acting like a modern day ‘Robert Clive’, Nilekani has managed to somehow take the Nawabs of Indian National Congress and his loyalists into confidence. The battle of 2014 elections is likely to decide whether 'Clive and his loyalists' will win once again or not
Before joining Indian National Congress (INC), Mahatma Gandhi had opposed biometric identification—fingerprint based registration of Asians in general and Indians and Chinese in particular. In his book, ‘Satyagraha in South Africa’, he describes Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance of 1906 and the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act under which finger printing of Asians was attempted as a "Black Act". The Black Act was resisted on the grounds of the safety of Indian and Chinese community of South Africa and to resist an intolerable humiliation. The Act was repealed by the British government after years of struggle.
Do political parties in India endorse Mahatma Gandhi’s first Satyagraha in opposition to British Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance of 1906 and Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act of 1907? Under the Act, every male Asian had to register himself and produce on demand a thumb-printed certificate of identity. Unregistered persons and prohibited immigrants were to be deported without a right of appeal or fined on the spot if they fail to comply with Act.
If the parties endorse this political struggle of the Mahatma then how is it that they are complicit in endorsement of the notification of Planning Commission akin to an ordinance meant for biometric identification? There is a logical compulsion for them to seek the withdrawal of this notification dated 28 January 2009 and to oppose even the introduction of The National Identification Authority of India Bill re-approved by the Union Cabinet on 8 October 2013 in the upcoming winter session of the Parliament in the light of the wisdom gained from the freedom fighters.
On 22 August 1906, the South African government published a draft Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance. The Ordinance required all Indians and Chinese in the Transvaal region of South Africa, to register their presence giving their fingerprints and carrying passes. Knowing the impact of the Ordinance and effective criminalisation of the entire community, Gandhi then decided to challenge it. Calling the Ordinance a 'Black Act', he mobilised around 3,000 Indians in Johannesburg who took an oath not to submit to a degrading and discriminatory piece of legislation. This was the first time the world witnessed 'Satyagraha' or a non-resistance movement that later become a phenomenon in India's freedom struggle.
By this yardstick, no political party In India qualifies to be deemed an opposition party unless they burn, boycott or bury the scheme that issues biometric identification slips carrying unique identification (UID)/Aadhaar number.
It appears that the Chinese have remembered their historical lessons not only from their subjugation through opium wars but also how as community of shared fate they had opposed finger printing together with Indians in South Africa. Dr M Vijayanunni, former Census Commissioner and Registrar General of India underlined other reasons for China giving up a similar exercise on Rajya Sabha TV on 2 February 2013. Indians, on the other hand, appear to be forgetting lessons of their consistent defeats (in the battle fields and off the battle fields).
Among the defeats, the date of 23 June 1757 stands out. In his book, Imagining India, Nandan Nilekani provides ‘A Time Line of Key Events’ in India. Under the title ‘Seeds’, the first date he mentions is 1757. He describes the event of the year saying, “The Battle of Plassey, where (colonel) Robert Clive, commander of the (English) East India Company’s army and renegade (he would later be tried in Britain fort looting Bengal treasury) overthrows the Nawab of Bengal (Siraj-ud-daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal). It is a battle won through both money—bribing the Nawab’s loyalists—and the military.”
It seems that acting like a modern day Clive, he has managed to somehow take the Nawab of INC and his loyalists into confidence. The battle of 2014 elections is likely to decide whether Clive and his loyalists will win once again or not.
By 1750, the Indian empire was in a state of collapse as a result of a permission given by Indian emperor Jahangir to an ambassador of English emperor King James for setting up of a base by English East India Company in Surat, Gujarat in 1615. By 1690, this company had factories all along the west and east coasts of India with the main centres at Chennai (erstwhile Madras), Kokata (ersthwhile Calcutta) and Mumbai (erstwhile Bombay). The company started to protect its trade with its own armies and navies.
History repeats itself in simple ways. Capt Raghu Raman, the chief executive officer (CEO) of National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), the Union Ministry of Home Affairs had proposed creation of private territorial armies by commercial czars in his earlier incarnation with Mahindra Special Services Group. But the State seems to have gone ahead and has started providing Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), the world’s biggest industrial security force, to commercial czars on rent. At this rate how long will it take for the commercial czars to hire Indian Army, Navy and Air Force? In any case, they are hiring them post retirement or poaching them in their pre-retirement phase itself. Unless the political and the informed citizenry is alive to the writing the writing on the wall its ramifications are bound to unfold and make their democratic rights redundant.
In an interview on 24 January 2012, NDTV's Sreenivasan Jain asked Nilekani about the patronage his biometric identification project enjoys from Rahul Gandhi. He asked, “And it helps to have Rahul Gandhi's backing?” Nilekani replied, “Yes definitely it helps, and we think the promise of this is being seen; that this can transform services to the people.”
