The Big One

At the Annual South Asia Meetings this past week in Madison, Wisconsin, I organized a set of panels, with Gayatri Reddy and Martha Selby, on Number: participating were (in addition to we three) Sonal Acharya, Michele Friedner, Mather George, Ajay Skaria, and Harris Solomon.

The primary paper I gave was on UIDAI/Aadhaar. It was preceded by a somewhat more impressionistic set of comments on number designed to open the imagination as it were.

Both merit critique and so I am posting them here, though the first is tangentially relevant to UID, and both suffer from the limits of 15 minute presentations.

The conceit of the panel was that every paper be given a number as a title. My UID paper was entitled “1.”

Here it is, after the requisite picture of Madison.

South Asia, materialized annually on a Midwestern isthmus

1

Lawrence Cohen

A new and massive expansion of identity has been underway in India since the 1999 conflict with Pakistan known in the country as the Kargil War. Certitudes abound in the wake of this expansion: Geeta Patel yesterday spoke of a cottage industry of expertise. And yet as recently as this summer not only journalists and scholars but cabinet members appeared uncertain as to what the identity project was, whether it was legal, and who controlled it.  I want today to offer what partial certitudes I can and to share some questions I face.  Let me begin by summarizing my main assertion baldly. India is now a database. [Whether it makes sense to say that it has been a “database” in the past I would leave open for now.] For this nation-cum-database governance is being redefined as an “technocratic” operation that has been termed de-duplication.  If we are to think about politics and economics in the age of the nation as database, we might attempt to understand both what may be entailed by the nation’s de-duplication, its reduction to a population of singularities, of ones, and, in contrast, what form, what thing, or what practice duplication of the one entails.

For duplication is a problem. The architect of the dominant version of the current expansion of identity, Nandan Nilekani the former CEO of the outsourcing giant Infosys, argues compellingly that India is plagued by leakage and inefficiency that dooms it to stagnation, illiteracy, and impoverishment and in effect keeps it, unlike China, out of history. This is the old Hegelian sickness from which China has apparently broken free. But India is awash in duplicates, precisely the symptomatology Hegel offered in the Aesthetics in his claim that for the Hindus spirit or divinity, being radically separated from nature, is indeterminate and can only take determinate form through a sensuous rejoining with nature: but a rejoining that must mark the primary ontological division between nature and spirit by exaggerating nature.

Thus Hegel’s example, of the deity image with multiple duplicate limbs or heads. If the deity is for Hegel an obvious monstrosity, for art historian Stella Kramrisch the accusation of an aesthetics of pathic duplication takes subtler form in her analysis of the logic of repetition that dooms the Idea, say of the hierophonic gopuram or shikara, to endless elaboration without the creative emergence of new forms. If some of the earlier Romantics and their varied, still extant successors could take India through Vedanta as in fact the Big One, the Truer One than the Abrahamic Trio of faiths always hesitant to embrace a monism sufficiently radical for Romantic apperception, Hegel and his varied followers, most notably Albert Schweitzer, would overturn the positivity of the Big Indian One and reveal it as a stunted singularity forever doomed in the punishing Hegelian terms to the duplication of the Idea and the profound negativity of Spirit in this frozen moment of the great dialectic.

De-duplication as an emergent project of technocratic governance assumes that India’s modern failures have been political and social. The accent is on the political: India’s social vastness, for the technocrats, could be leveraged as a tremendous resource but for the failures of its political system and the particular logic of the social it maintains. I will return to these key words, political and social, for they are floating signifiers whose content is being assembled under projects like de-duplication.

In his well-written and densely para-ethnographic manifesto Imagining India (the familiar title, of so many books, itself a duplicate and thus for Hegelians perversely unable to evade the punishing charge of the repetitive stutter of the Indian Idea), Nilekani argues that technocratic solutions to India’s problem with history are insufficient and that what we might call the political-social must be itself addressed. And yet the text carries a sense of the intractability of the Indian political-social, and thus of the need for a radical cure.

Drawing on my reading of Thomas Hansen’s well-known claim for a modern Indian anti-politics, one rooted in a rejection of the everyday play of interest as an always already corrupt nexus that can never be reformed and must be rejected for a sublime order of governance , I have in my earlier writings on family planning argued that a former Nehruvian technocratic regime came to rely on techniques and imaginaries of an as-if modernity, a surgical form of governance that worried that the masses, constituted not only as educable primitives but as a passionate mob ever outside of reason, could never be disciplined into the requisite abstemious Protestantism of the development project and must be operated open to be made to act as if they were modern and could withhold the passions. I termed this condition of as-if modernity that came to take sterilization as the technocratic condition to circumvent the intractability of the mass one of “operability.”

The logic of UIDAI, of the technocracy yet to come, I want to argue here, is not operability but de-duplication.  Nilekani writes Imagining India as a second-order observer of the political social, in anti-political recognition of the intractability of the nexus, but his diagnosis of intractability leads him back to a technical solution rooted in an assemblage of techniques and forms: big data, biometrics, financial inclusion, and the conception of the state as a “platform” for minimal entitlement and labor rationalization through deterritorialized redistribution. I will explain what I mean by all this in a moment. But first let me schematize what to me seems the logic of intractability, or failure, that justifies UID.

The failure of the political might be called duplication-from-above.  The failure of the social might be called duplication-from-below.   That is, the wealth of the nation “leaks” away through corruption by a process of duplication by the ruling class and by the masses.

A politician or political nexus diverts wealth by mobilizing a phantom population of duplicates who on paper appear to be legitimate beneficiaries of, say, a cattle fodder scheme.  A mass diverts wealth through countless tiny acts of duplicate identification, from mobilizing multiple ration cards to fraudulent pension claims and so forth.  De-duplication would limit such bi-directional leakage by demanding a logic of identity through biometric ID cards and more critically big data collation and auditing creating a population that cannot be duplicated, or so the technical promise stands.

