Meghalaya Diary, part 2: Superstitions, privacy concerns, distrust of 'non-tribals' make Aadhaar a non-starter in poll-bound state
Many people in Meghalaya are avoiding Aadhaar enrollment because they believe it is akin to the mark of the beast.
Editor's note: As Meghalaya goes to the polls, Firstpost travelled to the northeastern state for a series of stories on the political economy. We looked at the state's economics, culture, society and sport and examined the interlinkages with politics to give you an in-depth view through a three-part series.
Is hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia causing the country's lowest Aadhaar enrollment ratios in Meghalaya? Yes, and no. The term means a fear of the number 666, or the number of the beast, mentioned in the Bible and believed to be an ill omen by devout Christians. Many people in Meghalaya are avoiding Aadhaar enrollment because they believe it is akin to the mark of the beast. However, that is not the whole story. Opposition to Aadhaar is also based on privacy/surveillance concerns and the fear of an influx of non-tribal 'outsiders', a perennial concern which becomes even more potent before elections.
Data from the Unique Authority of India website shows that at 20.2 percent, the state ranks second from the bottom for cards issued. Only Assam—which suspended Aadhaar registrations initially following apprehensions by some local organisations that illegal citizens might acquire the unique identification number before the National Register of Citizens' is compiled—ranks lower. The Aadhaar process is already getting momentum in the state after the government allayed the fears of the regional groups. While the religious angle is one of the reasons why people oppose Aadhaar, it is not the only one. The Meghalaya Peoples' Committee on Aadhaar has started a campaign to 'opt out' of Aadhaar, on the grounds that people were 'coerced' into giving their biometrics.
However, coming back to the religious reason, the mark of the beast is considered to be 666, also called the number of the beast, which is mentioned in the Book of Revelations.
"The second beast of Revelation 13 will cause 'all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name" (Revelation 13:16-17).
To many believing Christians, the prophecy is eerily similar to registering one's biometrics. Enrollment for the unique ID involves scanning the fingerprints on both hands as well as an iris scan, a process that seems akin to the mark on the right hand or forehead. There has been speculation over these biblical verses, with interpretations in the modern context ranging from unique personal ID numbers to chips embedded under the skin. However, some people are wary of interpreting the verses literally.
PBM Basaiawamot, an ordained pastor of the Khasi-Jaintia Presbyterian Assembly and member of the Peoples' Committee said that many Christians in Meghalaya believed in the connection between the biblical verses and the 12-digit Aadhaar number. However, the priests who have led the opposition to Aadhaar have not done it for entirely religious reasons. Pastor Kyrsibor Pyrtuh, another member of the Peoples' Committee on Aadhaar said he was not in favour of a literal understanding of the biblical verses. "I don't subscribe to the view that the 12 digit number is akin to the mark of the beast or 666," he said. "But I am convinced that the context of the dawn of Christianity has relevance for India today," he said.
The Book of Revelations was written during the time of Roman persecution of the fledgeling Christian religion in the first few centuries of the common era. Roman emperors from Marcus Aurelius to Hadrian engaged in violence and discrimination against the early Christians. The worst was supposed to be Nero, who blamed Christians for the great fire of Rome which devastated the city in AD 64. He then unleashed a savage purge on the already detested Christians.
"The rulers of Rome built statues in their own image and glorified themselves so that their subjects would worship them. Whoever challenged that was profiled and persecuted," Kyrsibor said.
However, the religious angle is just one of the pillars of the opposition to Aadhaar in the state. The other pillars firmly rest on issues of violation of privacy and surveillance. A coalition of civil society members representing a diverse cross-section of society from the church, students organisations and NGOs started an 'opt out' campaign in October 2017. Around 1,500 people from across the state sent letters to the Unique Identification Authority of India asking it to delete their biometrics from the Aadhaar database and also ask third parties to do the same if it was shared with them. The Peoples' Committee has also submitted petitions to the Supreme Court in the Aadhaar case, hearings for which are currently ongoing.
"Meghalaya was the first state to form a coalition of common people against Aadhar," Usha Ramanathan, a legal expert who has been at the forefront of the opposition to the Aadhaar project, said. "People in Meghalaya thought it was an identity system, but when they saw what was being done with it they made the connection with 666. The religious reason is there, but it is also about a lot more than that. The starting point was saying 'what is happening, this is close to Revelations'. But then it led to other things like coercion and privacy," she said.
A third reason why Aadhaar is being opposed is the feeling that it will lead to a huge influx of people from outside who could swamp the native Khasi/Jaintia and Garos in their own state. "We are afraid of becoming a minority in our own land," Welbert Rani, president of the Federation of Khasi, Jaintia and Garo People, a pressure group, told Firstpost. He claimed that as per the Constitution any person who resided for more than six months in any state could get local voting rights. "There are many people from Assam and Bangladesh in Meghalaya and we want the government to first identify all non-tribals and then only issue Aadhaar cards," Rani added, saying that even the chief minister had declined to enrol for Aadhar. In fact, Mukul Sangma has said that the unique ID should not be made mandatory for people in Meghalaya.
In the third and final part of the series on Friday, we examine how football helps in the game of politics and polls in Meghalaya.
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