The gospel according to a divine identifier – An essay on the biblical origins of UID: Taha Mehmood

Guest post by TAHA MEHMOOD


Simon Bar Jona was a fisherman based in small town called Bethaida. They say one day Simon’s brother, Andrew, led him to a man who called himself Jesus. They say Simon and Andrew became disciples of Jesus.

One day Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you think I am?”

His disciples looked at each other. They did not know anything about him. They did not know who he was. Some disciples said Jesus was actually John the Baptist: some said he was Elijah; and others though he was Jeremias. Jesus could have been any of these or none of these. But Jesus was not satisfied with the answer, so he asked again, “Who do you think I am?”

At that point Simon Bar Jona, the fisherman answered, “Are you not Christ, the Son of the living God?’“

Jesus was pleased, he replied, “Bless you, Simon Bar Jona: for flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

Thus Jesus gave the keys of heaven to Simon saying, “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Jesus requested his disciples to keep his identity a secret till the day of resurrection. And he gave a new name to Simon Bar Jona. Simon Bar Jona, the fisherman became Peter, the fisher of men.

I always used to wonder, why did Jesus ask his disciples to identify himself? And when he was identified as the Son of God, why did he ask everyone to keep his identity a secret?

Maybe it was just enough for him, that those who are close to him knew, who he was or maybe there was something much deeper. Perhaps one day I may come across an answer of this messianic secret.

However, the moral appears to be that identity is something, which is more than what is revealed in flesh and blood. Simon Bar Jona identified Jesus and became Saint Peter, the rock, with a role to identify all.

But was he just identifying everyone?


‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Why did Jesus say this to Simon Bar Jona? I don’t know. But I think this statement tells a lot about the nature of role played by saint Peter in days to come.

I believe, Bible suggests that the role played by Saint Peter was like a divine identifier. I think, my interpretation is simplistic; nonetheless just for the sake of argument I wish to interpret simplistically. So let’s go back to divine identifier. The divine identifier had to negotiate between binding and loosening men. In other words Simon was expected to weed bad people out. Divine identification involved social sorting.

Social sorting involves binding. Binding is an important function. It’s opposite to loosening. To bind may mean many things like to fasten, to tie, to put under obligation. But to bind may also mean to record. To loosen, in the same manner suggests not to record.

I vaguely remember as a child my mother reprimanding me on these lines. Once I was creating a ruckus and she pulled me aside and asked me to behave properly.

‘Why?’ I replied.

‘Because if you don’t then Allah will not be happy’ She said.

‘How would Allah know what am I doing?’ I asked.

She said, ‘God sends two angels to look after you. These angels sit on your shoulders. One on the right records all the good things. And the one on the left record all the bad things that you do. Whatever you do is recorded. On the Day of Judgment God will review your record books’.

‘And what will happen then?’ I asked. She just smiled.

If we link this story to a very literal and a naïve interpretation of Bible we could assume if one does a lot bad things, Saint Peter could deny ones entry to heaven. We can also take our naiveté one step further and speculate that by record keeping the divine identifier was playing an additional role of an archivist. The divine identifier may become the divine archivist. Identifying, recording and file keeping are key attributes of any good archival system. Maybe Simon Bar Jona was the best archivist we ever had.

A seventeenth century Flemish baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens depicted Saint Peter holding two keys.

When I saw this image, I thought, ‘Hey! does one of the keys open the lock of a door? Maybe it does. And what if that door leads to an archive where we stumble upon the records of individual identities and all deeds of all the Christians who have ever lived?’

Simon Bar Jona. Identifying. Recording. File Keeping. Archiving individual identities. People say those were biblical times. Land was down here. Heaven was up there. People lived on land. God dwelled in heaven. And the heavenly God assigned earthly Simon Bar Jona for one job. To bind people or let them loose. However binding and loosening people was not the only thing, which Simon was up to.

Simon, who was the rock, the divine archivist, and the divine identifier, was also playing the role of a spatial access provider. Whosoever he bound on earth was bound in heaven. I thought, ‘Maybe the other key in Simon Bar Jona’s hand opened the lock of a door leading to heaven.’ But those were biblical times. Now people say times are changing.


Land is down here but it is going up there too. Heaven may be up there but it is coming down here too. For some God may be eternal but for many God is dead. People live on heavenly lands and earthly heavens. God’s role is co-opted by those who run national states and it seems they want to create their own version of paradise on earth. Distinct categories like heaven and earth are slowly melting into national states.

National states cannot exist without national space. A national space is a vague notion, which can be defined as something that is more than a mere territorial control over land, water and air.

A new rhetoric of national space is emerging. A rhetoric based on the notion of a paradise. The idea of a paradise, which essentially refers to a walled compound, seems to be leading the way in which national space is being redesigned in many countries. Compounds are being created to clear land of and make it ideal for particular purposes. Can there be any other reason behind the creation of a compound, except to emulate an ideal space. Paradise, which also goes by the name of Firdaus, may also mean an ideal space. Firdaus suggests a timeless space, a space where God rules over perpetually.

Firdaus is a deeply ambiguous term. No one knows what it looks like. But many people have tried to imagine it, for instance, in this image below we see a glimpse of ‘Mohammed’s Paradise’.

