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'Mass' Aadhaar Deactivations in West Bengal Raise More Questions Than Answers

On what grounds were these Aadhaar IDs deactivated? That's where things get interesting.

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"It's incumbent upon the government to give a detailed reason as to why somebody's Aadhaar is being deactivated," activist Anjali Bhardwaj told The Quint, days after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claimed that the Aadhaar IDs of people, especially from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities of West Bengal, had been indiscriminately deactivated.

On 19 February, Union Minister Shantanu Thakur held a press conference where he attributed the alleged mass deactivation of Aadhaar numbers to "some technical fault."

"It seems that the Higher Level Officials and the Ministry were completely unaware of such step taken by the Regional Office at Ranchi," revealed BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari, adding that an investigation is likely to be conducted.

However, several questions continue to loom. How many Aadhaar numbers have been deactivated? Does it matter if they’ve been deactivated and not cancelled? What are the consequences felt by the deactivated Aadhaar holders? And why has the digital snafu sparked fears over the prospect of a National Register of Citizens (NRC)?

The Quint spoke with NGOs, Aadhaar activists, and former UIDAI officials to get to the bottom of it.

'Mass' Aadhaar Deactivations in West Bengal Raise More Questions Than Answers

  1. 1. Deactivation Notices, Aplenty

    In her letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Banerjee claimed that the mass deactivation of Aadhaar IDs had "created chaos and hue and cry among the residents of the State" with a large number of people "approaching the district administration for redressal of their grievances."

    Banerjee's allegations came after local organisations such as the Tapasili Federation wrote to the chief minister.

    "We have received information from South 24 Paraganas, Nadia, Hooghly, and Burdwan that several people in these districts are getting letters stating that their Aadhaar cards will be deactivated. They have become very fearful because of this," the organisation's letter read.

    When asked about the number of people whose Aadhaar had been deactivated recently, Tapasili Federation national president Mrithunjay Malllick told The Quint that the figure could come up to 10,000 to 15,000.

    “According to our information, even today, 500 Aadhaar numbers have been deactivated," Trinamool Congress (TMC) Rajya Sabha MP Sukhendu Sekhar Ray said on 26 February, after a party delegation met with the Election Commission of India (ECI) regarding the deactivations.

    About 90 percent of those who got the UIDAI letter informing them that their Aadhaar numbers were deactivated belong to SC communities, not so much ST communities, Mallick said, adding that the organisation plans on approaching the West Bengal governor over the deactivations.

    The Quint has sent detailed questions to the UIDAI about the Aadhaar deactivations in West Bengal and will update this report if we hear back.

    • 01/03

      Redacted screenshot of UIDAI notification on Aadhaar deactivation.

      (Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

    • 02/03

      Redacted screenshot of UIDAI notification on Aadhaar deactivation.

      (Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

    • 03/03

      Redacted screenshot of UIDAI notification on Aadhaar cancellation.

      (Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

    In her letter to PM Modi, CM Mamata Banerjee accused the UIDAI of directly informing individuals or family members that their Aadhaar numbers were deactivated without "any field enquiry or hearing the persons and taking the State Government into confidence..."

    She further argued that the lack of any prior intimation was in "gross violation" of Regulation 29(1) of Aadhaar (Enrolment and Update) Regulations, 2016, which states that "any case reported or identified as a possible case requiring omission or deactivation may require field inquiry which may include hearing the persons whose Aadhaar number is sought to be omitted or deactivated."

    Expand
  2. 2. UIDAI's Half-Clarification

    In the feedback section of its official website, the UIDAI states, "In the course of activities undertaken to keep the Aadhaar database updated, intimations are issued from time to time to Aadhaar number holders."

    "In this connection, it is clarified that no Aadhaar number has been cancelled," it adds.

    However, former UIDAI Deputy Director General Ashok Pal Singh said that the regulator has probably been clever in using the phrase cancelled. "The protest was that Aadhaars have been deactivated and they said none have been cancelled. Now, those two are different things," Singh told The Quint.

