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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 14 New Delhi March 21, 2020

Destroying Constitutional ‘Fraternity’: NPR-NRC from Assam to All-India

Tuesday 24 March 2020, by S G Vombatkere

There was public alarm following enactment of the CAA-2019. The 2003 Rules [Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003] may not have been examined in detail had the CAA-2019 not been enacted with the intention of the countrywide NPR-NRC. Now the 2003 Rules stand exposed as providing definite possibilities for malafide/ targeted use in the NPR-NRC process. [Ref. 1]

The Assam Experience

The NPR-NRC was conducted in Assam to identify illegal Bangladeshi migrants and their descendants settled in Assam. It was problematic due to “defective documentation”, local officials exercising discretion arbitrarily, and the dreadful finality of detention centres. [Ref. 1]

Concluding a Supreme Court-monitored exercise that took five years and cost Rs 1220 crores, the final NRC released on 31.08.2019 revealed that, of 32.9 million people who applied for citizenship, 1.9 million people (nearly six per cent) were “illegal migrants” or “foreigners”. [Ref. 2] The fact that over 60 per cent of 1.9 million foreigners were Hindus, may be reason for the unseemly haste with which the government introduced the CAA-2019 as a Bill on 09.12.2019 in the Lok Sabha, and signed by the President on 12.12.2019.

From Assam to All-India

Some issues concerning the Assam NRC experience bear noting, because similar issues may arise when the NPR-NRC clubbed with Census 2021 begins in other States beginning 01.4.2020:

• Only a very few of the 1.9 million persons whose names were not found in the NRC after the two-level appeal procedure, could afford to petition the Guwahati High Court for relief. But of the 787 petitions between 2010 and 2019, 97 per cent failed to convince the Court regarding their citizenship and were confirmed as “foreigner”. [Ref. 3] Thus the discretionary power of the Local Registrar marking “D” (doubtful citizen) for the 1.9 million exclusions was effectively final.

• The basis of exclusion of an individual by the Local Regsitrar is inadequacy or absence of primary document(s) or corroborating document(s) for proving citizenship. This could be because the applicant’s documents were not available/ never prepared/ defaced or lost in natural disaster, etc./ had spelling error mismatch/ name was different as for married women/ no corroboratory document, or the Local Registrar not accepting its validity, etc. For one or more of the foregoing reasons, tens of millions of Indians across would be unable to prove their citizenship and, even excluding the possibility of malafides at the local level, would be marked “D”.

• Anomalous situations had arisen in the Assam NPR-NRC process, such as one member of a family being “lucky” to have been listed and another of the same family being “unlucky” to have been left out. This could be due to discretionary powers vested with the Local Registrar to mark a person “D”.

• Careful reading of the 2003 Rules [Ref. 1] show that when the NPR-NRC is conducted countrywide beginning 01.4.2020, there is huge scope for malafide/ targeted exclusion of individuals/ families.

• The cost of the Assam NPR-NRC was Rs 1220 crores spread over five years. This was accompanied by social disruption and violence, which cannot be costed, but it is reported that over 60 persons were killed in the NRC-related violence, and people spent more than Rs 7800 crores on hearings. [Ref. 2] That is, individuals together spent over six times more than the government on the NPR-NRC. Considering the seriousness of being consigned to a detention camp, many people reportedly sold their land (land documents being unacceptable to prove citizenship) to finance attending hearings at the Taluk/District. These facts and figures translated to the all-India scale are mind-boggling.

Foreigners provide Opportunity

Each person, whose name is not found in the NRC, is a foreigner, to be lodged in a detention centre, and wait for five years to apply for Indian citizenship. Muslims being outside the ambit of the CAA-2019, each detenue needs to prove that he/she is Hindu/ Sikh/ Christian/ Jain/ Buddhist/ Parsi and also that he/she has come to India from Afghanistan/ Pakistan/ Bangladesh. The impossibility of producing documentary proof of religion and country of origin while under detention is obvious. But even if that is done, it would be to the satisfaction of the same official system which disenfranchised them for want of documentation. Each application would thus provide opportunity for counterfeiters, crooks, touts, etc. This cannot be in the national interest.

Census-NPR-NRC-CAA are Linked

The title of the Enumerators and Supervisors Manual of 2020 is “Instruction Manual for Updation of NPR 2020”, and paragraph 1.6 reads: “The Government has decided to update the NPR database alongwith Houselisting and Housing Census phase of Census of India 2021 during April—September 2020.” The Government’s prevarication regarding conduct of countrywide NPR-NRC as part of the 2021 Census have aggravated public suspicions and reduced public trust in the establishment.