According to the Muhammad Image Archive, it’s an 11th-century miniature from the volume The History of Mohammed, produced in Persia in 1030. The face of Muhammad is of course not shown but it is depicted as a ball of light . Firdaus is represented as a compound.

National states want to create little walled compounds on earth. Walled compounds suggest restricted access. It doesn’t come as a surprise then, does it, to witness a mammoth project of binding and loosening of people all across the world.

Mohammed Image Archive. 

Islamic Depictions of Mohammed with Face Hidden

Binding is going on under various titles like national population register or a national identity card system. These systems are currently put in place in over a hundred countries all over the world.

We all know that Simon Bar Jona was able to identify Jesus because God willed it, but how can human beings measure identity of other humans? Is there a unique measure of individual identity?

For centuries now human beings have inquired about the form, the nature and the structure of individual identity. But there have been no definitive answers. No one knows. There are theories. There are views. There are fables. There are magical spells. And there are some conspiracies too. But no one knows for sure how to re-identify a person as that same person. Few people have even tried to sculpt the notion of individual identity as if it were some sort of a pot. For these people the pot of identity has definite properties. Properties, which they claim, could be measured and calibrated. But for others it is a pot full of holes. It is a leaky pot. We change mass, volume and we age. Sometimes we even change spouses, parents and children. The color of our hair, the texture of our skin, even the patterns on the fingers and in the eyes change as we grow up. We are always in a state of flux. How can anyone claim to fix for us who we are?


Paradise is imagined as a timeless space, an ideal space. Paradise may suggest a no-where space. A kind of space where happiness is shared by all. A compound enclosed within four walls. Paradise shares some of its aspects with utopia and kitsch. Both utopia and kitsch are fairly fluid concepts. Both suggest a lot of things. Paradise like utopia could be understood as a no-where space and a good space at the same time. Paradise like kitsch pleases all. Paradise is a happy space. The urge to project a national space as a paradise allows aspects of kitsch and utopia to creep in. The national space is acquiring the form of a kitschy utopia or a utopian kitsch.

A national space appears utopian because it is a non-real space. An impossible space. An uncanny space. A space déjà vu. It’s a notional space that perhaps only comes to existence when a neural pulse touches our collective reptilian brain. Invisible. Hidden. Utopian because of ideas, which have helped us shape this space. Kitschy for it’s foundational purpose to please all. Utopian because a national space is a sum total of our collective inner projections, opinions, anxieties, fantasies, dreams, desires and maybe repressed selves. Kitschy for a strong emotional charge it is able to evoke. Utopian because it is formed by our beliefs, because it is not something which is out there but in here. Utopian because a national space can only be visualized in its totality, when it is miniaturized to the scale of a map.

Doesn’t the idea of utopia outdate the notion of national space by many years? Were all dreamers of utopia dreaming about an ideal compound with provisions of restricted access based on individual identification like it is there in the Firdaus of Simon Bar Jona?


In Athens a period of social disintegration followed after the Peloponnesian war. This was the setting in which Plato wrote about an ideal space. He called it the Republic. An organized violent conflict challenging the political establishment of his land makes a philosopher respond by dreaming about an ideal space. Plato was swayed by a notion that political power must be in the hands of a philosopher. Plato didn’t trust democracy. Ideally Plato’s Republic was not supposed to have more than around five thousand inhabitants. Any group of five thousand people could join this compound. He was not bothered about the individual identity of people.

Aristotle talks about a Greek city designer named Hippodamus who designed many cities in his lifetime and also found time to dream of an ideal place. In Hippodamus’s view ideal spaces must be designed as checkerboards. Hippodamus’s compound was deployed in a grid pattern. The kind of patterns used to make Egyptian temples or the ancient cities of Mohanjoderao and Harappa. Any ten thousand free men were welcome to live in Hippodamus’s ideal space place. Personal identity was not an issue so long as you were not a slave. Hippodamus was a technocrat and not a philosopher like Plato. Ideas like justice or public good did not move him, however HG Wells or Nehru, he was much attracted by role played by technology in guiding the life of a human being. Hippodamus’s utopia may be thought of as a concrete response of a technocrat to abstract notions like justice or good.

In Thomas Moore’s utopia agriculture played a big role. Although many would contend it was religion. I think what is important for us to know is that, anyone could be a part of the social setting of Thomas Moore’s Firdaus. However there was a limit to the number of people living here. People were divided into families. Thirty people would make a family. It was not necessary for them to be linked through kinship. Only two thousand families in all were allowed. Thomas Moore was also concerned about the division of space in his compound. Spaces of leisure were separate from spaces of work. Like Plato’s Republic, Moore’s Utopia was also a response to tensions caused by social divisions in the society of his time.

A view of Christianopolis, de J. V. Andreae, made in 1619

Space was ignored in favor of a measure of morality in Christianopolis, a walled compound dreamt by Johann Valentin Andreæ. If Johann Valentin was escaping to Christianopolis as a way of combating the moral decrepitude of the then German society, then Charles François Marie Fourier, a businessman from nearby France, wanted to escape to his utopia from the uncertainties of trade. Charles Fourier’s compound is an ode to harmony and stability. In his no-where space he wanted to harmonize the material, the personal and the moral world. He did not seem interested in individual identity of persons living in his utopia.

