As the row over the Citizenship Amendment Act brought thousands to the streets, a fresh controversy erupted over the updating of the National Population Register (NPR). But is CAA related to NPR? The answer is both yes and no.
e, the people of India” mean citizens of India. This citizen of India is defined, identified, verified and distinguished from infiltrators under a set of three laws: the Citizenship Act of 1955 (amended many times; the latest version emerged in the recent Winter Session of Parliament), the Foreigners Act of 1946 and the Passport Act of 1920.
Every non-citizen living in India is an infiltrator, if she is not a tourist or diplomat, because India doesn’t have a law to define a refugee. Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils and some other named groups of foreigners are refugees as the government of the day accorded them that status.
The Foreigners Act makes it a duty of the government to expel all infiltrators or illegal immigrants out of India. Since there is no law, there is no accurate estimate of how many illegal immigrants are living in India. Estimating the number of illegal immigrants is like guessing the amount of black money in circulation in the Indian economy — the money exists, but it is out of official calculation and hence subject to speculation.
The current story began with the Narendra Modi government pushing the Citizenship Amendment Bill (now an Act) in Parliament, which passed it on December 12. During the discussion on the Citizenship Amendment Act, Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced that the government would bring a nationwide NRC (National Register of Citizens).
The Assam experience has been bad with reports about a large number of bonafide citizens having been left out of the NRC, and there is still no clarity about how many illegal immigrants were identified in the exercise, which essentially asked every resident to prove her Indian citizenship.
FOCUS SHIFTS: CAA TO NPR
While the row over the Citizenship Amendment Act brought thousands of people to the streets — with protests turning violent at many places — a fresh controversy erupted over the updating of the National Population Register (NPR). The West Bengal and Kerala governments announced suspension of NPR work. The NPR is a register of residents of India where the enumerator collects demographic and biometric data of individuals living at the place of enumeration for six months or more.
Now, this turn of events where non-BJP ruled states (which are no longer a handful) started to halt an ongoing enumeration of residents (NPR) process left many confused, with the time to begin counting for the Census approaching fast.
Is the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act related to NPR? The answer is both yes and no. There is no direct link. It depends on how the government decides to use data collected for NPR.
A man carrying a cut-out of Mahatma Gandhi stands next to a hoarding featuring the preamble to the Constitution during a protest against the new citizenship law, in New Delhi. (Photo:Reuters)
NPR, NRC AND A LAW
Now, let’s see the connection that troubles those skeptical of the government’s move.It takes us to 2004, when another Citizenship Amendment Act had been passed – the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2003 – when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was in power. In the amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1955, a Section 14A had been inserted. Section 14A relates to issue of national identity cards.
According to Section 14A of the Citizenship Act, “the Central Government may compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue a national identity card to him.”
The same Section 14A of the Citizenship Act says, “The Central Government may maintain a National Register of Indian Citizens and for that purpose establish a National Registration Authority.”
PROTEST AND POLITICS
The connection is that a number of civil rights activists, particularly in Bengal to begin with, started protesting the collection of demographic and biometric data for updating NPR. They alleged that the NPR was the first step towards the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Bengal.
The BJP has been campaigning for NRC in Bengal with the Mamata Banerjee government opposing it vehemently. Bengal, by the way, is estimated to have over 1 crore illegal immigrants, most of them crossing over from Bangladesh over decades. Mamata Banerjee was quick to respond to the allegation, putting the NPR process to a halt.
THE NRC KNOT
The NPR was originally slated to be prepared between April 2020 and September 2020, and be ready ahead of the Census 2021. Ground work on the NPR has begun and is still underway in several states.
Refer to Section 14A of the Citizenship Act again. This Section 14A provides the legal basis for NPR preparation and links it with Census and NRC.
It says that the Registrar General India shall act as the National Registration Authority and also as the Registrar General of Citizen Registration. The catch here is that the Registrar General functions as the Census Commissioner of India.
This means if the government wants, at any point of time, the data collected for the NPR may be legally used for NRC. Incidentally, the NRC controversy has touched the raw nerve of crores of people. Those belonging to Muslim community, in particular, are in a state of confusion with many activists and political parties alleging that the Narendra Modi government is targeting the community to further the Hindutva agenda of the BJP.
What happens in Census and what is happening in NPR process?
The census is decadal headcount in India. It involves a detailed questionnaire aimed at gathering general data about the population of India. In Census 2011, the enumerator had to fill 29 particulars such as age, gender, marital status, occupation, religion, birthplace, disability, mother tongue, and if they belonged to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe classes.
The NPR process collects demographic and biometric particulars of individuals. Both processes involve door-to-door enumeration but NPR differs from the Census in the sense that its objective is to have a comprehensive identity database of those residing in India. The Census does not identify individuals. However, in Census 2021, this distinction may no longer exist as the government is said to be planning to conduct it through a mobile phone application.
Moreover, Census data are kept and maintained centrally under the Registrar General of India. But once the NPR data are recorded and ready, these details would be kept and maintained in a population register at levels of village or ward, tehsil or taluk (sub-district), district and state. Together, they will constitute the National Population Register with all data at the central level.
Where does Aadhaar fit in?
There is a little back story about NPR and Aadhaar. The two were considered rival projects under the UPA government of Manmohan Singh. When NPR process began in the government, P Chidambaram was the Union home minister, who pushed the population register project aggressively.
Aadhaar was taking shape with equally aggressive push from then Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee (who later became the President of India — a development that saw Chidamabaram moving to the finance ministry and also an end to NPR-Aadhaar rivalry).
Both the NPR and Aadhaar projects were concurrently underway collecting demographic and biometric data. Initially, both had better and targeted delivery of benefits and services to people as their objectives. The works of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and the home ministry were viewed as duplication and wastage of resources.
The conflict, however, ended in a compromise between the home ministry and the UIDAI where it was decided that NPR and Aadhaar databases will be used for different purposes. Aadhaar will deliver welfare services and NPR will be used for other purposes of governance.
It was also decided that those already enrolled for Aadhaar need not give their biometric details during NPR exercise. The NPR data were to be matched with Aadhaar data for de-duplication. But the final formula gave NPR an upper hand. It was agreed that in case of discrepancy between Aadhaar and NPR data, NPR would prevail.
Simply put, NPR conducted in accordance with the Citizenship Amendment Act 2003 will form the key data set for both Aadhaar and NRIC.
BACK TO PROTESTS OVER CAA
The nationwide NRC, though announced by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Parliament recently, is not yet notified by the government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday signaled a backward step on NRC saying there was no discussion on NRC in the cabinet.
The current NPR exercise was set in motion after the Narendra Modi government decided to update the NPR originally created after the Census 2011. Seen in the context of the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2003, the NPR may lead to an NRIC.
This is where the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 adds fuel to the fire. Critics of the Modi government allege the latest amendment will shield non-Muslim illegal immigrants while making large number of Muslims stateless people with an uncertain future.