Four ways for citizens to repel dangers of All-India NRC

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Residents lining up for checking the final draft of NRC (National Register of Citizens) in Tengabasti, Tezpur. (Telegraph file picture)

India must not undergo the unmanageable and expensive process Assam went through for NRC.

By Abusaleh Shariff

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In every second year after the turn of a decade, India undertakes a fresh population count as part of the census. The first synchronous census was held in 1881 and the sixteenth population count will be in February 2020, with 1 March 2021 as the reference date.

The 15th census conducted in 2011, while it counted the population, had also collected, for the first time after 1931, data on socio-economic and caste status. This data was never analysed, as the self-reported castes and sub-castes were too many and difficult to aggregate into meaningful categories.

The census in 2021—the 16th enumeration of India’s population—will therefore be based on a list of predetermined Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, as categorised and notified in each state. India conducts its census in two phases, namely, house-listing and population enumeration. Also, for the first time, the 15th census had collected additional data, which was needed to prepare the National Population Register or NPR. The NPR was used to generate a twelvedigit unique identification number for all usual (or registered) residents of India. This number was issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India or UIDAI, and is popularly known as Aadhaar number.

However, it is not clear whether the NPR data was satisfactorily and accurately used to generate Aadhaar identities. During this phase, biometric information was also collected. 1155 F St NW, Suite 1050, Washington DC 20004 www.usindiapolicy.org | info@usindiapolicy.org

The house-listing phase of the 16th census of 2021 is scheduled to take place between April and September 2020. Once again, data for updating the NPR will be collected from all usual residents, along with their biometric details, which are now considered essential for development and welfare planning.

At the same time, there is a new effort by the government of India to prepare a National Register of Indian citizens (NRIC), a mandate that it has anchored on two existing laws: The Citizenship Act of 1955 and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003.

This bill has now passed in the Lok Sabha & Rajya Sabha, though it is a tall order to attempt creating such a register for the entire nation’s 1.4 billion people. After reviewing the relevant acts, rules and directives, I find that the agency which has been empowered to prepare the NRIC is the Registrar General and Census Commissioner or RGCC, whose primary responsibility is to conduct the census operations and undertake registrations of births, deaths and marriages. Whether the RGCC has the wherewithal required to determine the “citizenship” of an individual is questionable. Yet, the Citizenship Rules, 2003, assign it the task of preparing the NRIC.

The RGCC is the registrar-general of births and deaths, according to the related act passed in 1969. Further, paragraph 2(m) of the Citizenship Rules, 2003 states that the RGCC is the registrar general for the population register and for citizens registration. Hence, a review of acts and rules makes it clear that house-listing, population-count and the population register (or NPR) are the primary databases that will be used to prepare the NRIC.

There is a need to investigate the legality of multiple-agency data utilisation and what legal provisions allow the data collected through the census to be used for the purposes of NPR and NRIC. 1155 F St NW, Suite 1050, Washington DC 20004 www.usindiapolicy.org | info@usindiapolicy.org

The NRIC is likely to get support from a surrogate law, the Indian Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016. Although this bill lapsed on 3 June 2019, it was reintroduced in the Lok Sabha by the current government on 9 December 2019, and was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on 11 December. If this amendment passes in Parliament, refugees from minority communities, namely the Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis or Christians coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, will be eligible for Indian citizenship, excluding the Muslim community. It would be most appropriate if this bill included all South Asian nations, including

Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Maldives. The corollary of this seemingly noble amendment is that only the Muslims living in India, but excluded from the NRIC list, are susceptible to legal arrest, impounding and extradition. Local government officials belonging to the census department, the election commission, and the district bureaucracy, are responsible to prepare the so-called list of Indian citizens. Such lists are approved by state-level authorities, notified in the official gazette, and published as the “National Register of Citizens” pertaining to that state.

It then becomes the responsibility of individuals to check whether their own name, or those of members of their family, are listed in the register. Should they find name(s) missing, they can either accept their status as non-citizen, or they can approach a “Foreigners Tribunal” in their state to challenge their exclusion. Decisions of these tribunals are final, yet one can reach out to the hierarchical system of courts of law as the ultimate step to seek justice and secure one’s rights as an Indian citizen. As is already common knowledge after the Assam experience, this process is not only cumbersome, but also complicated, costly, time-consuming and foolproof.

This author’s observation is that the Muslim community of India is under stress from the official, often irresponsible, discourse surrounding the  1155 F St NW, Suite 1050, Washington DC 20004 www.usindiapolicy.org | info@usindiapolicy.org

extension of NRIC to the whole nation. Second, the Citizenship Amendment Bill is highly discriminatory. If passed, it can be misused in a manner that will put a majority of the poor, rural, illiterate and low-income Muslim households under risk of exclusion from the NRIC list. Murmuring among the Muslims that they should boycott the NRIC has begun.

It is my suggestion that the people of India can seek the following safeguards at the time of sharing their data with government agencies and functionaries. First, between March and September 2020, house-listing will be undertaken across India. Census officials will visit each home and household during this period. The respondents, or the head of a household, should during these visits seek a clearly written statement of purpose and promise that their data, which is being collected during house-listing, for NPR, and subsequently at the time of population

enumeration, will be used only for the purpose of census counts, data aggregation and policy analysis. Ideally, this statement must be signed by the President of India. It should be a generic promise, like the signature of the governor of the Reserve Bank of India on printed bank notes.

Second, after serving the written promise, the census officials must be asked to issue an acknowledgment of the fact that personal data was collected during their visit. The acknowledgment should say that the data will not be shared, nor used for any other purpose. This acknowledgment should record the time, date and place of data extraction.

Third, a printed copy of all the data collected must be issued to the individual for her own data file and future use. This data can also be made available to each individual through an online system of data retrieval.

The overall numbers of foreign-born persons residing in India, according to earlier censuses, is miniscule. Therefore, it does not make sense that  1155 F St NW, Suite 1050, Washington DC 20004 www.usindiapolicy.org | info@usindiapolicy.org

every Indian resident should be made to prove her citizenship through an unmanageable and expensive process of the kind that was adopted in Assam last year.

Last, the government must change its methodology, and identify hotspots or areas where illegal residents most likely reside. It would be instructive to recall that a similar effort in the United States of America, to incorporate a question in the census that asked people to state their citizenship was shot down by the Supreme Court of the country.

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The author is chief scholar at the US-India Policy Institute in Washington DC. The views are personal.

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