Through duplication-from-above and from-below, the wealth of the nation leaks from both its entrepreneurial acquisition by the new asocial business class (Nilekani presents himself as a self-made individual against the old business class of, say, the Ambanis and such for whom capital is deeply intertwined with irrational/corrupt social, that is familial, forms) and its redistribution to the new asocial and deserving poor (the new figure of the deserving poor is asocial to the extent the poor’s need is not “sops and subsidies” doled out to “local powers” but rather a generalizable distribution with a logic leading inexorably toward biological citizenship (to borrow Adriana Petryna’s apt term) through cash transfers).

That is, the deserving poor and the deserving entrepreneur are asocial to the extent their sociality can not be characterized by cronyism or nexus, the dominant signification here of the political social.  What these twinned calls for what I am terming an asocial mass and an asocial form of capitalist reason produce is of course a new and presumptively rationalized and responsibilized form of the social, perhaps akin to what in different contexts Steven Collier and Jim Ferguson have conceptualized as a neoliberal social.

As many of you will know, de-duplication is to be achieved through a form of responsible belonging termed Universal Identification or UID, centered on an identity card branded as Aadhaar, literally “basis” but I which would translate in this case as “common platform.” The card’s promise is to create a de-duplicated and de-duplicable identity through several means of which I will discuss three. Each of these means moves past Hegel toward the One by a different numeric pathway. Since our discussions today are on number, let me reduce the complex technology of Aadhaar to a series of numerical operations addressing the means of getting to One.

To one through the random number

The first pathway is through the random number.  “Biometric” data, principally two iris scans and ten fingerprint scans translated through “data capture” and a series of algorithms into a unique data set, are linked both to a physical ID card with a face photo and a randomly generated twelve digit number.  Randomness is key for the architects of UIDAI: unlike the Social Security system in the U.S., in which the ID number is far from random and reveals data on birthplace, residence, and much else, leading to the possibility of gaming the system and producing duplicate (or in the US lexicon, stolen) identity.

In other words, a de-duplicated individual identity, call it the Little One, is to be generated by linking two numeric assemblages: a biometric data encoding and a random number, the latter in its utter randomness shorn as it were of the Idea and thus of the Hegelian sickness of duplication. And a nation of Little Ones, achieved through their agressive de-duplication, constitutes the ever deferred Big One.

To one through the zero

The second pathway is through the zero. No one is to have access to the database. What I mean by database is the series of servers and data architectures that link a random number to a given biometric profile.  The engineers who have designed Universal ID, a number of whom I have interviewed in this very early stage of my own research, put great stock in this zero.  It is both their response to the dominant criticism of UID, its potential invasion of privacy by the security state, and to their primary concern, that the Aadhaar card far from de-duplicating India will only be the most cunningly designed engine yet for the creation of duplicates. The system creates a random Little One identity that cannot be accessed by anyone.  Not its architects, not its outsourced ID card registrars, not bureaucrats, not politicians, not you, not I.  Only the data architecture itself, if I understand it correctly (and my research is now, and at this point unlike the promised card quite fallible), can “know” the referent of the random number, can trace it to the individual, the Little One who its creates and guarantees. But no human knowers can penetrate this knowledge, or pervert it to political-social ends.

UID thus produces an extraordinary form of power that in its promise of incorruptibility is subject to and transparent to no one, a power that in its apparent ontological grounding in the zero I will for now at least term bodhisattva power. It is the opposite conception of de-duplication from that advocated by proponents of the Right to Information and their conception of a social audit, in which Security can only be grounded in the Multitude, in a form of number not zero, not one, not random.

To one through the two

Each of these pathways presumes a limit in the current political social as a control or command polity, a kind of failed Big One. The state and the political class are responsible only to themselves: politicians will not have the incentive to implement a project of this scale and bureaucrats will not have the incentive to generate the universal biometric registration of citizens.  The third pathway is through the two. By two here I refer to the emergent structure of government that addresses the presumptive failure of ordinary bureaucracy and ordinary politics by creating an exceptional outside to the state, but one that becomes in effect a parallel or second order of government, the one that promises to succeed where the ordinary government is always assumed to fail. This doubled assumption, of success and of failure, is what I refer to as the logic of the two.

The establishment of UID as an exceptional branch of government, along the lines of the successful Delhi Metro (but also the failed Commonwealth Games), follows a logic of creating an outside to the normal state, perhaps or perhaps not in itself a duplicate, a thorny question to which I will return in a moment in closing. The UID Authority under Nilekani infamously carries no statutory authority and though it is housed in the Planning Commission under the Finance Ministry is said to carry informal “Cabinet level” independence as an executive unit.

And exceptions, or outsides, proliferate all the way down, not just at the Cabinet level.  UID outsources its registration in diverse ways, primary to private companies who again produce a new outside to the normal state, but also to NGOs and perhaps most interestingly to state governments, with whom quasi-contractual obligations are set up using a range of documentary forms like the MOU.  UID identifies this outside to the normal state as an “ecology,” utilizing para-ethnography to figure out what particular combination of corporate, social humanitarian, and state agencies in a given region or among a given target population should be used to create such an outside.

Last thoughts

My time is numbered and I can here only hint at what is already for me a complex set of questions in the face of de-duplication and the demand it makes for us to specify what actual politics and what actual ethics may emerge in its wake as a mode of as-if governance.  It should be clear that I am at least for the present not interested in playing the dominant game shared right now by some news media, much of the left academy, and the BJP: that is, in multiplying instances of where UID and the varied ecologies it is setting up have failed. I will like others be over the next few years charting and thinking amid such varied outcomes and effects. But I think we need to pause and look carefully at what de-duplication is before we take the high road of easy (and often undoubtedly justified) denunciation.

Let me close as I opened, with identity as a project that does not produce clarity, and say more about what I meant. UID began as a very different project. The Kargil Commission proposed a biometric ID card for Kashmiris: the burden of data would be highly territorialized, focused on the Reason of Security and the assessment of whether a subject was in the right place. The political impossibility of that Kashmiri only card led to its “universalization” as a National Population Register under the Home Ministry. But Manmohan Singh soon moved the project of the nation cum database out of Home and into Finance and brought in Nilekani to reframe the database in terms of financial inclusion and labor flexibilization through a common biometric platform, a different path to the Big One.