    "Canceling means that Aadhaar ceases to exist. Deactivation essentially means that it will not authenticate. So, I think they've played on words, they [UIDAI] haven't denied that [Aadhaars] weren't deactivated. They’ve said that none have been cancelled. And I really wouldn't know how an updation process would result in deactivation," Singh said.

    Additionally, the UIDAI notices sent to a few Aadhaar card holders that were obtained by The Quint state that their Aadhaar numbers were deactivated under provisions of Regulation 28A of the Aadhaar (Enrolment and Update) Regulations, 2016.

    And what does this provision specifically state? That's where things get interesting.

    28A pertains to "a foreign national who is seeking enrolment or is an Aadhaar number holder." Furthermore, it allows UIDAI to deactivate the Aadhaar number held by a "foreign national":

    • If their visa has expired

    • If the UIDAI is satisfied that the foreign national "does not fulfil the requirements for his entry into or stay in India under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 (34 of 1920), the rules made thereunder and guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in this regard from time to time.]"

    It is not known on what basis the UIDAI designated the deactivated Aadhaar holders as foreign nationals. But the deactivations have sparked fears that the NRC exercise could be implemented in the state.

    Earlier, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had said that the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) would be notified and implemented before the upcoming polls.

    The statement was reiterated by Shantanu Thakur, except he said that the CAA would be implemented across the country "within a week", according to PTI.

    "But let me make it very clear that as long as I am alive, I will not allow NRC implementation in West Bengal. I will not allow them to take away the citizenship of anyone... everyone here is a citizen," Mamata Banerjee had asserted in response.

    What are the political implications of the West Bengal Aadhaar controversy?

    "For Mamata Banerjee, there's the Rajbhanshi vote bank that she has to consolidate and also the Muslim vote bank that she has to consolidate. So that was one of the reasons why she had come out against the CAA-NRC laws earlier," journalist Ishadrita Lahiri said in an online discussion with Beatroot News' Faye D'Souza and The Quint's Aditya Menon.

    "The angle [Mamata] is trying to take now is that 'the BJP is trying to disenfranchise and take away citizenship from a certain section of people' and that, especially ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections where it's going to be her against Prime Minister Modi, will help her consolidate these vote banks which are crucial for West Bengal," Lahiri further said.

    To watch the entire discussion, click here.

    Expand
  3. 3. Questionable Grievance Redressal

    “The Union Home Ministry has already cleared it that the deactivation process has been stopped and those whose cards have already been deactivated will get them back," said Thakur, who's the Union Minister of State for Ports, Shipping and Waterways, in a press conference held after meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah and IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.

    "I have been given the responsibility to take applications from those people. You just need to write your name, phone number and Aadhaar number and write that it has been deactivated. I will submit it to the Home Ministry and the issue will be resolved,” he added.

    The minister then asked those seeking redressal to share their personal details either by sending an email to aadharsthakurbari[at]gmail.com or dropping a text to the WhatsApp number: 9647534453, raising several eyebrows.

    "What is being done seems to be manifestly arbitrary. How can a grievance redressal mechanism involve writing to a personal email id or making a complaint on a personal number and that too about something like Aadhaar, which is seeded with so many databases," Bhardwaj said.
    On what grounds were these Aadhaar IDs deactivated? That's where things get interesting.

    The WhatsApp tipline provided by the Centre for grievance redressal is identified as belonging to a 'Santanu Thakur Mp', as per Truecaller. This indicates that it is the private phone number of the union minister, as opposed to an official UIDAI number.

    (Screenshot: Truecaller)

    Bhardwaj also pointed out how it was unfair for the onus of getting the Aadhaar number restored to be placed on the affected individuals.

    "Giving out one's Aadhaar number can compromise people's privacy in a very severe manner. So, in this sort of situation, it is very shocking, what redressal mechanism is being provided. This is making a mockery of a very serious issue," she said.

