This is a guest post by Rijul Kochhar
Combining field and event, camp is in effect spatial practice.[…] Camps are spaces where states of emergency or legal exception have become the rule. [They offer] the setting for the normative permanence of a suspended rule of law.
~Charlie Hailey, Camps: A Guide to 21st Century Space
The story of Aadhar is not unknown—a new, cutting edge piece of documentary practice jack-booted for this 21st century, it seeks to cull out fraudulent persons tied to dubious places or circumstances (words like ‘ghosts’, ‘fakes’, ‘frauds’, ‘duplicates’ abound in its context). Paeans to the powers of biometrics have been sung from numerous citadels of power—the project’s uniqueness lies in its capacity to channel biological anatomy to a singular fantasy of individually-determined (and fixed) citizenship; its ability to weed out duplication and duplicity in favour of fool-proof individuality; its promise to identify seamlessly; its realization of that ultimate bureaucratic fantasy that seeks to eliminate the noisiness of personhood and the messiness of individual lives by inaugurating a system of identity constructed and at once accomplished through a 12-digit number tied to the bedrock of fingerprints and iris-scans. These seductive powers of identity and technology, long wished for by visions and bureaucratic pursuits of rationality, contrast against fears of the invasion of privacy, the dangers of centralising data, and the abuse of powers and of information by functionaries of government, as well as—by no means less important—prospects of technological malfunction in the field of civic services oranatomical recalcitrance.
Against seduction and fear, however, what indeed is the experience of Aadhar—of waiting, of seeking, of enrolment? Observations from a recent ‘camp’ in Delhi for enrolment animate this piece. These observations seek to work against the grain of the triumphalism associated with this massive project; instead, these observations seek to expose the quotidian frustrations as well as exclusionary dramas that unfold in the texture of the everydayness of documentary practice. These are dramas that are hidden from the eyes of technocrats and planners, but they, at once, also speak about the desire for recognition and the will to be recognized by an often-capricious governmentality.
For a very long time, I had resolved to keep aspects of my biometric identity away from governmental power. Over the course of many years, I have come to acquire a bouquet of documents that have linked my personhood to political status and claims to citizenship—birth certificate, passport, driver’s license, PAN card, Voter’s ID card, Class X pass certificate, a disability certificate. These elucidated my age, place of residence, age, sex, disability, appearance, biological markers like birthmarks, etc. and sought to galvanize an identity tied to a place, with both emanating from an entity that was merely considered, a priori, as biological. Placeness and personhood, then, have been the effects of documents; they testify to the immense power of paper and procedure.
That power, in recent months, has come to acquire further potency, as one agency of government after another—at various levels of government—becomes attached to a technocratic vision of politics. In other words, Aadhar reveals to us the larger story of how technocratic dictum works itself through coercion. For a very long time, Aadhar remained voluntary, even though there were conflicting voices to the contrary, ominously pointing to a very probable future of mandatory furnishing of personal biological data. The ethics of this form of coercive and obfuscatory public practice—where enrolment to Aadhar is deemed voluntary by its parent agency (on the UIDAI website, as well as on the enrolment form) on the one hand, but on the other hand, production of the Aadhar number is then held to be discretionary upon other agencies of government, many of which often do not work in sync with each other, some of which are absolutely vital to survival (example, the local ration shop, or the university scholarship/fellowship cell, or the local branch of one’s favourite bank, or the hospital and dispensary. In other places, marriage and owning of property are now compulsorily linked to Aadhar, perhaps harking to a terribly freudian slip!
This bureaucratic deception is one part of the story which must compel us to confront the logics of the biometric project; the ruse of governmentality to seek and compel the furnishing of one’s entire biological and anatomical constitution is another part of the story, a part that does not often cause us to think through the consequences of the absolute centralization of such massive and crucial data, as well as the increasing, creeping biologization of politics, rights and citizenship. Be that as it may, it is the hidden spectres within the seeming banality of paper and procedure, vis-à-vis Aadhar, that I want to concentrate upon here—the form-filling, the actual practice of enrolment, the requirements of ‘proofs’, the burden of being coerced into an avowedly rights-based scheme of governmentality that threatens exclusion not only when confronted by transgression (in not producing adequate data), but also activates that exclusion by tying up vital needs of life and living to documentary practices of paper and procedure that are, themselves, capricious and arbitrarily accomplished.
As various governmental agencies and functionaries, Parliament andvarious courts struggle over determining the legality and the contemporary status of Aadhar, I find myself browbeaten into standing in line for enrolling myself. Browbeaten because I have started to come across reports and discussions—in the media, in my social circle, indeed in places of work and leisure, in governmental advertisements that are more in the character of warnings—that alert me to the wider perils of remaining obdurate to the seductions of UIDAI: withdrawal of fellowships, refusal of banks to honour requests, problems in hospitals, troubles with taxation, added problems in getting any governmental work done, refusal of pensions and refugee-assistance, the inability to get married. These perils, mundane as their visage might be, are nevertheless no less catastrophic to everyday life. They serve to illustrate how documents, papers and bureaucratic procedures become weapons of exclusion and selection—a detail of importance that observations from the field brought home to me, but which are glossed-over in the triumphalist rhetoric of technocratic eureka-moments.
