Moneylife, an online magazine from India, carries an article putting that country’s Unique Identification scheme in a historical context. It’s a useful reminder of past campaigns against official attempts to “own” individual identity:
About a century ago, Gandhiji started the world famous ‘Satyagraha’ in order to oppose the identification scheme of the government in South Africa. Hundred years later, India is repeating a similar programme under the pretext of unique ID numbers
As the old saying goes, ‘Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it’. It seems that both the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and ultimately the Indian government have overlooked history and even the Mahatma’s views while going ahead with the ambitious and expensive unique identification number (UIDN) programme.
Mahatma Gandhi or the erstwhile Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had started his historic ‘Satyagraha’ in South Africa by opposing the identification programme in that country.
On 22 August 1906, the South African government published a draft Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance. The Ordinance required all Indians in the Transvaal region of South Africa, eight years and above, to report to the Registrar of Asiatics and obtain, upon the submission of a complete set of fingerprints, a certificate which would then have to be produced upon demand.
The move proposed stiff penalties, including deportation, for Indians who failed to comply with the terms of the Ordinance.
Since the late nineteenth century, fingerprint identification methods have been used by police agencies around the world to identify suspected criminals as well as the victims of crime. Knowing the impact of the Ordinance and effective criminalisation of the entire community, Gandhi then decided to challenge it. Calling the Ordinance a ‘Black Act’ he mobilised around 3,000 Indians in Johannesburg who took an oath not to submit to a degrading and discriminatory piece of legislation. This was the first time the world witnessed ‘Satyagraha’ or a non-resistance movement that later become a phenomenon in India’s freedom struggle.