    Meanwhile, ex-UIDAI official Ashok Pal Singh held that an individual can be expected to file a grievance and get their Aadhaar number restored. "But if it's an error, then the UIDAI ought to be kind of determining it by itself and taking care of it," Singh said.

    It is worth noting that in this case, the minister of state for ports, shipping, and waterways has been made the point person for resolving Aadhaar deactivation-related grievances; all while the UIDAI is yet to issue an official statement on the matter.

    "The Aadhaar Act lacks a thorough block or district level grievance redressal process for people to reach out in case of error in the usage of the card."
    TMC MPs in a memorandum submitted to Election Commission
    Expand
  4. 4. More Serious Consequences

    "This kind of deactivation of Aadhaar cards which one is hearing about, is extremely concerning and has grave consequences for people living at the margins and amongst the poorest sections, because it basically leads to their exclusion and denial of basic rights and entitlements to them," Bhardwaj said.

    "In fact, we've seen how many people who didn't have Aadhaar cards or were not enrolled for Aadhaar were finding it difficult to get enrolled for other government schemes and programmes, because Aadhaar was made mandatory," she added, referring to the Supreme Court's 2019 judgment which ruled that Aadhaar can only be made mandatory for welfare schemes.

    Interestingly, concerns of a deactivated Aadhaar number blocking citizens' access to their bank accounts and welfare subsidies had been raised over six years ago.

    Petitioners challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar, had argued before the five-judge Supreme Court bench in 2018, that "the State is empowered with a ‘switch’ by which it can cause the civil death of an individual. Where every basic facility is linked to Aadhaar and one cannot live in society without an Aadhaar number, the switching off of Aadhaar completely destroys the individual."

    "Could it ever be envisaged that under this Constitution which ‘We the People’ have fashioned after a long freedom struggle steeped in sacrifice, the State can arrogate to itself so much power that it can ‘extinguish’ a citizen or be willfully blind with respect to a citizen who would like to identify himself in a manner other than Aadhaar?" the petitioners had further said.

    However, residents in West Bengal can continue to avail the state government's welfare benefits irrespective of whether they have Aadhaar cards or not, Mamata Banerjee said.

    The TMC chief also revealed plans for an "Aadhaar alternative" and launched a separate grievance redressal portal in light of the deactivations.

    But Bhardwaj expressed concerns over the idea of replacing one unique identification number (UID) with another, even if they are state government issued.

    "We have opposed this kind of UIDs being issued at a large scale to people as they are fraught with problems, they are fraught with problems of data leaks, and they're fraught with problems of exclusion," she said.

    "Not everybody gets covered effectively and therefore, people get left out when these databases are used. So, all of those problems will remain," Bhardwaj added.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Deactivation Notices, Aplenty

In her letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Banerjee claimed that the mass deactivation of Aadhaar IDs had "created chaos and hue and cry among the residents of the State" with a large number of people "approaching the district administration for redressal of their grievances."

Banerjee's allegations came after local organisations such as the Tapasili Federation wrote to the chief minister.

"We have received information from South 24 Paraganas, Nadia, Hooghly, and Burdwan that several people in these districts are getting letters stating that their Aadhaar cards will be deactivated. They have become very fearful because of this," the organisation's letter read.

When asked about the number of people whose Aadhaar had been deactivated recently, Tapasili Federation national president Mrithunjay Malllick told The Quint that the figure could come up to 10,000 to 15,000.

“According to our information, even today, 500 Aadhaar numbers have been deactivated," Trinamool Congress (TMC) Rajya Sabha MP Sukhendu Sekhar Ray said on 26 February, after a party delegation met with the Election Commission of India (ECI) regarding the deactivations.

About 90 percent of those who got the UIDAI letter informing them that their Aadhaar numbers were deactivated belong to SC communities, not so much ST communities, Mallick said, adding that the organisation plans on approaching the West Bengal governor over the deactivations.

The Quint has sent detailed questions to the UIDAI about the Aadhaar deactivations in West Bengal and will update this report if we hear back.

