A question of identity

Author Kamal Sadiq talks about new insights into patterns of migration as well as issues that might arise out of the much-hyped national ID card

January 10, 2010 06:51 pm | Updated 06:51 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Author Kamal Sadiq in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan

Author Kamal Sadiq in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan

It is a moment waiting to happen for a long time. It was a few weeks ago that one had heard of Kamal Sadiq's book “Paper Citizens” – brought out by Oxford – making waves in academic circles with the author's fresh insight into the problem of migration. Contrary to common perception, Kamal had argued that there is greater migration from one Third World country to another than from a third world country directly to the West.

It seemed intriguing. Before the ramifications of the discovery could sink in, one met Kamal at India International Centre in New Delhi. Quietly affable, but speaking with the zest of a focussed man, Kamal, who spent the early years of his life in Delhi studying at the Air Force School, says what India is doing now with the setting up of National Identification Authority has been done earlier by other countries with mixed results.

“It is not an unmixed blessing. We need a discussion on the issue of the national ID card. But there has not been a debate. There appears to be a silence of complicity. Earlier, Malaysia has done this. Singapore, Pakistan, Sudan, Kenya…so many countries have tried it. My argument is, a national ID card cannot succeed where the ration card and electoral card have failed. National ID number is a solid idea but we need to discuss the pros and cons.”

Migration and beyond

Into his early 40s, Kamal, who had done his graduation from Kirori Mal College in Delhi University, reveals that the national ID card failed to solve the problem of illegal immigration in Pakistan and Malaysia. It is something he has argued threadbare in his book, where he has written about the immigration crescent from Pakistan to Southeast Asia.

“In Pakistan and Malaysia a high number of illegal immigrants become legitimate because they acquire a biometric card. Illegal immigrants get into the system usually at entry points of the country. Entry points are governed by human resource. And human resource can be corrupted.”

Kamal reveals, “We send a huge number of illegal immigrants abroad. According to various estimates, there are 3 to 5 million Nepalese immigrants and more than 10 million Bangladeshis. Also, immigration from one Third World country to another is easier as often religion, race, culture are the same. For instance, how do we separate a Bengali-speaking Indian from a Bangladeshi or a Pashto from Afghanistan from one in Pakistan? With this ID drive we are setting tall targets. For 50 years we have only partially succeeded in our poverty alleviation programmes. With the ID card, it might just be a bigger hindrance.”

The bespectacled academic, who teaches at the University of California, asks a pertinent question in the course of the conversation: “Is it a coincidence that after 9/11, India, Pakistanand Bangladesh started their ID drive? At some point the push is coming from the West. They want to know everything about somebody going from here to the West. However, in a country like India, having a national ID card is a sensitive issue. Abroad it was considered so after World War-II because it was taken as high-level State surveillance. It was associated with totalitarian regime and the Soviet Union. Now democracies want the same. My research shows that the State is clever in implementing it but so are the people who pilfer. People who have milked the earlier welfare programmes cannot let go of this opportunity. For them it is like ‘single window' clearance! Also, with something like a national ID card, a citizen's right to privacy might be compromised. Individual rights should not be trampled upon. For that we need to have the laws in place.”

Kamal rues that even in Delhi a majority of deaths go unrecorded and a majority of births are not known beyond the metropolises. Saying that a lot more needs to be done to correct the flaws of immigration –— something he has across the 270-odd page book — he bids adieu. But not before sharing that the process of putting a system is just falling into place. “I have just given a closed-door presentation to delegates of EU and Australia.”

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