The Big Story: A civil question

The arguments both for and against Aadhaar, the 12-digit biometrically linked unique identification number that the government wants every Indian resident to have, are known by now. But they have crystallised in the Supreme Court over the last week, as petitioners appealed against amendments to the Income Tax Act that make Aadhaar mandatory for filing tax returns. The arguments were made just days after it was reported that the biometric details of 13.5 crore Indians had been revealed on government websites. It has been an illuminating week. What the government thinks of civil rights and liberties, what has merely been speculated till now, has now seen the cold light of day.

First, the petitioners argued that making Aadhaar compulsory for filing taxes violated an individual’s autonomy over their body, compelling them to hand over intimate biometric data. But the government, in its arguments before the court, demolished that fond delusion: no citizen had absolute autonomy over their body, it said. People did not have permission from the state to commit suicide or take drugs, it pointed out. Besides, if fingerprints and blood samples of someone accused in a criminal case could be acquired by the state, there was no reason they should not be collected for a PAN card. Second, the petitioners argued that Aadhaar invaded an individual’s privacy, that vital realm of information which belongs only to the self. The government disposed of that concern as “bogus” and a “luxury of the rich”. The poor, who depend on the state for food and other essential goods, clearly do not have such worries.

Third, the petitioners pointed out that there was a “direct collision” between the compulsory nature of the IT Act amendments and the provisions of the Unique Identification Authority of India that runs the programme, which said that Aadhaar was voluntary. But the Centre had already argued that the Aadhaar Act was “in a way mandatory”. The court added that once a individual volunteered to be part of a tax regime, they could not decide how they wanted to pay taxes. Finally, the Centre admitted to leaks but said not one of them came from the UIDAI database and that biometric data was the safest way, till date, to prevent duplication.

So there we have it. A government that does not think autonomy over one’s body and privacy are vital rights, that seems to see no difference between the routine act of paying taxes and the exceptional circumstances of being arrested for a crime. A government that is willing to imperil a citizen’s identity for the sake of fighting black money and terror financing. And to meet its international obligations to the United States’s Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. With these priorities stated and defended, what’s to argue about?

The Big Scroll

Abhishek Sudhir runs through the many reasons for the Supreme Court to strike down the Aadhaar Act.

Sruthisagar Yamunam reports on the proceedings in the Supreme Court.

Devjyot Ghosal of Quartz speaks to the chief executive officer of the Unique Identification Authority of India, who vouches for the safety of Aadhaar but cannot stop the leaks.

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