The very first voice that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi saw raised in momentum with his own was that of a wealthy Muslim trader named Ahmad Cachalia, who stood up and proclaimed:
I swear in the name of God that I will be hanged but I will not submit to this law, and I hope that everyone present will do likewise.
It was a packed hall of Asian migrants. The year was 1906, and the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance had become law. All Asian migrants to South Africa were required to submit their fingerprints and carry around an identity card – to be requested by authorities at any time.
At the time, few could stomach such an idea. Until then, only criminals were fingerprinted. Indeed, the world over, fingerprinting was seen as a measure of control. In New York, judges ruled against policemen who wanted to fingerprint criminals. In the rest of America, fingerprinting was put to use to keep a track of the Native Americans, and ensure they weren’t indulging in ‘fraudulent transactions’.
If this sounds familiar, the reason is that, as of 2017, over 1.1 billion Indian citizens voluntarily submitted their fingerprints and iris scans to be a part of the National Unique ID Database. The world over, submitting one’s fingerprint and personal data to the authorities is a new norm, nay, requirement. To enter the United States, one has to submit their social media passwords to the authorities – who may or may not pore over your selfies.
The rationale for submitting our very personal data changes with each authority. Often, it’s in a ‘larger’ interest of the state – to keep track of migration, control an unwanted population, or make sure subsidies are not duplicated. What matters with these moves is the intent.
Gandhi launched his first Satyagraha campaign to combat the ordinance, which he termed the ‘Black Act’. He called for Asian migrants to refuse to register – and knowingly suffer the penalties (which included flogging, imprisonment and sometimes even being shot at). Gandhi was imprisoned, as were over a hundred others. So many went to jail that tents were set up on open fields to accommodate them.
But Gandhi was released, and given a meeting with General Smuts. There, he was convinced to change his position on registration – provided the act was made voluntary.
It’s truly incredible what we will submit to when the terms are voluntary. For many years since Aadhaar was launched, no official act made applying for one mandatory. The Supreme Court has, time and again, told the government not to make Aadhaar mandatory. However, in places where it can be signed up for to avail something else, the rules are loosened.
Today, to get a free midday meal at school, a subsidy to build a toilet or even access a private mobile network that gave users free internet – an Aadhaar is and was a must. It was in 2016 that the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, benefits and services) Act, 2016 was passed – classified as a money bill so it couldn’t be halted by the opposition in the Upper House. By then, many had already signed up voluntarily.
In Gandhi’s meeting with Smuts, the general too convinced Gandhi of the merits of voluntary submissions and following the law. Smuts convinced Gandhi that the government’s position would soften. So that soon after, on his release, Gandhi told a riled-up crowd on the topic of registering for an identity certificate:
I say with all the force at my command, that what would have been a crime against the people yesterday is in the altered circumstances of today the hallmark of a gentleman.
Gandhi’s Satyagrahis were so enraged by his back-pedaling that one of them brutally assaulted him soon after. However, several Indians followed through and registered themselves for the new identity card along with Gandhi (who was the first to do so).
But Smuts did not keep to his word. The Black Act was not repealed. Gandhi had to raise up a movement again. So, on August 16, over 2,000 identity documents were burned in a large cauldron outside the Hamida mosque in Fordsburg.
Today, India’s opposition parties could not halt the Aadhaar Act, thanks to the money bill route. But many continue to voice their dissent against the as-good-as-mandatory identity card. As Jean Dreze wrote:
For every person who is targeted or harassed, one thousand fall into line.
Dreze feared Aadhaar was becoming an effective surveillance apparatus, one with a history of abuse in the subcontinent.
Identity cards have often been tools of abuse. In South Africa, the migrant ID was one of the many injustices people suffered under the “Pass Laws“. These laws forced all black Africans to keep passbooks (later renamed to ‘reference books’) in order to find work. These books held their name, address and employment history.
Opposing these laws gave the anti-Apartheid struggle its first battles. The new government of D.F. Malan’s National Party further strengthened laws that segregated colored Africans on paper – denying them franchise and preventing them from living in white-dominated areas. In response, the Defiance Movement was launched in 1952.
Amongst those who took part was Ahmed Cachalia, who remained in South Africa until his death in 2003. He spent 18 years in prison on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.
History tells us that governments often have the data on their citizens. It’s how and when they choose to abuse this that is concerning. Voter rolls were used during the 1984 and 2002 riots to identify the houses of Sikhs and Muslims – giving the murderous mobs a data-driven campaign of terror. Digitizing this data makes it easier for nefarious elements to find them, but history suggests it was already available.
It is almost a century since Gandhi was first arrested for refusing to carry an identity card. Perhaps it is time to pause and reflect on the numerous safety concerns surrounding Aadhaar (most pertinent of which will be data security today) – and ensure that they are allayed. We have largely surrendered our digital and physical footprints to the authorities. Let us hope that our good faith is not betrayed as Gandhi’s once was.
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