Inscribing an inclusive idea of Data in India

Looking at the Indian experience of Data in the context of security, the purview of the public, and the democratic mobility of Data.

ByPreeti Raghunath
Inscribing an inclusive idea of Data in India
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Our collective tryst with Data in India has been slipshod at worst and indiscriminate at best. With less than a month to go for the general elections, the state of Telangana is now embroiled in an effort to bring back to rolls the names of citizens missing from electoral records. This experience for the newest state of the Indian union is not new since such displacement of electoral data was seen in the 2018 Assembly polls as well.

Cut to the Northeast, and Assam stands up in arms against the Citizenship Amendment Bill cleared by Parliament earlier this year, since it adds to the idea of citizenship: “Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians—from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan after six years of residence in India instead of 12 even if they don’t possess any proper document.”

Pan to the lives of researchers, archivists, and those digging up fossilised misadventures or commemorations of the past, and the scene is not inspiring. Any such creature of the mind seeking to wade through the National Archives of India is certain to encounter the imprints of individuals from the same species, in the form of markings or careless scrawling. Similarly, news of the loss of 31,000 film reels at the National Film Archives is enough to upset any aficionado or researcher.

These seemingly disparate yet connected instances only point to the inseparability of People from Data. To be sure, Data here is to be read not narrowly as digital demonstrations and footprints, but also as the embodiment of a People. Is there, then, an Indian experience of Data?

Data and People: an all-encompassing idea?

More often than not, we as a People are trained to see Data as a means to an end. We quickly conjure up a “database” if we want to set up a marketing gig or as part of the fundraising efforts of an NGO. The humongous telephone directory—a huge repository of all the names and numbers of individuals in a city—used to be a thing to be flipped even as late as until a decade ago. In the more non-quotidian settings, our courtrooms and legislatures are witness to the daily accumulation, filing and dismantling of data, often hidden from the purview of the public.

The Indian State has its own modalities of sifting through data, with the Public Records Act of 1993 detailing them for public bodies and government offices, separating the “permanent” and the ones worth safeguarding and archiving from the more fleeting. Similarly, corporations operating in India often have a “clean desk” policy or a rulebook that governs the access to as well as (re)presentation of data. Most recently, a group of 108 economists and social scientists cast aspersions on the current regime’s interference in permitting access to statistical data and any interpretation that might make it uncomfortable. However, a group of chartered accountants found themselves offering a rebuttal, taking it back to the realm of electoral politics.

Our collective experience with Data is anything but arbitrary. It is a carefully cultivated practice that is gruellingly cruel in demarcating the worthy from the unworthy, patronising the already patronised, and sifting it from the more plebian. This experience is one that has been entrenched in our collective conscience historically, only to have found more accentuation with the coming of European colonialism.

Colonial remnant versus our right

Europe’s colonial past recently found a moment of reckoning with French President Macron talking about the return of art and artefacts taken from Africa during colonial rule, and critics calling for a focus on archives, and not museums. Archives, as repositories and imprints of memory, are often sites of contestation for power, ownership, and even destruction.

Back home, India’s encounter with colonial governance gave the free country a set of tools to continue projecting the colonial government’s insecurity with liberation onto its people. The recent raging Rafale Deal controversy that saw the government of the day demanding that the colonial Official Secrets Act be deployed to protect its mishandling of important documents, is a case in point. The colonial love for secrecy that was used to single out espionage and threats to the nation is often confused with whistleblowing efforts to save the nation. That independent India does not recognise this difference only points to our rather unpatriotic obsession with all things colonial.

Thankfully, the three-member Bench presiding over the Rafale case in the Supreme Court chose to focus on the revolutionary potential of the Right to Information Act of 2005 which ensures the democratic mobility of Data from the hands of the secret-keepers to those that demand equal access and ownership, and even the shaping of our collective datafied lives in India today.

The defence of Data: endogeneity and externalities

National security often emerges as the trope that justifies the exercising of control by the Indian State. Our collective challenge is to identify the real threats to our national security and separate them from whipped-up frenzy. Speaking of real threats, the maritime security realm registered some serious loss of data over the last few years, especially to do with the Scorpene submarine and our capabilities in the seas. Similarly, last year saw the loss of reams of data to do with the humans that make up our security establishment—defence personnel and soldiers.

Over the decades, the political life of India has been rocked by the toxic amalgam of foreign investments in our defence procurements inked and pursued in secrecy, and allegations of political collusions and massive corruption. This ranges from the Augusta Westland case to the more recent Rafale Deal, pointing to massive fraud and personal aggrandisement by politicians at the cost of the country’s exchequer.

The key takeaway from our experiences with such a military-industrial complex is the need to question and define what needs to be held in secrecy and by whom, and what is it that the public can demand of its democratically-elected leaders.

The publicness of Data

In my recently accrued PhD on media policymaking in South Asia, I argued for the need to go beyond a policy document to study the range of policy actors and contextual settings that shape the practice of policy. As an increment, it now seems imperative that we find ways to reinscribe our collective public and private experience of Data in India, back into the realm of the more instrumental, through legislations, executive orders, and juridical pronouncements. Even as we as a nation grapple with defining the contours and the vast range of our experience with Data, especially in light of the Data Protection Bill that is sure to be taken up by the next government to hold power, we must take care to present an inclusive idea of Data in India—one that rehabilitates the non-colonial Old with the excitement of newer innovations in terms of human abilities and technology advances.

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