India is a nation run by the nervous and ruined by the netas. They spin their web with utmost care, and every now and then an unsuspecting prey, someone trying to earn an honest living – a teacher, an engineer, a doctor, a journalist – gets entangled. The more he thrashes his limbs, the more he alerts those who wait patiently at the centre. They have him; he cannot escape; he can only join in if he is to survive.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was one such catch; Nandan Nilekani is another. A co-founder of Infosys, sharp, sure, confident, he now spends his days holding satsangs and proselytizing the new religion he helped co-found: Aadhaarism.

The birth of an idea necessitates the birth of a missionary. Men need to be won over much before their nations are. As Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer put it: Before you came we had the land and you the bible. Now we have the bible and you the land.

Politicians have always had dreams, their grand ideas, to take the nation forward. Somehow we’ve managed to resist a complete takeover. But now, without our asking, they have handed to us these dreams and taken in return what we treasure most – our identity. The trade-off is fraught with danger. Rajiv Gandhi’s plaything, theIkkisvi Shatabdi, is now a digital playground, and all it takes for a life to be ruined is a jab on a touch screen. This is how nations are fooled and the gullible led to the guillotine.

In their race to push the numbers over some Planning Commission Bell curve, the Aadhaarites have changed the rules of the game: if you want a bank account or a marriage certificate, or want to avail of state subsidy – wheat, rice, ration card, gas cylinder – you’d better get in line at the nearest Aadhaar camp. An unwavering faith in one’s belief has the potential to lead a nation to ruin but who cares. Whip up sycophantic support for an idea, scare the people into believing that it is ultimately good for them, and finally, have a pliant media to carry the message. It works every time.

This is not about trashing the Planning Commission or Nandan or, indeed, Aadhaar. As with most ideologies and ideas – new or borrowed – the passage of time is what seals their fate, not the opinion of an individual or a group. Anupam Saraph, in an article published in Moneylife titledAadhaar: The number that makes a nation ‘Niradhaar’, outlines the many dangers of Aadhaar and its mass implementation: Banks can no longer verify if the Aadhaar number links to real and unique individuals; money transfers from Aadhaar accounts will not be audited if there is less than Rs 10 lakh transferred in a year, meaning that subsidy, bribes and black money may go to untraceable shell accounts; money can be moved from Aadhaar-to-Aadhaar electronically without one’s knowledge; if biometric verification fails, one will lose all benefits until credentials are re-established; the enrolment agencies, sub-registrars, registrars and the Unique Identification Authority of India, or UIDAI have no legal liability for any theft, fraud, crime, and compromise of security or privacy.

Ramakumar in The Hindu goes further, exploding the many myths that surround Aadhaarism, like for example that Aadhaar is the equivalent of the US social security number, or that identity theft can be eliminated using biometrics.

Both Saraph and Ramakumar have a point. 400 million Indians now have these reward cards  but the UIDAI has as yet only “envisaged” criminal penalties against fraud or unauthorized access to data. “Hacking is an offence,” it says reassuringly.

Alarmed, the Intelligence Bureau has jumped in, voicing serious concerns over Aadhaar. “This is a country where phone companies carry out antecedent checks before giving a phone, but there are no checks and balances before giving a terrorist a new identity,” it was quoted recently as saying. And it is only last month, four years after Aadhaar was launched amid much fanfare, that the RBI has thought fit to circulate a memorequiring all banks to follow the e-KYC protocol in order to avoid Aadhaar-based fraud. For four years, a simple letter issued by the UIDAI containing customer details was accepted as an “Officially Valid Document” for carrying out all banking transactions. Four years! Perhaps that’s the time it takes for the bean to reach the grinder so we can wake up and smell the coffee.

While some may scoff at the Armageddon imagined by Saraph – his short and crisp bullet points only heightening the fear – it is a fact that many, if not all, of the potential pitfalls of this scheme have never been discussed at length in public forums. What has been discussed at length is the supremacy of Aadhaarism, in cosy advocacies and walk ’n talks. The slick PowerPoint presentations and the chest-beatings of a quasi-Olympian dream – faster, longer, higher – all talk of a card for every Indian, a source of direct money transfer, an end to corruption.

This, then, was UPA’s coup d’état, its grand plan. All they needed was an expert to stamp his approval. Nandan was roped in, to rapturous applause. But a standing ovation hides those who prefer to slip their hands underneath their thighs at such moments of grandstanding. When a politician says, “There’s no going back,” what he really wants is to be allowed to go forward come what may. What else explains the fact that Nandan has been made a part of every single committee that is out to make Aadhaar mandatory? Is this how decisions are made in our country? The only conflict a neta doesn’t seem to understand, it appears, is that of interest.

