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India's proof of citizenship paper chase

Bikram Vohra (Between the Lines)
Filed on February 8, 2020 | Last updated on February 8, 2020 at 09.25 pm

Owning land and even property gave you a fair right to identity and affinity, kinship, and status.

Watching the Indian Republic Day parade on January 26 morning one specific factor struck me forcefully as the key difference between the early days and now. As a part of the army brats, several of us 10-year-olds braved the cold of New Delhi some 60 years ago to offer roses to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as he arrived and walked around like an unshackled citizen of India. An absence of security was marked by officers ushering us to hurry up and greet the leader. It was a kind of free for all. In contrast the bulletproof wall around Prime Minister Narendra Modi now indicated that freedom does come at a price and how times have changed.

As an Indian, the parade always stirs the emotions and it has huge spikes of good feeling. But I can imagine how strong the security must be, as too the checks before entry if the IDs have so permitted. And it seemed appropriate to ask myself sitting in a foreign country what is the proof of being an Indian.

As the roses were being passed that day in 1960 all we needed to indicate we were we was our school enrolment certificate and a birth certificate. Because dad was in uniform it was never even asked for. As we grew up, we were vaguely placed on something called a ration card and that was proof of identity. Rice and sugar and some wheat. For military personnel their IC number and military card sufficed. Civilians had a company ID and government servants were given proof of citizenship from their departments. The Railways had their own cards and the student segment got them from universities and school administrations. Even gas connection bills and post office savings accounts counted and so did marriage certificates, pensioner cards, certificates for the disabled, and freedom fighter cards.

By the end of the sixties, the more privileged classes had also increased and the passport became the perfect documentation for belonging. The president so stated on the inside front page of the passport. Without let or hindrance. Not to stretch the point but even registered letters to an address were seen as proof of existence and in those early decades no one questioned your bona fides as an Indian. And if you had a bank account you were literally home free. If you took a loan you were more entrenched. The Life Insurance of India policy bond was also accepted as proof that you were home.

Then came the huge swathe of scheduled castes, tribes and backward communities, and their identification guaranteed them as Indians.

As the seventies hit the calendar the frequent state and central elections called for voter registration and the voter card was again proof of being a citizen. In this era there was a spurt into investing in property. This was then logged into the Electoral Photo Identity card (EPIL). Owning land and even property gave you a fair right to identity and affinity, kinship, and status. For farmers and the rural population, a certificate signed by the tehsildar or the sarpanch (village head) was enough proof, even as the sons of the soil theory went into practice.

In 1976, the PAN (permanent account number) card was made mandatory. It was a ten-digit numerical for paying taxes. In 2009, the Aadhaar card was also introduced and it contained necessary information like your biometric data, demographic details, Aadhaar number, photograph, and general information including name, date of birth, and sex.

Now, the two can be linked and it is compulsory from April 1, 2019 to quote and link the Aadhaar number while filing income tax unless specifically exempted.

In the light of the present brouhaha over the Citizen Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens it does give rise to a major concern. How many pieces of paper does an Indian need to be an Indian? Between what are now over these 71 years a collection of over 25 different forms of identification, every one of them acknowledged as legal, the question is that after the next weeding out process will it stop here?

Today, if you have to catch a flight from one's city to another in India they ask for your PAN card because Aadhaar is not proof of citizenship. And if you are in the National Population Register you do not need a to enrol in Aadhaar. Tell that to the person at the check in counter.

- bikram@khaleejtimes.com



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