Bit by Bit — Tiny Steps Toward a Totalitarian Solution

No sufficiently distant goal is achieved in one big step. But take enough number of small steps in the correct direction consistently, and you are guaranteed to reach your destination.

Recall the “digital” solution that Ajit, the archetypal Bollywood villain of the past, once adopted to get rid of the hero. He told his minions that they should put the hero in a computer. Why, the puzzled minions asked. Ajit said, “Bit by bit mar jayega.

Indians are also getting that digital solution — where the means are technological and the end appears to be their total enslavement to the state. The government has all the powers that it needs to be in absolute control of what the citizens are allowed to do, what they must do, and what they must not do. It is  using those powers, bit by bit. And the citizens merely adjust to the government control of their lives without protest.

The danger is real, present and imminent. Here’s a piece I wrote for The Quint yesterday, for the record. 

The UIDAI office in Andheri West in Mumbai accepts Aadhaar card applications between 8:30 AM and 9:30 AM. Like scores of others, I had joined the line outside the office gates very early. At 5 AM, I was 37th in line. At 8:30 AM, officials came out of the office, selected the first 30 people in the queue, and told the remaining 70-odd people that their applications will not be accepted that day.

Without the least apology or expression of sympathy, they simply ordered (note, ordered) the people to go away. The people meekly turned away without protest, to try again the next day, perhaps to start lining up at 2 AM.

I was naturally furious at the inefficient government system that needlessly burdened ordinary people, a system that wasted so much of their time, energy and money which they could ill afford. But what was really distressing was the absolute resignation with which the people accepted the system. The lack of outrage, the passive acquiescence of injustice explains, at least in part, the subjugation of Indians over the centuries.

Patiently waiting in line for hours on end to merely submit an application to a government department is not the greatest of atrocities but it is symptomatic of a deeper problem: voluntary servitude. The politicians and the bureaucracy routinely make onerous rules that the people uncomplainingly endure. It is a master-slave relationship that the people accept with the same resignation as one would the change of seasons or the laws of nature. Voluntary servitude is not uniquely Indian, of course, but that does not make it any less pernicious in its effect.

I fear for India. The present government’s promises of “minimum government, maximum governance” turned out to be hollow, meaningless election posturing much like those of all previous governments. The government’s unconscionable assaults on basic rights — property, privacy, equality before the law — are accompanied with sickening predictability dubious justifications that they are necessary for controlling corruption or fighting terrorism or for the public good or some such vacuous nonsense. But as William Pitt the Younger pointed out centuries ago, necessity as the plea for every infringement of human freedom is the argument of tyrants and the creed of slaves.

Is India gradually making its way towards tyranny in tiny steps? Regardless of how tiny the steps, if the direction is consistent, one is guaranteed to reach the destination.

Aadhaar is a fairly big and definite step towards tyranny. The politicians love it, the business that gave birth to the idea profited from it, but what is most disturbing is that very few appear to be troubled by the loss of privacy and freedom that it necessarily entails. Why did I apply for one? Because Aadhaar is required for practically everything — from opening a bank account to getting a mobile connection.

The government’s often pointless and always harmful meddling with the economy is bad enough but when it intrudes into the privacy of the people, it crosses over into dangerous territory. Biometric tracking of every activity of every citizen, private and public, is part of the total solution known as “sabka vikas” that the government has in store for India. Total solution as in “totalitarianism.”

Involuntary servitude is perhaps as ancient as the hills. But voluntary servitude has to be of much later vintage, not later than the formation of governments and nation states. Slavery is the most extreme form of servitude. It is fitting therefore that a former slave would be a keen observer of that human condition.

Frederick Douglass, born a slave in 1818 in the United States of America, has been described as the “most influential African American of the 19th century CE.” I believe that he knew something about freedom and tyranny that we who are not born into evident slavery cannot appreciate. In a speech known as the “West India Emancipation Speech” he said,

“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Douglass said that in 1857, that fateful year that the people of India revolted against the rule of the British East India Company, the proxy ruler for the British Crown. The point that he made that the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress is timeless. Indians of today are as tolerant of the oppression they suffer as their forebearers were of the oppression of the British they suffered in turn. It is British Raj 2.0.

The skin color of the rulers have changed but not the basic nature of the master-slave relationship. Certainly, there’s democracy but that’s just the people electing who shall be the masters that they will serve and for how long. The current rulers know as well as their British predecessors did the exact measure of injustice that the people would tolerate.

How should Indians react to this continued loss of freedom? Frederick Douglass, the former slave, had an answer. His advice to a young black man just a month before he died in 1895 was, “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”

Will Indians agitate? I sincerely, desperately hope they do but I am afraid that they probably won’t.

7 thoughts on “Bit by Bit — Tiny Steps Toward a Totalitarian Solution

  1. I am a person of average, common intelligence. I am not a professor like Atanu.I thought Atanu is an economics professor in USA and a citizen of USA. So it was a bit surprising for me to know that Atanu lives in Mumbai and he applied for the aadhar card as late as Oct 2017. I live in Delhi and I got my aadhar card in July 2011.
    Also, being a common man of average intelligence, I really don’t understand the danger to privacy that aadhar card poses. And frankly, I don’t think I have any illegally acquired wealth, or an illegal girl friend or anything that I need to hide from society/government. I also think that more than 90 percent Indians may be like me. If many people start agitating (I don’t understand for what) the Indian society will be an anarchy. Yes, if there is a genuine cause then people must agitate. And Indians do agitate for a genuine cause. Example 1974 agitation led by Jai Prakash Narain against unbearable price rise and Indira’s dictatorial style that led to Emergency and subsequently to the first non-Congress central government in India in 1977. But are the conditions in India today similar ?

