In search of multiple identities

Sometime in the late 1990s, I remember, the Bombay police had rounded up a load of ‘Bangladeshis’ and packed them off to the borders of West Bengal by the Bombay-Howrah Express as part of the Shiv Sena-BJP government’s commitment to ridding the nation of these migrants from the neighbouring country.

A couple of weeks later, they all returned – packed right back by then West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu – but not before these so-called immigrants had been armed with documentation – birth certificates from their villages and certificates of residence from their local gram panchayats.

It turned out that the Bombay police, rated then as second only to Scotland Yard, had failed to distinguish who was Bangladeshi and who was not – Bengali, Bihari, Oriya and Assamese Muslims, all of who dressed similarly, and spoke a variation of the same to language.

They had been taken to the borders by the Bombay Police but the Bangladesh Rifles repelled them and our own Border Security Force sent them back to their villages. The West Bengal government then facilitated their documentation – because they believed they belonged to India these local migrants had not bothered to transfer their ration cards or arm themselves with birth certificates. But every Bangladeshi in the slums of Bombay had owned either a passport or a ration card. And when Thackeray discovered this he was left gnashing his teeth in frustration. Such duly armed Bangladeshis continue to live here with impunity and there is little successive governments have been able to do to root them out.

That is why I am afraid the proposal by the government at the Centre to junk the Adhaar card and replace it with that issued by the Union Home Ministry which is attempting to set up a National Population Register is likely to fall into the same trap – and even if one can overlook the fact of the genuinely mistaken identities, in the hands of th wrong people, there could also be a deliberate attempt to target Indian Muslims from Bengal and the North-eastern states and reduce them to second class citizens of this country.

I was never a fan of the Aadhar card – I did not believe in the entitlements it was linked to, for myself. While I did participate in the process, I refused to link my card to my bank account to avail of the subisidised gas cylinders for I believed I could well afford the extra cost. But I was not sure my maid even managed to get an Aadhaar card or that she got the subsidised cylinders – she was always borrowing from me; I allowed her to knowing how difficult establishment of identities in the slums might be.

In this national identity battle, I was, of course, on the side of then Home Minister P Chidambaram who, I believed, was right when he said the Adhaar had no way of identifying people as citizens. But I think such all cards are immense duplications – and now perhaps a triplication, given that we made such a brouhaha of voter id cards , then the Adhaar and now the NPR.

I am also concerned about the fact that the government is already outsourcing things like passport issuals to private agencies – the enormous amount of data these private companies gather about private citizens is disturbing. Many state governments, including in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka have already outsourced their welfare schemes to private agencies and I hate to think that in the absence of data protection laws in the country what misuse such details might be put to.

Then, again, with majoritarianism on the rise in the country what would happen to groups like dalits, adiviasis, many minorities, of course, and others – in the hands of the wrong persons, their data could be used to crush their spirit and deprive them of equal rights in a country where we are still fighting for these even more than six decades after Independence.

Ever since then Election Commissinser T N Sshan fascinated middle class India with the concept of a national identity card in the 1990s, we have been a nation in search of multiple identities — voter cards, passports, ration cardsm, driving licences, PAN cards: aren’t these all enough proof a of both residence and citizenry to want to add more to our wallets?

My experience over the past several years is that it is the middle class and the rich, who do not need these identity cards, who manage to get them the fastest – how do you give a passport or a pan card as documentation to a pavement dweller when it is the latter who needs something like the Adhaar card more than any of us? And over the past five years I have not known any such unfortunate citizen to have a single piece of documentation to be able to get one.

So rather than identity cards we should first provide the basics – roti kapda aur makaan – to every citizen in this country. Their identities will find automatic resurgence and then, perhaps, just a ration card or a PAN card should suffice? But I am sure much money will be wasted on the NPR again – I am not sure I want to leave my fingerprints behind again, though.

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