Even in the utopias that were mentioned in myths of the Indian sub-continent, like the reign of Lord Rama at Ayodhya, there wasn’t any anxiety about the individual identity of a person. Rama is believed to be an incarnation of God, who many believe ruled Ayodhya for eleven thousand days and eleven thousand nights. Some even believe that Rama Rajya was the most perfect form of governance. Lord Rama was deeply admired by people like Allama Muḥammad Iqbāl. Iqbal considered Rama to be a Mard-e-momin, an ideal man. In Iqbal’s eyes Rama was Imam-E-Hind or the Chief leader of Hindoostan. Iqbal yearned to fill his utopia with ideal men. In Javid Namah, which was his version of a utopian world, Iqbal, for instance, seems concerned about social disturbances of Indian society in early 20th century. As a response to hatred he believed love must rule the world. Egoistic self must rise above petty desire to become one with the metaphysical world just as Rama was able achieve in his life.

Iqbal’s utopia was quite unlike HG Well’s version of a utopian world. Wells dreamt of  one world which was ruled by one state.  Self of a person must form a sub-set of this world. For this project to realize every citizen must be identified. The identity of every citizen must be indexed. Indexing of people must be routed through a register. The world had to reorganize itself in a new form. Simple laws of custom had to fade away. Freely flowing liquid identities must condense into something solid. In his own words, he articulates his vision of a modern utopia thus:

Now the simple laws of custom, the homely methods of identification that served in the little communities of the past when everyone knew everyone, fail in the face of this liquefaction.

Well’s projection of a utopia was based on a premise of a simultaneous movement of dissolution of group identities and concentration of individual identities. Wells vision of a perfect space, a nowhere space corresponds to a biblical notion of Paradise with a Simon Bar Jona at the gates actively identifying and archiving data on people.

Wells decided to call his reverie A Modern Utopia. I wonder, what is so modern about this vision? Is it not inherently biblical from the point of view of fixing of personal identities? Does Wells not take Simon Bar Jona’s role of binding Christians and conflates it to include every living human being on earth? Wells dreams on a worldwide scale. Wells scale is grander than that of the Echelon project. Inveterate dreamer that he was, HG Wells did not think that it was an impossible demand.

This is by no means an impossible demand. The total population of the world is, on the most generous estimate, not more than 1,500,000,000, and the effectual indexing of this number of people, the record of their movement hither and thither, the entry of various material facts, such as marriage, parentage, criminal convictions and the like, the entry of the new-born and the elimination of the dead, colossal task though it would be, is still not so great…

And then Wells goes on to compare this work with other works that are, in his view, more complex than maintaining a database on people. Running a post office, he thinks, is immensely complex. But that is not as important as what he writes next, because he outlines a blueprint for preparing an index for the entire human race. It is interesting to note that in 1905, the year in which A Modern Utopia was published, all this was science fiction. In less than thirty years after its publication the Nazis were trying these ideas on Jews, Roma and Sinti of Europe. And in a little over hundred years time since A Modern Utopia was first published, India is on a nightmarish chase to identify a billion people.

It is only a reasonable tribute to the distinctive lucidity of the French mind to suppose the central index housed in a vast series of buildings at or near Paris.

The index would be classified primarily by some unchanging physical characteristic, such as we are told the thumb-mark and finger-mark afford, and to these would be added any other physical traits that were of material value. The classification of thumb-marks and of inalterable physical characteristics goes on steadily, and there is every reason for assuming it possible that each human being could be given a distinct formula, a number or “scientific name,” under which he or she could be docketed.

[Footnote: It is quite possible that the actual thumb-mark may play only a small part in the work of identification, but it is an obvious convenience to our thread of story to assume that it is the one sufficient feature.]

I think the idea of a scientific name is fascinating. But even more fascinating is the idea of a name. I wonder what does a name mean?

Plato, in a dialogue dedicated to Cratylus, highlights some aspects of the idea of a name. Socrates talks about the nature of names with Cratlyus. And we of course do not know whether it was Socrates who first thought about the nature of names or it was Plato’s idea? As this copy of a medieval image below cleverly depicts the merging of intellectual identities of Plato and Socrates in ‘Platonic’ thought. Plato seems to be directing Socrates here, just like in his dialogues, we hear Socrates speak but we don’t really know how much of Plato is in there.

Socrates suggests, there could be a utilitarian side to a name. Name may denote a function. Wing, for instance, might denote a tool for flying. Names are used for distinguishing things according to their inherent natures. For instance a watch may connote a chronometer. Names gesture towards convention and agreement. Names are instrument to differentiate things. Names imitate a thing vocally. I believe Wells’s notion of scientific name was an excellent tool and had great utilitarian benefits.

However I wonder when it comes to personal names should we consider utilitarian, functional, distinguishing, conventional or differentiating aspects only? Please allow me to explain by taking the case of my own name: Taha!


As a child, I didn’t know what my name, Taha, really meant. My parents didn’t know either.

At school knowing the meaning of your name was a big thing. Rajat means silver, Ravi stands for sun, Aakash means sky. Taha meant nothing to me. So over time it became a problem.

Whenever I would prod my parents for an answer they would say something like ‘it’s a divine secret.’

My father had named me Taha.

Finally one day I confronted him, ‘Why did you name me Taha?’

He replied, “Because it is my favorite sura in Quran. Sura-e-Taha.”