The new program required a fraction of the data fields of the older one and initially stressed deterritorialized identity, enabling or so it was promised entitlements without maintaining a life-time relationship to one’s father’s village or mohalla. By January of this year, the then Home Minister Chidambaram asked the Prime Minister to decide just how many nations-cum-databases there were. The relation of the security focused national Population Register to the liberalization focused UID was clear to no one, or so it seemed.

Negotiations continue.  What is extraordinary is that the very regime of de-duplication that was through big data and biometrics to force India back into history and its rightful place as the Big One was itself, well, duplicated.  The national database, Chidambaram claimed this past January, is now itself troublingly duplicated, and this he forcefully argued was a state of affairs that could not be allowed to last. Nilekani, characteristically, remained silent, perhaps following the pathway of zero.  We are left to wonder whether de-duplication requires its own duplication, and what, as the random numbers proliferate, that may mean.

In Dream Valley, the poor have many homes: duplication and tuberculosis in real time

A brief comment today riffing off of a set of lectures and seminars given by sociologist and anthropologist Veena Das at Berkeley a few weeks ago. Das and many colleagues have long worked in several slum areas in Greater Noida, an extensive area of urban development including large tracts of slum housing far to the southeast of the older urban core of Delhi.

A different kind of Greater Noida address

This work has long troubled the sufficiency of figures of “the poor” and “the slum” and their presumptive “everyday” reality, through long-term weekly and monthly inquiry by a team trained by Das into well-being and illness, income and expenditure, relations to politicians, brokers, bureaucrats, healers, and much more. Through “amplificatory techniques,” these weekly and monthly engagements have produced a dense and complex record challenging the adequacy of much urban slum ethnography that all too moves quickly from (1) single case studies, in or across widely separated moments in time, to (2) generalized accounts of “the poor,” of conditions and of processes in the slum. What Das has argued is needed is a very different form of research.

One of my concerns in this emerging project has been “duplication-from-below.” UID/Aadhaar is premised on ending “leakage,” regularizing and rationalizing state (and increasingly privatized) development and basic entitlements enabling life with an (allegedly) incorruptible ID card that uses biometrics and big data to eradicate all “duplicates” — that is, to end cheating with duplicate IDs. Duplication-from-above is the diversion of entitlements by a powerful “nexus” (usually named as politicians, parties, land mafia) that creates a phantom population in order to siphon benefits on a massive scale. Its opposite in formal terms is a duplication-from-below by which less empowered people get by with multiple (“duplicate”) ration cards, false (“duplicate”) addresses, and so forth.

De-duplication, the new order of information promised under Aadhaar/UID, is of course premised on ending both. If the new order threatens livability by depriving more marginal persons of the tactical resources of duplication, the benefit will be the legitimate flow of currently throttled entitlements and greater wealth and health for all. Or so the promise of the card is framed.

One could look at life in the areas studied by Das, her colleagues, and their research team as intensely “duplicated-from-below.” But the rigor of the amplificatory method they employ has allowed them to place what I term duplication in real time, as it were.

Let me give an example of duplication, from a paper by Das, and how it might conventionally be read. Then let me apply the discussion she offered during her Berkeley visit to rethink the problem of the duplicate in time.

Hospitalization through duplication

The example comes from an essay entitled “TB and Urban Poverty: An Essay Critical and Clinical” that can be found on the web. It centers on Meena, “a resident of a cluster of jhuggis (shanties) in the industrial area of Noida.” The cluster or slums is specific in several ways: (1) Waves of settlement: “The residents of the jhuggi settlement in our sample had arrived in waves – the earliest settlement can be traced to forty five years ago. Subsequent movements have followed networks of kinship and village affiliations.” (2) Complexity of the multiple norms structuring informal rights in land: “The settlement is an unrecognized colony which means that the residents do not have a legal right to the land but complicated customary norms have evolved here as in many other slums of this kind, so that people have ‘bought’ land and built jhuggis on this land.” I will return to this complexity as a particular condition of duplication: given the lack of a formal norm of occupation of land, provisional and contested norms proliferate. (3) Eviction stay, election cycles, and perennial hopes of formalization of rights in land: “The residents have also registered themselves as a scheduled caste association … [which] has enabled them to obtain a stay order … [forbidding] the government to take over their land unless alternate housing is provided to them. The government policy on this issue has vacillated over time but with each election, as residents are courted by candidates, they become hopeful of getting rights to pakka (i.e. built with bricks and cement) housing in a ‘recognized’ colony.”

Some initial context is offered on Meena: (1) Household: she lived “with her husband, two young sons and the husband’s father.” (2) Family tensions: “Her two sisters were married to the two brothers of her husband but relations between them were fraught with conflict.” (3) Employment and income:  “Meena’s husband and his father were both employed by a contractor in the U.P Water supply department as cleaners. Thus they had a stable but meager income throughout the period of our study which meant that small amounts of cash were available to the family, though this cash was never adequate for the many demands ranging from food, providing school supplies for the children, as well as money spent on alcohol and tobacco by Meena’s husband.” (4) Clinical expenditure: “there were regular expenditures incurred on medications, especially as the younger son suffered from a respiratory ailment.”

The fieldworkers’ account of Meena’s TB shifts. Initially in 2000, “Meena had reported that her first episode of TB occurred three to four years ago. At that time she said that she took medications for a long time – perhaps seven months, perhaps one year.” But later “she said to one of the fieldworkers that she had TB for the last eight years which had ‘never been cured.’ She described a complicated story in which first, she talked about a breast abscess after her child’s birth, a minor surgery as well as fever, cough and weakness.” The earlier period of TB occurred when she was still in the village. Meena took medication until she became asymptomatic or even remaining weak given the lack of money. After she went to a local BAMS [Ayurvedic Medicine] practitioner who gave her antibiotics, analgesics, and other medicines. Her need to get well was intensified by the fear that her husband was seeing another woman.

