During the tenure of Vajpayee’s BJP-led NDA-1 government, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, by Notification G.S.R.937(E) on 10.12.2003. Its infirmities – discussed here – were not rectified/amended/changed by Manmohan Singh’s two successive Congress-led UPA governments (2004-2014), or by Modi’s first (2014-2019) BJP-led NDA-2 government.

The peculiar features of CAA-2019 under the current NDA-3 government drew attention to the 2003 Rules, by means of which a National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are created.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs is reported to have cautioned government that the entire Census process may get stymied due to public dissatisfaction and fears that the NPR exercise clubbed with Census would lead to the NRC. It is remarkable that the Committee did not recognize that the 2003 Rules were made precisely for this purpose.

The NPR process

The NPR process begins at the “local” level, i.e., village, town or city ward or other demarcated area. Enumerators, following “Instruction Manual for Updation of National Population Register (NPR) 2020” acquire details of locally residing persons by door-to-door visits. They then make step-by-step modification/correction of the NPR Data Booklet and NPR Schedule.

A local officer or revenue officer of the town or city ward or village, functions as Local Registrar of Citizen Registration, and prepares the Local Register of Indian Citizens. The details of each enumerated person are compiled at the local level by the Local Registrar to prepare the Population Register.

After “due verification of details” of the persons listed in the Population Register, the Local Registrar prepares the Local Register of Indian Citizens as a Draft.

During the verification process, particulars of individuals whose Citizenship is doubtful, are entered by the Local Registrar with “an appropriate remark” in the Population Register for further enquiry. In cases of doubtful Citizenship, the individual or the family are informed after the verification process is over.

Infirmities of the 2003 Rules

A detailed critique of the 2003 Rules brings out many infirmities:

(a) Inviting objections from any person against inclusion of any person in the Register permits individuals to motivatedly cause harm to others at no risk to themselves. It provides opportunity to implement political agendas, settle personal scores, blackmail and corruption. Given the current atmosphere in the country, there is high probability bordering on certainty, of a religious/politically motivated person/group raising objection to inclusion of particular persons/families in the Local Register.

(b) An objector is even accorded the position of "aggrieved person" having the benefit of the same two levels of appeal by an excluded person to get his/her name included. Further, there is no penalty on the objector if a frivolous or motivated objection is proven wrong. This demonstrates the exclusionary character of the 2003 Rules.

(c) Exclusion from the Local Register would cause the excluded person to suffer at personal, family and economic levels. He/she would appeal to officials at distant Taluk & District headquarters, spending scarce money for travel-accommodation-food for days together at Taluk or District HQ. This disruption of life adversely & irretrievably affects persons from rural socio-economic situations, ruining their mental peace, family life, livelihoods, earnings, children's schooling, etc. It reduces a citizen to a supplicating, grovelling individual, destroying his/her individual dignity.

(d) Given the reality of public services in our country, the verification/scrutiny powers accorded by the 2003 Rules to officials at different levels to arbitrarily exclude a person/family with devastating finality, provide opportunity for corruption.

(e) When they do not have documents necessary to prove citizenship, citizens will scramble to obtain them. This will give impetus to the fake document industry – already a thriving industry creating fakes for currency, education certificates, Aadhaar cards, etc. - and opportunities for lobbyists, touts, agents and corrupt officials.

(f) The people affected due to "defect in documentation" (not available/ never prepared/ lost in natural disaster, transit etc./ spelling discrepancy/ name different as for married woman/ no corroboratory document/ enumerator or local official not accepting validity, etc.) would suffer indignity and socio-economic loss of having to appeal twice, and accept the disenfranchisement of finally failing, followed by 5-years in a detention camp. According to CAA-2019, he/she would need to prove that he/she is Hindu/Sikh/Xian/Jain/Buddhist/Parsi – Muslims being outside the ambit of this law – and further prove (obviously falsely in most cases) that he/she has come from Afghanistan/ Pakistan/ Bangladesh. All this would need to be done from inside the detention centre, within the same official system which disenfranchised them, all making for more opportunities for the touts, etc.

(g) Assam’s NPR-NRC experience has ended with nearly 2-million people unable to prove their citizenship for want of documents necessary and acceptable to enrolment officials. NRC at national scale would involve many tens of millions.

(h) The negative effect on local economies due to fall in productivity of people absent from job/occupation for producing the document(s), checking the published Local Register, paying touts, etc. and going for appeal is obvious. Every state’s unproductive expenditure will increase for infrastructure for detention centres and running cost of maintaining inmates, salaries, etc. The cumulative downstream effect on State and National economies can be imagined.

(i) The social turmoil due to the difficulties faced by millions of people in proving their citizenship would inevitably heighten existing levels of social unrest.

(j) Aadhaar was started as an “identity” to obviate all other identity documents. Even today, people queue-up at Aadhaar centres for fresh enrolments, correction of errors, changes in details, re-validation of biometrics, etc. Due to the time required to capture biometrics and confirm demographic data, an operator in an Aadhaar centre handles about 30 persons in a working day. This inevitably results in long queues and absence from work (typically more than once) for applicants. If the Aadhaar experience is any indication, the NPR-NRC process would be at least as traumatic for people. An individual failing in the Aadhaar process can mean denial of benefits until Aadhaar is obtained, but failing in the NPR process involves a devastating finality with no recourse.

Bottom line

The NPR-to-NRC process as defined in the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, enables motivated or targeted exclusion of persons/families in the NRC.

The outcomes of the nation-wide NPR-NRC program may be seriously debilitating from the social and economic perspectives, from local through state to national level. In order to identify illegal immigrants, there is little justification for government to put the entire population through the mill to prove their citizenship, according to Rules loaded with infirmities.

The 2003 Rules are perverse, unjust and prone to misuse, and deserve immediate de-notification. In the national interest the entire NPR-NRC process needs to be reviewed with public consultation.

(S.G.Vombatkere was awarded Visishta Seva Medal (VSM) in 1994 for distinguished military service rendered in Ladakh, and retired after 35 years in uniform with the rank of major general from the post of Additional DG in charge of Discipline & Vigilance at Army HQ)