Following Tamil Nadu’s recent discomfort with the NPR, Home Minister Amit Shah assured that “nobody will be marked ‘D’ (doubtful citizen) ...”, and “nobody needs to fear about NPR.” [Ref. 4] Since his earlier statements—like NRC issue never having been discussed and there being no detention centres—were shown to be wrong, these assurances lack credibility. Knowledge of the direct connection between the NPR, NRC and CAA-2019 are undoubtedly cause for several States opposing the NPR.

Questionable Propriety

The 2020 Enumerators and Supervisors Manual begins with a reference to the 2010 NPR process: “National Population Register (NPR) of all the ‘usual residents’ in the country was created in 2010. The field work for NPR data collection was undertaken alongwith Houselisting and Housing Census 2010.” Thus, linking the NPR-NRC process with the Census was started by the UPA-2 Government.

The current NPR-NRC riding on the back of Census 2021 would save separate expenditure for the NPR-NRC. But the question is really about the propriety of the NPR-NRC itself, which requires every individual to apply for citizenship, provide documentary proof of citizenship to the satisfaction of a Local official, run the risk of being marked ‘D’ for want of documents and being consigned to a detention centre. Incidentally, the Government has not come up with clear answers regarding what documents are necessary.

Bottom-line

The jointness of the NPR-NRC-CAA triad can no longer be denied. The 2003 Rules along with the 2020 NPR Instruction Manual, present real-time opportunity for officials to exclude individuals/ families from citizenship, for reasons ranging from simple corruption or political rivalry against individuals, to targeting a class of people based upon religion, caste, gender, ethnicity, language, etc. This is not a reflection on the integrity of officials, but points at the influence of powerful persons on official functioning. The 2003 Rules also permit arbitrary review of any person’s inclusion in the NRC. [Ref. 1]

The Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality or otherwise of the CAA-2019. But whatever judgment is delivered in this matter, the following substantive issues concerning the NPR-NRC remain:

1. 1.3 billion people will have to bear the burden of proving their citizenship to a disinterested/ inefficient/ motivated or hostile bureaucracy (or out-sourced agency as in the case of Aadhaar), and be put to risk, trouble and expense, particularly because of documentation.

2. The work of implementing the NPR along with Census 2021 will be done by officials in addition to their normal duties. This will inevitably result in overwork and poor quality of work, affecting primary governance adversely.

3. Public expenditure for NPR-NRC and individual expenses combined with workdays/ livelihoods lost, will together add a large negative dimension to national and state economies which are already staggering due to multi-dimensional failures and other reasons.

4. Social tensions are sure to intensify as millions of people jostle to acquire documents which they do not possess, in order to satisfy officials who have huge discretionary powers, which will determine their identity as citizens or non-citizens with consequent effects on their progeny, livelihoods and property.

5. Several states are opposing or expressing reservations concerning the NPR-NRC. This is already causing public angst, which can have unpredictable fallout in law and order terms and adversely affect development, progress and national security, to the advantage of India’s hostile neighbours.

Forcing the NPR-NRC on a reluctant population despite widespread public and political opposition or discomfort in 19 States, using the defective 2003 Rules, and with the looming spectre of the CAA-2019, is inexcusable hubris. It adversely affects constitutional Fraternity by destroying the dignity of the individual and militating against the integrity of the nation.

The Government would be well advised to actively and transparently consider the foregoing five substantive issues in the public and national interest. It needs to finally drop the All-India NPR-NRC, initiate genuine and honest public consultation, and adopt people-friendly governance.

References

1. S.G. Vombatkere; “Questioning the 2003 Citizenship Rules: The Villain of NPR-NRC; Countercurrents.org; <https://countercurrents.org/2020/03...> ; March 9, 2020.

2. Rahul Karmakar; “Over 19 lakh excluded from Assam’s final NRC”; The Hindu;<https://www.thehindu.com/news/natio...> ; August 31, 2019.

3. Suhrith Parthasarathy; “For a universal status of personhood”; The Hindu; <https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/le...> ; March 11, 2020.

4. “No papers needed for NPR: Shah”; Deccan Herald; 13.3.2020; p.1.

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. Email: sg9kere[at]live.com

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