Their relation worsened, as did Meena’s health: her husband did not have enough money to get her admitted to a local private hospital but her cousin got her admitted to a government hospital at some distance “under another name in that hospital on the pretext that she was his dependent relative.” She stayed there 6 months. The research team could not find her for some time as her name had been changed: one of her sons also worried that his mother had died. When she returned home, “the hospital discharged her with instructions to complete the course of medications. She was required to go the hospital OPD to receive medication but her husband managed to get her name transferred to another DOTS center nearer their home.”

Meena’s health improved for two years. Her symptoms then worsened and the researchers took her to a clinic they knew at some distance again from the slum: the doctor there confided that he did not see much therapeutic benefit given likely MDR-TB [multi-drug resistant TB]. Again the distance was hard for Meena’s husband, he “did not want her to be admitted to a hospital so far away from home so they went to another DOTS center by providing a false address. Here again she was dispensed the anti TB regimen under the DOTS protocol but reported serious side effects such as continuous nausea. Her condition continued to worsen, so she stopped taking medications. She died in a private nursing home in December 2003 where she was rushed in the last two days of her life. The family at the end of her life was in debt to the order of several thousand rupees.”

Das’ essay uses Meena’s story to challenge the dominant account of much of the public health and anthropological literature: that stigmakeeps people from returning to clinics and adhering to an adequate course of anti-TB treatment. Rather: “what seems to emerge from the story, instead, is consistent institutional neglect and incoherence. This neglect exists in conjunction with the care and neglect built into Meena’s domestic relations. In the course of three and a half years, Meena took three rounds of TB medication, all under the protocols of TB management in DOTS centers. There was no consistent record of her illness with any of the practitioners. When she was admitted to hospital, she took an assumed name and did not show her previous medical records but even when she used her own name there was no attempt on the part of the DOTS center to ascertain her medical history. In each episode of the disease she completed the course of medications, and was declared to be sputum negative and thus ‘cured.’”

Das suggests that the particular practice used by Meena’s husband to get her into a DOTS program or treatment center closer to home, what I am terming in relation to the language of UID as “duplication,” is also not enough to explain why clinics never treated her in relation to her previous medical history.

Still, a pattern emerges: care from the wage-earning husband is inconstant and Meena depends both on him but on others (her relations, social welfare agencies [here the research team] who use their own connections to get her seen far from home. At some point when her husband becomes involved in her care he moves her back closer to home. These moves may involve a “duplicate” name or address change. Whether or not the care network resorts to duplication, the clinic seldom attends to Meena’s past history of TB in prescribing.

Duplication as access to care?

Duplication-from-below emerges here as a resource–for the relative who moves Meena to a government hospital and for her husband who on two occasions moves her care closer to home.

But Das and colleagues show that whether or not the care network “duplicates” Meena’s identity to get her admitted, her de-duplicated medical file is not utilized.

The context, in which the Government of India’s failure to organize effective DOTS treatment for drug resistant TB has led to calls for UID to be used to deterritorialize TB care and create incentives and demands for de-duplicated patient identity, is critical: in theory, allowing for the mobility of the patient file through UID/Aadhaar could lead to Meena’s information following her clinical trajectory. But the very structures of diagnosis and assessment have produced a body of knowledge which asserts that practitioners, most with substandard or nonexistent training, do not need such long-term mobile knowledge to treat people like Meena.

UID promises de-duplication, deterritorialization, and thus better care. The shifting availability of care from husband/husband’s family and her own family/outsider welfare have demanded that various persons in Meena’s world duplicate her in order to deterritorialize her care. And at some level, heretofore Meena’s duplication or de-duplication does not seem to change the quality of care as the clinic, despite the prevalence of MDR-TB, continues to treat each episode as a singularity.

Will a new demand for Aadhaar that makes duplication-from-below more challenging change the situation in terms of clinical norms of treatment?  The sense one gets from this paper is pessimistic.

The accusation of address

Finally, Das at her Berkeley talks made a point that echoed one with which I began discussing this paper. The complex conditions under which slum residents may make some kind of normative claims on state or corporate or NGO programs lead to the multiplication of addresses. Programs often mandate audits of the informal slum and may find previous systems of house-numbering to be inadequate or untrustworthy.  Numbering systems proliferate. Das described a given slum area that had some 4 or 5 parallel numbering systems each created by a specific agency of slum governance or welfare.

Subject to accusation and continual re-territorialization

At stake in the duplication, that is, may be an intensification of the accusation of untrustworthiness. Slum-dwellers are accused of cheating, of duplication, and are assigned new numbers, a presumptive de-duplication. But each effort to de-duplicate only intensifies the condition of duplication and the accusation.

Tripura redux: Old-age pensions, Aadhaar, and the publicity of inclusion

Before continuing with a set of posts on some recent lectures at CSAS, Berkeley, of relevance to Aadhaar, I want to turn back for a time to the inclusion/exclusion of the Indian Northeast.

Tripura rolls out the red carpet to pension inclusion

Earlier I had posted on a series of themes: (1) on intense debates, in the state of Assam, over whether Aadhaar/UID would legitimate illegal migrants from Bangladesh as de facto citizens by providing residence-based entitlements; (2) on government efforts, in the state of Tripura, to register a high proportion of the state’s population with UID, marking the state as both distinct from the rest of the Northeast and politically and racially central to an Indian polity to which it is geographically peripheral; (3) on millenarian concerns, in the state of Mizoram, that UID/Aadhaar in its reducing each person to an indelible number writ on the body (i.e., biometrics) bespoke the mark of the Beast, that is Anti-Christ.

I want briefly to return to Tripura, which has recently garnered some national and NRI-focused publicity for following the state of Jharkhand in an extensive rolling out of old age pensions. If reporting on a population being granted the technological means for “financial inclusion” under these new terms of national belonging constitutes a “publicity of inclusion,” the Tripura publicity may serve a different set of regional commitments: not so much the developmental commitment to bringing the backward forward, as in the case of Jharkhand, but rather the national-integration and racialized commitment to bringing the geographically and racially marked margin into the center, in relation to Tripura. Tripura’s marginality is arguably complicated by earlier waves of Bengali migration: the resulting distinctive racialization of state identity in relation to the national anthropology of tribal inclusion and difference-fixation, I have argued, produces a doubled intensity of a desire for inclusion, financial-developmental and national-racial, by what is often constituted as a Bengali population-in-exile.