Thanks to the vast corpus of documents that I have acquired, Aadhar enrolment was cakewalk for me. Fill the form, wait in line, struggle with fingerprints (praying that the machine would ‘read’ my troublesome digits—troublesome because the skin on my fingers is too ‘dry’ and my fingers, themselves, are crippled by a disability), have my ocular irises scanned, sign the receipt, and await one’s unique identity in the mail. Fundamentally, however, the promise of Aadhar—to provide a unique piece of identity, technologically facilitated, to all citizens—remains a false, vacuous and cruel lie. For what makes Aadhar possible for somebody is, contrary to what the enrolment form itself states, the production of past and existing documentation. This is what situates Aadhar in the same zone of exclusion and selection as other documents and paper-practices of bureaucracies; it makes it difficult for those without documentation to claim citizenship, even though Aadhar claims to extend the rights and duties associated with a modern regime of citizenship to all. The added fantasy of our contemporary politics—to tie technology to a coercive regime that insists, increasingly, on the furnishing of only one particular document—the Aadhar 12 digit number-bearing card—at the risk of being denied basic services in case of contravention of that regime in one’s everyday life—takes the UID project further down the extreme path of coercion, exclusion and, yes, harassment.
An anecdote will suffice. I accompanied an acquaintance to an Aadhar ‘camp’ (somewhere in central India). This person, who I will call ‘A’, had no documentary paper of identity or proof of citizenship. Now, the Aadhar enrolment form, which I had cared to study carefully in advance, provides three different options for ‘verification’: (1) document based, which accepts specific documents like passport, ration card and the class X pass-certificate as forms of proof for address, age, identity and residence (even though, in the way what is deemed acceptable proof is often discriminatory or patently elitist—how many people, after all, have the luxury of possessing a passport or a class X pass certificate?)
(2) introducer based, which allows those who “do not possess any documentary proof of identity and/or address” to enrol by being ‘introduced’; 3) head of family based. I, obviously, availed of the first option—both on the enrolment form, as well as during my conversation with the enrolling executive—given that I possessed other documents for verification. But what of those who do not have that luxury, people like A? For as is clear and remains a public secret of no great surprise, the possession of documents for most is not routine or a right; it is a privilege that is acquired by ingenious practices of subversion and collusion—what happens to them?
Obviously, Aadhar makes provisions for those without existing forms of documentation to avail of a new identity document. It recognizes the reality of those people—vast numbers of them—who possess not a shred of documentary ‘evidence’ to prove their claims to citizenship and to rights in 21st century India. But realities from the field of the camp diverge here: many people have carefully preserved pieces of paper to offer, but these documents—often in the local language—are from some place else, often from those parts of the country that are not well articulated in the public or governmental imaginary and are places which are often forgotten or ignored (unlike, say, a document from New Delhi, that often has its own miraculous powers of legitimacy and will get its holder access to services much more easily). From such places, which are actually kinds of ‘non-places’, persons as well as documents are also tainted—they are not ‘acceptable’ to the enrolling arms of modern identity-production and governmental projects such as Aadhar. The language of such documents is often a barrier, especially for migrants seeking Aadhar enrolment in a place different from the place where such older documents have been issued. Even so, UIDAI makes, at least on paper, the provision of the introducer-based verification for Aadhar enrolment. How does this work? The website of UIDAI states that the ‘introducer’ will be an agent of the registrar, ‘predesignated’ and having ‘influence’, called forth to verify the antecedents of the paperless applicant. This, however, is easier said than done in practice because individuals predesignated are hard to find, are rarely present at the necessary times, and will often not oblige except for special considerations. It is a fact that forms part of the larger tale of honourable intentions floundering on the rock of social reality. It is a reality that one sees in the field site of the camp. Against pervasive reticence, then, resides the expression to claim inclusion within this scheme, a phenomenon I witnessed, but rarely, in those who declaimed their vociferous will to be included. This will to Aadhar, however, is animated as much with the proffered possibilities of acquiring a paper of one’s own in a world of documents, as much as it is tempered with the fear of exclusion from vital entitlements in the near future.
