Syed Azharuddin: The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the BJP government has been challenged by uprisings nationwide. The questions raised by the masses are met with denial, deflection and deceptive statements. The government defends the Act, citing there are no plans to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) nationwide and that the National Population Register (NPR) and CAA have nothing to do with NRC. However, a careful reading of the Citizenship Act and Citizenship Rules reveals the truth.
The government says that CAA is to help persecuted refugees. Current Indian nationality laws which regulate citizenship based on birth, descent, application (registration) and naturalization are sufficient as they are, covering a broad spectrum of possibilities. The argument for persecuted refugees can be dealt by making provisions through appropriate amendments in the current laws for accommodating refugees, granting them legal status and fast-tracking their admission to Indian citizenship should they apply for it. A separate discriminatory law is not needed for it at all.
The following are answers to a few basic questions on the NPR and NRC, on the basis of legal documents ad provisions.
What is NRC? Does it have a legal basis?
NRC in simple terms refers to an official listing of all citizens of this country. The legal basis of NRC is Section 14A of the Citizenship Act, which was made a law in 2003, when the first BJP government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power, and LK Advani was the Home Minister. According to this section, the government can ‘compulsorily register’ all citizens and provide National Identity Cards to them after registration. In order to do this, the government may prepare a National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC). This is popularly known as the NRC or All India NRC.
What is NPR? Is it connected to NRC? When will it be conducted?
NPR is the National Population Register – a listing of all persons ordinarily resident in India, whether they are citizens or not. While the process of preparing NPR is being carried out by the same department which prepares the census, it has a completely different legal basis and purpose. The Government of India issued a notification on 31st July 2019 stating that the NPR preparation exercise will be done from April – September 2020 according to the Citizenship Rules 2003. These rules are the same rules which specify the process by which NRIC or All India NRC will be conducted. According to the Rule 4 of the Citizenship Rules 2003, the first step of NRIC will be a house-to-house collection of information in every locality to prepare a Population Register. All local registers will be combined to form a Sub-District, then District, then State and then National Population Register.
How will NRC/NRIC be prepared from NPR?
According to Rule 4(3) of the Citizenship Rules, the National Register of Indian Citizens will first be prepared at the local level by a Local Registrar. For this purpose, the Local Registrar will scrutinize the information of every individual and family in the local Population Register and create a category of ‘Doubtful Citizens’, who will then be asked to provide proof of their citizenship. The rules do not specify on what basis the Local Registrar will mark people as ‘Doubtful Citizens’. The rules also provide that the Local Registrar may be assisted by ‘one or more persons’ in this exercise, but does not provide the qualification or criterion for selecting these persons.
Why CAA-NRC-NPR is problematic?
The CAA goes against Articles 5, 10, 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees equality before law and protection against any discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.
The CA Act does not provide any guidelines as to which document will prove citizenship. The government also has not framed any guidelines and is not clear as to which document will decisively prove citizenship.
While people who live in urban areas and have awareness and access, might have done their documentation, but the people from rural who lack awareness and access will not be having documentation. Similarly, while the educated might have some form of documentation, the illiterate would be at disadvantage.
While everyone will be in danger, the poor, and the illiterate will be even more disadvantaged as they will lack awareness, access and resources to both documentation process and also to judicial relief in case of them being declared foreigners. In a country where awareness about documentation is still rare, majority of population is still illiterate, it is highly impossible to present any documentation, and let alone a set of comprehensive documents to prove one’s citizenship.
While CAA is problematic and unconstitutional, the NRC process as being planned by the government to execute in tandem with the CAA, will be even more disastrous. No clear guidelines have been framed and it will be done arbitrarily, resulting in tearing the very fabric of our plural society, dividing and depriving people of their citizenship and rights on the basis of religion.
While NPR has been a part of census exercise since 1980s, but when it is viewed in the context of CAA-NRC, one can very clearly see that NPR exercise is a prelude to NRC process. Since NPR will enumerate and compile the data of every single person residing in India, it will be easier for the government to undertake NRC process by utilizing the NPR data and compile a list of doubtful citizens, who can then be served notice to prove their citizenship.
What would happen when CAA-NRC-NPR is implemented?
Assam NRC is a good example of what would happen if CAA-NRC-NPR will be implemented. A large number of citizens (not only Muslims) will be declared doubtful because of lack of documentation.
As we saw in Assam, 60-70 percent of NRC list excludees were non-Muslims. This shows that this exercise will be problematic not only to Muslims, but also to everyone in general because failure to produce documentation will result in exclusion from NRC list. Anyone from any community can be affected.
When a person is declared illegal, then their citizenship will be revoked, and all rights will be rescinded. Their properties and possessions will be confiscated and their jobs taken away. They cannot avail any rights, claim protection from state or recourse to judiciary seeking rights/justice. They will be open to exploitation by anyone and in every way possible.
A whole black market economy will emerge out of this NRC exercise as happened in Assam, in which the authorities in charge of NRC and CAA will be taking huge amount in bribes to include names. Similarly abuse of power can take place in which people can be targeted because of personal rivalries, either by state or political parties or by individuals who can submit complaints implicating specific individuals.
Another problematic aspect of CAA is that it only covers refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. People would have to prove that they are from one of these three countries, and belong to one of the six communities: Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis. When people will be declared doubtful, if they are not from these three countries, then they also will be declared illegal and their citizenship revoked. For example: if any non-Muslim people from Maharashtra or Andhra or Tamil Nadu are declared doubtful because of lack of documentation, and even if CAA has provision to grant them citizenship, they cannot in any way prove they are from one of the three countries as there is no link of either Maharashtra or Andhra or Tamil Nadu to one of the three countries. Hence they will be as much in trouble as Muslims and their citizenship will be withdrawn, properties confiscated and rights rescinded.
What will happen to those left out of Local Register of Citizens?
The rules provide for two stages of appeals for those excluded from the Register of Citizens after the verification process; the first at the Sub-District or Taluk level and the second at the District level. While the rules do not specify the process for those who will still be excluded from the final National Register of Indian Citizens, we must remember that this is just a bureaucratic exercise and no Indian’s citizenship can be taken away without a legal process. However, the entire exercise of NRIC will create tremendous hardship for all citizens, who will have to go through an entire process to ensure that their basic citizenship rights are protected. Those who will be excluded from this process will have to go through an even more painful legal process of cases and appeals.
Another troubling aspect is the lack of fairness and transparency in the process of preparing the NRIC. As we have seen above, local level government officials who will act as Local Registrars have been given the power to mark people as doubtful citizens, without even specifying the basis on which people’s information will be scrutinized. From the local level to the district level, government officials and bureaucrats have been given enormous power and discretion to decide which individuals will have to run around to provide proof of their citizenship.
What must we do?
First of all, as citizens of secular India, every one of us must reject any legislation that is framed on the basis of any division of religion, race, language, ethnicity, gender, etc, as it is against the spirit of secular, plural, inclusive India as envisioned in the Preamble of our Constitution, which clearly lays down the basic nature of Indian state.
Since CAA-NRC-NPR are very much against the Constitution and the very idea of secular and plural India, we must come together to work democratically, exercising our constitutional right of dissent, towards making BJP government revoke CAA and cancel NPR and NRC. Our efforts must yield the following specific results (and we should not quit till then):
- Pressurize Parliament to revoke CAA completely.
- Challenge the constitutional validity of CAA in Supreme Court and plead stay for NRC-NPR
- Boycott NRC as a form of civil disobedience
- Pressurize state governments to stay NPR process
(The writer is a student activist and scholar.Views are personal