Democratic India’s sensitivity about privacy is legion. In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say that for the civil society in this country, it borders on being obsessive.
Indeed, democracies survive on the delicate balance between the ruling class and the citizenry. Conventional wisdom dictates that the more citizens get out of a system, the more robust the democracy. The very generous and liberal interpretation of such privacy is that as the ruling class accrues more power to itself, it erodes democracy to a point where it ceases to exist at worst or dilutes to a point where it becomes redundant, in the best case.
The ramifications of the Unique Identity number project, Aadhaar, allege its critics, has taken a giant leap with a recent amendment to the finance bill making it mandatory for filing income tax returns. They say that the way it was sought to be rammed down Parliament’s throat by the present government, presents a clear and prescient danger to Indian democracy.
Under the circumstances, the point raised by Justice DY Chandrachud of the Supreme Court on Thursday, throws fresh light on a subject, which is likely to generate more heat in the days to come. If 99 per cent of Indian citizens, said the justice, are unconcerned about sharing personal data with private players, how is it qualitatively different if the state has the same information?
Said Justice Chandrachud: “Most citizens are unconcerned about when and how their personal data is used. You say that there are 35 crore internet users and 18 crore telephone users, but 99 per cent of people are not concerned… When you operate your iPad with your thumbprint, your data is public…”
The judge went on to underline the point. While travelling between Mumbai and Delhi, a traveler gets 100 odd suggestions and all private and personal information is in private hands. What difference does it make if the state, instead of the private player has all confidential information, he sought to know from petitioners.
The questions came from the apex court bench on the reference whether right to privacy is an inviolable fundamental right under the Constitution of India. The queries are significant because over 100 crore people have already parted with their biometric details for Aadhaar cards. The massive enrolments were initially done through private contractors and agencies appointed by the government.
Questioning the mammoth exercise conducted by the sovereign Indian government, the petitioners now want to know whether the informed consent of the citizenry was taken before they parted with their personal details and whether there was information given to the people about how and where their personal data was used.
The points raised by petitioners are typically polemical. The government, they allege, did not specify in a statutory law where the data would be protectively stored. The replies given by petitioners are, needless to say, as polemical as the questions. Even if one citizen is concerned about how, where and who uses his personal data, it becomes an obligation under the Constitution to protect his dignity and privacy.
Fair point, even if entirely anecdotal. But interestingly, none of the stakeholders have sought to draw parallels with similar arrangements in some of the most developed parts of the world like the United States for instance, where the Green Card encapsulates all there is to know about an individual and visibly his or hers only identification papers that need to be produced on all occasions. No one in the US has ever raised the kind of objections and create a fear phobia that is being sought to be created in one of the most open countries in the world.
The Orwellian spectre of Big Brother watching is deliberately sought to be magnified to create a chilling scenario where an unknown hand is presiding and scrutinising over every single move that hundreds of millions of Indian citizens are doing every minute. While there can be no doubt that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, stretching this beyond a point becomes self-defeating, as it appears in this case.
Nothing can be farther from the truth. Given the precarious and feeble state of infrastructure – even the security apparatus – it does seem like a far cry to suggest that liberty is under threat of extinction in this country because of Aadhaar identity cards.
World over, at least in the most civilized parts, citizens are most happy to have all encompassing identity cards that establish their bonafides very clearly, making it easy for the state to know who they are dealing with. In a country, where infrastructure is still reasonably primitive, an Aadhaar card is a good way to not just establish identity, but also to get around facilities that the state offers, like bank loans for instance. Let’s face it. In India if the state wants to harass, even get rid of an individual, there are a zillion ways of going about it. A mere identity card is no guarantor of safeguarding a person’s human rights, just as it offers no assurance that an individual’s rights are going to be impinged.