Late last year, over 1,500 people from across Meghalaya wrote to the Unique Identification Authority of India, the agency responsible for issuing Aadhaar numbers, asking to “opt out” of the its database.
Claiming they were coerced into getting the biometric identification number, they wrote: “I ask that my demographic, biometric, authentication records and any other information about me which is with the UIDAI be deleted from the UIDAI database. Kindly delete all the information from the UIDAI database and communicate to me when this exercise is complete.”
The opt out campaign is led by the Meghalaya Peoples Committee on Aadhaar, an umbrella organisation of student and civil society groups which even became a party to the legal battle over Aadhaar that was settled by the Supreme Court this week. It filed two affidavits in the court challenging the constitutionally of the government collecting people’s biometric data.
Not only did the committee not receive a response from the Unique Identification Authority of India, its affidavits failed to feature in the Supreme Court’s judgement upholding the constitutional validity of Aadhaar.
More than just privacy
While the opt out campaign revolves around concerns of privacy, as elsewhere in India, it has a religious aspect as well. Having a unique identification number for every transaction, one of the committee’s affidavits states, is akin to being marked by the devil in Christianity. The majority of the state’s residents are Christian.
The imagery is from the Bible’s Book of Revelation which prophecies about a time when “no man will be able to buy or sell” except those marked by the name or the number of the beast, or devil: 666. Similar concerns have been expressed by Christian groups in Mizoram.
At 23.2 %, Meghalaya has one of the lowest rates of Aadhaar enrolment in the country.
Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh, a Presbyterian pastor, said it was disappointing that the Supreme Court did not take note of this concern of the people. “The court should have said something, negative or positive,” he added, “as it is an important issue for people here.”
The Meghalaya Peoples Committee, however, said the apex court’s ruling does offer “partial relief”, referring to part of the majority judgement allowing people to “exit from Aadhaar scheme”.
How that would actually work remains sketchy given the judgement makes Aadhaar mandatory for everyone availing government subsidies or benefits and filing income tax returns.
Meghalaya’s tribal population is exempt from paying income tax. So, they can indeed opt out of Aadhaar, but it would mean forgoing all government subsidies or benefits.
BNM Baswaimoth, who filed one of the affidavits on behalf of the committee, said the group will hold consultations with people before deciding on its next course of action. “Come what may, I will not enrol,” he said. “But this is not just about me. People will not be able to access government schemes if they opt out.”
‘Speaking government’s language’
Baswaimoth criticised the judgement for “speaking the language of the government”. “The government coerced people into signing up for Aadhaar by saying that they will lose all benefits,” he said. “And now it has the court’s sanction.”
Pyrtuh agreed, “This partial relief is no relief for the marginalised and vulnerable sections of the society. A lot of people who signed the opt out letters last year were poor people from far-flung areas of the state.”
Pyrtuh said the committee will have a meeting next week to “follow up on the opt outs” in any case. “The court has said people can opt out,” he said. “So, the now the onus is on the UIDAI and the government to work out the specifics.”
He added: “It’s the end of one chapter, another will begin. The struggle against Aadhaar will continue.”