Secret History of Aadhaar

In 1922 IBM acquired a German punch card company called Dehomag which was given the license to use the parent’s proprietary card sorting and tabulating technology in Germany. When the Nazis took over, IBM didn’t pull out of Germany. In 1933, Dehomag’s largest contract was for leasing machinery to tabulate the German census. Dehomag’s punch card machines were also used to compile ‘‘nearly all the medical, health and welfare statistics in Germany’’.

When Dehomag opened a new plant in January 1934, the company’s general manager said in his inaugural speech, “We [Dehomag] are very much like the physician, in that we dissect, cell by cell, the German cultural body. We report every individual characteristic on a little card… We are proud that we may assist in such a task, a task that provides our nation’s Physician [Adolf Hitler] with the material he needs for his examinations. Our Physician can then determine whether the calculated values are in harmony with the health of our people. It also means that if such is not the case, our Physician can take corrective procedures to correct the sick circumstances”.

Punched card machines. D11 tabulating machine by Deutsche Hollerith-Maschinen-Gesellschaft (DEHOMAG), Berlin,


On reading the translation of this speech, US-based IBM President Thomas Watson congratulated the manager. Germany was IBM’s second largest market and Watson’s chief concern was to maintain IBM’s dominant position in the German market, even one ruled by the Nazis.

In 1939, Dehomag again received the contract for the German census. According to the New York Times (17 May 1939), “It will provide detailed information on the ancestry, religious faith and material possessions of all residents. Special blanks will be provided on which each person must state whether he is of pure ‘‘Aryan’’ blood. The status of each of his grandparents must be given and substantiated by evidence in case of inquiry.”

In fact, by 1939, Dehomag designed custom programmes so that its machines could be leased to concentration camps. Punch card data helped camp administrators track the amount of food needed to keep prisoners alive for a minimum amount of time; to identify prisoners; to keep track of prisoners’ ethnicity (including the degree of Jewish and Aryan background) and religion; to determine work assignments; to keep track of punishments administered to each prisoner; to record whether a prisoner was able to work; and to maintain death statistics. To simplify data analysis, prisoners were tattooed with a five-digit code that corresponded to the punch card containing their demographic data. When a German factory needed prison laborers with particular skills, Dehomag’s punch cards were used to identify such prisoners and move them to where they were needed.

By 1940 IBM machines kept track of German munitions, spare parts for the German fighter planes and bombers, combat orders, and troop movements. IBM’s activities were legal, and royalty payments to IBM continued to flow to the US through its Swiss bank account.

Godard’s brilliant 1965 film Alphaville is about an Orwellian, technocratic dystopia in a distant corner of the galaxy, a city controlled by a sentient computer called Alpha 60 that has banned love and self-expression and exerts unrelenting electronic tyranny over the brainwashed humans living there. FBI agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) arrives there on a mission to destroy this computer and kill the mastermind who invented it. He falls in love with the evil scientist’s daughter (Anna Karina) but has to teach her the meaning of the word “love”, since human emotions have been expunged from Alphaville’s allowable vocabulary and any expression of them warrants executions. Despite the overt sci-fi mould of the film, it is frighteningly accurate in its depiction of the world that has largely come to pass, one dominated by the fusion of technology with the authoritarianism of the modern state, a nexus that Marcuse denounced in ‘One-Dimensional Man’ back in 1964. ‘We are already living in the future’, Godard is supposed to have said at the time, and, as one critic points out, the world today is ‘very much closer to the director’s creation than it was in 1965’.

Even if you’ve signed up for Aadhaar, have no illusions about where the antecedents of this totalitarian scheme lie.


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Jairus Banaji Written by:

Jairus Banaji is a well-known historian and Marxist intellectual

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