Seeing the assemblage of biometrics technologies as an avatar of technological modernity for the claimed welfare of lower Jatis and Adivasis, reflections of its colonial entanglements with mistrust and suspicion become apparent. Bodies potentially considered subversive and a threat to the interests of the British Empire were recorded in colonial registers and record books (Waits, 2016). Even in its second coming, re-institutionalizing suspicion and mistrust remains at the heart and soul of this governmentality. Using biometrics for governance and development also records the biometrics of these mistrusted bodies, though in the name of a more ‘just’ purpose of improving their life condition with digital access to welfare entitlements. However, unlike earlier colonial practices that served the interests of the empire, the current practice serves the interest of an alliance of the state, market, and international biometric companies. This alliance runs, operates, and perpetuates the digital empire of (mis)trust.
The reach and extent of this pervasive empire is such that it operates over millions of bodies daily. Its cogs run with the help of the technological systems of biometrics, databases, and digital identification infrastructures. It makes a living person digitally present in a database, with means and ways of authenticating the person’s ‘reliability’ and ‘existence’. However, the practice of this empire is not just technological, with the use of biometrics and digitalization. Instead, it is a sociotechnical ideological practice mixed with social and historical discrimination of lower Jatis and Adivasis by upper caste and the ruling elites from colonial times to the present, biometrically marking and algorithmically checking the tagged-digital identity of the person. I believe that the current sociotechnical practice of biometrically identifying (mis)trustful bodies adds a technological layer of inequality over a persistent social structure of deep-seated discrimination. It is a deadly cocktail of caste and tribe-based discrimination by upper caste and class elites mixed with technologies of biometrics rooted in Galtonian ideas of biometry and racial classifications (Breckenridge, 2014). Biometrics-based digital identity recorded in a centralized database is now the source of truth and trust of millions of bodies belonging to the BPL groups. However, the mediation of (mis)trust and establishing the authenticity of bodies now lies with the algorithms—the moment a person submits biometric scans to access essential services.
Without possessing a biometrics-based digital identity, it is practically impossible for millions of bodies belonging to the BPL groups to survive. Within this group, the Adivasis form a significant chunk, totally dependent on the welfare state for food, healthcare, social security, livelihood programs, and education. Having no digital identity or facing problems with their digital identity brings the severe repercussions of being again left out of the ‘mainstream’. A tribal farmer said aptly during my fieldwork, “I do not exist if I do not enrol for the UID/Aadhaar”, and “I am not a human of flesh and bones, but a suspected human reduced to a number, with the onus of proving my identity—to digitally prove that I exist” (Field Diary Notes, 2017).
The implications from the operation of this digital empire are not just at the individual and social level faced by these bodies in India but hold wider ramifications in the context of the increasing push for biometrics for development in other countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. A study of these demands, an analytic and methodological focus that is more ‘global’ in Global South than in the Global North! The level of knowledge, concepts, and methods of understanding this contextual ‘globalness’ thus also requires a sociological imagination that is rooted in people’s everyday lived experiences and unique circumstances. This is a moment of further introspection and intellectual engagement for a crucial network like Global Sociology and Qualitative Research.
Many canons of the social sciences in general, and Sociology in particular, along with the narratives of ‘modernity’, developed in the West (Europe and the United States) (Adas, 2014). The persistent and unwavering Western notions and canons of understanding social realities placing the postcolony(s) at the peripheries, creates a perpetual market of development and research (Bhambra, 2016)! Moreover, the narratives of newer ideas and practices of development considered, technologically modern states are still largely controlled and dominated by the countries, institutions, and actors from the West. The control of knowledge, narrative and ‘benchmarks’ by the West, continuously makes the postcolony(s) aspire to become ‘developed’ with their newer whims and fancies on technological modernity.
Failure to do so perpetuates the categorization or the classification of a country as underdeveloped and still developing. Moreover, in this well-knit ideological, political, and economic control, the postcolony(s) become the thriving grounds for the market of (digital) development governance, especially in the developing world of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Schiller, 2000). This leads to the formation of an alliance of postcolonial states, neoliberal institutions, and multinational technology companies, perpetuating this digital empire of (mis)trust and constantly re-inventing capital and capitalism. It’s not surprising to see programs such as ID4D (Identification for Development) and ID4Africa (Identification for Africa) being increasingly pushed in the countries of Global South, with the aims of bringing and connecting millions of bodies to the ‘mainstream’. In the context of colonial history and newer forms of market-driven neoliberal practices, we need to rethink the Western notions of ‘modernity’ and the way social sciences canons emerge and revolve around it. The bodies of people belonging to historically discriminated groups by the local elites and colonial masters tend to be discriminated and controlled time and again.
Thus, it is important to bring analytic focus on the way bodies become objects and subjects of a new pervasive digital empire, rapidly carrying its flags in the so-called developing world. Moreover, the analytic focus provides a methodological opportunity (not in a positive sense) to be more sensitive in the ways of making sense of the lived experience of such bodies. Is it enabling or disabling to conduct fieldwork with ‘scientific’ and established practices of studying the field? Or do we need to find ways through which we can reflect the essence of the reality lived by such bodies? Our thoughts and minds are not only colonized by the notions of modernity and development from the West but also by the surrounding realities (Latour, 1993). A dilemma and a challenge that impinges more on researchers and academics at the crossroads of a ‘globalness’ of knowledge and knowledge creation. Can the ‘globalness’ of global Sociology help to make us more aware of the challenges we face? Does it implore researchers who stand at such crossroads to ask if it is the same to do social research in India, Ghana, and Indonesia as it is in England, Germany, and France?