I looked it up in the Quran and found out what it was. Sura-e-Taha was about the story of Moses. How he discovered who he was? How God called him? How he gathered his people? And how he left Egypt? I don’t know why the story of Moses is titled as Ta-Ha in Quran.

On that day my relationship with my name changed. It started to mean something. However at the same time people found it extremely funny. Whenever anyone would ask me what my name means, I would promptly answer, “it connotes a chapter in Quran, which is about the story of Moses” and people would laugh about it. Taha – a chapter, your name means a chapter! How funny!!!

Funny or not it is my name. A part of my self feels that this name – Taha is not a reflection of my self. Another part feels I posses my self through my name. These are ephemeral feelings. There are no clear answers. I share a complex relationship with my name. However there is some clarity too. My father named me Taha. I am his son. He had a right to do that.

I wonder what right does a national state have to give me a unique name made up of random alphanumeric digits? The National Identity Number – a tag that could potentially become the only legitimate reference point of my individual identity till my death. But it is not a name, they say, it is just a number. Yet will not this number stay with me till I die. Do I really have to carry this alphanumeric burden?

In Cratylus, Socrates suggests that those who claim to discover names, and by that virtue think that they know the true nature of things, are likely fall for a trap as things are always in a state of flux. People running national identity card systems think they can know the true identity of a person and they can tag it with a name.

Socrates believed any name that is given to a thing might not correspond to its true nature. Does a file containing data of a dozen aspects of one’s identity represent the true individual identity of a person? What is individual identity of a person anyways?

I would like to consider Socrates remark very carefully because he seems to be warning us about the pitfalls of the business of naming. The national state seems to playing the role of a producer/manufacturer of names. As a producer of names it is following the logic of random selection to invent names. There is no etymological reference of an arbitrary national identity number, although there appears to be some utilitarian underpinnings.

Even Simon Bar Jona did not give names to people, although if the Bible were to be believed, it was the Son of God who gave Simon the right to bind people. What right does a national state have to name people? Who gives it a right to collect data of personal identities of people? Who gives it a right to make a database in some file and recognize them as who they are through bizarre set of characters? What authority does a state, which is made up of public servants, have to name its masters, i.e. the citizens of a country?

I did not find any answers to these questions while reading A Modern Utopia. Maybe H.G. Wells was not interested in these questions. Maybe these questions are too naïve. H.G. wanted a world state. He wanted the collective happiness of people in that world state to rise. He wanted to replicate the experience of heavens. He dreamt about A Modern Utopia. It was a fickle dream.


In the end his utopia fills him with disillusionment. However we must overlook that he writes, “I forget that a utopia is a thing of the imagination that becomes more fragile with every added circumstance, that, like a soap-bubble, it is most brilliantly and variously coloured at the very instant of its dissolution” because such thinking will be incredibly boring from the perspective of a national state.

Instead we must direct our attentions to the biblical core of A Modern Utopia. A core that is neither fickle like dreams nor some magical illusion, but is increasingly becoming a reflection of our reality.

H.G. Wells maps out a conceptual blueprint of the utopian infrastructure. An infrastructure that is making its presence felt in many countries across the world. I was thinking about Simon Bar Jona while reading the following section, because herein H.G. Wells describes machinery, which perhaps makes the idea of a heaven possible:

About the buildings in which this great main index would be gathered, would be a system of other indices with cross references to the main one, arranged under names, under professional qualifications, under diseases, crimes and the like.

These index cards might conceivably be transparent and so contrived as to give a photographic copy promptly whenever it was needed, and they could have an attachment into which would slip a ticket bearing the name of the locality in which the individual was last reported. A little army of attendants would be at work upon this index day and night. From sub-stations constantly engaged in checking back thumb-marks and numbers, an incessant stream of information would come, of births, of deaths, of arrivals at inns, of applications to post-offices for letters, of tickets taken for long journeys, of criminal convictions, marriages, applications for public doles and the like. A filter of offices would sort the stream, and all day and all night for ever a swarm of clerks would go to and fro correcting this central register, and photographing copies of its entries for transmission to the subordinate local stations, in response to their inquiries. So the inventory of the State would watch its every man and the wide world write its history as the fabric of its destiny flowed on. At last, when the citizen died, would come the last entry of all, his age and the cause of his death and the date and place of his cremation, and his card would be taken out and passed on to the universal pedigree, to a place of greater quiet, to the ever-growing galleries of the records of the dead.

Such a record is inevitable if a Modern Utopia is to be achieved.

A 1st century biblical notion turns into a 20th century science fiction and a 21st century reality. The idea of paradise, a walled compound with Simon at the gates is no more a religious idea, the rational states are borrowing it all over the world.


In France, Alex Turk, a former academician in Public Law and a right wing senator, is the President of the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés or CNIL. CNIL is an independent agency, which collects personal identity data on French citizens. CNIL came into being in 1978 when the media exposed SAFARI (a discreet personal identity data-gathering scheme of the French government in the seventies). However the national identity cards were issued in France for the first time after the defeat of the Battle of France in 1940. The original purpose was to explicitly help the German occupier to identify Jews, Roma and Sinti.

