(This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the current political developments unfolding in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir)
The J&K government’s proposed move to create a database of families in the erstwhile state on the basis of which each family will be assigned a unique alpha-numeric code allegedly to optimise and streamline enforcement of centrally sponsored social welfare schemes has sparked a political uproar in the valley, with the politicians accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of reinforcing the surveillance tools and gathering personal data of residents.
The proposed move is part of ‘J&K digital vision document’ and 'J&K Cyber security policy' which was launched in the last week of November at a two-day conference organised by the J&K government in partnership with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances.
As per the document, “Each family will be provided with a unique alpha-numeric code called JK Family ID. The data available in the family database would be used to determine eligibility through automatic selection of beneficiaries for receiving social benefits.”
The document further states that, “The database would identify each and every family in J&K and would collect the basic data of the family, provided with the consent of the family, in a digital format.”
Fresh Digital Surveillance Grips J&K
J&K government officials have tried to allay public concerns by saying that the program will be identical to the Haryana state’s ‘Parivaar Pehchaan Patra’ where families or individuals no longer have to apply under each individual scheme to receive benefits. ”Once the data in the JK Family ID database is authenticated and verified, a beneficiary will not be required to submit any more documents to avail of a service,” Prerna Suri, Commissioner Secretary, J&K’s IT Department told a news agency.
The government also claims it has mechanisms to allow the safe keeping of data and will prevent the threat of breaches by issuing a notification under Section 70 of the Information Technology (IT) Act to declare all information structures of government offices and public sector undertakings as protected systems violations of which would result in 10 years in prison.
However, concerns have nonetheless emerged from several political quarters. “Creating ‘a unique family ID’ for J&K residents is emblematic of the widening trust deficit esp(especially) post-2019,” former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted. “Kashmiris are viewed with deep suspicion & this is another surveillance tactic to tighten the iron grip on their lives.”
‘Border State’ as a Favourite Excuse for Govt Probing
Kashmiri political parties are saying that the unelected administration headed by the centrally appointed Lt Governor is exercising far too much authority. “If this is to increase the efficiency of Public Distribution System(PDS), then what are the Aadhaar and ration cards for?” Imran Nabi Dar, spokesperson for the J&K National Conference party asked.
“We already have enough documentary evidence with us to streamline the social services. They should concentrate on existing schemes and implement them properly. Moreover, these decisions should be best left to the democratically-elected government.”
Mohit Bhan of People’s Democratic Party (PDP) said that this step has been taken without taking the representatives or former lawmakers on board. “Has there been any consultation? We haven’t seen any. A consensus should have been built first before going ahead with such a program. There’s a lot of trust deficit between the people and administration in J&K. And these kind of moves only increase the gap,” he said.
Legal experts said that no matter what the motive of the government, they can justify it by citing J&K’s status as a border state. “The mechanism could also be intended to keep a headcount,” Sheikh Showkat, a legal scholar in Srinagar said.
“Justification is already there as J&K is a border area. Of late, we have seen how the security of state assumes paramount primacy in these affairs. The move could also be part of the bigger scheme. Tomorrow it might probably be used to claim that there are infiltrators in J&K and that they are required to be picked out as it has happened in Assam. Or the unique family ID could well be elevated to the same status as a State Subject certificate which could have further political implications.”
What an Extra Pair of Eyes on J&K's Public Distribution System Means for Regional Security
State Subject refers to the 1927 J&K government notification which gave the residents of J&K exclusive rights to purchase property and apply for government service in the state.
The 1927 law was inserted in the now-abolished Article 370 in the form of article 35A and the same was reiterated in the Delhi Agreement in 1952 and became a fixture in J&K politics before being repealed in August 2019.
Political parties in Kashmir say they have been wary of such decisions and understand how previous such measures have only led towards “over-securitisation” of Kashmir.
Last year in February, the Ministry of Home Affairs Cyber Crime Coordination Centre launched a pilot ‘Cyber Volunteer’ program in J&K and Tripura which solicits help from the ‘volunteers’ over the online medium and asks them to keep an eye out for, among other things, “anti-national” content.
Similarly in April earlier this year, the J&K government made it mandatory for shops and commercial establishments to install CCTV cameras of specified technical parameters in view of the worsening security situation. The directive pledged penal actions in the event of non-compliance.
Adnan Ashraf Mir of J&K People’s Conference party said that there was no need to have special provisions to be made applicable in Kashmir when they are not applicable anywhere else. “We in any case have a lot of mechanisms to check the identities of the citizens of J&K. There is no need to give a number to families,” he said. “As far as I have understood this program is operational in Haryana but the state has yet to top all lists of development indices. In Kashmir, this has created apprehensions in the minds of people.”
Census, Voting Transparency: Does BJP’s Political Agenda Add Up?
The BJP’s J&K unit for its part has emphatically come out to denounce the “misinformation” spread by the mainstream parties and has clarified that the program does not intend to heighten surveillance or gather any more data than is permissible by the law.
“PDP wants to create controversy,” Altaf Thakur, senior spokesperson of BJP in Kashmir said, referring to Mufti’s tweet. “Basically, there has been no census in J&K since 2011. This program will help us in that direction. And since some parties are stoking hysteria regarding the presence of non-locals from Bihar, Haryana, Punjab or other states, it will help us determine that number also.”
Thakur said that the program will help better understand how people in J&K have benefitted from centrally sponsored welfare schemes. “It will allow us to ascertain the successes of their enforcement,” he said. “It will also maximise transparency and strengthen accountability. J&K is also vulnerable to bogus voting during elections. Through this scheme, that problem is also going to be tackled. Besides, everything is being digitised today. BJP doesn’t need to subject Kashmiri people to surveillance. They are already nationalists.”
Read the Part 1 of the series here.
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)