The Identities Project is about talking to regular people as they go about their day-to-day lives, learning from their stories and perspectives how individuals navigate and manage their identities in different circumstances.
Even after interviewing more than 150 people across three states, including all levels of income, education, gender, literacy, caste, we have still only scratched the surface of the diversity of lived experiences around identity in India. And while this project was not designed to be statistically representative of any population in India, we do think it’s helpful to highlight a few individuals who embody distinct characteristics and experiences.
The four individuals described here are actual people (though their names have been changed), these stories are their real experiences, and these words are their own expressions.
Mansoor is a sidewalk shopkeeper of woolens. He is a jolly man, who likes to laugh through his sorrows. He has been carrying all his ID card originals (Aadhaar, voter’s card, vehicle registration card, driving license, and bank deposit slips) and also his wife’s Aadhaar card, voter’s card, from the past few weeks. This is to help him quickly exchange cash at the nearest banks (due to the demonetization which had just occurred before the time of interview).
He has an informal moneylender, who comes to the sidewalk several times a week to lend and receive cash. Mansoor also has a small pocket diary of the lending and borrowings. He was keen to safeguard the privacy of his relationship/identity of his moneylender, since he said he has known him for several years and did not want anything untoward to happen from us asking for the identity of the moneylender or taking snaps of the diary, etc.
Mansoor suffers from fits and also appears to have a neurological disease. He recently was admitted to the ICU unit of NIMHANS [a mental and neurological health hospital in Bengaluru] and also got himself a hospital card from NIMHANS. He has strong ties with his wife and a daughter who he dotes on. But he despairs of his sons. His daughter is the most educated among his children. Balancing health expenses and household expenses, along with the recent expense of his daughter’s wedding has been a major worry for Mansoor.
As he is illiterate, Mansoor relies on others, especially his daughter, to help him with filling out forms or applications, for example at the bank.
When my daughter comes and if there is an expense, then we deposit some money or we take out money. I don’t know how to do it on my own…. I don’t know how to deposit and I don’t know how to withdraw. I have to go to the bank and ask people around ‘Sir please help me deposit this. Sir please help me deposit this.’ It’s like that.
He tried using an intermediary to help him renew his driving license, because he couldn’t afford to take the time off of working. But the broker only secured a 1-year renewal period, instead of the standard 10, so his license has already expired again.
Now Madam, I have all these responsibilities. I have to run my shop and I have to maintain my family. Or do I go all the way to Rajajinagar and spend hours there to renew?… So I went to Rajajinagar and gave money to this broker, who got it renewed for me just for a year. See? It is valid only for year. Everyone says the DL is for this 10 or 15 years and here it is renewed only for a year. So I had enough.
Having very little wealth seems to shape Mansoor’s perspective on life, and also on whether he is worried about identity theft.
I don’t have a house of my own. I have nothing. I just earn a little. If I earn more than usual then I leave my shop here and I say ‘come let’s visit this temple or that.’ It happens. [Regarding someone taking my identity card] Take whatever you want. I am not a thief. I am not scared of anyone. Will the police see this and put me in jail? So, let them! (laughter).
Mansoor doesn’t have a use for a mobile phone, and has no interest in the internet.
No, I don’t carry a phone with me. If someone has to reach me…then one of my neighboring shopkeepers come and call me and say ‘hey you have a call from someone….’ My wife does call me sometimes. She also is not educated. But she uses the mobile phone back home.
Devi maintains and manages a dual identity (in terms of ID artifacts) between two states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka through registering and surrendering of ID cards. The discrepancy in the written records of his name and year of birth (Aadhaar has different details as compared to the voter’s card) would be interesting to check if and when they are used simultaneously.
His switching from the informal trust system symbolized by the “Marwari” moneylender to the formal system of banks and private lending institutions. His coping mechanism/workarounds to overcome the challenge of illiteracy and economic challenges, i.e., working relationships with middlemen, people who represent the state or “agency” and private players to still meet his needs, is worth exploring further through other interviews/users. Identity issues came up early when his name was considered feminine and then had to be changed. He has found a way to cope with possible loss of ID cards by using photocopies that are laminated and made to look official.
About having multiple names
There was this school in Tamil Nadu, which refused to admit me because I had a feminine sounding name. So when I got a driver’s license I changed my name to Durgadas. Actually I use both names. I was born and raised as Devi, because the school refused to admit me, my father changed my name to Durgadas. It was an emergency situation, where my name had to be changed for me to get into a school. But he had not foreseen that it will be a problem in the future for a person with two names.
About whether he is afraid of identity theft if he were to lose an ID card
If it is a rich person, who has lost his ID, it will matter a lot to him and his money. If a poor man’s ID like my ID is lost, it doesn’t matter that someone else at the most will get to know my address and where I live and come and find me. I have nothing to lose. I have no money.
On why he carries only photocopies
Apart from these IDs (photocopied from the original), I have a PAN card. But it is at home and not here. I have no use for that here. It will be a big problem for me if I lose it here…what with all these goods that I have to transport and also sell here. If it is lost, I will have to spend lots to get a new one made. This is why even all these cards are just photocopies of the original.
Personal relationship with Marwaris
I myself have known him for 27 years. The Marwaris [moneylenders] are accommodating. They see you. They know you. They lend you money. They don’t even give you formal receipts. They in fact let you enter the figures in their book. Again when you come back to release your gold, they let you sign in their book. They let you count your cash and you can go. They have seen your face for several years and they know you. They have their principles these Marwaris. Whereas banks don’t. They tell you how much you have to pay, which could be in lakhs in one cold manner. If you are unable to repay the loans with interests then that’s it.