An identity document called the Documento Nacional de Identidad (DNI) is issued to every person who is sixteen years of age or over in Argentina. The DNI number was introduced under regime of the military dictator Juan Carlos Onganía, who came to power in 1968 after a staging fake national revolution. During the years that followed the Argentinean military junta, under a different president, ruthlessly used the national identity card as a tool to sort out armed communist activists, trade union leaders, left leaning intellectuals from the rest of the population. Thousands of people disappeared during this time. The Dirty War as it is known continued till early eighties. One of the practices, used in this ‘war’ was to take away children born to the detainees and ‘re-distribute’ them to people working for the military. Now a coalition of grandmothers of people born during the regime is campaigning hard to find their missing grandchildren by using DNA technology.

Currently Dr. Alejandro Augusto Lanus is the man responsible for distributing official identity tokens in Argentina. Argentina is a member of CLARCIEV, a body comprising of 21 countries belonging to the Latin America and the Caribbean engaged in forming a uniform policy framework for civil registration, individual identity and statistics .

Twenty years before the Argentineans introduced the identity card the British came out with a national identity card in Malaysia. In 1948 the Malaysian people had a national identity card called MyKad.

MyKAd was introduced to separate communist activists from the rest of the population, just as Documento Nacional de Identidad (DNI) was used for similar reasons in Argentina. The British government slapped an emergency on Malaysia from 1948 to 1960 to fight the Malaysian National Liberation Army, the militant arm of the Malaysian communist party. MNLA was fighting against the British to liberate Malaysia.

Malaysian MyKad then was a paper document with a signature and a thumbprint of the owner. This was used untill 1960. In the 1960’s the paper document was upgraded to a laminated card. A photograph of the owner of the card was introduced in 1999. A year later this document was withdrawn in favor of a smart card. The national registration department takes care of carrying out surveys of individual identity. Dato’ Alwi Bin Haji Ibrahim is the present Director-General.

The examples of France, Argentina and Malaysia offer some insights into the foundational reasons to introduce national identity cards. These insights are in no way indicative of a universal pattern. However in all these cases it seems that the national state wanted to purge some members of its populations. But it did not know who they were. The national state is naturally blind and needs a Braille script of an identity document to read its populations. Alex Turk, Alejandro Augusto Lanus, Alwi Bin Haji Ibrahim are just few examples of wannabe Simon Bar Jonas’s who are in charge of binding people.

The French under German occupation facilitated the purging of Jews. The then Argentinian and Malaysian national state wanted to purge militant communists who posed a threat. These threats were internal unlike in the case of Pakistan or England, which introduced national identity cards as a way to secure itself from external threats. England introduced national identity cards in 1939, just days after the outbreak of WWII, as an emergency measure and Pakistan introduced its version of national identity cards after its war with India in 1971. But all these seem like short-term measures, once the threat perception recedes the need for an identity card seems less.

It doesn’t come as a surprise then that in 1950, just eleven years after England had introduced national identity cards, a dry cleaning service manager named Clarence Willcock was stopped one day in London for rash driving by a police officer who asked Clarence Willcock to produce his National ID. Clarence refused to show it to the policeman saying, “I am a liberal, and I am against this sort of thing.”

Willcock started a storm, which led to the eventual abandonment of National ID Cards in England. His case was argued on the grounds that ID cards were introduced during WWII because there was an emergency.

What was the ‘emergency’ in 1950?

England was perhaps an exception. National Identity Cards survived in other countries and the instrument evolved through a language of welfare entitlement, justice, distribution and inclusion.

Multi purposes were fed into the instrument to keep it alive. In Malaysia for instance national identity cards are used for a variety or purposes, which could be as mundane as getting an admission to a school or as important as getting a loan or even opening a bank account. Multi purposes of an identity document make it look like a key, that could be used to open many doors.

These two instances demonstrate the suspicious and the benevolent aspect of a blind national state when it is dealing with its members. However together suspicion and benevolence represents the social dimension of a state-citizen interface. There is a spatial dimension too.

National state use identity cards to restrict access to a space, like Germany did during WWII, by identifying and restricting the Roma and Sinti population, political opponents, homosexuals and Jews to access European space. Germany made an attempt to produce a homogenous society.

On a smaller scale there are lots of instances where personal identities of local populations occupying minor spaces are surveyed, mapped, measured and identity tokens were distributed to mark them. These populations are subsequently relocated to other spaces either by their consent or by force, because the space had to be put to an alternate use.

Spaces are cleared to build dams, to mine minerals, build stadiums, to construct economic processing zones and other infrastructure that were of immense corporate interest. In such instances personal identities are documented when a state wants some of its members to be excluded from a certain space.

Identity cards can be applied to maintain the status quo of a space. For instance, the council or the local government system in Europe uses identity cards to heavily regulate any redesign of space, thereby exercising spatial surveillance. Additionally identity cards may come in handy to allot spaces and administer any redevelopment. A state may allow all its members to access some spaces through a national identity document. For instance, an identity document may be used for travel purposes, to access public spaces like libraries, or to find employment in public work projects.

State also uses a personal identity document when it wants some people to access particular spaces. Micro spaces like a prison, a factory, an army cantonment, a housing society or some institutional structures can only be accessed by those who have legitimate identity documents.

These instances do not cover all aspects of a complex and multilayered relationship that is shared by an identity card system and a space, they are, however, indicative of some general patterns. On a broad scale documents of personal identity can be used to produce spaces like those mentioned by Dante in his Divina Comedia i.e. an inferno, a purgatory or a paradise. I do not think that one can separate space from society, nonetheless one cannot undermine the influence of an identity document to alter the social, economic and cultural geography of a space.

