NEW DELHI — The Unique Identification Authority of India is providing “technical support” to the Government of Assam to build a biometric database of residents excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), confirming fears that the infrastructure put in place to build India’s controversial Aadhaar database is being leveraged by the country’s security apparatus to put thousands of people under surveillance.
While the UIDAI and Government of Assam have repeatedly refused to share the details of exactly how this collaboration is working, correspondence reviewed by HuffPost India reveals that the sensitive biometric data of approximately 40 lakh individuals shall be collected by the UIDAI, but will be under the control of the state’s Home and Political Department, which oversees the NRC, prisons, and police among others.
In a 21 May 2019 letter to the Deputy Secretary of the Home and Political Department, C P Phookan, Assistant Director of the UIDAI, Piyush Chetiya, flagged a grievance raised by an Assam resident regarding the biometric enrollment process — abbreviated to BME in official correspondence — and noted, “As the Home and Political Department, Government of Assam, is supervising and monitoring the BME process under certain guidelines/SOP and UIDAI is facilitating the department in the form of technical support, it is requested that the grievance of the resident is addressed by the Home and Political Department, Government of Assam under intimation to this office.”
Chetiya also suggested the resident’s grievance be referred to the nodal officer of the district so that the grievance can be ‘appropriately addressed as per NRC BME guidelines’, confirming that the collection of biometric details of the people left out of the NRC is not being done as per UIDAI’s guidelines, but an entirely new set of rules devised by the NRC authorities.
The government has repeatedly stated that Aadhaar was solely intended to plug leakages in welfare schemes; yet the Assam case reveals how the vast data networks ostensibly meant to ensure over millions of Indians can collect food rations, can be equally be used to isolate people.
That this collaboration has been mandated by the Supreme Court has exacerbated fears that so-called legal safeguards on the surveillance of Indian citizens can easily be overturned by poorly worded judicial decree.
A July 7 report in Hindustan Times quoted a government official as saying that Assam government is contemplating merging the databases of the e-foreigner tribunals (quasi judicial bodies meant to identify ‘illegal immigrants’), NRC and UIDAI for ’tracking of suspected illegal foreigners when they move to other states and restrict their access to government documents and services’.
In November 2018, the Supreme Court decreed that the UIDAI would gather the biometrics of “all the applicants of the NRC” — effectively every resident in Assam. The biometric enrolment of those Assam residents who were not part of the draft NRC (announced on July 31 2018), and those whose citizenship had been contested, “will be distinctive and a separate ID will be generated”, the court said. When the final NRC was published, those included in the final list would be allotted Aadhaar numbers.
The court’s directive blurs the boundaries of which arm of the Indian state collects sensitive citizen data for what purpose, and how that data can be used. The creation of “distinctive” “separate ID”s — as envisioned by the Supreme Court — also sets a dangerous precedent as it gives the state sanction to create identifiable Aadhaar numbers. At present, Aadhaar numbers are supposed to be randomly generated strings of numbers.
“How are they tagging the data of the people who have been objected upon, in the backend?” said lawyer Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director of Access Now, a digital rights advocacy group. “And who is maintaining this data set? Who is it being shared with and under which legal provision?”
Chima pointed out that creating an identifiable Aadhaar number is dangerous as the data can be easily used to target people, in the case of NRC, poor, dispossessed people from minority communities.
Lawyer Apar Gupta pointed out that the legality of the entire process was unclear.
“While the SC can direct the UIDAI to set up something like this, there should be a properly fleshed out process. For example, who does a person approach to correct mistakes, which authority is responsible to address grievances related to the process,” Gupta said. “None of that is clear in this case.”
The Hindustan Times report said that while the data is being collected by the state’s home and political department, it is currently being stored in the UIDAI’s servers.
CONFUSION AND FEAR
If the Supreme Court diktat on biometric collection has triggered a swirl of contradictory dataflows online, the decision has added to the confusion, fear and uncertainty on the ground in towns and villages across Assam.
As per directions of the Supreme Court, those who are left off the rolls of the draft NRC but already have Aadhaar cards do not have to give their biometrics — but should simply mention their Aadhaar numbers in their applications to be reinstated into the citizen rolls.
This has prompted fresh confusion as overworked NRC staff have struggled to keep up with the flood of judicial announcements. In some cases NRC staff are simply requiring that everyone who comes before them register their biometrics; in other cases, staff are following the directions and only gathering biometrics of those who do not have Aadhaar numbers.
It was in this context that lawyer Dharmananda Deb and his colleagues at the Hindu Legal Cell who operate from Cachar — in Silchar, a district with a dense population of Bengali speakers and Muslims who have been left out of the NRC — noticed that many applicants with existing Aadhaar cards were being asked to submit their biometric data again. Deb wrote a letter of complaint to the UIDAI.
It was Deb’s complaint that triggered the UIDAI’s letter to Assam’s Home and Political Department. After Deb’s complaint, Laya Madduri, the deputy commissioner of Cachar, told North East Now, a local newspaper that they are ‘correcting’ the procedure after the complaint made by Deb.
“This correction is being done now. Residents having Aadhar card need not give their biometric enrollment once again, but, have to give their Aadhar number. Also, children below the age of five years need not give their biometric enrollment. Those who have already done so, would be deleted,” Madduri said.
As the July 31 2019 deadline for completion of the NRC draws close, every change in procedure and protocol triggers a fresh round of anxiety amongst those struggling to get their names on the list.
“People are being asked for their biometric data and they understand that somehow the government is taking their fingerprints and ‘photos of eyes’ for some purpose they are not aware of,” said Muij Uddin Mahmud, a lawyer with NRC cases. “But of course they can tell, they are being treated as something different than others.”
The fear of being treated differently is not unfounded, given that the entire purpose of the NRC is to separate citizens from so-called foreigners.
“All these 40 lakh people who have been left out cannot possibly be foreigners. The government is forcing people to submit their biometrics. Now after the publication of the NRC, I cannot really ask the government that give my data back, isn’t it?” said Deb, adding that the blatant discrimination is a threat to peace in the Assamese society and is illegal and unconstitutional.
Mahmud agreed. “How would you feel if suddenly the government asks for your fingerprint and stuff like you are some sort of criminal, but say your neighbour isn’t having to give those things?”
Editor’s note: This story temporarily disappeared from the site due to a technical glitch, and has been restored.