The Assam government has proposed that biometric data be collected from the 4 million people left out of the state’s draft National Register of Citizens which was released in July. On Monday, the Economic Times reported that machines will be procured from the Unique Identification Authority of India, the organisation that runs the country’s biometric identification project Aadhaar, in order to complete the task. Earlier, the Union government had also expressed the view that such an exercise should be conducted.
Biometrics involve the use of body measurements such as finger print or iris scans to identify people. The use of such data, given its wide scope for abuse, has raised human rights fears concerns across the globe. To collect this data forcibly, even from undocumented migrants, is an abuse of state power. Moreover, this move does not impinge only on the human rights of immigrants. As has been made clear, the draft National Register of Citizens can be challenged and a final list is yet to be created. This means not only will immigrants face compulsory biometrics harvesting so will a section of Indian citizens.
The right to decide against handing over biometrics to the Union government is something that activists have been fighting for ever since the Aadhaar came into being in 2009. While never made compulsory technically, there have been, over the past few years, a series of rules that in effect make the Aadhaar necessary for many citizens. A bewildering array of services have made the linking of Aadhaar mandatory, even when there were no laws or judicial orders backing to such a move. In one case, the Union government even conceded that there was no legal backing for making the Aadhaar linking of mobile phone numbers mandatory, even while the Modi government had ordered telecom companies to make it so. With this National Register of Citizens move, mandatory enrolment has been instituted explicitly, making it a worrying precedent for the rest of India.
The use of biometric data for the purposes of law enforcement is another red flag in this decision. When Aadhaar was constituted, the Unique Identification Authority of India argued that it would not be used for law enforcement in order to allay fears that the collected biometric data could be abused by the state. However, in this case, biometric data is being explicitly collected for law enforcement, in order to track people if they move to other states.
The National Register of Citizens is in itself a highly problematic move, ridden with bureaucratic errors and driven by a dangerous brand of cultural nationalism. The addition of biometrics will increase the chances of human rights abuses significantly.