Bodo-Muslim Violence and the Question of Identity Cards for Assam: Security as a Negative Condition

Some months ago I posted about the complexities of the UID/Aadhaar biometric program in India’s northeastern states, areas often marginal to Delhi-based national politics. Given that professional anthropology plays a large role in the institutions that organize and govern the racial and cultural presumptions of “tribal” identity across the Northeast, one could argue that the anthropology of the new biometrics bears a particular kind of responsibility to a different kind of engagement in relation to conditions of identity there. Meanwhile, time has not stood still and Assam again dominates the Indian news as a site of intense and upsetting “communal violence.”

Help: Charities in the new refugee camps

Months ago, my focus was threefold: (1) on concerns in the state of Assam that illegal Bangladeshi migrants would use the “residence”-based registration of UID to become citizens, de facto or de jure; (2) on efforts in the state of Tripura to rival the southern hi tech powerhouse Andhra Pradesh in number of persons registered, and how these might relate to the (legal) Bengali-migrant dominated state’s efforts to evade the peripheral condition of the tribalized Northeast; and (3) on reports in the state of Mizoram that some Christian pastors had been challenging the UID/Aadhaar “number” itself as the the apocalyptic “mark of the Beast,” raising both familiar and new questions about the occurrence of millenarian realities.

Even as I was writing those earlier posts, concerns over migration and their relation to the long apparent “instability” of Assam had led to the extraordinary move of shelving the entire project of UID in the state, or so reports (like the one I cite below) noted last January (2012). If so many minimal entitlements are to be tied to the card and number, then what it means for an entire state and its territory to be excluded from Aadhaar and its great promise (or, for its many critics, to escape the surveillance and exploitation of the program), is quite important to consider: both for Assam and its own out-migration, and more generally for its economic and political relations to the rest of India.

Over the summer of 2012, Assam has been daily in the news for intensifying waves of conflict over which groups have rights in land and legitimacy, joining debates over recent Bangladeshi migrants to relations between non-tribal and tribal communities to the many descendents of earlier, multiple migrations. Particularly at stake are relations between the Bodos, who were after longtime struggle granted certain rights over four districts in the state, and Bengali Muslims and Hindus, some of whom are and some are not “illegal” but whom a national political discourse at times identifies as illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants tout court.  Large numbers of killings have occurred, of Bodos and migrant Hindus but particularly of migrant Muslims (though I cringe as I write this for its vagueness is unacceptable: understanding where and how the killings have occurred and with what backing is critical. There are many scholars whose current work I will depend on, including Malini Sur and Garga Chatterjee). At present, camps for the large numbers, particularly  Muslims, who have fled for their lives have been set up in lower Assam, both local and religious charities and international humanitarian organizations appeal for needed resources to ensure food, clothing, water, and medication, and the state is trying to urge frightened and unwilling people to return to these contested villages with promises of secure if heretofore dodgy governance.

Even before the killings intensified and the refugee camps had to be established, UID/Aadhaar had not featured prominently in past months of the English-language press in Assam that is available via the Internet (but that admittedly is a restricted field). Given that what dominates the press are variant framings right now of Assam’s exceptional status, it seemed useful to return to the question of identity, particular amid the current moment in which a different form, the humanitarian camp and the basic emergency “kit” (see the work of Peter Redfield) dominate the organization of the minimal entitlement. So how do camps relate to Universal ID as forms of rationalized entitlement and control?

This at least is a question to gesture towards.

For today, I offer an earlier article from last January, announcing the exceptional status of Assam vis-à-vis the Aadhaar number, from the Assam Tribune of January 28, 2012.

Aadhaar cards unlikely to be issued in Assam
NEW DELHI, Jan 27 – The Aadhaar cards issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) are unlikely to be rolled out in Assam and other North Eastern States, barring Tripura and Sikkim. A meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Unique Identification Authority of India related issues (CC-UIDAI) chaired by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh decided to limit the issue of Aadhaar cards to 60 crore [ 600 million] population spread over 16 States and Union Territories. In the rest of the States, the national identity numbers would be issued on the basis of the National Population Register.

Briefing newsmen, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram and deputy chairman of Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia said that in all cases the NPR data base would prevail. However, Aadhaar numbers would prevail in those States where it has been issued. And in rest of the States, the NPR exercise would continue.

The States where the Aadhar cards have been rolled out included Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Sikkim, Puducherry, Tripura and Rajasthan among others.

UIDAI uses information on five fields, while NPR seeks information on 15 fields. The entire exercise of issue of NPR is targeted for completion in 18 months by June 2013, said the Home Minister.

The Cabinet meeting called today to resolve the differences between the Home Ministry and the Planning Commission over the issue of Aadhaar cards and the national identity cards, worked out a compromise formula, under which the limit of the Aadhaar cards have been fixed. The Home Ministry has now been mandated to carry out the NPR project in rest of the States.

About the security concerns flagged by the Home Ministry, Chidambaram said that UIDAI has agreed to review all the information it has collected. At the moment they have agreed to review the entire process to address all the security concerns.

