Dr. Amitabh Kundu is currently a distinguished fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a New Delhi-based policy research institute. Until January 2014, he was a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has about 35 books and 300 research articles, published in India and abroad, to his credit.
With the avowed objective of providing an easier pathway for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christians coming to India from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh before 2014 in acquiring citizenship, the Government of India has amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed on December 11, 2019. The latter gives citizenship to the people mentioned above and does not take it away from anyone. The government has therefore asserted time and again that no Indian national should have apprehension of disenfranchisement, since it does not touch the “citizens.”
Any law providing different channels to people of different religions and countries of origin can, however, be considered discriminatory. Any law subjecting people of a community to a harsher treatment than others would hurt an individual and her sense of identity, although she may not be directly affected. Also, it affects the image of the country concerned. The issue under consideration, therefore, is not of giving something or taking it away. It is of equality before law and the Constitution.
Every country has the right to prepare a national register of its citizens and deal with the illegal migrants as per the law of the land. However, there are issues of serious concern for the Muslim minorities in India when one digs into the implications of CAA in the preparation of National Register of Citizens (NRC), mandated by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2003. The present government made an electoral promise to implement the NRC. The process begins with the central government preparing the National Population Register (NPR), a list of all people residing in India, including non-citizens. The Register was prepared for the first time in 2011, as a part of census house-listing operation and updated in 2015. Based on the information in NPR, the local officials are expected to identify the persons who fail in providing appropriate and adequate evidence of citizenship.
The census with which the NPR is tagged suffers from a serious coverage error by missing out 2.3% of the population, as determined through post enumeration checks in 2001 and 2011. The degree of undercount did not go down with computerization and use of digital technology since the undercount in 1991 and 1981 was less, only 1.8%. The undercount in 2011 was even larger in urban areas, 4%, where a larger percentage of Muslims reside. In any case, not counting 2% of the population implies exclusion of 30 million people in India. Increased mobility is likely to increase this figure.
The NPR tagged to the house-listing schedule in 2011 collected, besides location particulars that identifies the household on the ground, a lot of text data like names of persons, names of places, and addresses, etc. It prepared an electronic database for 1.18 billion persons only, against the census figure of 1.21 billion. Considering the undercount of another 30 million in the census itself, it is evident that 60 million people were missed in this NPR exercise.
In the forthcoming census, NPR-linked house-listing had 34 items of information such as the place and date of birth of the parents, last place of residence, and identifying numbers of a few official documents such as driving license and passport, many of them being optional items (the list was withdrawn subsequently). NPR is, thus, seen as the first step of the NRC process.
Mismatch of any information can create serious problems for an individual, including her claim of citizenship. Given the present social tension and uncertainties, this could result in massive corruption and violence at the ground level. Furthermore, a lot of data in the NPR, like educational status, marital status, and occupation, are not constant for a person and given the time lag in the finalization of the citizenship register, these would have less validity. In preparing the Local Register of Indian Citizens, the responses to questions in NPR, including those that are not mandatory, are to be scrutinized. As per the 2003 Citizenship Rules, local officials would identify the persons whose citizenship is doubtful. These people shall be given an opportunity of being heard by the Sub-district or Taluk Registrar of Citizen Registration, before a final decision.
Given the present level of decadal migration, roughly 12% of the people would not be found in the place where they were enumerated in 2011. It would, therefore, be erroneous to consider 2021 NPR as a mere updating exercise. Updating is possible only if the current and past records can be unambiguously matched, which will be nightmare.
As a routine administrative exercise, the preparation of a register of the population would not stir up controversies. However, if this is likely to be the basis for a decision on one’s citizenship, political issues will inevitably come to the forefront and the data collection will be clouded with extraneous factors, affecting the responses. This has been shown even in much smaller exercises like the linguistic survey done in some villages of Punjab and Haryana in the mid-1980s. The Socioeconomic Caste Census too recorded much higher level of deprivation of households since this was conducted with the avowed objective of identifying the poor. The apprehension that the NPR would be the base document for NRC would compromise the reliability of the 2021 Census data. Recent migrants who are likely to have difficulties in obtaining identity or address proof at their current place of residence would not identify themselves as migrants. Alternately, they may report a longer residency at the place of enumeration, as done in 2011, to avoid negativities associated with recent migrants. For the census staff, it will be a nightmare to organize its operation amidst the threats and frets of disenfranchisement, without losing credibility of the information collected.
The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003, specify only a very limited set of information for each citizen to be kept in the NRC. These are name along with that of father and mother, gender, date and place of birth, present and permanent residential address, marital status, visible identification mark, date and serial number of registration, and finally national ID number. The large number of other information proposed to be collected during the NPR must therefore be for deciding the citizenship status of the people. All along the practice in census and surveys in India has been to maintain certain parsimony of information to be collected not just for economy but also to ensure quality of whatever data is collected.
The reported decisions of some state governments to not to participate in the preparation of NPR is likely to generate confusion in the public mind, as they may not be able to distinguish these independent survey instruments. There are also reports of field investigators engaged in totally unrelated survey data collections facing non-cooperation on the suspicion that their work is related to NPR. Clearly the census and survey operations will face tumultuous times ahead, besides the political unrest and travails of citizens upon whom the burden of proof will legally rest.
The call given by several political leaders and activists in the country to boycott NPR, so that the source of NRC is scuttled, has serious difficulties. Besides the illegality of this action, it would isolate and identify a small segment of population on the other side of the law. This may largely comprise Muslims. Their not being included in NPR can be taken more seriously by the administration than being given a doubtful status. The possibility of protest and violence in conducting census operations cannot be ruled out. While such a position would possibly be taken by a few leaders as a symbolic protest for a creating a public debate on the issue and drawing international attention, asking the masses to go for it involves enormous risks for the vulnerable. The prime minister declared on December 22, 2019 that "there has been no discussion on NRC anywhere... we only had to implement it in Assam to follow Supreme Court directives." The home minister has recently offered to discuss matters concerning CAA, opening a possibility of reconsideration and reconciliation. One would like to believe that the government would keep its mind open in such deliberations and the civil society would grab the opportunity to resolve the crisis.