Pushing The Envelope
Government’s inflexible and resolute NPR-NRC initiative is causing country-wide unrest, testing the credibility of statements made by top politicians. The date for starting NPR registration is April 1, 2020.
Connecting NPR & NRC
The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA-2019) passed on 10.12.2019 had caused a public uproar because of fears that it could be used for religious discrimination, and more specifically that NPR was the means to create a pan-India NRC. In an unusual attempt to allay public fears, Mr.Amit Shah, declared that there was no link between NRC and NPR. This created a further uproar since the same government had stated the opposite earlier.
On 21.4.2015, Minister of State for Home Affairs stated in Parliament: “The National Population Register (NPR) is a Register of Usual Residents. It would contain citizens as well as non-citizens. The objective of creating a NPR is to net all usual residents of the country at a given point of time. This would serve as the mother database for creating the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) by verifying the citizenship status of each and every resident”. [Ref.1].
At a BJP rally at Delhi's Ramlila Maidan “... Modi sought to calm the nerves of the country by saying that his government had never discussed anything about the National Register of Citizens (NRC) apart from the one in Assam”. [Ref.2].
ANI quotes Mr.Amit Shah, as saying: “There is no link between the NRC and the NPR, I am clearly stating this today, ... There is no need to debate this [pan-India NRC] as there is no discussion on it right now, [Emphasis added] PM Modi was right, there is no discussion on it yet either in the Cabinet or Parliament”. [Ref.3].
The most generous interpretation of this post CAA-2019 denial of the NPR-NRC link was ignorance of government’s statement of intent in Lok Sabha: “It has been decided that National Population Register (NPR) should be completed and taken to its logical conclusion, which is the creation of National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC)”. [Ref.4].
True that this was during the tenure of the earlier BJP government starting May 2014, but by May 2019 when BJP won again, government functionaries had displayed their proclivity for making outrageous, conflicting, contradictory or deliberately ambiguous statements.
The Assam NRC experience has exposed 19-lakhs people unable to prove their citizenship, and consigning them to detention centres as illegal immigrants. Public fears are that when the pan-India NRC is implemented, the inevitable huge numbers of “non-citizens” would be sent to detention centres. In yet another denial, Mr.Amit Shah said: “... no detention centre has been created since the Modi government came to power”. [Ref.5].
This denial caused further fear and doubt, since a report showed that a detention centre had been constructed in Karnataka, although State Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai, belonging to the same party which rules at the Centre, objected to the term 'Detention Centre'. With typical ambiguity, he ruled out that the centre has been operationalised, going on to say ".. please check with the social welfare department. At least I have no information that it has started”. [Ref.6].
Roots in 2003
NPR and NRC were already connected by the BJP-led NDA government in “Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003” [Ref.7] of which Section 4(3) reads: “For the purposes of preparation and inclusion in the Local Register of Indian Citizens, the particulars collected of every family and individual in the Population Register shall be ...”.
Further, the 2003 Rules provide as follows:
# Government shall carry throughout the country a house-to-house enumeration for collection of specified particulars relating to each family and individual, residing in a local area including the Citizenship status.
# The particulars collected of every family and individual in the Population Register shall be verified and scrutinized by the Local Registrar.
# During the verification process, particulars of such individuals, whose Citizenship is doubtful [Section 4(4)], shall be entered by the Local Registrar with appropriate remark in the Population Register for further enquiry.
# Every person or family noted as “doubtful” shall be given opportunity of being heard by the Sub-district or Taluk Registrar of Citizen Registration, before a final decision is taken to include or to exclude their particulars in the National Register of Indian Citizens.
There is more in the 2003 Rules regarding the powers of various officials, and procedures and appeals of persons marked “doubtful” in NPR. The process requires 1.3 billion Indian residents to prove their citizenship to be included in NRC or be deemed illegal immigrants.
Creation of NPR is the precursor to creating a pan-India NRC, whatsoever Government or its supporters may say. CAA-2019 may result in pan-India, large-scale exclusion of Muslims, although the Assam experience has shown that 60% of the 19-lakhs excluded persons are Hindus. The organic link of NPR-NRC with CAA-2019 (although denied) is likely to vitiate an already toxic social atmosphere, besides causing huge economic loss at individual, societal and national levels.
Government denials are proven false by its “Instruction Manual for Updation of National Population Register (NPR) 2020”, for Enumerators and Supervisors.
Unthought or malafide?
