Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Aadhaar: One ID to bind them all

Privacy is like oxygen. You don’t miss it until it’s gone.

(Published on April 8, 2017 in Business Standard)

Indians have serious red tape PTSD. We live with chronic anxiety about the documents that get us the entitlements and paid services we need—food, cooking gas, SIM cards, sale deeds, passports and so on. We’re so tyrannised by bureaucracy that when we hear of an official document that might simplify life, we fall upon it with cries of joy. We laminate and file it, make 294 copies of it, and scan the sucker just to be sure. Thus it was with Aadhaar, the biometrics based unique identification number. It was going to be purely voluntary, and could be used in lieu of other identification. Imagine that—one piece of paper to cut through the mess! A billion of us ran out and got it.

It’s got to be the biggest bait-and-switch in history.  

I failed to educate myself about how the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was building and handling the database to which I was voluntarily offering my most intimate, personal, irreplaceable biometric information—fingerprints and iris scans. Nandan Nilekani was spearheading it—knows his stuff, modern man, benevolent tech, security, privacy, right? My bad.

Critics of Aadhar have been trying for years to alert us to its real and serious problems, mostly in vain. Today, as we discover that our voluntary, secure, private information is no longer voluntary, or secure, or private, their voices ring loud. Here’s my 5-point layperson’s recap of the most disturbing problems put forward by legal scholars, economists, and technology and security experts. We all need to consider them, and read up on them, before blindly furnishing our Aadhaar numbers.

Imperfect authentication: Some people’s fingers are too cracked or dirty for prints to properly register. People lose eyes. Children’s biometrics change. Machines don’t always work. Authentication failure means that millions of people could be turned away from their entitled food rations, despite having a valid Aadhaar number.

It’s illegal: The Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that Aadhaar is voluntary, and barring further orders, nobody can be denied anything for lack of it. Despite that, the government is trying to hugely widen the range of services for which Aadhaar is mandatory. The Aadhaar Act, forced through the Lok Sabha as a money bill last year, makes enrolment compulsory for those wanting subsidies. This year, the BJP used the Finance Bill to smuggle in many more Aadhaar requirements, including for filing income tax, and giving children, whose biometrics keep changing, their midday meals, to which they are entitled not just by law, but by basic human decency. Cherry on top: the government can also revoke or deactivate your number without notice.

It’s not secure: This massive database of personal information is wide open to fraud, attack, and theft. Someone was issued two separate Aadhaar numbers. A dog was issued an Aadhaar number. A simple Google search can reveal Aadhaar-linked bank details. If your whole life is Aadhaar-based, a hacker—or an official—need only hack one database number to take over your entire identity and assets, or erase you entirely, with no way to appeal.

It violates privacy: If you’re forced to use Aadhaar to book train tickets, get pensions, use cyber cafes, get phones, verify passports, make provident fund transactions, open bank accounts, transact in real estate, register on matrimonial sites, pay property tax, and visit your favourite jailbird—even though it would be illegal in all those cases—your life is an open book, from the porn you watch, to how healthy you are, to who you sleep with, and how you spend your money. Not only the government, but also private companies, can access that database.

It enables mass surveillance: The government reserves the right to use your information for “national security”—this for a number that any foreign national can get by virtue of being resident. Would you trust this government, which prevented a Greenpeace worker from making a presentation in London on grounds of national security, to exercise the slightest rationality in that department? Would you trust this government, which defends murderous gau rakshaks and denies their crimes, not to enthusiastically profile minority communities? Would you trust it not to penalise people for their choice of spouse, or food, or entertainment? But no government is entirely benevolent. Would you trust any government not to target inconvenient journalists, whistleblowers, opposition funders, or political dissidents? If DNA is ever included in the biometrics, think of how justice might be abused.

Given these and other issues, thoroughly and better articulated by experts like Usha Ramanathan, Reetika Khera, Sunil Abraham, Pranesh Prakash and many others, why this unseemly haste to mainstream Aadhaar? Where’s the fire? Until the Supreme Court has passed judgement on Aadhaar, we’d be wise to read up, and to refuse to be bullied.