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    1. Mr Sharma,

      Since I don’t know you, I will have to take your word about you having an “average, common intelligence”. But like you, I too am not a professor. I study economics and use the tools of economics to observe the world around me.

      The Aadhaar card was not required for anything about 10 years ago. People did lead ordinary, fulfilling lives without biometric tracking of all their activities. Slowly now one cannot get most things done without Aadhaar — and the total tracking by the government.

      See, there are other entities that track people. Google, Facebook, the credit card companies, the mobile companies. They know a heck of a lot about their customers. The question may be–so if you are OK with those corporations tracking you, what’s so bad about the government tracking you also? In fact, the government should track what people do so that they can catch criminals (terrorists and black money).

      I do not mean to insult your intelligence but allow me to explain the difference between a private corporation and the government. However big or rich, the private corporation cannot arrest and imprison you, and if you resist arrest, the private corporation will not kill you. The government can arrest, imprison and kill you. See the difference?

      You can refuse to do business with the private corporation; you cannot withdraw from the jurisdiction of the government.

      I understand that you are not a criminal. So you believe that it is OK for the government (actually some government functionary) to know what your bank balance is. So you believe that since you don’t have an “illegal girlfriend”, it is OK for the government (actually some government functionary) to peep into your bedroom. Good for you. But not for me, thank you. I value privacy.

      BTW, agitating against price rise is silly at best and extremely stupid at worst. I will write a blog post on that.

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      1. Sir, is the incident about your standing in a queue for Aadhar Card in Mumbai and the behaviour of people managing that centre true ? Well, we have been victims of such callous system for many decades.
        And why would Aadhar card prompt a govt functionary to peep into the bed room of an aam aadmi like me ? Govt functionaries can do that, if they want, even without an Aadhar card.
        We have been reading that the Aadhar card system has helped greatly in stopping leakages of subsidies meant for the poor of the country. So, do the negatives, like “loss of privacy” far outweigh the positives like reduction in leakages ? So much that we the aam aadmi should start an agitation ?

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      2. I think you miss the broader point, which was that the government is intruding more and more into the private lives of citizens. One day the government decided to take control of your property — and you just accepted that gross violation of property rights without a peep. Should you not be ashamed of your lack of backbone to resist such a dastardly act as taking away your money? Shame on you. You accepted “demonetization” without protest.

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  2. I am sorry to read that you had to deal with the whims of useless Indian government officials and got turned away so curtly, with poor communication and no accountability. Those imbeciles don’t realize they exist to serve the public. Your experience was inexcusable. I hope you write a note describing the experience and send it to the PMO as a disillusioned NRI who is no longer buying his exhortations to have faith in the progress of our motherland.

    You said: “Aadhaar is a fairly big and definite step towards tyranny.” I don’t follow and can’t connect the dots here. Isn’t it quite similar to the Social Security number system in the US? I can’t engage in any sort of online financial transactions in the US, whether private or public, without easy and definitive traceback to my Social Security number. I can’t file my taxes without it. I can’t get employed in private companies without it. I can’t go to a doctor’s office without using it, even if I tell them I’ll pay upfront in cash. I can’t get a driver’s license without it. I can’t enroll my child in day care without it. Is India’s use of it more intrusive? Or, are you implying the US Social Security system is tyrannical too.

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    1. Madhav,

      It is not true that the bureaucracy exists to serve the people. It exists to help the government rule over the people — exactly as designed because the Indian bureaucracy was created by the British and for the benefit of the British. India’s British overlords have been replaced by Indian overlords.

      Is the Aadhaar card like the “Social Security” number system of the US? Maybe. But that’s irrelevant. What does has to have greater justification than the “but so-and-so also does it”. The SS# and the whole system was developed for an entirely different reason, at an entirely different context, and at a different time. It was not meant to be an ID system; it degenerated into an ID system over time.

      The tools available today for surveillance would have been unimaginable 80 years ago — when the SS system was developed. In any case, India is moving fast on the road to serfdom.

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  3. Atanu, your argument is flawless, but it is pointless to try to rouse Indians to action based on those. Indians viscerally understand that any “citizenry” (if that word is appropriate in the so-called democracy run in India) that reproduces and multiplies at such breathtaking pace foregoes all rights and all entitlements normally afforded in decent human societies. Democracy simply cannot germinate — leave alone thrive — in a country where 12 million poorly educated, largely unemployable people join the workforce every year. It is now a match between dictatorship and total, feral anarchy. Most people instinctively understand that dictatorship may be preferable in the short run. The feckless (fekuless?) opposition thought they would bring down BJP based on the outrage of demonetization alone, and look what happened to them! Like Mr. “Kishan Sharma”, most Indians think nothing of a few more hours of queuing per month — Indian productivity is so abysmal that additional queuing for handouts is a non-issue, may even be welcome.

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