Absolute State Terror

Rethink Aadhaar Campaign


[The last and final hearings of the public interest petition in the Supreme Court of India around the 'Aadhaar' Unique Identification Document in India took place, in May, after four months of sustained hearings. The judgement in this landmark case—which will uniquely define a huge range of freedoms and issues of privacy, as well as around the rights of the state to harvest, store, and use personal data—in this case, of over a billion people—at will and without possibilities of challenge, and which has already been shown to be hugely leaky (see is expected in July or August.]

The Supreme Court's Constitution Bench concluded its final hearings of the matters challenging the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar project on Thursday, May 10, and reserved its judgment. Reservation of judgment is routine and means that the bench will take some time to give its final judgment. One expects the judgment sometime around July—August, after the Supreme Court's summer recess. In the more than four-month long final hearings of the Aadhaar matters by the Supreme Court's Constitution Bench, the petitioner's lawyers covered the many criticisms of the Aadhaar project. Documents and submissions submitted in Court present a repository of valuable, historic documents.

This past year, conversation around the Unique Identification (UID) or Aadhaar has grown significantly largely because the government coercively pushed Aadhaar into every aspect of residents' lives. Partly in response, people began engaging with concerted social and mass media campaigns, live tweeting of court proceedings, and academic research and writing about the project.

In 2016, some of us came together to formulate a response to the Aadhaar onslaught and attempted to organise resources to challenge Aadhaar. We also worked to raise awareness and developed resources to help others understand—and critique—the project. We thought we would be focused on both "welfare and privacy"—two worlds that did not seem particularly connected until the UID project attacked our rights in both spheres. Some of us loosely began calling for "Rethink Aadhaar" (or "no2UID"). Since then we have supported public hearings, conducted signature campaigns, and had conversations on Aadhaar in public places including outside the UIDAI regional office in New Delhi, and at India Gate. During this time of campaigning, most significantly, the Supreme Court affirmed our fundamental right to privacy. In this time we also became a proxy grievance redressal centre for UIDAI with people calling us from across the country to help them with filing taxes, getting mobile phone connections, scholarships etc. without Aadhaar!

For many of us, the destruction of welfare accompanied by bogus claims of savings deserved criticism and called for a rethinking of the UID project. In Court and outside, the response of the State has been that welfare is a burden, not a responsibility on the State, and the barter of our fundamental right to privacy is an inevitable part of the social contract. We have fought against this (mis)conception of welfare, and our own understanding of the idea of privacy and its intrinsic link to liberty and freedom has expanded and deepened.

The Aadhaar project has needed welfare schemes to spread itself, and welfare suffers because of it. Having made Aadhaar mandatory to access any government service or entitlement, the State has managed to get Aadhaar numbers seeded into every database creating a gold mine of data that can potentially enable 360º surveillance. We have been told, "Data is the new oil". In the age of Cambridge Analytica and breaches in the famed Social Security Number (SSN) database in the US, it is clear that no database, whether maintained privately or by government, is truly secure. That a data protection regime is being created in India in a secretive, opaque manner with the active participation of Aadhaar officials only compounds matter further.

Attempting to build a campaign—working on regular updates, collating information from an ever-larger number of sources, and reaching out to more people and wider audiences—with few resources and limited support has been difficult. We have had many ideas to which we have been simply unable to give time and physical energy. There have been mistakes and shortcomings along the way.

Much of our campaigning has been galvanised by the ongoing court cases. In many ways the final hearing and waiting for the judgment in the Aadhaar matters is also an important juncture in this nascent campaign. We might wake up one morning and find that the judgment has come and in the dead of night the UID database was deleted with this government saying that it had itself asked for deletion of the database and it was all a Congress project anyway. Or, we might have to live with it, with the Supreme Court allowing the government to force citizens to trade their privacy and dignity for basic, Constitutionally-assured necessities such as food, education and livelihood.

Whatever the verdict of the Supreme Court, this will not be the end of our legal battles and our struggles and campaigns outside court.

For us we have learned, that we must never forget that the State loves power over its citizens, that there are many excuses given for the need and desire for power: care, good governance, genuine concern, efficiency, etc. Power can be exerted in many forms in the digital age—mass surveillance, phone tapping, database creation; the all-powerful Aadhaar project. In its attempts to justify its power, the State can and does forget its limitations and the inviolable rights of individuals and collectives. Rights are not given to us by the benevolence of a ruler, but they are fought for and are won by all of us working tirelessly together. We had won the fundamental right to privacy. Someday we will Destroy Aadhaar.

If we do have to live with the UID project in some form, we want to think about the institutions and strategies through which we can continue to critique Aadhaar. We would also hope more people can join us and contribute time, or effort towards helping this campaign grow.

One suggestion we are considering is to register ourselves as a formal trust through which we can fundraise and seek contributions. These funds could support campaigners to be involved full-time, or for interns and other supporters to join us on an as-needed basis.

The last line of Justice Kaul's opinion in the Right to Privacy judgment reads : "the old order changeth, yielding place to new." Whatever, the outcome of the Aadhaar judgment—we live in a new order.

Vol. 51, No.2, Jul 15 - 21, 2018