As they don’t say often enough: Aadhaar in haste, repent at leisure.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Talking development, walking Hindutva

It’s so much easier when they’re the same thing.

(Published on March 25, 2017 in Business Standard)

What’s interesting about Yogi Adityanath’s ascension in Uttar Pradesh is how so many of Prime Minister Modi’s supporters are shocked and disappointed. It reveals either a) how stubbornly they cling to the fiction that Mr Modi’s politics are all about the economy or b) that they are aware of the PM’s devoted service as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak, but aren’t affected by Hindu chauvinism, or actively approve of it.

For them, the 2002 Gujarat riots didn’t cloud Mr Modi’s reputation. They didn’t mind his communal statements, or his silence over cow vigilantism. They didn’t care that he picked RSS-linked ministers and institutional heads who have swerved hard to the right, from Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar who blames women for rapes, to CBFC head Pahlaj Nihalani, nanny to the nation and huge Modi suck-up. It didn’t matter that Doordarshan airs RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s speeches; or that the BJP submitted a first year ‘report card’ to the RSS, like a schoolchild. It didn’t bother them that the PM didn’t speak up for intellectual freedom in universities, or that he changed demonetisation goalposts daily. Mr Modi’s supporters drowned these things out with loud hosannas about economic development, thus far a damp squib.

But now that he has put the country’s largest state in the hands of a violent, misogynistic, god-bothering rabble-rouser, the ugliest face of radical Hindutva—well, now some are worrying about what that says about the PM. (Only some. Others want to ‘give Mr Adityanath a chance’. Given Mr Adityanath’s long public track record, that view is amoral, or terminally self-interested, or outright stupid.)

Powerpoint presentations and business-y acronyms make Mr Modi seem like the most modern face of the RSS. But he remains a face of the RSS, and the RSS cannot abide the liberal, western-inspired Constitution of India, which it sees as an alien imposition on an ancient and supreme Hindu society. A quick reminder, here, that the organisation’s single heart’s desire is to achieve a Hindu rashtra, an India for Hindu supremacists.

Under Mr Modi’s nicely cut clothes and emphasis on digital, hi-tech India, lie ideological roots as autocratic and puritan as they come. While he thinks up catchy acronyms and hugs world leaders, his Rottweiler, Amit Shah, warns against ‘love jihad’, and bays for ‘revenge’ against Muslims at Muzaffarnagar. While Mr Modi salutes the Constitution, his government is busy subverting freedoms and rights, most recently in the obnoxious Finance Bill that, among other things, removes the cap on political funding and accountability (so much for ending corruption), and makes it mandatory to link Aadhaar cards to income tax returns (so much for the Supreme Court’s instructions).

Beef wars, hyper-nationalism, social moralism, cultural puritanism, regressive gender constructs, vigilantism, mass control, violent Hindu revivalism—none of this is unpredictable or surprising. If there’s one thing for which the RSS deserves credit, it is that it has never hidden nor deviated from its proudly public agenda. It spent its long years in the wilderness working its tail off, building its networks, harassing writers and artists and academics, beating up students, and whipping up religious hate. It has stayed true to its cause, and today that dedication is paying rich dividends. It’s a work ethic that the Opposition should learn from. 

This is what India let in the door, in 2014. Now, with the country firmly in its hands, recognising an unexpected opportunity that may never come again, the RSS-BJP is going for broke. Choosing Mr Adityanath—who wants to dig up dead Muslim women and rape them, kill 10 Muslims for every dead Hindu, and control women for national security; who says that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together; who as CM has sanctioned moral policing in the name of women’s safety—choosing Mr Adityanath is raising a giant middle finger to the democratic, pluralistic, rights-based Constitution of India. The RSS-BJP was talking development, walking Hindutva; the only development is that it is now both talking and walking Hindutva. It is free at last, its goals looking tantalisingly possible. Politically rampant, it can now focus on subverting academia. Mr Bhagwat will be ‘guiding’ vice-chancellors and academics this weekend at a Gyan Sangam in Delhi.