One instance where a student of identity or space can study these above mentioned inter-linkages in all its ambiguity is by observing the way in which space is being re-designed in India.


 The Indian story has all the elements of a utopia, kitsch, a paradise and a potential all-seeing state. The idea of India was imagined as a utopia by its founding fathers. Nehru and Gandhi were inveterate utopianists. Both projected their version of space on Indian people. Gandhi may have been anointed as the father of the nation but it was Nehru and his family that ruled India for most of its independent history.

Gandhi wanted the village to be the locus of independent India. Why a village? Where did this idea come from? Villages are built on human scale. Gandhi experimented with the notion of an ideal self-sustaining space built on a human scale from the beginning of his political career. Gandhi dreamt of ideal compounds where a community bound by daily rituals and rules could live in social harmony. These compounds also served as nodes, as hubs where ideas, information and people could flow in and out with ease. Gandhi set up a farm near the city of Durban in South Africa in 1904. He called it Phoenix. In 1910 Gandhi moved to the Tolstoy farm near Soweto. Few years later when Gandhi moved to India he set up the Sabarmati Ashram in 1917 in Ahmedabad. These spaces worked as models where Gandhi could experiment with spatial and economic aspects of community living. His farms and ashrams were small spaces. Everyone knew everyone else. In Gandhi’s utopia a personal identity document was not an issue.

In fact the move from Phoneix to Transvaal was partially caused by Gandhi’s disgust towards the introduction of the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance number 29. This ordinance was similar to The Asiatic Law Amendment Act 2 of 1907. Together these legal instruments required Indians living in Transvaal to compulsorily register with the local authority. Identity of each Indian was to be ascertained by fingerprints. The act required all Indians to carry a Registration Certificate. Failure to produce an identity document could result in a fine or imprisonment. Maybe in Gandhi’s view, a nation was an extension of the idea of a home where people knew each other and not a prison where the warden and his staff has to know who was who and who was where. Gandhi’s dream of India as a land of thousands of self-sustaining villages possibly emanates from his experiments with the notion of utopian farms and ashrams. His dream was ignored because it radically differed with Nehru’s vision. Nehru was a realist, a pragmatist, and a kind of man who liked to see ideas in practice.


Nehru had a different vision in mind. Maybe Nehru interpreted the idea of India as a hyper-utopian space. A unitary space made up of multiple utopias. Nehru’s vision seems closer to that of Wells. Nehru, like Wells, in his mad rush to create utopias seemed inclined to create a complete system of governance, like a machinery that could help rule perpetually. He wanted to maintain and build on colonial structures.

It was but obvious then that with each new version of Nehruvian utopia, a corresponding identity document was introduced. In a way the history of identity documents in independent India goes parallel with its experiments with utopias.

When India got independent Nehru wanted to build what he called temples of modern India. Nehru’s temples were ideal spaces for harnessing energy. Technology was the cornerstone on which this utopia was built. Nehru had a technology fetish. In Discovery of India, Nehru writes, “there is something very wonderful about the achievements of science and modern technology” (P 452) Nehru thought that a country cannot achieve “high standards of living and liquidate poverty without the aid of modern technology” (P 450)

Technocrats played a critical role in helping Nehru interpret his dream. Hundreds of hydroelectric, wind, thermal and nuclear energy based power projects were the outcome of this dream. Millions of Indians were politely asked to make way for Nehru’s temples. Personal identity documents were used to map, measure and exclude people from certain spaces. But before creating his utopia based on technology Nehru created a political utopia.

Nehru’s political utopia was based on the idea of universal suffrage. Any one who was above twenty years of age could vote. For Nehru voting equaled participation in democracy. The institution of election commission of India was set up to bind Indians. Indian Voter identity cards were subsequently introduced. A rational bureaucratic machinery, much like the one imagined by Wells, was at work here.

To regulate the mercantile space licenses were introduced, which acted as de-facto identity documents for entrepreneurs to be recognized as legitimate persons who could build and operate spaces for production and trade of commodities and services. The license quota system was the outcome of this dream.

Nehru did the groundwork for his daughter Indira. Indira Gandhi introduced her version of utopia through the ‘Green revolution’. The idea was to expand farming areas, encourage double cropping and use of genetically enhanced seeds. Space was strategically altered. The emphasis was on rural space. During the ‘Green Revolution’ a commission for agriculture costs and price was set up within the Ministry of Agriculture to oversee pricing policy from the perspective of overall needs of the economy. Later on ration cards, which were used as de-facto identity documents for government to citizen interface, were introduced by this commission in 1960’s.

Between 1960’s and 1990’s federal and provincial government departments that were re-designing space in some form were introducing identity cards. This was also a period when all these identity documents were subject to tempering and copying. A new economy of fake identity cards flourished in India. The state tried very hard to control this counter production of identity documents but it couldn’t do much.

In 1998 India and Pakistan were engaged in low intensity conflict at Kargil in Kashmir. A review committee formed to ascertain the causes of the war and to suggest remedial measures recommended giving identity cards to people living in border villages of India. A plan to distribute multiple purpose identity cards was introduced. This plan covered all Indians. Why? No one knows. And no one knows why this plan was dropped shortly after. Public policy sometimes works in mysterious ways in India. In 2004 the ruling establishment changed. The BJP led coalition, which was in power then, lost the general elections. Another coalition of political parties came to power with the Congress party at the helm. For five years Manmohan Singh ruled India.

