The bad news is, it’s not just about the Aadhaar-PAN linkage.
(Published on May 6, 2017 in Business Standard)
‘Dear Govt.. Can i have my left hand back please.. Need to scratch my head.’ (sic)
This one tweet beautifully mocked two arguments made in the Supreme Court by Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi. The AG said that a) citizens do not have an absolute right over their bodies, and therefore can be compelled to give their fingerprints and iris scans to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI); and and b) that you “cannot import conceptions of privacy” into India, because, he said, on a train in this country, people will tell you their life stories within five minutes.
The facileness of these statements is breathtaking, even from a government as super-nosy as this one.
A vigorous anti-Aadhaar campaign is being conducted by people driven by precisely those two ideas: Bodily integrity, and privacy. They represent a very large number of Indians who value their bodily integrity and autonomy, and privacy, very much indeed. We value it because we’re free adults—a fact that escapes the tiny-minded officials who constantly censor our books and movies, and tell us, among other things, whom to love and where, and what to eat and why.
The case in the Supreme Court will determine whether or not taxpayers must mandatorily link their Aadhaar numbers with their PAN cards in order to pay their taxes. Petitioners challenging the government’s order say it can’t be made mandatory since Aadhaar is a purely voluntary system, targeting subsidy beneficiaries. The arguments have been rivetingly live-tweeted for days. The Centre refused to allow arguments based on the idea of privacy, since the court is separately deciding whether Indians have a fundamental right to privacy. The petitioners therefore argued for informational self-determination and bodily integrity, saying that you cannot extend the doctrine of Eminent Domain to the body, nor coerce people into parting with their most personal, irreplaceable, unchangeable data.
The Aadhaar-PAN linkage is a matter of tax law. On most days I would rather stab myself repeatedly in the heart than think about tax law. But I am riveted, because it scares me to to death that we have to argue tax law in terms of our fundamental constitutional and bodily rights, and that we’ve gotten to this point so awfully fast. The question of linking Aadhaar with PAN numbers is only the tip of a very large conceptual iceberg. As the petitioners’ advocate Shyam Divan put it, “If we fail here, the impact it could have on civil liberties in the country could be huge.”
The impunity of the government, and its assumptions, are staggering. How dare a democratically-elected government treat its citizens with such contempt that it can argue that they have no right to privacy? How dare it treat its citizens’ bodies as commodities that can be sold to private companies? How dare it perpetrate such a colossal bait-and-switch, advertising a purely voluntary subsidy targeting mechanism, and delivering something that coerces people into letting it into all parts of their lives—and sneaking these coercive laws in on the back of the Finance Bill? How dare it brand honest critics of Aadhaar as anti-nationals with something to hide, even as it draws shrouds of opacity over political funding, and renders the Right to Information toothless?
It is my view, and that of many other Indians, that the central government is systematically eroding constitutional liberties and working to institutionalise the dreary, joyless, regimented, unequal societal order beloved of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It is my view that everything it says and does springs from the assumptions of majoritarianism, and that it does not understand or like individual rights. It is my view that it has an uneasy relationship with choice and freedom, preferring structure and predictability. It is my view that it has an intrusive, micromanaging attitude that treats citizens like sheep to be supervised, herded, and monetised.
But even if you take a less sinister view of things—the best view, in fact—the way that Aadhaar is being shoved into all the nooks and crannies of a citizen’s life suggests, as the petitioners’ advocate Arvind Datar put it, that the whole project “is like building a bridge and then looking for a river. It is hunting for problems to make itself relevant.”
Choice and consent are at the heart of self-determination and dignity. Many Indians recognising the coercive nature of Aadhaar are waking up to the full import, meaning, and emergent need of that famous feminist and human rights cry: My body, my rights. (Better late than never.) The government wants to remove choice and consent in the matter of the Aadhaar-PAN link. It may sound like a silly detail, but it will set the tone for many of our civil liberties.
They are currently in the hands of the court.