An earlier anthropology, perhaps most notably McKim Marriot‘s distinction between ranked logics of hierarchical “marking” versus center-periphery “mixing” (drawing on distinctions in agrarian gift relations developed in the work of Gloria Raheja but mapping these onto a presumptively pan-Indian epistemology of the social relation), might find these distinct logics of exclusion familiar. If we read Marriott through his most influential reader, Marilyn Strathern, we encounter species of form here. To put it differently, the particular history of multiple Partitions of Bengal in relation to colonial and post-colonial practices of racialized anthropological government produces distinct configurations of subaltern population and place, configurations that cite in their claims on the obvious earlier and persistent forms of marking difference. [The situation around form, if one takes Strathern seriously, is somewhat more complex than I want to render it here.]

Some persistent forms in Agartala, capital of Tripura

One does not have to compare the distinctive publicities of inclusion of Jharkhand versus far-off Tripura: even within the Indian Northeast, the logic of marginality and its relation both to geographies of racialization and long-term grammars of difference varies across states, as the immensely disparate government of inclusion and identification under UID/Aadhaar demonstrates.

I suppose the point here is that UID is being rolled out at “the margin,” but that the logic and form of what a given margin is varies in significant ways: and that if a margin bears a particular relation to the promise of inclusion, that relation will also vary accordingly. And, the second point, that as specific instances of “inclusion” (Jharkhand yesterday, Tripura today) become sites for publicity, they may be subject to a public logic drawn more from a given form of margination than another given form.

Okay: to the article in question: as usual, I post it and offer 3 brief notes.

I will use a version of a globally distributed wire service article (many newspapers having eviscerated their reporting staffs) from online version of the U.S. print tabloid the New York Daily News. The title of the piece suggests a serious error: much previous reportage names Jharkhand, not Tripura, as the first site to be used to roll out the Aadhaar pension program, a different form of the publicity of inclusion. But of course this a wire service article (a service fittingly if tragically named Smartwire) and fact checking by the worthies of the Daily News appears non-existent. Long live American journalism.

The tabloid is publishing a piece that few who do not already have extensive knowledge of the Indian scene could understand, suggesting both that its own publicity increasingly demands experiments with cultivating shifting urban publics (as the NY outer boroughs shift away from the predominantly white working class Catholic enclaves of earlier generations) and that a news site no longer demands that a reporting staff translate specific political worlds for a non-existent general audience.

Aadhaar used for first time in pension distribution

Aadhaar numbers were used in the distribution of pensions on Friday for the first time since their inception. The government-issued identity numbers were used by 194 residents in the northeastern region of Tripura, according to Manohar Biswas, the block development officer. Tripura is the first state to enroll 90 percent of its population – 3.38 million – into Aadhaar, according to an official from the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Tripura Gramin Bank is the first regional bank in the country to provide Aadhaar services. The official added that the adoption of Aadhaar marks the beginning of a new system of delivering banking services, including pensions, to people’s doorsteps. During a trip to Tripura in August, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh said Aadhaar-enabled applications would soon be used to provide pensions, wages and scholarships in 50 districts across the country. Of the 50 districts, four are in Tripura and two in Sikkim. Aadhaar was first introduced in Jharkhand last year. UIDAI has enrolled 200 million people for Aadhaar and aims to register another 400 million in the next 18 months.

Three notes:

(1) Rural:  The focus is on rural inclusion. Presumably urban slum inclusion will eventually follow. Gyatri Spivak in a series of talks has counseled attending to the ways the urban/rural binarism works now in organizing projects, resources, and imaginaries.

(2) Capture: Earlier, I posted discussions of the apparent fight between the Security focused NPR and the inclusion-focused UID, the competing repositories for India-as-a-database. In January 2012 India was to be divided in two zones, one under each database, and I suggested that NPR would focus on high security border, minoritzed, and internal insurgency regions. But UID is clearly intent of capturing data in border regions like Sikkim and Tripura and insurgent areas like Jharkhand. The zonal divide is not clear.

(3) Pension: I do not yet know who receives pensions and specifically which programs are at stake here.  I would welcome information.

Modes of Inclusion (Democratic): Elections as States of Exception

This is the final post thinking about an important recent lecture given by the former Chief Election Commissioner of India, S. Y. Qureshi, at the Center for South Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. A first post focused on what I termed narratives and practices of heroic inclusion; a second on the experimental transformation of the EPIC voter identification system into a biometric database, and the resulting conflicts between government agencies over their own administrative data preserves. The general point is to think about the range of sites where specific registers of “inclusion” operates as a dominant mode of governance, about the sites of conflict between modes of inclusion, and about the forms of lives and worlds and politics that come into being around these particular modes.

The Chief Election Commissioner talked at some length about the Model Code of Conduct, and so I want to follow his lead and think carefully about this “model code” in relation to law.

Not law but model

What is a model code of conduct? The term raises legal questions I will defer for now but will want to return to. Here I look at sections of the 2007 Model Code of the Electoral Commission.

At the outset, I want to think about several points made in the lecture:

(1) the Model Code is not statutory: it is not, that is, a body of law. It lacks the force of law. And, presumably, it lacks the checks and balances put in place in and with the law. Or put conversely, it has the power of a body of law-like codes, norms, and practices that are effective precisely in the exceptional condition of being outside the law.

I think here of the work of many scholars, including Laura Nader on mediation in the US and Katherine Lemons on a range of law-like forms of marital and religious judgment and counseling in India that stand outside the formal apparatus of Personal Law. I think also of the UIDAI itself: the debate over it, particularly when administrative preserves of data and control over these are at stake, is of course that it, too, lacks statutory authority: that Universal ID as a form of governance is not grounded in law, or only barely, depending on who and what one reads.

