Insights into Editorial: The misadventure of a new citizenship regime
The appetite of the Indian state for counting its people is evidently insatiable.
The Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner has completed a 10-year project of data collection, at the household level, for the Census of 2021.
The individual level data collection for the National Population Register is also to be uploaded next summer, alongside the Census.
As of January 2019, nearly 123 crore Aadhaar cards had been issued. In Parliament, recently, yet another exercise in counting was proposed, for a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC).
While its predecessors were counting “residents” rather than “citizens”, the objective of this latest initiative is to count citizens specifically to sift and sort citizens from non-citizens, to include and exclude, and having done so to weed out “infiltrators” destined for detention camps and potential deportation.
About nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC):
The NRC is the list of Indian citizens and was prepared in 1951, following the census of 1951.
The process of NRC update was taken up in Assam as per a Supreme Court order in 2013.
In order to wean out cases of illegal migration from Bangladesh and other adjoining areas, NRC updation was carried out under The Citizenship Act, 1955, and according to rules framed in the Assam Accord.
The cost of ‘authentication’:
The Assam NRC is reported to have cost Rs.1,600 crore with 50,000 officials deployed to enrol almost 3.3 crore applicants in an exercise that even its champions acknowledge to be deeply flawed, as it ended up excluding 19 lakh people.
On this basis, and taking as an indicative number the Indian electorate of 87.9 crore, a nationwide NRC would require an outlay of Rs.4.26 lakh crore, which is more than double the presumptive loss in the 2G scam, and four times the budgetary outlay for education this year.
The work of “authenticating” 87.9 crore people would entail the deployment of 1.33 crore officials.
In 2011-12 (the most recent official data available), the total number of government employees in India was 2.9 crore.
If, like the Census, this exercise is to be managed exclusively by the Central government, the additional personnel needed would make this a truly novel employment generation programme.
Why the nationwide NRC proposed is being criticised?
The underlying rationale, feasibility, and moral legitimacy with a nationwide NRC gives birth to various challenges:
On one hand NRC carves out a framework to eliminate illegal immigrants, on the other hand, the Citizenship Amendment Bill (2016) creates a path to grant citizenship to preferred groups of the immigrants.
- For instance, the implicit assumption in the case of Assam NRC was that the infiltrators were Bangladeshis (primarily Muslims) who must be disenfranchised.
- Whereas the Citizenship Amendment Bill explicitly promises to grant citizenship to migrants belonging to specified minority religious groups (all except Muslims) who face the fear of persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
The NRC exercise raises suspicion of alienage in the minds of the citizens.
Many uncertainties that persist related to this exercise like:
There is speculation about a July 1948 date as the cut-off date in light of constitutional provisions, post-Partition jurisprudence, and the enactment of the Citizenship Act in 1955, but it still is unclear.
Will the enrolment process in the NRC be compulsory or voluntary (as was the case in Assam), and what might be the consequences of not seeking registration is debatable.
Seeking the consent of State governments to conduct this exercise is a challenging task. Many North-eastern states are already protesting the NRC.
The process of NRC is inconsistent with existing laws such as:
- Under the Citizenship Act, 1955 which deals with the provisions of acquisition and termination of Indian citizenship does not contain any provision for identifying aliens. But NRC declares the non-nationals as aliens.
- Under the Foreigners’ Act, 1946, the burden of proof lies on the individual charged with being a foreigner but in NRC the entire population has to give proof of their citizenship.
- The Supreme Court in 2005 struck down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT Act- which highlighted the mechanism for identifying the foreigners) claiming that the provisions mentioned in it are very stringent making the detection and deportation of illegal migrants almost impossible.
- But the NRC tries to repeat the same thing.
- The NRC would give rise to the practice of “paper citizenship” acquired through the networks of kinship.
- The one who is not included in the list would lose the Indian nationality, putting undocumented nationals at risk of losing their citizenship in a futile search for non-national migrants who are better documented, as was found in the case of Assam. This poses a grave fear in the minds of the people.
- The exercise would lead to enhanced anxiety in the minds of excluded sections of the society, especially the minorities.
- The series of recent events such as vigilante violence against minorities, the triple talaq legislation, and the reading down of Article 370 aggravates such fears.
Constitutionally, India is a political community whose citizens avow the idea of the nation as a civic entity, transcending ethnic differences.
The NRC-CAB combination signals a transformative shift from a civic-national conception to an ethno-national conception of India, as a political community in which identity determines gradations of citizenship.
In the final analysis, the minutiae of implementation from cut-off dates to resource constraints are only cautionary arguments against this potential misadventure.
Article 14 of the Constitution that mandates equality and equal protection under the law.
It appears virtually certain the proposed provision will come up before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in the not-too-distant future.
Above all, for the equality of citizenship, based on birth and without regard to creed, that our Constitution guarantees.