Anti-Aadhaar litigants and the rhetoric of fear

September 28, 2013

September 28, 2013

By Mythri Prasad-Aleyamma

A week ago, I was about to forget about my boycott of Aadhaar and get my mother to enrol so that we do not lose our cooking gas subsidy. I could easily fan my family’s suspicion and laziness for any more cards and bureaucracy by quoting Usha Ramanathan, Reetika Khera and Ramakumar, but not after the government asked for Aadhaar to get the subsidy. Then, yesterday, the Supreme Court said that Aadhaar does not have parliamentary sanction and that it is illegal to link it up to essential services and social security entitlements. The Supreme Court’s observation came in the nick of time. One felt relieved. It is not every day that Supreme Court reminds us that policy is not a thing and that it needs people’s approval embodied by the parliament. The relief goes away as one reads the fine print which is given below.

Moreover, he alleged, Aadhaar numbers were being given indiscriminately, including to migrants without papers, creating a serious threat to national security. The executive order was “mala fide” as the whole object of rushing through the Aadhaar scheme was to “secure political gains.”(The Hindu. 24.09.2013)

The allegation is by the petitioner Justice K.S. Puttaswamy, retired judge of the Karnataka High Court. Not just him. Usha Ramanathan, who has exposed Aadhaar on various counts most notably as a potential tool for infringement of privacy had to say this to tehelka on asked what her important moment was in the court room yesterday:

Another important issue raised by the SC ruling was the issue of illegal immigrants. The court questioned the council representing the government stating that illegal immigrants should not be registered under UID, however, they replied that presently all residents are being registered, citizenship is not an issue.

The importance of this is that, since this issue is on record, the government will be forced to fix the process of identification which presently leaves a lot to be desired. As Mr Nilekani said, presently it is like the Ellis Island Phenomena, where someone can come and say “my name is Podolski”, but the officials say that “no, you are John Smith”, UID doesn’t care about your identity, they just want to get you registered.[1]

Clearly, it is not enough to have a sound argument to win a case, a rhetoric of fear is necessary too. It is not enough to argue that Aadhaar does not have parliamentary sanction, that it could potentially violate privacy by handing over large amounts of data to corporates and the government or that linking it up with social security is exclusionary. The spectre of the illegal migrant has to be brandished. That some Bangladeshi Muslim migrant might eat up our paltry welfare system. That citizenship might change hands in exchange for a scan of iris and an image of a thumb and finally that terribly important and extremely sacred word: ‘national security.’ Think of terrorists and infiltrators flashing an Aadhaar card at a cop, getting in and attacking the country. It would have been better to have gotten their foreskin imprint too!

The accusation is that people are being registered without regard to their citizenship and identity. So Aadhaar is now being accused of practicing indiscriminate inclusion? And perhaps, not caring enough about identity which nobody knows what exactly is in the context of Aadhaar. Identity as a unique bodily mark or identity as belonging to a place or family or a community? Same with citizenship. Is it belonging to a country or being able to access certain social and political rights or both? Supreme obfuscation.Is this a case of the judges hijacking an issue and using it to say something else that is dear to their heart: the danger of illegal migrants to national security? Perhaps small talk between a retired judge and a current one across the court room that got reported in the papers? We do not know.

I feel that the struggle against Aadhaar is not separate from struggle of migrants for social and political rights. It will also be good to critically think about some concepts that appear like phosphenes in the course of the Aadhaar debate, like identity and citizenship. Perhaps, as Clavell (2011) points out, one needs to reverse one’s thinking on surveillance technology. We tend to think of the surveillance in Aadhaar as technology that has social and political consequences. So, we think of the iris scan and the attendant tracking of movement, transactions and entitlements as social and political consequences of a technology. A longer and harder look, however, might reveal that it is a social and political process, one that wants to create legible citizens and spaces, with technological consequences. So to have this uncorrupt, wormless, odourless public distribution system, (no black marketing, no hoarding), we need this iris scan. To get the illegal migrants out, we need this finger print. This is where Nandan Nilekani meets Supreme Court meets Anti-Aadhaar litigants.

I demand that the anti-Aadhaar litigants immediately withdraw their xenophobic (and potentially Islamophobic) references to “illegal immigrants” and stick to their original plan of opposing Aadhaar on the basis of potential data theft and privacy violation by corporates and governments and as a means of exclusion from social security entitlements.


Clavell, Gemma Galdon.2011. The Political Economy of Surveillance in the (Wannabe) Global City in Surveillance & Society, Vol 8, No 4 .

[1] Usha Ramanathan responded, after this article was written, that she does not subscribe to the fear of the other. I feel, however, that this lack of fear needs to be actively pursued as a political project and the litigants and campaigners against Aadhaar must incorporate it in their work.

[Mythri Prasad-Aleyamma works on migration and urban studies at French institute of Pondicherry.]

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