The security concerns included the possibility of the cards falling into the hands of the illegal migrants and subsequent misuse of the cards to avail of the government schemes. The infiltration prone North Eastern States including Assam, were particularly referred in this regard.

3 points.

(1) At stake, as noted in an earlier blog post, is the contest that had come to a head at the beginning of 2012 over the control of the national identity database between the security focus of the Home Ministry and the liberalization focus of the Finance Ministry. The Home Ministry, then under the powerful Chidambaram, officially won that battle with its census-driven “National Population Registry” [NPR] named as the ultimate arbiter of de-duplicated universal ID. But the article reveals that India is in effect divided into two: what I will term power zones and security zones. Power zones comprise the wealthier South and the politically powerful Hindi-heartland North. Security zones are insecure border states, though notably not Rajasthan, and insecure insurgency states, though notably not Jharkhand where several UID/Aadhaar programs targeting the elderly were first rolled out.
Assam and the north-east (minus the exception-to-the-exception Tripura) are here framed as the sine qua non of the insecure condition and the core of the NPR and its security zone.

(2) In the wake of the earlier massacres, and amid ongoing killings, local state and district government is trying to encourage the refugees from the Bodo districts to return, with promises of normalcy. What kind of normalcy is and can be expected in the security zone? Famed for the wealth of tea plantations, dependent upon the rationalized and secure labor of the Bengali migrants, one might imagine the Bodo lands economically as power zones: but the history of modern Assam and its racialized state governance and anti-state struggle belie that.

(3) Universal ID began as a Security measure: the conundrums of the liberal-security state led to its capture by the Planning and Finance people. The latter promised far more than Chidambaram, who really seemed to offer at best the status quo of security but not the neoliberal version of universal development. But Security as a state concern remains vital, and now despite the political efforts to commensurate the two data-gathering massive enterprises they seem to remain split, and perversely duplicated. That is, the very promise of the de-duplicated future has led to a massive duplication in the imaginary of the nation as database. If UIDAI/Aadhaar stands for the new conditions of the neoliberal social, that is of the promises of development in the aftermath of the failed planning state, Security has become the negative of that promise, and the two are kept distinct through the establishment of what are in effect two parallel zones of government by distinct ecologies of information.

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UIDAI: Chidambaram, Nikelani and the struggle over the master database

[The blog disappeared for a month as its author and editor was caught up in other tasks. Nonetheless, it was useful in shaping a talk I gave to a gracious and patient audience–given how new the material is–at Emory University. Some of the questions raised at that talk will organize the next several posts and their inquiries, once I finish edits on a final paper over the next few days.]

Contending databases make the nation

If Universal Identification as a project promises the end of corruption and therefore of poverty through the de-duplication of the Indian population envisioned as a database, then political contests may shape up as contests over the control and design of the nation cum database.

At stake in high level ministerial contests over Aadhaar [the new national identity card] and the Universal ID Authority of India [UIDAI] creating its administration is not only control of a single national database of population but a contest over different, contending databases of the nation.

Here is a brief article from January 2012 found on a website and web “magazine” named Asian Women. The site masthead shows a line of female forms in paper-cut silhouette–young, fashion-plated, leggy, promising their irresistible relation to the commodity form–and the article is direct political reportage. I have corrected confusing spelling errors.

You've come a long way, baby

Some context: Months of reports of struggles over UIDAI at the Cabinet level, particularly by the powerful Home Minister P. Chidambaram. A recent “truce.”

Nilekani’s biometrics battle: Details of the truce

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Nеw Delhi:  Thе Cabinet today has officially sanctioned thе terms οf a treaty between Nandan Nilekani and Home Minister P Chidambaram. Thе two departments had been battling over the issue of biometrics – the right to scan India’s eyes аnԁ fingerprints.

Thе compromise gives both the Home Ministry and Mr Nilekani’s UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority οf India) thе power tο collect biometrics. Mr Nilekani, whο hаѕ already collected the data fοr 20 crores [200 million persons] has bееn authorised tο gather biometric data fοr a further 40 crores [400 million]. Hе had questioned for the money and sanction tο enroll аƖƖ Indians. Thе problem so far was that the same data was also being collected bу the Home Ministry for the National Population Register or NPR, which when completed, will be the world’s largest biometric database.

Thе expenditure and effort іѕ massive. Sο both sides hаνе bееn told tο avoid duplication. Mr Nilekani’s team, whісh hаѕ made noteworthy movement іn states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka аnԁ Kerala wіƖƖ plough ahead there. And the Home Ministry wіƖƖ accept thіѕ data fοr thе NPR, whose main purpose іѕ tο ensure records οf all residents fοr internal security. Thе Home Ministry’s biometrics exercise wіƖƖ focus οn areas whеrе thе UIDAI has nοt begun work ѕο far. Anԁ whіƖе enrolling fοr thе UIDAI remains voluntary, signing up fοr thе NPR іѕ mandatory for all residents.