So my interest, in part, lies in the formal congruities (and their limits) between the EC and UID as exceptional apparatuses of inclusion through identification and information capture.

(2) The model code is powerful in its promotion of order: Dr. Qureshi offered multiple examples of how the EC and it’s code were able to trump the usual “nexus” of politicians, parties, police, and what in India are often termed “vested interests.” He spoke again and again of the importance of “order” in providing fair and accessible democracy. He referred to a critic of the model code’s many rules forbidding posters, loudspeakers, and other advertisements for a candidate near a polling station, who he said complained that the EC had taken “the carnival” out of democracy.  He responded, he told the audience, that he would be happy to bring the carnival over to her home and to see how she then felt.

The form here is reminiscent, again, of debates over privacy and UID. UID is charged with violated privacy rights: its defenders and architects suggest that such concerns are elitist and that the aam aadmi, the ordinary person, cares about food, shelter, and clothing. The elite critic who presumably lives in a sheltered environment can easily call for the carnivalesque: the stakes for those who strive for non-existent order are otherwise. The point, again, is not to accede to this claim but to attend to the ubiquity of the form.

The idea of a firm order outside of law that guarantees the law is suggestive of a series of debates in political theory about sovereignty leading from Carl Schmidt to Hannah Arendt to Giorgio Agamben. If sovereign is he [sic] who wields the exception, if the sovereign can kill without that death being either a crime (negative value) or a sacrifice (positive value), then the conception of a sovereign entails a form of life that can be ended as if it carried none of the distinguishing qualities of human life within a legal, ethical, and civil frame, as if it were just “bare life.” For Agamben, in a formulation that would later be carefully qualified, a classical conception of the sovereign demanded a distinctive “zone of indistinction” in which the difference between civil life (that cannot be killed without it being a sacrifice or crime) and bare life (that can be killed without what I am terming a shift in value) could not be maintained. Famously, Agamben would reread Foucault’s concept of biopolitics as a radical enlargement of the zone of indistinction between civil and bare life in the figure of the statistically established population.

This last paragraph is a quick rehash: the point is to open up thinking about what kind of exception the model code might entail, and to what extent if any it addresses “life” in ways relevant to this line of thinking. What is intriguing about the EC is its own standing in some kind of legal exception. The model code of conduct emerges as more powerful, in the time of elections, than the nexus of interests itself, the latter ever threatening to deform civil society: it emerges as the sole bulwark against the nexus. And yet the model code, guaranteeing law (and, as the Chief Election Commissioner repeatedly noted, “order,” stands in arguable exception to the rule of law, lacking as he noted firm statutory authority. As I noted above, the form of the exception is repeated, perhaps, in the often debated status of UIDAI as lacking statutory authority. But whereas the EC is celebrated as the bulwark of democratic norms set agains the ever present threat of the nexus, and the forces of disorder that this ubiquitous figure invokes, the UID troubles and affirms in equal measure, depending on the interlocutor.

The Idea of a Model

What may be important is the general form of a “model” code, in and around law and specifically in and around the law of India. Caught in the moment of ignorance (the general modus operandi of this blog as it lurches from topic to topic), let me reflect for now on the temporal register, in general, of a model as coming after a pre-existing form (as in a scale model of something, say a ship or the Taj Mahal) or before, anticipating and preparing for a possibility (as in the modeling that plans for structures and events). The dominant register of the model code is the latter: the code serves as the model for a democratic practice it anticipates and (re)forms. But it may, in a particularly (and familiar) post-colonial idiom, evoke an imagined order of colonial liberal governance as a rationalized system of order ever keeping the nexus at bay.

Models also, as the figure of the ‘scale model’ above illustrates, play with the scale of the gigantic and miniature. I am not sure how to think with this feature of modeling, save that the lecture that this blog draws from kept moving from enormity (India itself, and the realized demand for the inclusion of its “mass” population) to minuteness (the single voter in a far-off jungle reserve, or the tiny outpost in the Himalayan vastness).

The Model Code Itself

Let me close with a few sections of the code, with brief notes.

A Party is that which agrees to Norms

The primary actor here is the Party and then the Candidate. What is at stake here is a grammar of the nexus.

Impersonation and intimidation: two logics of nexus power

Impersonation is a particular form of duplication; intimidation acts on the original. If the EC sees its exceptional powers as operating on both registers, UIDAI arguably focuses on the former, as technically remediable, and evades the latter.

The biopolitical double

I conclude with this Question and Answer within the FAQ section that is far longer than the formal Model Code itself.  Can an administration, ruled by a particular Party running for office during an election, hold an event designed to save or preserve mass life? Here the question is in regards to tuberculosis. These sorts of questions appear regularly during election seasons, and the reportage holds open a tension between a political system that is thanatopolitical–that is, that does nothing effective to address the mass morbidity of a governed population for most of the non-electoral season–and an EC that is overstepping its commitment to its Code–that is, that would prevent a life-saving event in the name of abstract norms that do not take into account the precarious life of most citizens.

Modes of Inclusion (Democratic): Biometric Experiments and Administrative Preserves

[This is the second part of a discussion of the contemporary Indian commitment to electoral inclusion and its possible relation to UID/Aadhaar and the logic of financial inclusion. It draws, respectfully, on a public lecture given at Berkeley's Center for South Asia Studies by the former Chief Election Commissioner of India, S. Y. Qureshi. For the first part of the discussion, click here.]

Mediated scenes of democratic inclusion

If India’s commitment to electoral inclusion can be narrated through extraordinary expeditions to remote Himalayan outposts and a commitment to providing access to a solitary voter deep in the Gir Forest reserve, a second and parallel theme in Dr. Qureshi’s lecture was the use of multiple modalities of surveillance to ensure access, inclusion, and the prevention of fraud or vote capture within any given polling station.