Preeti is a teacher at a design school in Guwahati, in the northeastern state of Assam. She’s a middle-class, educated, single, young woman who is very thoughtful and reflective about her different identity credentials, including digital ones such as social media.
Like most people in Assam, she doesn’t have an Aadhaar card, because the state has paused Aadhaar registration, instead focusing on the NRC, or National Register of Citizens, a list of Indian citizens dating from 1951 that has become the key source for proving genealogically one’s status as a citizen of India and not Bangladesh.
For day-to-day needs, Preeti finds that her PAN card is the most valuable; she uses it from the airport security to opening bank accounts, tax filing, etc. She carries the driving license on her to preempt any traffic violations and mitigate any risk from being booked by a policeman and not having the required IDs.
Preeti is educated and very capable, but recognizes that many people are less fortunate, and face additional challenges in managing their state-based identity credentials. She described the difficulty in navigating the process to get the NRC, saying that even for people like her who could figure out the process, hiring an intermediary is common.
Relies on intermediary for NRC
For NRC, the entire process is very difficult. It’s very harassing. You are bound to keep an agent and it’s becoming a way of earning money for the agent sitting in a cybercafé doing it for people. It’s very difficult for the common people, it’s very difficult. For us somehow as we are educated we can do it by ourselves but then most of the people it’s not possible it’s quite a harassment for them.
About whether she would grant access to social media for a better loan
No, I don’t think so. Absolutely not. How that thing is going to work and social media, anyways, you are so skeptical about what you post, who your friends are, giving it to any private company I don’t think it’s very safe. I don’t find it very safe.
It’s very annoying to see all the posts. At times when I get so irritated with it I just delete it. When I know that I am checking too much then I know that I have to delete it, I can’t get addicted to that. I don’t think I have the app in my phone so that it doesn’t become a trouble for limit to what people can follow you. That’s good. Facebook, I think I have too many friends so I me…. [But] Instagram has a limited number of people. I follow a lot of bakers as I like to bake so I need to see those posts. So I don’t delete Instagram. You can limit to what people you follow, you can don’t need to see everyone.
About whether government offices should share identity information
Somewhere I think if they share the things it will become a little easier because otherwise every time you have to provide [your credentials]. For example, if I apply for a visa and if they share it also somewhere the process of the security they check, right? They do a background check on you…. If every time we don’t need to carry our paper, if it’s there with them and they can identify us, then our work will be easier, every time we don’t need to carry our papers, it becomes somewhat easier.
Sumitra Didi belongs to the Dalit community and hails from the Madhubani village of Bihar, which is famous for the Madhubani art. She mastered the art under the tutelage of her mother and mother-in-law. It is something of a family, traditional profession to take to this art. Sumitra Didi’s childhood and youth was among the rich and educated landlords and intellectuals of Bihar, which made her “forget her background and mingle with them as equals”…the sense one gets from her narrative reproduced below.
A chance meeting with one of these influential people brought Sumitra Didi and her art to the foreground, which led her to win the National Award in the late 1990s and a chance to showcase her work abroad. Immersed in tradition, i.e., the ghunghat [veil] in front of elders in the village and family and yet raising her voice for her rights from the government, Sumitra Didi’s identity is a complex mix of opposites. She is a guru-ma for the young people of her village and her words of advice mean a lot to them. She had to get a new set of ID cards a few months ago when she lost it all in a train robbery.
Among all her ID cards/documents, she considered the artisan card to be the most important, because it shows her for what she is… an artist. It also allowed her access to various national art exhibitions and meets. She considers the identity in her state credentials as being temporal, while the identity in her art is forever.
Speaking to her identity in her art
I was telling someone from yesterday…I am an artist. My identity is in my art. What am I without my art?… [Unlike the government ID cards], my expression is my art and that has no age, no gender and no address…. We sing it and we paint it. That is our tradition. Do visit us once madam and you will see the glory of our art. We will grow old but our art will survive through our children and their children.
The thing about ID cards is that today, I had left my ID cards back in my room in Munirka, when I came here. There was this young boy, who was at the security gate outside. He started speaking nonsense. ‘You cannot go in [to Dilli Haat, the market where she was a vendor] without your ID card.’ I said, ‘what? What if I don’t have my ID cards? I myself am here, right? Identify me. Why do you need my ID cards?’ Then he started speaking nonsense that he cannot let me in. Young boy, who was not even born when I and other artists struggled to get Dilli Haat made in the 1990s. We struggled in the heat of the sun and in the dust of this soil. I told him, ‘enough. Do not make me lose my temper. Enough. I will buy a ticket and go inside alright. But I am angry that you do not know me for who I am but want an ID card as the only way that I can gain entry inside.’ Then another security guard came. He said, ‘Oh mata-ji go inside, go go. He is just a young boy, please do not be angry.’ And he asked this young man to let me in. That was today.
On not feeling confined to perceptions of her caste
This gentleman Banerjee had taken a very old house in our village. On his fields my aunt and mother used to work. And we would also interact with people who would come and visit his house. In their company, listening to their words of knowledge, I never felt that I had been born into a Dalit family. I am a Dalit by birth. I am a Paswan. But my interaction and intermingling with these people did not make me feel small. After all a lotus blooms in a swamp. I felt enlightened in their presence. I too wanted to do something.