Centre for Internet & Society

Social activist Shabnam Hashmi recorded a policeman telling her those without address proof and Aadhaar could be “eliminated”.

The article by Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar was published in the Wire on July 16, 2017. Pranesh Prakash was quoted.

Well-known social activist Shabnam Hashmi held a press conference to say she was threatened on the telephone by a police officer at the Lajpat Nagar police station warning her that the government had  launched a ‘surround and eliminate’ campaign against people whose addresses are not known and who do not possess Aadhaar numbers or cards. This is now a standing instruction to all police stations, Hashmi was told. Moreover, the officer –  accused of threatening and abusing Hashmi when she called him on the night of July 14 to know why the husband of a woman, who learns stitching at a training centre run by the NGO Pehchan at Jaitpur in south-east Delhi, had been summoned at a late hour – insisted that police personnel were well within their rights to act in this way.

The police may brush aside this assertion as the concerned officer’s personal opinion, or they may deny the veracity of the conversation, which Hashmi recorded and shared with the media; but she and other anti-Aadhaar activists say the interaction raises questions about the consequences – intended or unintended – of the Centre’s stress on making Aadhaar mandatory for the personal liberty and civil rights of ordinary residents.

Many Aadhaar critics have, in the past, expressed the fear that the irresponsible use or misuse of Aadhaar could lead to India becoming a ‘surveillance state’ or ‘police state’  by placing enormous discretionary powers in the hands of unscrupulous state officials.

Petitioners in SC had cautioned against misuse of Aadhaar

Earlier this year, Communist Party of India leader Binoy Viswam had filed a petition in the Supreme Court questioning the introduction of Section 139 AA of the IT Act to link Aadhaar cards with PAN cards. Subsequently, in an interview in April this year, he had noted that “the citizens are becoming instruments in the hands of the state” as “by taking fingerprints, iris scans and other details of the citizens of the country, the state is becoming the custodian of its people.” He had also expressed the fear that “the state can use this data according to its whims and fancies”.

Viswam could not have been more correct. Much before the use of data, “elements” of the state have started using the ruse of creation of data itself as a convenient tool to threaten and intimidate people and this is precisely what happened in the case of Hashmi.

Recalling the incident, Hashmi, who is the founding trustee of Pehchan, said the NGO runs a small centre in Jaitpur extension where it teaches school dropouts to appear for class 10 and 12 examinations and also runs sewing classes for women.

Hashmi said that at around 9 pm on July 14, Haseen, the husband of Mubina, one of the trainees, was summoned by a sub-inspector to the Lajpat Nagar police station regarding a complaint. When Hashmi called up the police station to find out what the summons was about, the policeman allegedly “hurled abuses”, and used “highly derogatory and uncivilised language” during the conversation.

Though Hashmi did not have a recorder in her phone at the time of the first call, she subsequently downloaded one and later recorded her conversation with the same officer.

In this conversation, the policeman is heard reasoning with Hashmi that he had not summoned Haseen at a late hour. He claimed that he used harsh language in the first conversation since she had not identified herself and had only proclaimed herself to be a social worker. It also comes across in the conversation that Hashmi had told the man in the earlier conversation that he was drunk while being on duty and that this had irked him. It emerged that the cop had got an inkling that she was recording the later conversation, because of which he apparently mellowed down.

The issue assumes significance as after declaring twice in the past that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for delivering services, the Supreme Court had recently upheld the validity of an Income Tax law amendment linking PAN with Aadhaar for filing tax returns.

Former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi had argued that the government was “entitled to have identification”  and that “as constituents of society people can’t claim immunity from identification.” Rohatgi had insisted that “no right is absolute, right to body is not absolute. Under extreme cases even right to life can be taken away, under due process.”

Experts have often cautioned against Aadhaar misuse

According to legal experts, the illegalities related to Aadhaar do not just end with such arguments. Writing for The Wire, Prashant Reddy T., a research associate at the School of Law, Singapore Management University, had noted that in the past couple of months the “Modi government has increasingly used its rule-making powers under various laws in a manner which is contrary to the law of the land.” He was referring to the Centre’s announcement to mandatorily link Aadhaar numbers to all non-small bank accounts, failing which, access to the bank accounts would be disabled after December 31.

“As is often the case with this government, the question now is whether this new mandatory Aadhaar requirement (and the threatened punishment) is legal,” the expert had asked.

Earlier this year, writing for the Hindustan Times, Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society, and an affiliated fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, had referred to the immense potential of Aadhaar for profiling and surveillance. He had called for fundamentally altering Aadhaar, saying that if the rampant misuse of surveillance and wilful ignorance of the law by the state were anything to go by, the future looked bleak.