Five years later in 2009 Nehru’s granddaughter-in-law’s party, the Congress, came to power again for a second time in a row. On of the first policy initiative by this dispensation was to propose a national identity document. In 2009 India launched the largest experiment of documenting individual identities known to the world. But as Simon Bar Jona’s story reminds us, how could an identity card exist without a walled compound?


Between 2004 and 2009 Congress led a coalition of political parties to rule India, it quietly introduced a set of reforms: new policies and schemes anchored around redesign of space. These ideas seem like a concerted attempt to create one thousand and one Firdaus’.

Suddenly plans and proposals were coming from everywhere to spruce up space and create new ideal-compounds. The ideas which these compounds reflect are nowhere close to the ideals of Plato’s Republic or Iqbal’s Javid Namah or, for that matter, Gandhi’s farms, but they imitate a certain kind of naïve Nehruvian pragmatism and realism.

In December 2005 the Government of India introduced JNNRUM. JNNRUM focuses on urban infrastructure and governance in 63 big and 644 small towns of India. The idea behind JNNRUM is ‘integrated development of infrastructure services’, ‘planned development’, ‘reduction of congestion’ in cities and urban clusters.

As time went on these ideas were overlapped with an additional set of fantastical ideas like the ‘world city’ concept to beautify cities and increase urban infrastructure. Six years down the line not all seems to be going well with JNNRUM. In March 2011, according to a news report, A. Narayanan of Virugambakkam in Tamil Nadu filed a PIL in Madras High Court, seeking to discontinue JNNRUM as it appears ill conceived.

In June 2005 Special Economic Zones Act was passed with an objective to generate additional economic activity. An SEZ could be thought of as an ideal compound in many ways as each SEZ was imagined with the purpose of catering to all the needs of a particular industry. In other words, SEZ was an instrument to keep the industry people happy. Currently 130 SEZ are operational in India while formal approval has been given to 581 SEZ accommodating information technology enabled services, electronic hardware, carpets and handicrafts, bio-technology product industry and so on.

Source India SEZ

It was in the process of establishing one such compound covering over 57 square kilometers in a place called Nandigram in West Bengal that 3000 police personnel opened fire and killed 14 villagers. The state wanted to forcibly acquire land. The villagers wanted to keep it. The plan to build SEZ around Nandigram was eventually scrapped. The public works minister of the West Bengal Government, Kshiti Goswami later described the proposal of establishing Nandigram SEZ as a blunder: “Nandigram, Singur were blunders. Our government went there without any plan and roadmap. People were against it and that is why we are all paying a heavy price.” The building of SEZ continues in other parts of India, although not everyone seems to be happy about it.

In the last five years the federal Indian state, together with its provincial partners, has signed tens of Memoranda of Understanding with private companies from all over the world to lease out land for the purpose of mining of minerals. One can think of these MOU’s as deeds to make ideal compounds to mine minerals. The lands under which these minerals are buried belong to tribal populations. The dwellers of land are maybe not so enthusiastic about sharing their land for a mining paradise. Moreover some tribal groups have taken up arms against the state to articulate their view emphatically. This is causing a problem.

In March 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke about the Naxal problem.

Manmohan Singh said, “we will deal with it with a sense of purpose… but in dealing with our own people, we will not lose sight of the human side of the problem.”

In 2010 Manmohan Singh had a stronger view and he described Naxalism as the, “gravest internal security threat to the nation”.

A map of India depicting the Maoist/Naxal influence.


 The Home Minister of India, Chidambaram had a slightly different view.

In an interview he said, “I am completely convinced that no country can develop unless it uses its natural and human resources. Mineral wealth is wealth that must be harvested and used for the people.”

Regarding tribals, he raised a question, “Are we trying to preserve them in some sort of anthropological museum?”

Anthropological museums are ideal spaces to display objects and convey knowledge about a society. But does that mean societies whose fragments are displayed in ideal spaces like museums could not exist outside? Is it the job of a Home Minister of a country to decide who is to live in what manner?

Writer Arundhati Roy believes that it is money which is driving the Indian state to wage a war against the tribals: ”Over the past five years or so, the governments of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal have signed hundreds of MoUs with corporate houses, worth several billion dollars, all of them secret, for steel plants, sponge-iron factories, power plants, aluminium refineries, dams and mines. In order for the MoUs to translate into real money, tribal people must be moved. Therefore, this war.”

The period between 2004 and 2009 was marked by introduction of dozens of plans to reorder and redesign space. These ideas were scaled at the level of towns, cities and regions. Plans called for creation of ideal compounds to be used for a variety of purposes. Each compound would require acquisition of land. Land would be acquired either forcefully or in rare cases by mutual consent. The resident population of an area would be asked to move out, to make space for new settler populations.

At a fundamental level the management of movement of populations requires two instruments: a robust database of identities to know who all should be asked to move out; and who all to be settled and a highly efficient state machinery to facilitate the movement.

It may very well be so that in order for the calculus of ideal compounds to make sense, the Indian state desperately needed to individually know its populations.

