DNA of an Orwellian state

BySashikala VP

Jun 12, 2020

Joining the dots of the trial of CAA protestors and two Bills in Parliament, a disturbing picture emerges of the ability of the government to invade the privacy of individuals charges with various crimes

The visuals that emerged on 15 December last year were disturbing. The government had just a few days before successfully passed and enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act – giving ease to Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and Jains, from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh in obtaining Indian citizenship, leaving out people of one religion: Muslims. Protests erupted, saying that the Act was discriminatory and went against the fabric of the Constitution, which upholds secularism.

University students across the country joined in protest, and in Delhi, Jamia Milia Islamia, a Central University was one at the forefront. Attack on students leading peaceful protests in Delhi (and elsewhere) had already begun, but what the city saw that Sunday, became a disturbing eye-opener.

As huge numbers of protestors marched in South Delhi, they were met by police in full force. Accusations have been made by both sides of who first started the violence – which included stone pelting and buses being set on fire — while the police baton-charged and lobbed teargas.

What came next was clearly seen through videos sent via WhatsApp by cornered, scared students inside their campus at Jamia Milia Islamia when Delhi Police personnel went on a rampage. CCTV visuals showed the police breaking into classrooms where students were sitting, firing teargas shells, breaking windows and other public property while students tried to crouch for safety.

A final year law student lost his eyesight in one eye after police personnel entered the library he was sitting in and beat him brutally.

Much more happened that month and over the next few months of this year. While protestors were sent indoors during the nation-wide lockdown, court hearings are taking place. On 12 June, advocates Colin Gonsalves and Sneha Mukherjee will be appearing in the Delhi High Court for Jamia students to file rejoinders to the Delhi Police’s affidavit.

Delhi Police had earlier sought dismissal of pleas seeking quashing of FIRs and directions against alleged police brutality in the university during the anti-CAA protests. It said the petitions were an abuse of the PIL provision as the incidents of violence in and around the campus were well-planned, orchestrated attempts by some persons with local support.

The government has almost fastidiously been eager to place the blame on Jamia students and other anti-CAA protestors for the communal riots that took place on 22-26 February which left 53 people dead. One of the students being blamed for “conspiracy” is Safoora Zargar, a student of Jamia, who is also pregnant, and now denied bail as charges have been pressed under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

Zargar was the media coordinator of the Jamia Coordination Committee, which was leading the protests against the CAA. The Delhi Police has also booked Meeran Haider, another Jamia student under the UAPA.

Jamia has now become a fixture in some TV debates for exemplifying anti-national behaviour – while it is still considered a university of critical learning. At the same time, the government has brought in two bills which seek to declare as institutions of national importance two universities based out of Gujarat – where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah started their reign.

The National Forensic Sciences University Bill, which was presented by Amit Shah in the Lok Sabha, says the Gandhinagar-based university and the Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Sciences, New Delhi shall be established as a University by the name of National Forensic Sciences University.

Amongst its tasks, it says, would be in “assisting the central government in creating and maintaining a national forensic database for criminal investigation, including DNA and fingerprints.”

The second is the Rashtriya Raksha University Bill, 2020, which wants the institution to become the Rashtriya Raksha University in Gujarat. Amongst its key objectives it calls for is a “working environment dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of education, research, training and scholarship of the highest quality in the domain of policing including coastal policing, security, law enforcement, criminal justice, cyber security, cybercrime, artificial intelligence and related areas of internal security”.

DNA collection

What is more striking out of the two is the desire to strengthen a National Forensic Sciences University which will help the Centre in maintaining database for criminal investigation, including DNA and fingerprints.

Interestingly, the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2018 has still not been passed. Through this, the government wants to establish a national DNA databank and regional DNA databanks. It would see every databank maintaining a crime scene index, suspects’ or undertrials’ index, offenders’ index, missing persons’ index and unknown deceased persons’ index.

The fact that it would even take the DNA of suspects or undertrials who would perhaps later not be convicted and/or exonerated is worrying.

A 2015 review article in Elsevier journal by students of King George Medical University, Lucknow, called ‘Current scenario of forensic DNA databases in or outside India and their relative risk’ points out the concerns. In a section marked ‘Privacy and human rights’ it says if DNA “is collected on arrest and retained indefinitely, there is additional information kept in the police records of arrest and in the samples which may be stored in the laboratories which analysed them. People are concerned about potential employers, other government entities or even insurance companies getting access to their genetic information.”

What is further a cause for concern, it says, is “bio surveillance” which can “extend beyond the state to anyone who can invade the system and obtain access to an individual’s DNA profile. This might include organized criminal or terrorist groups, or anyone seeking to track down an individual.” Worrying indeed.

Seen in the context of the Jamia incident trial, the review article makes a point that sounds ominous. “DNA databases can be used to track individuals who have not committed a crime, or whose ‘crime’ is an act of peaceful protest or dispute. For example, in a state where freedom of speech or political rights are restricted, the police or secret services could attempt to take DNA samples from the scene of a political meeting to establish whether or not particular individuals had been present.”

It further goes on to say that “DNA databases link searchable computer records of personal demographic information, such as name and ethnic appearance, with the ability to biologically tag an individual and track their whereabouts using their DNA profile. An individual’s relatives may also be identified through partial matching with their DNA. Thus, DNA databases significantly shift the balance of power from the individual to the state”.

Put together, these developments paint a picture that is of concern in the present times.

(Cover: DEMONSTRATE DISSENT: Students of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and local residents of Okhla during a protest against the CAA, and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in January of this year // PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)