We live in strange times. A judge in the country’s Supreme Court believes anyone challenging the government’s decision to impose Aadhar-based surveillance regime is following an “NGO line.” Another judge wonders in the court whether “one nation one identity” is not the necessary path forward. Soon, one wonders, if any opposition to surveillance, and any resistance to being spied upon by the state, will be deemed anti-national not only by the government but also by our top judiciary.

Since the hearings on the various anti-Aadhar pleas are being heard in the Supreme Court, and since such inconsiderate observations are being made regularly, let us look at a few problematic aspects of the biometry-based Aadhar idea itself—not only the technical glitches and possible misuses (of which there are many), but the central philosophy that underlines the state’s eagerness to bring every citizen under one biometric identity.

At its heart, this move is an abandonment of the very idea of the welfare state and liberal democracy because it is premised not on the promise that this system of unique identification will benefit individual citizens (which the government is eager to promote) but on the necessary criminalization of the whole citizenry. One is a criminal unless one is able to prove otherwise, and that mechanism of proving one’s innocence is Aadhar. If read carefully, every defense of the Aadhar system from the government so far has been based on the assumption that it will “weed out” fake identities across the board, and hence will be beneficial to the nation at large. This is just the inverted version of wholesale criminalization, suggesting that it is the burden of the individual citizen to prove that she is not a fake identity or not a criminal to get benefits from the state. With this, the state is also implying that all of us, including your lordships, are potential criminals, unless we possess a card to disprove it. This goes against not only our commonsense, but against the very notion of democracy enshrined in the constitution.

This idea of unique identification based on biometric data is not new. Despite the bravado claims of people who have been the architects of this current behemoth called Aadhar, each and every component of this idea was introduced in the nineteenth century through colonial governance and its entrenched racism. Indeed, this system has two different but related genealogies through two of the most prominent criminologists of the nineteenth-century France and England, Alphonse Bertillon and Francis Galton. The first major breakthrough came from Bertillon, the police prefecture at Paris, when he devised a unique system of filing data about criminals. It is equally important to remember that the context for this discovery was what was known as recidivism or repeat-offence, something that was seen in France as an epidemic or contagion du mal threatening the health of the body politic. Put simply, the initial challenge was to establish a reliable judicial identification of an individual—that is to say, when an individual was arrested, how did one establish that the same person had not been arrested and tried in the past. Bertillon realized that to establish individual identity across time one needed an archive of criminals against which each and every fresh case could be verified, and also that such an archive would need extremely sophisticated filing system so that one could find what one needed without much hassle. Initially, and even prior to Bertillon, photographs were seen as a sure remedy since they were more reliable than verbal descriptions and they could instantly establish one’s identity beyond reasonable doubts. It soon transpired, however, that individual faces changed over time for a number of reasons—age, disease, accident and so on—and mere reliance on photographs or mug shots would not take one far. Something more robust and more rigorous was needed, and this is where Bertillon made his important intervention.

He proposed an elaborate system of biometric measurements and their systematic recording in his book Identification Anthropométrique: Instructions Signalétiques(1885). According to this system (popularly known as Bertillonage), the biometric data of an individual body had to be taken at three different stages. In the first instance, “Anthropometrical Signalment,” the body was divided and measured under three different heads: “the body at large” (height, reach, and trunk), the head (skull and right ear), and the limbs (left foot, left middle finger, left little finger, and left forearm). He considered these measurements as “indisputable” signalments and designed special calipers for this purpose. These records were then carefully organized on “slips of cardboard” and arranged in “small movable boxes.” In the second stage called “Descriptive Signalment,” one had to rely on verbal description that “describes in words, by the aid of observation alone, without the assistance of instruments” and this descriptive part had to independently confirm the findings of the signaletic cards. And in the final part, these early two stages were combined as it relied on the “description” of special marks on the body like moles, scars, tattoos etc. with the “notation of their locality.”

Once this preliminary plan was laid down, Bertillon insisted that he had found a solution to the problem of judicial identification once and for all. He even claimed that from now on the “signalectic notice” would accompany “every reception and every delivery of a human individuality” within the prison system, and in the process would organize a “muster-roll” for all convicts in order to “preserve a sufficient record of the personality to be able to identify the present description with one which may be presented at some future time.” “From this point of view” he continued, “signalment is the instrument, by excellence, of the proof of recidivation, which necessarily implies the proof of identity [constatation d’identité]. So there could be no judicial records without the aid of signalment.”