Perhaps it is with the compound building urges of the Indian state in the background that in 2009 a scheme was drawn up to create a systematic database of individual identities of all Indians.

A modern utopia was getting ready in India and the state was in search of its own Simon Bar Jona. India needed its own fisher of men.


2009 was an election year. The three major political parties proposed to introduce a national identity card in their election manifestos. The reasons outlined however varied.

Congress played the Identity Card rhetoric by using tropes of citizenship and right. “Citizenship is a right and a matter of pride. With the huge IT expertise available in our country, it is possible to provide every Indian with a unique identity card after the publication of the national population register in the year 2011.”

The center right BJP had earlier used the strategy of invoking the figure of illegal immigrant to mold public opinion around identity cards, but for the 2009 elections it outlined a new strategy citing a range of reasons without shedding its position.

The Communists of India were also not far behind, although one has to admit that their vision of providing an identity document was limited to fish workers only.

In their manifesto the communists declared that if voted to power, they would be interested in: “Setting up special welfare board for fish workers and providing them identity cards and social security schemes”.

Congress won the elections. So did its coalition partners. The Congress’s nominee for Simon Bar Jona’s role was Nandan Nilekani, who once described urbanization as his agenda for public interest.

Nandan Nilekani started his career in national public life as a back office billionaire, was once the Chairman of Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF). BATF could be described as a relatively small time strategizing organization for building ideal-compounds.

Over the years Nilekani progressed.

Soon he was appointed as part of Prime Minister’s review committee for JNNRUM, the largest strategizing organization for building ideal compounds in India. In 2009 Nandan Nilkani became the chairman of UIDAI. Or let me put it this way, in 2009 the Gods that be appointed Nilekani as their Simon Bar Jona.

Once Nandan Nilekani said, “The UID will be the key to ensuring that these hundreds of millions of residents have access they need to build their skills, enhance their productivity and grow their incomes.”

On another occasion he said, “Aadhaar is a door to open all other doors.”

Even Nandan Nilekani seems to be aware of the role he is playing. If you listen carefully you will hear Simon Bar Jona whispering through Nandan Nilekani’s words. It is always good for a Simon Bar Jona to know about the design of the heavenly cities before taking charge of the keys at the gates as the fisher of men.


The day after Jesus had his last supper, Judas came and kissed him. For the guards of the city’s priests who were with Judas, it was a sign to arrest the man.

Jesus said, “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me like you would an outlaw?” The guards took no notice of Jesus’s protest and took him to the Sanhedrin where the high priest started to question Jesus about his identity: “Are you the son of God?”.

Simon Bar Jona followed Jesus to Sanhedrin but failed to identify him when a little slave girl of the high priest asked him: “You were with Jesus, weren’t you?” Simon Bar Jona said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

Just then a rooster crowed.

The girl asked Peter to identify Jesus thrice and thrice he refused. The rooster crowed once more and Peter suddenly came to his senses.

Simon Bar Jona remembered what Jesus had said, while having supper at Gethsemane the night before:“I tell you the truth, today – this very night – before a rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

The high priest condemned Jesus to death.

And Simon wept .

3 thoughts on “The gospel according to a divine identifier – An essay on the biblical origins of UID: Taha Mehmood”

  1. Thank you, Thaha Mehmood, this is a wonderful essay- though the title given to this essay is misleading. I hope you would find another title, subtle enough to convey the purpose of this write up – regards


  2. Quite long, and a bit late now. I’ll finish reading it tomorrow bu couldn’t wait till tomorrow to comment. This pertains to the first part which includes your musings on identity. One good traditional source that explores this is a story from Vikram aur Betaal. So a woman is traveling with husband and husband’s friend. Something happens and someone severs their heads. She pleads to Maa Durga to remedy it. Maa Durga says sew their heads to their bodies and they’ll regain life. This lady in her hurry to sew quickly exchanges the heads. Then when they come to life one man has body of husband and head of friend, other has body of friend and head of friend. Who is the husband now? Vikram gives the most shady answer like he always does. Betaal’s question lingers with me even now. Were it Nandan Nilekani carrying Betaal in the dead of the night he would have had a quick answer – cut their fingers and exchange those also. Now match the fingerprints and irises to our records you have your husband and friend.


  3. Actually, the author has mentioned the key to the ‘identifier’ himself but fails to see it. Identification rightly starts from naming at birth. Identification is characteristic of society whether directly or indirectly – but to curtail its usage to murder is supremely myopic. It has its advantages and disadvantages like everything else in this world.
    The usage of such identification is purely dependent on the intent. While its history may have been rooted in mal-intent – I believe that the UID is now being implemented with good intentions (but any system is subject to hijack – The Gujarat riots proved that you do not need anything beyond the electoral rolls for targeted massacre).
    The nauseatingly repetitive reminder of ‘Simon Bar Jona’ (28 times) is, to me, a desperate attempt to connect disparate ideas. No – Mr Mehmood, they are not inter-connected. Religion for most part advises on personal behaviour while it is the work of humans on how Nations, State, democracy, society, economy and politics should function.
    As for concept of Utopia, that is the only idea that has improved human society over the years and IS what has gone missing in people today thus leading to a stagnation of society in general.
    The flourish of the pen would mask the lack of a coherent idea for some but its disjointedness appears from the point of reference being judiciously taken as Christianity when in reality the problem of identity is as old as humans itself.


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