Much of his focus was on already developed forms of practice, technology, and relationship: the shift at a national scale to electronic voting; the cultivation of what I will call an electoral public, by which I mean persons addressed as co-participants in ensuring the success of democracy, in relation to widely circulating media accounts of the Election Commission (EC) as a resolutely impartial and apolitical and powerful governmental force; and the prohibition of certain officials or party workers from entering the polling place save in their individual capacity as voters.

And much of Dr. Qureshi’s focus was on new relatively low-cost technological practices of surveillance and inclusion: for example, the use of video feeds from phones or laptops to monitor who was in a given polling station.

One area of emerging change he described was the shift to biometric elections.

EPIC identity: Shikandin?

The current voting card, or EPIC [Elector's Photo Identification Card], includes a face photograph, and the voting process is powerfully associated with the act of leaving a thumb impression, the voter marked by the “indelible” ink on his or her digit.

The EPIC cards and the indelible voter are familiar figures in what I am calling mediated scenes of electoral inclusion. Images of cards and indelibly inked thumbs saturate the Internet. Humorous instances of presumed errors, like the gendering of Mr. Mittal to the right, circulate, producing what my late colleague Alan Dundes would have argued was a kind of contemporary folklore. But the joke here depends upon the general sense of the fairness and truth of representation of the electoral system, its popular standing as a transparent governmental edifice set against the political system and its deep logic of vested interests and of what this blog has been terming duplication.

All thumbs

“Biometrics,” the digitization of presumptively unique bodily information and its incorporation into a new, advanced EPIC, was offered by the former Chief Election Commissioner as an extension of this standing and of the EC’s commitment to fairness and the ongoing de-duplication of electoral practice. I use the UID-Aadhaar imaginary of de-duplication cautiously. It is not the language of the EC.  If the Aadhaar rationale is that government is “leaky” (a figure I have not yet discussed and will return too, when I take up the gender of Aadhaar/UID in preparation for a paper I am writing on the same), that is, full of duplication that diverts entitlements away from the deserving poor as subjects of development, the EC is based upon a narrative of success, not failure. Here biometrics extends an already exceptional condition of state success as opposed to serving as a fix for a continual condition of state failure.

In his public lecture, Dr. Qureshi noted that the EC first tried out the creation of a biometric version of EPIC in the state of Goa: initially in a small sample and then, and successfully, statewide. Goa was an experiment, and its success directs the EC toward a national electoral biometrics.

Dr. Qureshi was asked why begin in Goa, and he noted that the state’s relatively small size made it ideal as an experimental site. He was asked why create a new biometric platform when the massive effort to create an Aadhaar card was being established. He suggested that, at least at the informal level of preliminary consultation, UID was not able to share their data with the EC.

At stake here may be many things. The much reported tussle between Nilekani’s UID and Chidambaram’s NPR establishes biometric databases as administrative preserves, to be protected and tightly controlled and fought over. Both NPR and UID rationales–of security and of de-duplication–presume that information, to be effective in governance, must be guarded and rendered safe from abuses. This conception of information, of course, runs against a powerful set of grassroots movements in India, organized as the Right to Information and its accompanying social audit. I will return in a future post to the contentious future of audit at stake in these differential conceptions of information and governance and entitlement. But here what is at stake is that the very conception of the national database as an administrative preserve – perhaps direly necessary, perhaps tragically mistaken – secretes information, prevents its sharing, and forces a particular logic of duplication: there is UID, there is NPR, and soon EPIC may or may not become a third national biometric nation-as-database.

Modes of Inclusion (Democratic): Electoral heroism

The rather erudite and accomplished S. Y. Qureshi, until this past June (2012) the Chief Election Commissioner of India, gave a lecture this week at Berkeley’s Center for South Asia Studies.

The administrative gesture:              S. Y. Qureshi

Dr. Qureshi’s title was “An Undocumented Wonder: Managing the World’s Biggest Elections.” At stake, in other words, was the management of scale.

And, given the apt description of such enormous scale as wondrous, at stake was what is often termed the sublime. Jawaharlal Nehru famously repositioned the sublime in terming massive dams the temples of modern India. Perhaps elections are the new sublime, the dams of neoliberal India.  And yet elections have been a feature of a national aesthetics for a long time. After the talk I had the opportunity to speak with him at some length.

This post is in conversation with Dr. Qureshi’s formal comments during his talk. Though his informal conversation with me was no less critical in pushing my thinking on biometrics and its associated modes of “inclusion,” I will respect the latter’s informality and confidentiality.

Such caution is not usual for me: I have long argued for an expansive practice in which virtually any encounter is–must be–”fieldwork,”a 24/7 anthropology-as-necessarily-poor-boundaries approach. And obviously, even conversations that cannot be directly represented inform the direction of one’s thinking and work. This growing reliance of mine, however, on caution, withholding discussion, and indirection is I think both a feature of power–of working with high-level officials in situations where both I and they are conscious of the stakes in public representation–and of my own growing dependence on the good will of state administrators as I take on greater responsibility for the Center for South Asia Studies and for research access and funding for students and colleagues.

But I do think that much can be done to think with the formal public lecture, preserving both the hospitality and respect one offers to a visiting speaker and the critical engagement, and again respect, one offers to a reader.

Dr. Qureshi’s comments, accompanied by a power point type slide show, began with accounts of what I will call electoral heroism. I neither use the term ironically nor as paean, but descriptively. Qureshi gave two kinds of examples in which the Electoral Commission [hereafter EC] of India, charged at the Central (federal) government level with organizing, managing, and governing the conduct of elections, went to great pains to ensure that every Indian had access to elections:

(1) situations in which parties of EC workers had to undertake arduous journeys, such as treks over snowy Himalayan paths in Ladakh in weather in which air transport was impossible; and

(2) situations in which even in remote and depopulated areas where only a single voter remained, the EC would establish a polling station.

Radical inclusion: Guru Bharatdas Darshandas, the only voter in Banej in a remote area of the Gir Forest, Gujarat

The effect of such accounts was to remind us of the quality and force of Indian democracy and the at times extraordinary efforts needed to maintain its promise to provide an accessible vote to, quite literally, the last man. In a word, inclusion.