But India is bigger than Uttar Pradesh, and hundreds of millions of people will raise a giant middle finger right back at any attempt to control their culture and freedom and thought. How this tussle plays out is going to make for a riveting stretch of history.

Meanwhile, for those who insist this is all just melodramatic leftist breast-beating, there’s an old story about a man who, finding a frozen snake, warms it against his breast; whereupon the revived snake follows its natural instincts and bites the man to death.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

These polls won’t be over soon enough

Enough, already, the suspense is making us sick

(Published on March 11, 2017 in Business Standard)

I’m writing this on Friday March 10, 2017, jabbing at the keyboard with the bloody stumps of my fingers now that I’ve chewed off the fingernails and kept going all the way to the knuckles. The results of five state elections will be out on Saturday, and, possibly chastened by getting so many previous elections dead wrong, the television talking heads are being unusually circumspect about the huge electoral prize of Uttar Pradesh. Thanks a lot, talking heads. Just when we could have used someone going out on a crazy limb as usual, to give us something to hang on to, you get all responsible and all, ‘Could be a hung house, but who knows.”

Over the last couple of months, I have largely stayed away from reports that purported to tell us how whole states are going to vote. It’s interesting to imagine that these reports serve as a finger held up to the political wind, but too often, especially in such a long drawn out poll schedule, they are too localised and transient to serve that purpose. This time, I told myself, just wait for the results and process what actually happens, rather than get yanked around by constantly evolving reports of a vague direction. 

Now that we’re at the exit poll stage, I’m even more convinced that this is the healthier approach. If one must pay attention to exit polls, I’m most inclined to agree with the Faking News team’s analysis: “Someone will win!” It inspires more confidence than this, from a story in “Today’s Chanakya is forecasting 285 seats for the BJP, with a margin that could even take it almost to 300, in the 404-strong assembly. Meanwhile, on the other end of the range is CVoter, which has predicted 161 seats to the BJP.” That kind of data range is a very strong indicator that nobody has any idea what’s going on.

And that’s when an exit poll isn't suspected of having been fabricated as a campaign strategy. The Wire reports that an exit poll illegally published in Dainik Jagran after the first phase of polling in UP, came to the newspaper courtesy an executive there who is also a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist, though he has since gone to great lengths to wipe all social media traces of his affiliation to the RSS. The story says that the poll was published to bolster the BJP’s flagging campaign in UP, give voters the sense of a surge, and prevent another Bihar-style disaster; the poll was taken down quickly, but not before being widely circulated on social media, and potentially influencing the outcome of the election. The Wire has what could be a massive story of election fraud. What are the chances that it will be properly investigated if the BJP takes U.P.?

Election fatigue has set in. Ground reports are no longer relevant, exit polls don’t help, and I’m avoiding the hours of studio talk time which will attempt to break down the mind of the Indian voter in leaden detail. But I can’t help but fret about it all, and the suspense is horrible. The combined results in Punjab, Goa, Manipur, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh amount to taking the political temperature of India. A raised temperature is, of course, only one partial, inconclusive indicator of health, but when you’re worried about maybe having ebola, you don’t want any funny readings at all.

I’m only saying ebola because that, too, is a very strong force that destroys you from the inside.

Those Indians who don’t care for the formal and informal policies of the RSS-inflected BJP government are regularly accused of being anti-national. Au contraire: Some of us would contend that it is the RSS-inflected BJP government that is anti-national—dividing, infantilising, policing, and intimidating people into obedient adherence to its chauvinistic vision of what India is, and who belongs here.

These election results, especially in U.P., will be something of a referendum not just on the BJP’s official policies like demonetisation, but also on its informal policies relating to social structures and the interpretation of freedom. Those of us who see empowerment, freedom, and individual rights as positives that should accrue to every Indian, will always look for an alternative to the party of Hindutva. It’s not just a shame that the alternatives are so uninspiring—it’s dangerous. Societies are easily poisoned, and do not easily recover. And yet, it’s a large and diverse enough country that you must never write off anything, least of all a surprise.

