Research scholar subjected to targeted attack and online hate for writing on Aadhaar

Indian Government’s biometric identity programme Aadhaar is not new to controversies. While one group has raised serious privacy concerns, the other seems to have accepted the Aadhaar system wholeheartedly.

Research scholar Shekhar Chandra, who is a PhD student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wrote an article on Slate.com titled “India’s biometric identity program is rooting out corruption”. The excerpt of the article read “but serious privacy concerns remain”. Without even reading the article, one might draw the conclusion that the article is rather balanced, detailing both the pros and cons of the system.

The article spoke about how Aadhaar has given many the identity document that has helped them open bank accounts, avail welfare schemes etc and has helped in combatting a serious problem ailing India, which was people using fake identities to avail government subsidies.

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He gives facts and data to make a case for how Aadhaar has helped curb corruption. He used Rajiv Gandhi’s own words to show how government subsidies and benefits were earlier not reaching the intended people. And how, because of Aadhaar, it has started to reach the right people.

While Shekhar Chandra wrote about the pros of Aadhaar, he also wrote about the controversies surrounding the biometric system. Chandra mentions how many have argued that wide-scale use of Aadhaar could lead to profiling and the data can be misused by private companies. He mentions how activists have displayed concerns about the reduction of social mobility and the chance that it could all precipitate into India turning into a surveillance state.

Chandra also concedes that the privacy concerns aren’t merely hypothetical. He writes :

There are also not-merely-hypothetical concerns about hacking and leakage of data. In 2017, the details of 1.4 million pensioners were inadvertently leaked by a local social security office. To allay privacy concerns, the government has added additional security layers to the Aadhaar architecture and also codified that the data is to be exclusively used for welfare services.

He also criticised politicians who use Aadhaar to make outlandish statements.

While by all standards, Chandra’s article was a well-researched balanced take on the raging debate surrounding Aadhaar, there are certain people who use social media as a tool to question anything and everything that doesn’t conform to their agenda in totality. Balance and nuance are often lost on people who take extreme positions due to their dislike for a particular person or entity. Chandra was attacked and became a recipient of online hate for his article.

Rita Banerjee, who is a writer with HuffingtonPost, feminist, author and adds #DestroyTheAadhaar in her Twitter bio, started questioning Shekhar Chandra on his “research” and “support for Aadhaar”. In doing so, she curiously quoted an article that was based on fabrications and was debunked comprehensively.

Chandra responded to her asking her not to troll needlessly and wondered what she was saying had to do with Aadhaar.

There are others who directed hate at Chandra wantonly claiming that his article displayed his “hatred for India”.

The constant hate which was directed at Chandra eventually got the Editor of Slate.com, who edited the article, to respond and assert that “she is looking into it”.

It is staggering how a balanced article that brought out the pros and cons, including privacy concerns related to Aadhaar so effectively and its author are now under constant attack from absolutists who believe that anyone who doesn’t share their unbridled hate deserves to be shut out. The article was not censored or taken down (by the time of publication of our report) despite an organized effort to do that by putting pressure on the publication.

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