LALIT members are delighted at the coming destruction, finally, of the central data-base for the new biometric ID Cards. But, this article is to show how the struggle is not yet over. In the victory are some possible defeats, as well as some hidden other victories, too.
In the two Supreme Court judgments handed down on Friday last in the cases lodged by Dr. Madhewoo and Pravind Jugnauth against the biometric ID Cards, we have had the limitations of this kind of legalist challenge exposed for all to see. Constitutional challenges, without strong political movements behind them, are blunt tools for getting the State to respect peoples’ freedom from State control. Naturally, this is so, because the judiciary is part of the State.
In fact, because of the short-coming in legal challenges, in many countries those opposing similar biometric ID cards have chosen to rely on political mobilization instead of the Courts. In the UK, US and Australia, victories were won without recourse to the Courts, and in these countries there are still no compulsory ID Cards acting like a kind of “pass law”. And in the case of Australia, those spear-heading the struggle used mobilization to show up the need for better legal protection for privacy from State and private firm surveillance.
So, where does the Balancy judgment leave us, after this interminable wait? It says, and this is important, that stocking biometric information is illegal and must be stopped. But this battle had, we remind readers, already been won. Politically. In fact, if anything, the judgment has delayed its implementation! The data-base has not yet been destroyed, precisely because the Government decided to hide behind the coming judgment before acting.
The political campaign initiated by LALIT and other trade union and social organizations when the Ramgoolam-Duval Government introduced the new ID Cards in 2013, gradually galvanized wide support and gathered enormous political momentum. Eventually even the Parliamentary Opposition led by Bérenger and Jugnauth changed its stand; having approved the new biometric cards in Parliament, they actually took a stand and opposed them. Eventually the Lepep Alliance put destruction of the central data-base into its Government Program, and won the elections. So, victory had been won politically already. What is surprising is that ICT Minister, Pravind Jugnauth did not, when Judge Balancy gave him the opportunity in Court, just withdraw the stand taken by the previous Government and announce new political measures. But, the new Government decided to hide behind the Supreme Court instead. This is what it means that there are now some defeats hidden within what could have been a much more resounding political “victory”.
The Balancy judgments grant only what had been won politically already. On all the other important ways that the new ID Card system impinges upon our freedom, the judgment supports the Ramgoolam ID card, and this represents a series of set-backs. So, the political struggle continues anew, and apace.
New ID Card, however, as unpopular as ever
One of the most important hidden “victories” from LALIT and its allies’ political struggle is that people have changed their political position on vital issues. People now realize, for example, what exactly the dangers are of the State imposing the new biometric Identity Cards: if for any reason, you don’t have a card, the State could threaten your pension payments, refuse to give a Certificate of Character (sertifika moralite), refuse you a passport, or a job in Government, or even the right to vote. All this came up in the campaign. It even became clear that people could stop you voting by holding on to your ID Card, and that this could be done on an industrial scale.
People also realized the degree of violence involved in forcing people to submit to finger-printing at all, and to subjecting ourselves to grotesque biometric photographs, even with lines scratching out our faces.
People began, due to the campaign, to realize how the legal framework for the ID Cards is like a colonial “Pass Law” system, compelling you to carry a card around with you in case some officer or other demands to see it.
People began to see just how dangerous it is for private companies to be able to refuse you ordinary services just because you do not present this compulsory card.
And people realized, during the campaign, how dangerous it is for private data, like our health records or children’s education records, being pirated, misused, stolen or sold. How stolen data could then be used for making money from, for example, pharmaceutical firms wanting to “target” different categories of people with different products.
People became very concerned, too, about the massive cost. Just to set it up cost Rs1.5 billion in public funds. And that does not include the crippling on-going expenses in trying to keep the data-base secure and up-to-date. In the present context of the public shame of the Labour Government, what with Navin Ramgoolam arrested on charges of money-laundering, conspiracy and corruption, it is high time the Government investigated the secret agreement between Ramgoolam and the Lee Kwan Yew and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore State. This agreement is what masked the transfer of public funds to private companies in Mauritius, including BAI.
Plus people were furious about the massive fine for any infringement like not having or presenting a card. Five years jail or Rs100,000 fine. As well, of course as the draconian replacement cost if you lose your card.
People were concerned about all these different inroads into people’s freedom as a direct result of the campaign spearheaded by LALIT: Our multiple actions at the MNIC offices; our action of refusing to provide fingerprints at the main branch; our meetings with Presidents and Councilors of almost all village councils; our two petitions of 20 big organizations; and our statement signed by 25 well-known people, including former Presidents of the Republic and former Attorney Generals.
So unpopular was the new ID Card system, that finally the new MSM-PMSD-ML Government announced formally in its President’s Speech that it would destroy the data-base. It was not surprising. Amongst leaders of this alliance were Ivan Collendavelloo, today a Minister who was one of the 25 personalities that signed the statement LALIT piloted, Sanjeev Teeluckdharry, today Lepep Alliance MP, who was in the team of barristers in the Dr. Madhewoo case, Roshi Bhadain, another Minister, took firm stands against biometric information being gathered, and he together with Pravind Jugnauth, now Minister of ICT, put in a Supreme Court challenge.
So, it is now illegal to keep the biometric central data-base. It must be destroyed. But the rest of the political struggle remains. And that is what LALIT pledges to continue. We will, together with all our brave allies, continue to demand:
So, even after the judgment making the central storage of data illegal, the rest of the legal framework is still in need of change. This involves further political struggle.
Rajni Lallah, for LALIT, 2 June, 2015