You are the owner of your mobile phone. It has a unique identity and if you lose it, you can trace it with its IMEI number. Now imagine the government sitting and thinking about its citizens as mobile phones. Let’s give them each a number, and then we can track them wherever they are. Better still let’s link this number to each of their daily activities – buying gas, banking, filing income tax, having subsidized food in schools – hey presto, now we not only know where they are, we also know what they are doing !
Thus was born the 12-digit unique identity number otherwise known as Aadhar. Technology has always been a double-edged sword. Use it well and you will reap its benefit. Use it with malicious intent and you will cause mayhem. Rulers of democracies always dream of dictatorial powers. But because their hands are tied by the democratic constitutions that their countries run on, they find it difficult to spy on their citizens and to herd them around like cattle. When a brilliant technological mind presented an opportunity to the previous UPA government to do just this, the mandarins of Delhi could hardly believe their ears. They had in their grasp a method to neatly catalogue their citizens. And once done they could track them down like inventory in a Wal-Mart store. They rubbed their hands with glee and got down to the task.
Unfortunately for the UPA, their government fell before they could realize their dream. Ushered in was an ideology that believed that the nation was under assault from Abrahamic religions and that it was necessary to protect the “culture” of the motherland by weeding out “undesirables” who might have just slipped across the border. So when the baton of Aadhar passed on to the hot hands of Hindutva leaders, they set about the task of institutionalizing Aadhar with the zeal of a Nazi General putting yellow badges on Jews.
Very soon a host of innocuous activities were brought within the ambit of the Aadhar linkage – booking train tickets through IRCTC, applying for PAN or filing income tax returns, opening bank accounts, children availing Mid-day meals in schools, farmers availing crop insurance, disabled children availing benefits under education schemes, women availing government maternity benefit programs. The list is pretty long and you would be left wondering why the government is so interested in knowing every little thing you do between the time you get up in the morning and go to sleep at night.
Lost in this fervor to “brand” and track citizens, was a very important ideal that the founders of the Constitution had dreamt for India – the Right to Privacy.
A democracy is not a collection of individuals “owned” by a government. A democracy is a collection of individuals who elect a set of people from among themselves to do things for them that they cannot individually do. Activities such as safe guarding them from external aggression, drawing up a set of rules or laws that are fair to each individual, creating infrastructure such as roads and dams that they cannot individually do, creating economic instruments such as money so that the individuals can trade among themselves and with outsiders. These are the kind of things that the collection of individuals hope to do through their government. They do not elect the government to spy on them and tell them where to go and what to do. Freedom to be and freedom to do are the wheels on which democracy runs. That is well known. But another wheel is equally important – the right of each individual to reveal of himself only as much as he desires. The citizen is free to choose the place, time and extent of his choosing when he will reveal himself. Or he may choose to keep all his activities and thinking private. As long as this does not infringe on the freedom of others he is free to do this. And, very importantly, it is not for the government to judge whether a person keeping his activities or his thinking private will become a threat to others. He is a threat only when he becomes a threat, and never in anticipation.
But the government bulldozes on as though this Right to Privacy never existed in the Constitution. But even more than the actions of the government, the most worrying aspect of this Aadhar saga is the deafening silence from the whole country as people willingly give up their privacy to the government. Have we all, like George Orwell’s Winston, now learnt to love Big Brother?