  • 01/03

    Redacted screenshot of UIDAI notification on Aadhaar deactivation.

    (Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

  • 02/03

    Redacted screenshot of UIDAI notification on Aadhaar deactivation.

    (Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

  • 03/03

    Redacted screenshot of UIDAI notification on Aadhaar cancellation.

    (Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

In her letter to PM Modi, CM Mamata Banerjee accused the UIDAI of directly informing individuals or family members that their Aadhaar numbers were deactivated without "any field enquiry or hearing the persons and taking the State Government into confidence..."

She further argued that the lack of any prior intimation was in "gross violation" of Regulation 29(1) of Aadhaar (Enrolment and Update) Regulations, 2016, which states that "any case reported or identified as a possible case requiring omission or deactivation may require field inquiry which may include hearing the persons whose Aadhaar number is sought to be omitted or deactivated."

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UIDAI's Half-Clarification

In the feedback section of its official website, the UIDAI states, "In the course of activities undertaken to keep the Aadhaar database updated, intimations are issued from time to time to Aadhaar number holders."

"In this connection, it is clarified that no Aadhaar number has been cancelled," it adds.

However, former UIDAI Deputy Director General Ashok Pal Singh said that the regulator has probably been clever in using the phrase cancelled. "The protest was that Aadhaars have been deactivated and they said none have been cancelled. Now, those two are different things," Singh told The Quint.

"Canceling means that Aadhaar ceases to exist. Deactivation essentially means that it will not authenticate. So, I think they've played on words, they [UIDAI] haven't denied that [Aadhaars] weren't deactivated. They’ve said that none have been cancelled. And I really wouldn't know how an updation process would result in deactivation," Singh said.

Additionally, the UIDAI notices sent to a few Aadhaar card holders that were obtained by The Quint state that their Aadhaar numbers were deactivated under provisions of Regulation 28A of the Aadhaar (Enrolment and Update) Regulations, 2016.

And what does this provision specifically state? That's where things get interesting.

28A pertains to "a foreign national who is seeking enrolment or is an Aadhaar number holder." Furthermore, it allows UIDAI to deactivate the Aadhaar number held by a "foreign national":

  • If their visa has expired

  • If the UIDAI is satisfied that the foreign national "does not fulfil the requirements for his entry into or stay in India under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 (34 of 1920), the rules made thereunder and guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in this regard from time to time.]"

It is not known on what basis the UIDAI designated the deactivated Aadhaar holders as foreign nationals. But the deactivations have sparked fears that the NRC exercise could be implemented in the state.

Earlier, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had said that the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) would be notified and implemented before the upcoming polls.

The statement was reiterated by Shantanu Thakur, except he said that the CAA would be implemented across the country "within a week", according to PTI.

"But let me make it very clear that as long as I am alive, I will not allow NRC implementation in West Bengal. I will not allow them to take away the citizenship of anyone... everyone here is a citizen," Mamata Banerjee had asserted in response.

What are the political implications of the West Bengal Aadhaar controversy?

"For Mamata Banerjee, there's the Rajbhanshi vote bank that she has to consolidate and also the Muslim vote bank that she has to consolidate. So that was one of the reasons why she had come out against the CAA-NRC laws earlier," journalist Ishadrita Lahiri said in an online discussion with Beatroot News' Faye D'Souza and The Quint's Aditya Menon.

"The angle [Mamata] is trying to take now is that 'the BJP is trying to disenfranchise and take away citizenship from a certain section of people' and that, especially ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections where it's going to be her against Prime Minister Modi, will help her consolidate these vote banks which are crucial for West Bengal," Lahiri further said.

To watch the entire discussion, click here.

0

Questionable Grievance Redressal

“The Union Home Ministry has already cleared it that the deactivation process has been stopped and those whose cards have already been deactivated will get them back," said Thakur, who's the Union Minister of State for Ports, Shipping and Waterways, in a press conference held after meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah and IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.