Needless to say, the parallels between Bertollonage and Aadhar are striking—one just needs to replace the French criminal of Bertillon with the putative Indian citizen. This eerie sense of déjà vu gets reinforced even more with the additional justification Bertillon offered in support of his system. He suggested that the system had a second implication, and called it “non-identity.” The signaletic notice, he argued, could also be used “at the request of honorable persons […] who demand the effacement from their record of convictions unduly entered.” In effect, then, Bertillonage by his own admission was not only a system intended to “verify the declared identity” of recidivist criminals but also a vital device that could “cause the true identity to be discovered.” Bertillon gave this point further currency when he quoted Ed de Ryckère, assistant public prosecutor at Bruges in Belgium, who pointed out the larger civil use of Bertillonage—that it was able “to fix the human personality, to give to each human being an identity, a positive, lasting and invariable individuality, always recognizable and easily demonstrable.”

In other words, the system was calculated not only to find a statistical solution to criminal identity, but also to create a muster-roll of the entire population. What is equally intriguing is the source of this argument in Bertillon’s text. He developed this idea not through criminological investigations, but through his other interest in colonial anthropology recorded in his book Ethnographie Moderne: Les Races Sauvages (1883). His treatise on the “savage races” of Africa, the Americas, Oceania, and Asia deployed a similar system of biometric measurement and recorded their savagery through their physiological irregularities. The central point of this methodology was to use biometry in order to measure how much these “savages” deviated from normative European bodies, and to prepare a list of graded savageries on the basis of their distance from the norm. This deeply racist idea was then re-deployed for the purpose of Bertillonage, and marked the first instance of unique biometrical identification in modern times.

However, this system was not exactly the solution that the colonial masters were looking for. Soon, another system was proposed based on unique finger prints. Curiously enough, this idea was first suggested by an English civil servant stationed in India, William James Herschel. In a letter published in the science journal Nature (1880) he first described a native practice of using finger-prints to ascertain one’s identity. It was, however, formalized as a system of criminal identification by Francis Galton, a distant cousin of Charles Darwin. In his book Finger Prints (1892), along with the notion of individual identity, Galton proposed two other fields as necessarily related—criminology and heredity. The first one was particularly important for colonies like India which were plagued by anonymity or fictitious identity, where “the features of natives are distinguished with difficulty; where there is but little variety of surnames; where there are strong motives for prevarication, especially connected with land-tenure and pensions, and a proverbial prevalence of unveracity.” As for hereditary traits in individual finger-prints, he admitted that he had little success in his investigations so far, but his hopes were kept alive by the colonies and their “savage” inhabitants: “It is doubtful at present whether it is worth while to pursue the subject, except in the case of the Hill tribes of India and a few other peculiarly diverse races, for the chance of discovering some characteristic and perhaps a more monkey-like pattern.” The inevitable link between biometrical data and race, even when seen through “scientific” lenses, must alert one of the coercive possibility inherent in the very method, as a way of dealing with and putting under continuous surveillance the “inferior” races and potential criminals.

By the turn of the twentieth century, these two different systems of Bertillon and Galton came together to form the foundation for modern biometric systems of identification.But this system changed something fundamentally—as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben points out, with the rampant use of biometrics, the liberal state’s relationship with its citizens has been criminalized irrevocably. Every citizen is now a “criminal body” since what was primarily intended for criminal management has now been universalized as population management.

Aadhar is perhaps the most ambitious and scariest version of this universal criminalization as it targets some 1.3 billion people within one unique system of identification. Once enacted, the Aadhar will forever change our relationship with the state, and will seriously undermine the democratic structure of India. One can only hope that the constitutional bench hearing the Aadhar pleas will spare a thought on the philosophical implications of the Aadhar Act and will not be swayed by the propaganda machine of the government. One can only hope that the bench would stick to its promise of being loyal only to the constitution and see through some illusory notion of “targeted benefits.”

No your lordship, everybody opposing Aadhar is not following an“NGO line”: Baidik Bhattacharya