Aadhaar, the 12-digit unique identification number based on biometric data, has opened up pockets of resistance in North Eastern states like Meghalaya, Nagaland and Assam. Concerns about privacy, security and the increasing enforcement of Aadhaar are not restricted to these states. But they also come with their particular set of worries.
In these borderlands, which have seen ethnic movements for self-determination, politics is largely shaped by the fear of the “outsider”, from other states as well as alleged illegal immigrants from across the border. Aadhaar has tapped into old anxieties about letting the outsider in, about local ethnic groups being “swamped” and political fortunes being altered by the homogenising policies of the state. The national identity project is buffeted by different battles of identity here.
The three states have the lowest Aadhaar saturation rates in the country. Assam occupies the bottom rung, at 7.1%, followed by Meghalaya, at 15.3%, then Nagaland, at 55.5%. Mizoram, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have saturation rates above 70%, but even that places them in the bottom seven, along with Jammu and Kashmir. Only Tripura has managed more than 89% enrolment.
In Meghalaya, an opt-out campaign among Aadhaar users has been gaining ground since last month, with petitioners complaining that they were coerced into giving up their data, in spite of repeated Supreme Court orders that Aadhaar would not be mandatory. While it started in the Khasi Jaintia Hills, campaign organisers say it seems to be spreading to the Garo Hills. In 2013, enrolment had been stopped after protests that it would allow so-called illegal immigrants to settle in the state.
In Assam, which is currently updating its National Register of Citizens, a project that aims to identify the “original inhabitants” of the state, enrolment was stalled earlier this year.
In Nagaland, there have been calls for exemption on the grounds that it goes against Naga customary laws, protected under Article 371(A) of the Constitution. Under this law, acts of Parliament must be ratified by the state legislature before they can apply to Nagaland. Tribal customary laws held sacred the idea of free social benefits enjoyed collectively, argued a memorandum to the state government, and “any denial in the name of identity numerisation is inimical to the social and religious identity of the Nagas”. Besides, the memorandum said, the imposition of Aadhaar impinged on the Naga right to self-determination. Another objection to Aadhaar is that it excludes Nagas living in Myanmar, who have daily ties with villages on this side of the border and who are imagined as part of a greater Naga homeland.
Though articulated differently, the protests against Aadhaar in all three states have common threads running through them. First, indigenous student groups whose politics are centred on an ethnic identity have been a component of the protests. In Meghalaya, it was the Khasi Students’ Union which led the opposition to Aadhaar in 2013 and they are now part of the Meghalaya People’s Committee on Aadhaar. In Assam, the All Assam Students’ Union, which led the anti-foreigners’ movement in the 1980s, has called for the citizens’ register to be updated before Aadhaar enrolment started. In Nagaland, the memorandum has been sent by Naga Students’ Union, the apex students’ body in the state.
Second, the demand for exemption is beginning to gather political resonance. In poll-bound Meghalaya, the Congress chief minister said he does not have Aadhaar either, since he shared the concerns of his people. When Aadhaar enrolment was stalled in Assam this year, it was widely perceived to be a political decision, with the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state more anxious to stick to its poll promise of rooting out so-called illegal migrants than pushing biometric enrolment. It remains to be seen how the anti-Aadhaar campaign plays out in Nagaland, which faces both polls and the prospect of a political settlement between the Centre and rebel groups that could change the administrative set up of the region.
Another fear, shared by some religious groups in Christian majority states like Meghalaya and even Mizoram, is that numerical identities seem to reenact certain Biblical prophecies. But even this objection might be read as a demand to be recognised as distinct from the Hindu majority states of the mainland.
Most importantly, the anxieties around Aadhaar in these states are linked to debates around citizenship, to contested ideas about who may belong and on what terms. In the tribal states of the North East, it is often imagined as belonging to a certain regional entity rather than the entire country.
Both Meghalaya and Assam saw long-running agitations against outsiders encroaching on lands meant to be reserved for “sons of the soil”, changing the demographic composition of the area, entering electoral rolls through political patronage and altering political outcomes in a region where self-determination was held sacrosanct.
The denizens of the imagined Naga homeland live within India’s borders and without, while many populations settled inside the state do not belong, according to this formulation. Besides, Naga democracy, based on village republics and collective decisionmaking, distances itself from mainstream democracy, and imagines a different kind of relationship between the individual and the state than the one mediated by Aadhaar.
While the government has clarified that Aadhaar provides an identity for individuals and is not a guarantee of citizenship, the identity project in the states of the North East was initially linked to the National Population Register. This list flows from the Citizenship Act of 1955 and the Citizenship Rules of 2003. It is mandatory for every “usual resident” of India to register, though it does not account for the collection of biometrics. This is eventually supposed to go into the creation of a National Register of Citizens, which would help check illegal immigration.
As Aadhaar changed in its contours and intent, all biometric data collection was transferred to the Unique Identification Authority of India. In Assam, it was separated from the process of updating the National Register of Citizens. But in other states, it is still feared that Aadhaar would help outsiders make their way back into electoral rolls and then claim citizenship in a particular state.
Going ahead, the identity project will have to answer these anxieties, negotiate these collective demands for autonomy from the state, even as it deals with concerns about individual autonomy.