Paper and procedure come to acquire their nefarious potency in practice, where discretion and other considerations trump the platitudes of policy and the fine print. At the Aadhar enrolment camp, our friend ‘A’, without his own set of documents and proofs, emerged in practice as a non-entity from a non-place, unworthy of trust or the legitimacy offered by Aadhar enrolment—a project that our friend was desperate to be a part of.[i] The enrolling personnel at the camp insisted that, no matter what their own form stated, they had ‘orders from above’ that sought to exclude those without valid and acceptable proofs of identity, age and residence from the enrolment drive. There was to be no introducer-based enrolment for A.[ii] When the machinery of government, at various levels, slowly but surely inches towards requiring Aadhar in its modes of operation, does this system of wanton inclusion and arbitrary exclusion not open the gates of abjection as well as a denial of very rudimentary entitlements? If the mission of this gargantuan undertaking has been to enable and provide those without valid documents of identity with one such document—and Aadhar, by stating the different types of verification on the enrolment form, seems aware of this responsibility—then what justifies the violence wrought by the coercive imagination that is compulsorily demanding Aadhar information for basic services while at the same time refusing enrolment for those without pre-existing documentation for their claims to citizenship? In other words, those left out of the corrupt and frustrating loop of documentation and the practices of paper and procedure continue to be subjected to the same. How unique, then, is Aadhar or its parent agency, the UIDAI?
While A’s experiences and mine are a study in contrast, these experiences reveal the power of paper and procedure in our lives. A’s inability to read did not help matters at the camp; my argument with the enrolling person and our insistence on UIDAI’s own provisions of introduction, verification and enrolment—stated in the form—cut little ice when the ‘higher-ups’ and their orders were invoked by the other side. How is one to manoeuvre, then, when confronted with the impossible situation where the reality of the de facto compulsoriness of Aadhar (given its increasing ubiquity for public life and for one’s daily business) combines with the existing reality of lives lived without documents, and the equal reality offered by my observations at the site of the camp where official provisions of inclusion and empowerment are jettisoned for hopeless and default bureaucratic techniques of denial? The infusion of Aadhar into the public body, in many ways, has eroded the erstwhile room to manoeuvre that offered the chance of utilizing the capacity of mobilizing other documents and other modes of procuring them; instead, the arbitrary denial of enrolment into Aadhar, and its increasing ubiquity in everyday life as a singular (and also, increasingly, the sole) form of identity, threatens to disrupt many of us in our everyday lives: those of us who either do not subscribe to the scheme’s biometric infatuations, or who do not measure up to its requirements—both official and discretionary—of enrolment.
Aadhar began by being predicated upon the promise of providing documentary identity to those without one. By insisting on previous forms of identity documents for enrolment—in spite of its own stated provisions that allow ‘introducer-based’ systems of verification for those without identity documents from their pasts—Aadhar and its executives have transformed the program from a putative agent of empowerment to another trap of denial and an inducer of desperation. As more agencies of government and facets of the everyday come to be ‘linked’ to this program, the dramas of enrolment, inclusion and exclusionary denial will continue to be enacted. It is thisdrama—now increasingly a festering wound of citizenship which remains hidden from the triumphalist discourse of technocratic governance—that is enacted and reenacted by the pervasive and increasingly-ubiquitous insistence on Aadhar in the public sphere, especially this ongoing insistence on an exclusionary Aadhar that offers no remedy to the undocumented insofar as it forgets or dilutes its own ordinary provisions of introduction and inclusive enrolment.
An insistence on Aadhar in its present avatar of practice, especially in public life and in the everydayness of citizenship, is an example where the grand sovereignty of governmental power is enunciated and showcased through the very arbitrariness of that sovereignty’s enactments in everyday life. This sovereign power is especially visible in the field: it is, after all, the camp that shows us the capriciousness of this sovereignty’s agents—among whom, Aadhar, is increasingly hegemonic within what William James once called the “tissue of experience”. The camp suggests how this capriciousness is activated and realized via those agents’ practices of hidden and obvious power relations: through the seemingly-quotidian violence of their paper and procedures, via summary rejections and arbitrary inclusions, by the increasing ubiquity of Aadhar in everyday life and discrimination in governmental practice (aspects of which elide policy wonks but come to be frustratingly visible to the observer at the site of the camp) against those who fall through the cracks of its demands and procedures. Aadhar’s is a violence which encodes, at the same time, a fickle force of pleasure/peril of enrolment and rejection, buffeted by cutting-edge technology and sophisticated (bewildering?) gadgetry. Submitting oneself to such technology, it may be pointed out in passing, can be terrifying as much as it can be exhilarating. The seductions of inclusion and the trauma of exclusion are merely two facets, nay footnotes, of that wider pleasure/peril dichotomy which underlies our biometric age.
[i] This desperation is a small aside that reflects the obsession that documents come to acquire in the lives of the less-privileged: documents of identity such as Aadhar, which offer the promise of opening the gates of governmental recalcitrance, are legitimacy-traps for those bearing the stigma—in countless ways—of social illegitimacy; the documents’ powers reside in thepossibilities that they offer, in the access that they enable, often eclipsing the anxieties of privacy protection or technical legality that also form the architecture of the program itself. They function as a form of documentary fetish that come to acquire power in everyday life by inhering the possibilities and seductive offers of accessing basic provisions in a fraught world.
[ii] This was after I brought the introducer-based system of verification and enrolment to the attention of the enrolment executive; prior to my intervention, they seemed blissfully unaware of this provision in the Aadhar program.