In a quiet office off of Mansingh Road in New Delhi, a small team is working on a secret project. If successful, this plan will transform India from a ‘soft state’, open to all sorts of Subcontinental contamination, into a hard, impenetrable fortress – safe, sure and secure. The mild-mannered men seated behind large, untidy tables at the Office of the Registrar General of India patiently explain that the project is not exactly secret – it’s just that only the Home Secretary is authorised to speak on the subject, and he rarely does. They can only confirm what is already in the public domain: the Multipurpose National Identity Card (MNIC) project is on schedule; the pilot project has been initiated; and the first cards are to be issued by April 2006. The entire system is state-of-the-art – a symbol of India’s prowess in information technology and the perfect weapon to battle corruption, inefficiency, infiltration, terrorism, treason and sedition.
The first time anyone spoke about a national identification system was in 1992, when the right-wing Sangh Parivar and its allied organisations staged protests against the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants into the states of Assam, Bengal, Delhi and Maharashtra. Arguing that the migration of the primarily Muslim Bangladeshis was altering the demographic profile of the country as a whole, they took every opportunity to air their xenophobic slogan, Infiltrators, Quit India. In response, the Central Government launched Operation Pushback, with the expressed purpose of deporting Bangladeshi immigrants from the capital region. At the time, a major practical problem was the identification and enumeration of the immigrants. A meeting was called between the chief ministers of the states on India’s eastern frontier, which passed a resolution to issue identity cards to all citizens in border districts. The government, however, failed to execute the proposal.
In 1998, when the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister and L K Advani in charge of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the party had not forgotten its obsession with ‘aliens’ and ‘anti-nationals’. A report titled “Reforming the National Security System” observed that illegal migration had assumed serious proportions. “There should be compulsory registration of citizens and non-citizens living in India,” was its stark recommendation.
To quote Home Minister Advani, the MNIC project was setup to assist in “checking illegal immigration and infiltration and in tracing of criminals and subversives, especially in the border areas of the country.” These cards were also to be used for the issuing of passports, driving licenses and ration cards; as well as to receive health care, admission in educational institutions, employment in both the public and private sectors; to access life and general insurance; and to maintain land and property records. The ministry envisaged a massive information superstructure that would maintain records on every Indian resident. The task of carrying out a feasibility study for the project was awarded to Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), and the MNIC was on its way.
A modern nation state consists of a clearly demarcated physical boundary, as well as a clearly defined body of citizens. The compulsive needs to demarcate physical space and to identify people as ‘citizens’ are essential for the processes of state creation and maintenance. The MNIC project is interesting, among other things, because it gives us an insight into the anxieties and insecurities of modern-day India as a nation state.
The well-regarded sociologist Rogers Brubaker defines citizenship as “a powerful instrument of social closure” that establishes “a conceptual, legal and ideological boundary between citizens and foreigners.” But how is such a boundary created in the case of an avowedly multicultural and secular state like India? Attempting to balance a strong and centralising state on the one hand, with the demands of a federal, multicultural, secular Constitution on the other, creates severe category anxieties. What does it mean to be Indian? How is it different from what it means to be Pakistani, Nepali or Sri Lankan?
Given that the bulk of the Subcontinent has gone from being one administrative entity (undivided India) in 1946 to three separate, sovereign states (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) in 1971, this identity crisis is understandable. We therefore see in India an almost paranoid urge to conclusively identify the outsider and the infiltrator, simply to make the category of citizen more meaningful. Currently, if the government and the stateist media are to be believed, the nation of India is under threat from Pakistani terrorists, Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants, Nepali criminals and LTTE rebels. What makes these ‘infiltrators’ so particularly dangerous is that they look like ‘us’, talk like ‘us’, and think like ‘us’; in fact, they are ‘us’.
The process of categorising populations helps to create the conceptual boundaries between citizen and foreigner of which Brubaker speaks. Gradually, differences begin to emerge that reinforce these boundaries. Reams of paper, ration cards, licenses, passports, voter ID cards – all of these give us a uniquely ‘Indian’ identity with respect to state and public institutions; indeed, they are the glue that holds the nation together. The identity card is simply the newest way to differentiate between a mass of people who look the same, speak the same language, and used to have ancestral properties ‘across the border’. The outsider is now easily identified as the one without the national identity card and can subsequently be dealt with as seen fit.
Theft of identity
While the identification of a ‘normal’ citizen may prove useful for a state engaged in nation building, the process of arriving at that recognition is fraught with complexity. By definition, the process of ‘counting in’ implies a parallel process of ‘leaving out’. Indeed, the biggest danger of the MNIC project is that it could create a vast body of individuals that exist outside of the national socio-legal framework. Critics of a national identification system usually make two points. First, that the system will cause more harm than good if it works. Second, that it won’t work. MNIC supporters, on the other hand, take it as a given that the card will be foolproof and secure. Their assumptions collapse, however, the moment that we begin to study the process of issuance of the ID cards themselves.
Unlike the United States and other developed countries, where most citizens have a social security number and, thus, a fair amount of authentic information in government databases, the MNIC project aims to start the verification process from scratch. The government will first carry out a census-type survey to create a National Population Register, based on which the cards will be issued. But how will identity be verified or authenticated? What sort of proof will be required to obtain a card?