Earlier, thе Home Ministry hаԁ said thаt UIDAI’s data wаѕ nοt entirely sound; іt had аƖѕο articulated doubts аbουt hοw thе confidential data wουƖԁ bе protected. Now, thе ministry hаѕ bееn tοƖԁ thаt іf thеrе аrе аnу contradictions, іt’s biometric information wіƖƖ supercede thаt οf thе UIDAI. Thе National Population Register wіƖƖ serve аѕ thе master database.

Mr Nilkani’s request tο enroll more Indians hаԁ upset thе Home Ministry, allegedly bесаυѕе іt perceived a trespassing οf іtѕ turf. Bυt Mr Nilekani, whο wаѕ given Cabinet minister rank when he left Infosys tο head thе UIDAI, has also according tο insiders, bееn caught іn thе crossfire between thе Home аnԁ Finance Ministries, whose rivalry іѕ nο secret. Thе UIDAI іѕ a sub-set οf the PƖotting Fee whose parent is thе Finance Ministry.

Three points:

(1) MASTER DATABASE:The results of what is astonishingly framed as a treaty (between ministries, not nation-states, after all) is a “Master Database” to be controlled ultimately by the Home [Interior] Ministry, not UIDAI (or its apparent supporters in Finance).

The material of this database are “biometric” data.

What is at stake here is pretty incredible. UIDAI and Aadhaar, as this blog has been at pains to think through, comprise a promissary entity offering nothing less than the end of corruption and thus the end of poverty through the presumption that corruption is caused by the duplication of persons within the form of a database. Such corruption works through the misdirection or capture of rights and entitlements toward ‘duplicate’ [false, made-up] populations and persons. Such rights and entitlements, offered as a sovereign gift by the development state and its successor forms , become a gift given instead to all the false “duplicate” persons that the powerful [corruption from above] and the pauperized informal sector [corruption from below] presumptively produce through the creation of duplicate identities in the databases of the nation. UID promises a radically deduplicated nation-as-database by combining new technical database design and the political will of a neo-liberalized corporate efficiency model.

But if UID itself as this article suggests is but one of two “duplicate” projects projected as a Master Database, the very locus of deduplication is itself always already duplicated.

One of the two projects is UID. UID at some sites depends on the other project, the census, in its current form the NPR [National Population Registry, also based on biometrics], controlled by the Home Ministry.

We have already seen how “communal” debates in Assam are organized around the threat that a “residency” based database [the census] will be used to create a “citizenship” based database [UID, which is to regulate the rights and entitlements of citizens], of concern in a situation where media conditions of what I have elsewhere termed ethical publicity renders the illegal migrant a site of affective intensity as a threat diverting the sovereign gift by the state to its proper citizenry. In other words, concerns over illegal migration want to keep the database of Residency [needed for Security] and the database of Citizenship [needed for the just distribution of state goods] separate.

But the Home Ministry, given its formulation of Security concerns, wants to unite these under a Master Database. And, despite the concerns of many at the center and on the [Hindu] right, this formulation of security seems to collapse citizenship [UID] into security [census].

Let’s take a step back. All this has some presumptions we might want to specify. Here is a start.

(i) The population is a database

(ii) Government is government of a database

(iii) Two contenting visions of data government are at stake in this struggle between UIDAI and the Home Minister. The home ministry’s concern is Security. The master database enables the State to have exclusive knowledge of the population as a database: the State creates the knowledge, possesses the knowledge, uses the knowledge, and secures the knowledge. The UID Director’s concern is efficient distribution of rights and entitlements through the De-Duplication of identity: this involves Universality [everyone must be covered], Comparability and Open Access to databases [enabling registrant agencies to compare biometric and biographical data with all known databases to de-duplicate false persons].

In this “treaty,” Security apparently trumps Universality and De-Duplication. But the details are not clear, at least here.

(2) COLLABORATIVE GOVERNANCE?: The treaty presumes sharing is possible. It divides the national geobody into 2 zones, of high UID coverage-to-date, and low coverage. In high coverage zones, UID is to be the source of biometric authority comprising the Master Database for those regions [but controlled, now, by the Home Ministry and its National Population Registry [NPR] census].In low coverage zones, NPR will remain the source of authoritative biometric data.

A classic high coverage zone has become the “developed” southern state of Andhra Pradesh [but see also the claim of Tripura, in the Northeast]. A classic low coverage zone is India’s most populous and politically central state, Uttar Pradesh. The latter is identified through multiple media as the locus classicus of “corruption.” Holding onto the idea that corruption is a matter of de-duplication, what we have in the new biometric sharing treaty is a sharing of low-duplication data with high-duplication data. This duality is worth thinking with.

(3) BIOMETRICS AS THE NEW DATA, AND THE BIOMETRIC TREATY FORM: The treaty is literally over competing biometrics. That of UID has become well known: newspapers and TV for several years have been saturated by images of people having their biometric data taken. The NPR’s commitment to biometrics is perhaps more obscure: this blog needs to understand it.

[next post will be, I think, KARGIL 1: THE BIRTH OF NPR]

NPR, the master duplicate