If U.P. does, in fact, go to the BJP, there is one upside: it will swiftly be followed by Holi, and we can all get legally stoned.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Thugs on campus

Radioactive nationalism causes intellectual death 

(Published on February 25, 2017 in Business Standard)

Another day, another display of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s thuggishness. The student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh specialises in taking violent offence. This time, it was a two-day seminar called 'Cultures of Protest', planned at Ramjas College, Delhi University. One of the segments, called Regions of Conflict, was scheduled to include the Jawaharlal Nehru University research scholar Umar Khalid, who, last year, was jailed for allegedly raising seditious slogans.

In case you missed the episode on account of being dead at the time, the JNU campus event blew up into national hysteria, spearheaded by the BJP, RSS, ABVP, and fire-breathing news anchors. The Union home minister got involved. Everybody pledged their lives to the motherland, firing over the shoulders of the armed forces. People told each other to go to Pakistan. There were melodramatic speeches in Parliament. JNU was branded a nest of anti-national vipers. In other words, we had a collective hissy fit about nationalism that made our previous collective hissy fit about tolerance look like tea with the Queen.

By the end of a long slanging match, two things had happened: First, Khalid had been let out on bail for lack of evidence, and second, the words ‘nationalism’, and ‘anti-national’ had graduated from emotive to truly radioactive. Today, the mere words are enough for people to shut down their brains and break out the pitchforks. The nationalism bugle is blown often and loudly; and once it is blown, reason can see itself out the door.

The ABVP, a collection of nationalist vigilantes eternally on the lookout for anyone threatening the nation with an idea, met with Ramjas faculty and promised a peaceful protest against the inclusion of Khalid in the seminar on the grounds that he is anti-national. It doesn’t matter that there is no evidence to that effect. The police, which has consistently displayed its partisanship alongside every ABVP tantrum, declared that it would not be responsible for Khalid’s safety. As a result of that meeting, Ramjas College retracted its invitation to Khalid. Following this, college faculty and students, including from the All India Students Association (AISA) and students from JNU, organised a peaceful march protesting the ABVP’s intrusion into the seminar.

It is at this point, inexplicably—after the objectionable speaker had been cancelled, after the college had conceded—that violence broke out between, among others, members of the ABVP and the ABVP-led Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU), and AISA. Students were locked into a room, bricks were thrown through the windows, rocks and hockey sticks were reportedly used to wound people, a Ramjas professor was almost strangled, students were beaten up, some of the police allegedly took off their badges and waded into the fight—in short, all hell broke loose.

There is no earthly justification for the violence. Why on earth did it happen at all? The ABVP’s political parents are certainly not asking, because the ABVP is the tip of their educational spear, enforcing a culture of fearful intellectual servility. Students are universally the perfect proxy—young enough to be cut some slack, old enough to be effective, free of reputations to protect. As far as the talking heads from the BJP and the RSS were concerned, naturally violence is condemnable, but of course it’s understandable that youngsters whose hearts beat a tattoo of ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ cannot contain their emotions. Union Minister Kiren Rijiju, a consistent advocate of brain-free ultra-nationalism, repeated last year’s mantra: We will not let universities turn into hubs of anti-national activity.

Who, then, is going to hold the ABVP accountable? The ABVP itself flatly denies starting the violence. A police probe is on to investigate what happened, but the police is firmly controlled by the central government, and not known for its espousal of academic and intellectual freedom. A drama festival at Khalsa College is now in the sights of the ABVP, which has declared some of the plays anti-national. There is going to be no defence of freedom of thought from this government. 

It’s heartening to see students themselves marching in protest against the ABVP’s hooliganism, as one hopes they will against hooliganism from any party’s student proxy. Only students themselves, committed to the idea of academic freedom, and intellectual possibility, adventure, exploration and achievement, can rescue Indian education from the slow throttling grasp of ‘one nation, one thought’ politics.

It is a desperate shame that in an increasingly complicated world, we cannot see the value of equipping our young people to open their minds, and to think for themselves. It is only going to get worse, and it is going to be up to students to fight for their own minds.