Yes, India is young; the demographics are in our favour. But what does it say about the state of affairs, when those riding into the sunset have to get off their weary horse and join in the struggle? These are men and women who built this nation from scratch, frittered away their youth so we may see a better tomorrow. It takes some doing to get them to fold their blankets and empty their hot water bottles and come onto the streets brandishing their Zimmerframes.

Meet Usha Lal, an 80 year-old trying to eke out a living on a monthly pension of Rs. 1500, a sum that was refused to her because she couldn’t furnish an Aadhaar card. “I went to the post office twice,” she told a reporter, “but my fingerprints couldn’t be recorded in the biometric machine.”  There are numerous such examples of sweat and blood and dirt having eroded the ruts of old and rickety fingers. If only the biometric machine could register the angst and the helplessness…

Some, though, have clearly had enough. KS Puttaswamy, an 88 year-old retired judge of the Karnataka high court, has filed a writ petition challenging the legal validity of Aadhaar. The Aadhaar project, he says, has not only been rejected by a Parliamentary body, it is also wholly illegal and infringes on the right to privacy, a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution. “We are required to part with biometric information, iris and fingerprints, and there is no system to ensure that all this data will be safe and not misused. There are also grave dangers in making state benefits conditional upon an Aadhaar Card. Why must I get an Aadhaar when I already have a ration card?”

When told that the government has already spent Rs. 50,000 crores on the scheme, the Justice doesn’t hold back. “That so much has been squandered without analysing the benefits or dangers of this scheme shows a disregard for public money. I think they didn’t think this through. In fact, there were voices even within the government that were opposed to it.”

Justice Puttaswamy’s petition came up for hearing in the Supreme Court on September 23, 2013. Disputing the government claim that Aadhaar card was voluntary, the petitioner mentioned the fact that, far from it being the case, many states had “embarked upon making it compulsory for a range of formalities, including marriage registration, disbursal of salaries and provident fund. Even the Bombay High Court Registrar had issued a notification asking court employees to have the Aadhaar card for disbursal of employment-related benefits!

There were heated arguments from both sides before the Court passed an interim order that must have made the missionaries dizzy and nauseous.

“List all matters for final hearing after the Constitution Bench is over,” said the Court. “In the meanwhile, no person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card in spite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory.” The government, unrepentant, is currently thinking of challenging the Supreme Court order.

Why are people being forced to accept an idea? Why is an otherwise intelligent man, someone deservedly credited with helping India become a leader in IT, why is he being forced to lead a nation down an unexplored coal pit? Who is pushing the entangled Nandan? To be sure, whoever this person is, he or she isn’t the pioneer when it comes to forced conversions. That honour goes to none other than Karan Singh, the soft-spoken heir to the Kashmir throne who was also the Health minister during the Emergency. Today, the citizens are being forcibly asked to get an Aadhaar card if they want state benefits. Back then it was a little more drastic – they were being forcibly sterilized.

Wikileaks Cable Entry No. 1976NEWDE06365_b

Date: April 26, 1976

Subject: Compulsory sterilization measures: growing pressures in Delhi

Classification: CONFIDENTIAL

“An intensive program is underway to make Delhi the model of a vigorous family planning program for the entire country. It is certain that some officials have compelled persons to be sterilized. The monetary incentive for vasectomy has been increased…nutrition scheme for children will be withdrawn from families with two or more children if the parents are unable to produce a certificate of sterilization. The Delhi authority also is considering requiring sterilization for ration cardholders with more than two children. Subsidized industrial housing will not be allotted to unsterilized workers with two or more children…Punjab, Haryana and Maharashtra have proposed legislation for compulsory sterilization after two children. Uttar Pradesh has proposed compulsory legislation after three children.

Health minister Karan Singh said compulsory sterilization, as such, was not a part of this plan, but enforced disincentives and incentives are being considered. Also, incentives in the form of allocations of resources to states if the states conduct a vigorous family planning program are being planned. Karan Singh said he will closely watch progress over the next few years and make a judgment after the 1981 census as to whether or not there is an appreciable reduction in the population growth rate. If not, then legislation would have to be passed for more drastic measures. In regard to compulsory sterilization, he felt this will have to be considered if the family planning program did not achieve greater success.

…Nutrition scheme for children will be withdrawn…Subsidized industrial housing will not be allotted…Incentives in the form of allocations of resources to states…Such was the steadfast belief in one’s idea; such was the Triumph of the Will…

The tenets of Aadhaarism are simple: payment for helotry is dough, punishment for heresy death. Death of civil liberties, of subsidies, and, ironically, of one’s unique identity.

This is one religion India can do without

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