Let us return to the nearly ubiquitous and fully controversial Aadhaar again. The Aadhaar card as proof of identity is not just another ID. It is an unreal object whose existence hinges on various aspects that one does not often take note of. An unreal object is one that comes into being as a consequence of a series of intersecting material and non-material (meaning symbolic or constructed in language, such as in advertisements or state rhetoric). That is, Aadhaar is an effect of various mediating processes, all of which combine to ‘prove’ that Aadhaar means some-thing.
Kate O’Riordan in her excellent work Unreal Objects: Digital Materialities, Technoscientific Projects and Political Realities (2017) studies emerging technologies in genomics, data capture, energy grids and others as instances of the material object being ‘produced’ through politically constructed languages, rhetoric, policies and plans to enforce certain political realities. As O’Riordan puts it, ‘All are emerging in a moment in which the role of the media is central to the research into, and the development and delivery of, new technoscientific realities’.
In other words, the promise made in various media forms — including those of the government and the scientific establishments — of new/emerging technology as delivering us from various sufferings or offering us certain advantages is what makes the object real enough to be accepted and even looked forward to.
Aadhaar as a material object depends on a host of purely symbolic, that is insubstantial, features. These features include the promise of indisputable and incontrovertible identification offered by the state and the UIDAI. Aadhaar is also the effect of a particularly powerful rhetoric of authenticity: which claims that what the card carries as data is the full and complete, true and non-replicable, YOU. Then there is the triumphalist ‘linkage’ of Aadhaar with employment schemes, student scholarships, emancipatory programmes and what-not.
Unreal objects are both a proposition and an approach.
Aspects of Aadhaar
Aadhaar begins as a proposition: proffered by the state and the agencies tasked with the execution of the project. The proposition is captured in the ‘Vision and Mission’ statements on the UIDAI website. The proposition includes items like: ‘to ensure security and confidentiality of identity information and authentication records of individuals’.
Elsewhere, the same site says that the Aadhaar has a dual purpose: ‘to issue Unique Identification numbers (UID), named as “Aadhaar”, to all residents of India that is (a) robust enough to eliminate duplicate and fake identities, and (b) can be verified and authenticated in an easy, cost-effective way’. The proposition indicates that there is a set of goals and purposes.
But Aadhaar is not only a proposition: it is also an approach. For instance, the UIDAI states that the aim is: ‘To ensure compliance of Aadhaar Act by all individual and agencies in letter and spirit’. This latter is an approach that combines regulation, legislation and compliance as a part of whatever Aadhaar stands for. To phrase it differently, Aadhaar is an approach to governance. As an approach, it signals control and documentation that can be enforced, where populations and individuals are made to comply and penalties for non-acceptance imposed.
The larger point, then, is Aadhaar as proposition and approach is the construction not of a piece of plastic or an object but an entire political reality. Political realities of governance, surveillance and control, as determined by any government in power, are mediated through Aadhaar’s (supposed) incorruptible technology so that the card becomes real for us. Aadhaar then is primarily a political object that is mediated enough so that it becomes an everyday object. It is mediated also in a manner that implies, however obliquely, that the card would define the individual and provide the services promised by the state.
Further, with the emphasis on biometrics and corporeal data mathematised into massive databases (and one is not even asking, not any longer, about data security and the right of access to that data), Aadhaar is a technoscientific object that mediates the political realities of governance and its close associate, surveillance. The science behind Aadhaar, therefore, begins life as a state — and corporate-driven media discourse — of security, inviolability and welfare – all of which are primarily political realities.
A Nationalist Project
Let us take two tiny, and different, instances of the political reality that shapes Aadhaar. One advertisement archived on the UIDAI website announces a new helpline number. The advertisement shows a man holding a lurid green plaque/board with the icon of a telephone and the number 1947 inscribed beneath it in large font. The accompanying text says: ‘Easy to call, easy to remember… Aadhaar has a new toll-free helpline number’. Aligning the largest surveillance and documentation project (besides the population census) with the iconic year is a strategic recall of the one political reality everybody recognises: Indian independence from colonial rule.
This mediation of Aadhaar via the political reality of the freedom struggle, Gandhi-Nehru-Patel-Ambedkar et al and the leaders of the national movement, ensures that the card comes into being – is made real – as a national and nationalist project. A political reality frames, mediates and materialises a form of governance and a technoscientific project.
A second advertisement takes a more symbolic route, one that taps into the political unconscious of social relations: it asks you to ‘get Aadhaar for your toddler’. By foregrounding the family and the child as the centrepiece of human affections and responsibility, Aadhaar rhetoric makes the card and the technoscience real: it makes us believe that a very real part of family-nurture and parenting demands Aadhaar. Aadhaar as an object hinges on a calculated set of political effects and realities
It materialises what we cannot see or touch: corporeal data that captures our true identity, not unlike the genome sequence that is supposedly ‘me’. Identity is only manifest in the data captured and stored in the Aadhaar database. It is through a network of people, devices, processes of mediation and storage that Aadhaar becomes real enough to impact people’s lives. That is, Aadhaar becomes real through a series of processes that mediate between the body of the individual, the hard drives on which the data of this body is stored and the political-administrative policies that determine not just the science but also the social-economic aspects of this data.
Aadhaar, then is unreal, except until it manifests as an effect, at the end of a long process, when it begins to affect real lives.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)