Or last woman: I have earlier written in No Aging in India of the ubiquitous appearance, at election times across India, of news photos of old women hobbling or being carried to the election station or standing at the ballot box, peering at it with the weakened and bespectacled vision of old age. In that book I tried to give something of genealogy for this old woman of the polls, her relation to other figures of old women that proliferate in north India and Bengal over the long nineteenth century. But the simplest explanation for her appearance is the most obvious. In India, she promises, even the most frail or socially marginal person has the power to remake governments and to redistribute power. (Conversely, she can of course be taken in the opposite direction: suggesting that the voter has little more power than a socially marginal and ailing old woman.)

The scene of inclusion: our old woman of the polls

Indeed, Dr. Qureshi showed several such photos of old men and women, particularly women.

It is worth reflecting on the old woman of the polls before proceeding further. She reminds us, first, that “inclusion” is not only a particular gesture of these times of individuated, encompassing neoliberal governance. The newspaper editors who created and circulated her (this image from the late 1980s of an old, frail, bespectacled, and Muslim woman is from the Times of India) were participating in a rendering of the nation-state as a radically inclusive order. She is of course a citizen and the image participates in a particularly Indian secular liberalism founded in the citizen as its ground and promise.

Her form will recur with UID/Aadhaar in a different figure of inclusion but again positioned on an old woman’s body, in scenes of the old woman as marginal subject being de-duplicated by having her irises scanned or photo taken or fingerprint data “captured.”

Inclusion in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh: our old woman of the card

With Aadhaar, of course, the “Resident” has replaced the citizen as the subject of inclusion, as I have discussed at some length in this blog.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the earlier photo of the old woman of the polls is the disembodied spectral hand, evocative of the Beast’s dream palace in Cocteau’s Belle et la Bête, directing the woman’s gaze and ours to the yawning hole where her franchise is to be placed. Inclusion, we are shown, is here a directed process. Who, or what is the agent, the master of inclusion in the dream palace of the nation’s democratic promise?

Here.

Perhaps, as we move from the old woman of the polls to the old woman of the Aadhaar card, this is the wrong question to ask. Again: what concepts, what understanding of politics and “the social,” of ethics and and of maneuver, might be needed as we move from the national subject as a citizenry to the national subject as a database?

Let me return, in the next post, to the lecture by Dr.Qureshi, and to his thoughts on the future of voting and, indeed, on the value of biometrics for the ongoing heroic commitment of the nation to democratic inclusion.

Part 1 – Citizenship and its archive today: the intensely duplicated de-duplicate

Who or what is the subject of contemporary identity, and what politics ensue in the face of this emergent subject? This question, is the central one that this experiment cum blog seems to find itself addressing.

Zipless encounters with the identification establishment

Before I begin with a comment I will stretch out over two or more posts, I might for this entry recount a conversation I had with a fellow scholar this past week, who was telling me of her experience in signing up for the UID/Aadhaar card. What made it so easy, she said, was that I did not need to bring any documents.

Look how easy!: Bihar leaders show their UID registration papers

Her experience runs against many of the reports of UID registration covered in news articles and elsewhere. For the moment and taking her account seriously, let me presume that the question of using biometrics, big data, and the rationalized and deterritorialized reorganization of welfare to generate trust—the promise of UID in a nutshell—itself enters into a world in which preexisting ecologies of risk and trustworthiness produce differing modes of entrance into UID’s promise.
In the case of this one person, the mode of entrance was entirely friction-free. To borrow a favorite adjective from Erica Jong, it appeared “zipless.”

I am presuming that such zipless encounters are not evenly distributed. But suspending for the moment my hermeneutic of suspicion, the social fact (if that is what it is) of the ease of entrance into Aadhaar is worth thinking with. I will be reading both Akhil Gupta‘s and Matthew Hull‘s recent books in the next few weeks. Both differently attend to the relation of bureaucracy to the materiality and force of the document, extending a conversation Annaliese Riles, Laura Bear, and Emma Tarlo among others have engendered. But the claim advanced to me, by and for a certain kind of subject, was for a relation to entitlement and belonging that required no documents. Whatever its relation to actual practice, as such the claim bears attention.

This scholar made two other points. First, she noted that such zipless ease could be manipulated. It is fine for people like you and I, she said, and I should note that these words are my reconstruction of a conversation some hours after it took place, but others could create duplicate numbers. Her use of the duplicate was perhaps a response to my own mention, earlier, of my growing interest in de-duplication as a mode of governance.

If I am correct in reading the implicit theory of value and the state in the project of Aadhaar as a dual diagnosis of ‘duplication from above’ [the redirection of the common wealth by the powerful through the creation of phantom populations that receive entitlement monies or materials] and ‘duplication from below’ [the redirection of the common wealth by the 'common man' or janata manipulating the varied identities given one by the state], then taking this scholar’s concern seriously produces a middle-subject [there must be some useful expression of this in German, say] that can be trusted not to duplicate itself and that can, therefore, be granted ID ziplessly. Or rather, all subjects may variably make claims on their status as such a middle-subject.

My interlocutor made another point. The agency that registered her, pleasant and unencumbered by documents though it was, could answer few of her questions.  Simply put, its employees seemed to have little understanding of the UID number or its use. Their sphere of competence focused on the technical practice of registration and not the afterlife of that enrollment.

For the moment, and as with the earlier points with awareness of the limits of a single conversation, we might define what is at stake here as a particular temporality of enrollment or registration. Aadhaar, that is, may seem to bear a particular relation to the present, with its relation to what after Jane Guyer I will term the near future in question.

If the scholar suggested the limit to a unitary process of enrollment, given the distinction between the middle-subject (always already de-duplicated) and the duplicating, cheating subject, we might attend to how the figure of the Universal Subject of “Universal ID,” the basis ["aadhaar"] of the promise of a national telos of fairness, reason, and wealth, may always already contain within itself a doubling or duplication, a split subject that will threaten to defeat the very project of universalizing, de-duplicating technology.