A question being asked is why every resident has to prove his/her citizenship in order to identify illegal immigrants. It is like summoning all Mohalla residents to the Mohalla Police Station to prove their innocence in a murder case. It assumes that all residents are felons unless they can prove otherwise, insulting the dignity of the individual and displaying Police incompetence to detect and apprehend the murderer.
The legitimate doubts and fears of the public have been heightened by news of the travails of 19-lakhs excluded persons in Assam. The discretionary power given by the 2003 Rules to local officials to mark a resident “doubtful” is deeply worrying, even if there are levels of appeal. This obviously creates avenues for corruption, which happens pan-India, for example, when enumerating persons eligible for compensation for loss of land in large projects.
Examples of the practical difficulties which citizens face in the NPR process are:
# The NRC is to contain date and place of birth. People need to produce documentary proof during the NPR process. There are millions of people who have no birth certificate, and many do not even know their date of birth. Others have certificates stating “male child born to ~~~ on ~~(date)” with no name. Married women have their birth certificate in their maiden name, which doesn’t match with her present name, calling for production of additional documents. Millions of people have never had documents prepared, or have lost them during flood/earthquake/accident. Or there are discrepancies between documents like spelling errors. All these provide ample opportunity to local officials to exercise their discretion, which can usually be purchased.
# Families have been fractured by only some members passing the NRC test.
# A person marked “doubtful” in NPR needs to appeal within 30-days at each of two levels of appeal. Millions of poor people will inevitably be marked “doubtful” for defect in documentation. Their travails in running between offices which could be hundreds of kilometres from their homes, and their fears for themselves and their children can only be imagined. The Assam experience shows that people have even sold their land to travel to and live in the centres of appeal.
The effect on the national economy of (already poor) millions losing working days and income/wages due to having to prove citizenship, and on the inevitable social turmoil is unimaginable. Apart from capital expenditure for construction of detention centres, expenditure on people consigned to detention centres unproductively for indefinite periods would strain Union and State budgets, diverting scarce funds away from development, and driving a flagging economy downwards.
Pushing the envelope
Commenting on the country-wide protests against NPR-NRC-CAA, Bombay High Court chief justice Pradeep Nandrajog said: “It would be illogical to ask people not to be scared of the new CAA, because this fear has been created by you (government)”, adding that “half the damage is done through the NPR, as people fear the next step would be to slip the NRC through”. [Ref.8].
When people fear government, democracy is the casualty. Only a government which respects the people can earn the trust of the people.
Government’s NPR-NRC initiative is a radical idea. There is nothing per se wrong with radical ideas, but when they have adverse effects, their implementation needs to be reconsidered. That calls for a people-friendly style of governance which political arrogance cannot provide. Flip-flop statements, retractions and blatant denials by top politicians only serve to destroy trust and confidence in government even among its supporters.
Government’s inflexible stand on NPR-NRC coupled with its intransparent and unaccountable governance, tests the limits of public patience, trust and goodwill, and pushes the envelope of democracy, besides having serious negative effects on a wounded economy.
1. Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No.4380 of 26.11.2014. Paragraph (c).
2. “Why PM Modi chose to contradict Amit Shah's NRC vow”; India Today; https://www.indiatoday.in/mail-today/story/why-pm-modi-chose-to-contradict-amit-shah-on-nrc-1630689-2019-12-23; 23.12.2019.
3. “No link between NRC and NPR, says Amit Shah“; The Hindu; https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/no-link-between-nrc-and-npr-says-amit-shah/article30389864.ece.
4. Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No.4380 of 26.11.2014. Paragraph (a).
5. “No connection between detention centre, CAA and NRC: Amit Shah”; The Times of India; 24.12.2019; https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/no-connection-between-detention-centre-caa-and-nrc-amit-shah/articleshow/72958634.cms.
6. “First detention centre in Karnataka to house illegal immigrants”; The Economic Times; 25.12.2019; https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/first-detention-centre-in-karnataka-to-house-illegal-immigrants/articleshow/72965984.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
7. MHA Notification No.G.S.R.937(E) dated 10.12.2003, notifying the “Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003”.
8. Narsi Benwal; “Illogical to ask people not to be scared of CAA, says CJ Pradeep Nandrajog“; Free Press Journal; 23.2.2020; https://www.freepressjournal.in/mumbai/illogical-to-ask-people-not-to-be-scared-of-caa-cj-nandrajog.
Major General S.G.Vombatkere is retired from the Indian Army.