Nilekani said, “Of course they are uncharted waters. The world's largest biometric database is of 120 million. We are talking about 1.2 billion. So that's 10 times anything else in the world. We are the only project that's doing on that scale using fusion biometrics, because we combine iris and fingerprints.”
It is the Indian citizens who are the master of the elected people that are being taken into “uncharted waters” by an unelected person. Unlike our indirectly elected prime minister, this person is not even indirectly elected.
Sreenivasan Jain asked, “But overall you feel that this project still has legs?” Nilekani replied, “Of course it has legs. 170 million have voted with their feet.” Indeed UID-Aadhaar and related schemes are meant to engineer the electoral system for good.
But this boastful claim was made before the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP). The election to the UP legislative assembly was held in seven phases from 8th February to 3 March 2012. Through their verdict the electorate of Uttar Pradesh rejected the proposal of the INC to allow themselves to be identified with their biometric data like iris scan and thumb impressions. Rahul Gandhi had campaigned in UP using the UID/Aadhaar as an election agenda. After his party’s dismal performance, he took the responsibility of his party’s defeat.
The UP legislative assembly has 403 seats. Samajwadi Party (SP) won 224 seats and INC won 28 seats. Eight of the 10 assembly seats in the parliamentary constituencies represented by Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi, respectively, were won by the Samajwadi Party. Nilekani’s party did not just lose 17 of the 20 segments in these four parliamentary seats which it holds, it did not even come second in 13 of these assembly segments.
Supporting Home Ministry’s and Planning Commission’s scheme of unique identity, the INC had showcased UID/Aadhaar and related National Population Register (NPR) to influence the electorate but voters have given their verdict against these schemes. Nilekani’s party had claimed that the UID-Aadhaar/NPR will address the discrepancies in controversial below poverty line (BPL) list by hiding violation of the provisions of Census Act with ulterior motives. It was used like a fish bait to entrap citizens against democratic and legislative mandate. The message for Rahul Gandhi, P Chidambaram, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Nilekani was that UP electorate who were promised UID-Aadhaar/NPR has rejected it.
The surveillance regime based on UID-Aadhaar/NPR has been proposed by INC for the people but not for biometric and other intrusive technologies. It has reliably been learnt that officials from Infosys Ltd have been giving leadership training to leaders of INC. This may have impacted decision making with regard to UID-Aadhaar/NPR but it has clearly not worked in UP elections.
Reports of efforts to put even finance minister and defence minister under surveillance reveal that there is paucity of capacity to monitor or regulate these technologies within the government. If this is the plight of the ministers and technologically challenged political class, the threat for citizens can easily be understood.
Post UP elections, government must review its capacity to regulate an emerging technology regime that is undermining democracy and sovereignty and should not be misled by unelected cabinet ranked officials who say, “Technology has no history and no bias, it treats everyone the same way.” History of technologies reveals that it is their owners who are true beneficiaries especially when it is used for social control. There is a compelling need to urgently assess the claims and risks of biometric and surveillance technology and how some companies made UID/NPR politically persuasive for the ruling party and intertwined the systems of technology with crying need for governance.
Samajwadi Party won the battle in UP but they are bound to lose the war unless they scrap and disassociate themselves from UID/NPR scheme. Imagine a situation, when one agency is not letting the party play its legitimate role as an opposition party in the national politics, what would be their plight, when they are likely to be blackmailed by several surveillance companies and non-state actors.
As an electoral lesson, Rahul Gandhi should have stopped his support for UID/Aadhaar project because the verdict was against it. Is it the case that the biometric databases of Indians have already been sold in the futures market and the powers that be have got their shares in the booty which makes it ‘irreversible’ as is being claimed, despite electoral reverses? How it is that Akhilesh Yadav, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi are busy implementing UID-Aadhaar number scheme?
Two advertisements of Union Ministry of Home Affairs dated 24 August 2013 and 14 August 2013 in Hindustan Times and Hindustan, respectively merits attention. It signals a very dangerous trend for democratic rights and sovereignty of citizens. The former deals with biometric collection of usual residents of India for which camps are being organized, the latter dealt with Socio Economic & Caste Census (SECC) 2011 wherein it was announced that unless the usual residents covered under SECC sent a letter in a given format requesting for non-disclosure of the information collected from them within 15 days of the publication of the advertisement, their information would be made public. The latter is in violation of the Census Act, 1948 under which Census of India functions and the former is in violation of the Citizenship Act, 1955. SECC application format also reveals that there is something called family identification number which has been created. It merits examination whether it is legal.
