In 2007, the department of biotechnology in India began drafting a controversial legislative bill to collect and store the DNA information of Indian citizens in a national databank to help solve criminal cases. Since then, the measure has largely failed to move forward due to inadequate safeguards to secure this sensitive personal information. The Human DNA Profiling Bill is now back in parliament but it still does not fully address those previous concerns. I would go on to argue that this measure is even more dangerous now than it was when it was first raised a decade ago because of the current political climate in India.
The DNA legislation, if passed, could easily be another tool used by India’s nationalist government to undermine the privacy of journalists, activists and even students.
Information as important as a person’s DNA could soon be in the hands of a repressive government, under which Hindu extremist mobs have lynched Muslim minorities with impunity and extrajudicial killings have shown no signs of abating. In India today, sedition charges are routinely used to suppress free speech and minority rights. The local media has also increasingly been censored. The DNA legislation, if passed, could easily be another tool used by India’s nationalist government to undermine the privacy of journalists, activists and even students.
The legislation as it stands now would allow medical laboratories, police stations and courts to collect DNA samples from unidentified dead people, missing persons and suspects accused of crimes punishable by seven years or more in prison. These samples, in the case of a crime, are then matched to samples collected from the scene of a crime. This data could then be used in courtroom trials, as well as to identify the missing and dead. While DNA technology has been used in other countries to provide compelling evidence in criminal cases, it could easily be misused in India, a country where law enforcement has previously been accused of “fake encounters” — wherein security forces murder suspects under the pretext of self-defense.
The DNA legislation has provoked a nationwide debate in India. Critics have noted that DNA collection and sampling is also a demanding undertaking in a country with a population of 1.3 billion. For me, however, it’s the security concerns that are most problematic. The highly invasive potential of this technology could prove to be dangerous for the civil liberties — already under threat — of Indian citizens.