Issuance will obviously require verifiable documents such as ration cards, voter identity cards, proof of residence documents, and so on. Given that, in the eyes of the authorities, the present system of identification is insufficient, how will the MNIC work when it relies on these same suspect documents? The problem could actually be accentuated by the introduction of such a card, because the MNIC will now bear a legitimacy that the other documents lack. It can also work the other way. While a misspelling on a ration card would have simply been an error, it could now imply that the cardholder is a dangerous subversive using a falsified identity card.
The larger problem the census authorities will face is the absence of documentation, particularly in the hands of the landless poor. This category constitutes a large percentage of population in the rural areas, who have no real means of identification and have never needed any. The same will hold true for a large number of the urban poor, who will lack property, fixed residence, and birth and death records. In many cases, the rural and urban poor will also be without ration cards. The poorest and most vulnerable would thus run the risk of being labelled aliens, harassed by police, and stripped of the few rights and assets that they possess. A similar hysteria can be seen in the current case of Bangladeshi immigrants in India.
The MNIC project is supposed to be valuable in the fight against terrorism. Supposedly, keeping a massive citizenry register would allow security agencies to maintain tabs on ‘potential terrorists’ and to catch them well before they strike. A report by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, however, makes the obvious point that “there is no database containing the names of each and every ‘bad guy.— First-time or unknown terrorists using legitimate identification documents will not be in law enforcement databanks. It is difficult to see, therefore, how a national identity system, now matter how sophisticated, could compensate for such shortcomings. An obvious, recent example was the March 2004 bombings in Madrid, which killed at least 190 people. That terror could not be prevented, even though it is mandatory for all Spanish citizens to carry identity cards.
While its supporters claim that the MNIC project will eliminate identity theft, the concentration of large amounts of sensitive information in one databank, and the emphasis on making the MNIC the gold standard for all identification purposes, would only make identity theft more lucrative. The first signs of growing identity theft are visible in countries that already rely on personal information stored in databanks. According to the US Federal Trade Commission, identity theft has been the top consumer complaint in the US for the five years in a row.
Any system that ensures the rights of individuals based on whether or not papers are in the right order puts too much power into the hands of authorities. An examination of the track record of supposedly secure databanks in Western countries reveals a history of abuse. In 1994, Business Week magazine revealed that the US state of Ohio had sold its driver’s license and car registration lists to a private company for USD 375,000. In early 1995, more than 500 US Internal Revenue Service agents were caught prying into the tax records of American citizens.
Some of the most horrifying instances of the misuse of census information were observed during the Holocaust – which was, after all, based on an elaborate system that required all German Jews to carry identification papers by the end of 1938. The authorities of the Reich hired IBM’s German subsidiary, Dehomag, to track entire populations of Jews across the German empire using unique 5-digit numbers assigned to each individual. The infamous Auschwitz tattoo is said to have begun as one of these numbers – a system of identification that was made possible with a machine less sophisticated than a modern-day programmable calculator.
It does not take a great leap of imagination to see how governments controlled by fundamentalist forces could misuse the demographics information so easily available in the MNIC database. Indeed, it is important to consider two factors: whether an identification system is desirable just because it is technically feasible; and whether the many instances of prejudiced action against defined communities by state and central governments in India’s modern history should not make us a little more wary of the MNIC project. The communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 and the wholesale targeting of Muslims in the state by a complicit BJP-run Ahmedabad government are enough of a reminder of how supposedly ‘classified’ information can be misused. The ruling party members – who were systematically drawing up the demographic compositions of residential neighbourhoods months before the 2004 riots – managed to supplement their information with the records of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation.
MNIC proponents like to point out that most of the information that will be collected for the cards is already in the public domain. A collation of the information on ration cards, voter identification cards, insurance schemes and passports would furnish much of the information that would eventually find its way onto the MNIC, they claim. What this argument fails to address is the fact that, in all of the other schemes referred to, the citizen provides information on a voluntary basis. Should an individual so choose, he can refrain from signing up for any of these schemes, thereby retaining complete control over his privacy and personal information. On the contrary, the government has made changes to the Indian Constitution that would make it mandatory for every citizen to subscribe to the MNIC project.
Richard Sobel, a Harvard political scientist specialising in privacy issues, believes that a national identification system runs contrary to the principle of ‘fair information’ – that information required for one purpose should not be used for another. For example, personal medical information should not be accessible to potential employers, if one is to protect people from workplace discrimination. By putting all of the information about an individual onto a single card, the MNIC severely compromises privacy, making the individual vulnerable to potential discrimination, social targeting and humiliation.
Identity cards are not simply the ‘proof’ of our identities. They represent an elaborate series of institutions and processes put in place by both the society and the state. They also help the state to establish itself as the sole agent of social control. While state interventions in society are not inherently negative, moves to map, categorise and monitor citizens prove problematic for the rights of members of a free society. After the events of 11 September 2001, the Western world is gripped by an anxiety that seeks to gather as much ‘human intelligence’ as possible. States are sacrificing citizens’ rights of freedom and privacy for reasons of national security. With the MNIC project, spearheaded by the previous BJP government, Indian authorities are now rushing headlong into extremely problematic terrain. It is anyone’s guess how, when and where citizens’ rights could be trampled on a massive scale when the MNIC database becomes available to prejudiced authorities.
The MNIC push is part of a proclivity that seeks technological fixes to deal with vast and complex socio-political and economic realities and challenges. A solution to terrorism, crime and corruption would require a comprehensive reshuffling of existing hierarchies of power. On the other hand, surveillance and enforcement simply ensure that the status quo can continue. The Multipurpose National Identity Card is a project that could create extensive upheavals in an unprepared society. India is not ready for it. No country is.