"I have been given the responsibility to take applications from those people. You just need to write your name, phone number and Aadhaar number and write that it has been deactivated. I will submit it to the Home Ministry and the issue will be resolved,” he added.

The minister then asked those seeking redressal to share their personal details either by sending an email to aadharsthakurbari[at]gmail.com or dropping a text to the WhatsApp number: 9647534453, raising several eyebrows.

"What is being done seems to be manifestly arbitrary. How can a grievance redressal mechanism involve writing to a personal email id or making a complaint on a personal number and that too about something like Aadhaar, which is seeded with so many databases," Bhardwaj said.
On what grounds were these Aadhaar IDs deactivated? That's where things get interesting.

The WhatsApp tipline provided by the Centre for grievance redressal is identified as belonging to a 'Santanu Thakur Mp', as per Truecaller. This indicates that it is the private phone number of the union minister, as opposed to an official UIDAI number.

(Screenshot: Truecaller)

Bhardwaj also pointed out how it was unfair for the onus of getting the Aadhaar number restored to be placed on the affected individuals.

"Giving out one's Aadhaar number can compromise people's privacy in a very severe manner. So, in this sort of situation, it is very shocking, what redressal mechanism is being provided. This is making a mockery of a very serious issue," she said.

Meanwhile, ex-UIDAI official Ashok Pal Singh held that an individual can be expected to file a grievance and get their Aadhaar number restored. "But if it's an error, then the UIDAI ought to be kind of determining it by itself and taking care of it," Singh said.

It is worth noting that in this case, the minister of state for ports, shipping, and waterways has been made the point person for resolving Aadhaar deactivation-related grievances; all while the UIDAI is yet to issue an official statement on the matter.

"The Aadhaar Act lacks a thorough block or district level grievance redressal process for people to reach out in case of error in the usage of the card."
TMC MPs in a memorandum submitted to Election Commission
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

More Serious Consequences

"This kind of deactivation of Aadhaar cards which one is hearing about, is extremely concerning and has grave consequences for people living at the margins and amongst the poorest sections, because it basically leads to their exclusion and denial of basic rights and entitlements to them," Bhardwaj said.

"In fact, we've seen how many people who didn't have Aadhaar cards or were not enrolled for Aadhaar were finding it difficult to get enrolled for other government schemes and programmes, because Aadhaar was made mandatory," she added, referring to the Supreme Court's 2019 judgment which ruled that Aadhaar can only be made mandatory for welfare schemes.

Interestingly, concerns of a deactivated Aadhaar number blocking citizens' access to their bank accounts and welfare subsidies had been raised over six years ago.

Petitioners challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar, had argued before the five-judge Supreme Court bench in 2018, that "the State is empowered with a ‘switch’ by which it can cause the civil death of an individual. Where every basic facility is linked to Aadhaar and one cannot live in society without an Aadhaar number, the switching off of Aadhaar completely destroys the individual."

"Could it ever be envisaged that under this Constitution which ‘We the People’ have fashioned after a long freedom struggle steeped in sacrifice, the State can arrogate to itself so much power that it can ‘extinguish’ a citizen or be willfully blind with respect to a citizen who would like to identify himself in a manner other than Aadhaar?" the petitioners had further said.

However, residents in West Bengal can continue to avail the state government's welfare benefits irrespective of whether they have Aadhaar cards or not, Mamata Banerjee said.

The TMC chief also revealed plans for an "Aadhaar alternative" and launched a separate grievance redressal portal in light of the deactivations.

But Bhardwaj expressed concerns over the idea of replacing one unique identification number (UID) with another, even if they are state government issued.

"We have opposed this kind of UIDs being issued at a large scale to people as they are fraught with problems, they are fraught with problems of data leaks, and they're fraught with problems of exclusion," she said.

"Not everybody gets covered effectively and therefore, people get left out when these databases are used. So, all of those problems will remain," Bhardwaj added.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from explainers

Topics:  Mamata Banerjee   Aadhaar   UIDAI 

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