According to the manual of instructions for filling up of the National Population Register (NPR) Household Schedule, 2011 prepared by the Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner (ORG&CCI), Union Ministry of Home Affairs, the objectives of NPR involves “Collection of personal details of all residents of the country and capture of photograph and finger prints of all residents who are of age 15 years and above in villages/urban areas.” The data collection for preparation of NPR was undertaken along with the house listing operations of Census 2011. The manual categorically states that “NPR will contain the details of all the ‘usual residents’ of the country regardless of whether they are citizens or non-citizens.” If that is the case, how can it qualify to be an act under the Citizenship Act and Rules given the fact that the register will have both citizens and non-citizens?
As per the manual, NPR’s utility lies in creation of “a comprehensive identity database in the country. This would not only strengthen security of the country but also help in better targeting of the benefits and services under the government schemes/ programmes and improve planning.” It further states, “It may be noted that nationality declared by respondent does not confer any right to Indian citizenship”. In such a case isn’t census itself quite sufficient for it?
In fact, Census Commissioner is supposed to gather the data of population under the Census Act, 1948 on the pre-condition that it would be kept secret and it will not be revealed even to the courts.
Unlike the data collected under Census Act which is confidential as per Section 15 of the Act, the provisions of the Citizenship Act and the citizenship or nationality rules that provides the basis for creation of the register of citizens do not provide for confidentiality. The fact is that there is no mention of capturing biometrics in the Citizenship Act or Citizenship Rules. It is clear that the collection of biometrics is not a statutory requirement. This is not permissible under also Collection of Statistics Act. But both Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and the Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India (ORG&CCI), which are creating the NPR are collecting biometric data as well. It is not a question of duplication alone; it is a question of treating citizens worse than prisoners.
Providing for a dignified treatment of the citizens of India, section 15 of the Census Act establishes that “Records of census are not open to inspection or admissible in evidence”. It reads: “No person shall have a right to inspect any book, register or record made by a census-officer in the discharge of his duty as such, or any schedule delivered under section 10 and notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, no entry in any such book, register, record or schedule shall be admissible as evidence in any civil proceeding whatsoever or in any criminal proceeding other than a prosecution under this Act or any other law for any act or omission which constitutes an offence under this Act.”
Union Home Ministry and UIDAI are undermining the dignity of the citizens by according them a status inferior to that of prisoners.
As per ORG&CCI, NPR process include collection of details including biometrics such as photograph, ten fingerprints and iris information for all persons aged 15 years and above. This is be done by arranging camps at every village and at the ward level in every town. Each household is required to bring the acknowledgement slip to such camps. In the next step, data is printed out and displayed at prominent places within the village and ward for the public to see. After authentication, the lists are sent to the UIDAI for de-duplication and issue of UID Numbers. The cleaned database along with the UID Number will then be sent back to the ORG&CCI and form the NPR.
It is evident that ORG&CCI has amalgamated its two independent mandates using two forms for each household in India. The first form relates to the house listing and housing census that has 35 questions relating to building material, use of houses, drinking water, availability and type of latrines, electricity, possession of assets etc. The second form relates to the NPR that has 14 questions including name of the person, gender, date of birth, place of birth, marital status, name of father, name of mother, name of spouse, present address, duration of stay at present address, permanent address, occupation, nationality as declared, educational qualification and relationship to head of family. There are 10 columns in the Aadaar/ UID enrolment form.
ORG&CCI admits that “all information collected under the Census is confidential and will not be shared with any agency—government or private.” But it reveals that “certain information collected under the NPR will be published in the local areas for public scrutiny and invitation of objections. This is in the nature of the electoral roll or the telephone directory. After the NPR has been finalised, the database will be used only within the government.” While dual work of census and NPR has blurred the line between confidential and non-confidential, UIDAI has gone ahead to seek consent for “sharing information provided…to the UIDAI with agencies engaged in delivery of welfare services” as per column 9 of the UID/Aadhaar enrolment form.
The way census bodies are linking biometric information with identification of citizens it is apparent that a permanent emergency-like architecture is unfolding. The electoral database is also sought to be converged. The idea is to make citizens transparent before the all mighty government so that government, their servant can remain opaque to safeguard the interests of undemocratic and ungovernable social control technology companies.
In such a backdrop, the key questions facing Indians of all ilks are:
What would Government of India and Parliament of India do when cyber and biometric invasion into the privacy of Indians happens by foreign entities?
What will citizens, legislators and political parties do when they have sufficient evidence to infer that Government of India is colluding with cyber and biometric invasion into the privacy of Indians happens by foreign entities?
Did the citizens’ database that was handed over by Hosni Mubarak regime to the Government of USA prior to its fall facilitate the overthrow of Morsi regime in the recent coup by the military in Egypt and the repression of Egyptians there after?
UP verdict of March 2013 is a mandate against assault on democratic rights and diluting federal structure of the country. It is against turning India into a market democracy where executive and legislative decisions are driven by profit mongers not by public interest. Will the verdict of 2014 general elections be any different?
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(Gopal Krishna is member of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL), which is campaigning against surveillance technologies since 2010)