FIR against Tribune journalist is a serious loss of face for Modi government

Journalist Rachna Khaira has only uncovered the inherent flaws in the Aadhaar scheme being run by UIDAI.

 |  4-minute read |   08-01-2018
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The filing of a First Information Report (FIR) by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) against The Tribune reporter Rachna Khaira is sure to antagonise a lot of people. This is not something the Narendra Modi government can afford at a time when the entire political narrative is moving towards the 2019 general elections.

Apart from the known solid arguments that the move is like shooting the messenger and that the whistle-blower is getting penalised, the Modi government must keep in mind the public perception. On that count alone, PM Modi must intervene and ensure that this FIR is withdrawn.

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What The Tribune has done is nothing but public service in the highest journalistic traditions. The newspaper's report has merely warned the public - and the government, particularly the UIDAI - that their ambitious scheme has inherent flaws, technically as well as administratively. The newspaper only reignited privacy concerns around the world's largest database of biometric details of a 1.19 billion residents in India and showed the mirror to the authorities.

Instead of plugging the gaping loopholes, checking the flaws in the system, taking remedial measures and thanking the newspaper for the enormous public service, the government is doing the opposite. It's shooting the messenger. It's going after the whistle-blower. Why? This goes against the democratic traditions.

The UIDAI should have ideally registered a police complaint against those who are abusing a national project and indulging in a criminal act of infringing citizens' privacy. The newspaper report suggests that the number of such criminals could be enormous as the newspaper report suggests.

Such a hard-nosed action by the UIDAI would only harm the Modi government and ring alarm bells among law-abiding citizens that it's not just minorities or other groups who are being targeted but any dissent will be squarely dealt with, and that this dissent can be tackled through Aadhaar.

So the real problem lies in Aadhaar, the very scheme which was initially opposed by the Modi government because it was essentially a brainchild of the previous Congress government but was later embraced by the former as it discovered the huge leverage it gets by accessing the entire database of its citizens.

In its letter to The Tribune, the UIDAI has said that its claim of buying unrestricted access to over a billion Aadhaar details for just Rs 500 wasn't possible and demanded to know how many Aadhaar numbers the reporter actually accessed. The UIDAI gave January 8 as the deadline for the newspaper to file its reply failing which it would be presumed that there was no access to any fingerprints and/or iris scan.

The UIDAI should have done the checks at its own end, rather than putting the ball in the newspaper's court. By putting the onus on the newspaper, the UIDAI is simply washing its hands off its responsibilities and trying to hector the newspaper for pointing out grave irregularities and loopholes.

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While the Modi government is going after the whistle-blower in this case, it should be mindful of the scathing remarks made by the best-known international whistle-blower in contemporary times: Edward Snowden. The former US National Security Agency contractor had said just a few days ago that history has shown that no matter what the laws are, the result is always abuse.

The Tribune episode has reignited a debate on the larger issue of the legal and constitutional validity of the Aadhaar project. The Supreme Court is seized of the matter and a five-judge constitutional bench is in the process of hearing various "tagged" cases related to the validity of Aadhaar on various grounds including privacy, surveillance and exclusion from welfare benefits. Despite its validity being challenged in the court, the Modi government has pushed and even coerced citizens to link their Aadhaar numbers with a host of services including mobile SIM cards, bank accounts, Employee Provident Fund, insurance etc, and a large number of welfare schemes, including but not limited to, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Public Distribution System, and old-age pensions.

The media has reported some shocking incidents in which HIV patients were forced to discontinue treatment for fear of identity breach as access to treatment has become linked to Aadhaar cards. Even access to midday meals for schoolchildren now hinges on producing Aadhaar numbers.

Those who seek to punish The Tribune for doing a noble public service need to be reminded of the following quote of the great strategist of ancient India, Chanakya. "Whoever imposes severe punishment becomes repulsive to the people; while he who awards mild punishment becomes contemptible. But whoever imposes punishment as deserved becomes respectable... Punishment when awarded with due consideration, makes the people devoted to righteousness and to works productive of wealth and enjoyment."

Also read: Why UP government's mega PR drive for Kumbh Mela is misplaced

Writer

Rajeev Sharma Rajeev Sharma @kishkindha

The writer is an independent journalist and a strategic analyst.

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