On November 20, Home Minister Amit Shah said the government intends to launch a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), an ambitious exercise to identify and separate legal citizens and illegal immigrants. Residents will have to produce proof confirming that they were born in India and that their parents were Indian citizens.
On December 2, while addressing a pre-poll rally in Jharkhand, Shah announced 2024 as the deadline for this exercise. “I assure you the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Narendra Modi will implement NRC across India and infiltrators will be thrown out before we come to you to seek votes the next time,” he said.
The BJP’s intention behind this exercise needs a closer scrutiny. It is important to note that issues like building a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya had increased the party’s popularity and expanded its voter base. The party had promised a countrywide NRC in its manifesto for 2019 elections. According to political observers, the rhetoric of eliminating these immigrants who are mostly Muslims could be music to the ears of BJP’s diehard fans.
The influx of illegal immigrants to India, especially in states such as Assam, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, is a grave concern. A large number of these illegal immigrants reside under a fake identity and many have allegedly become core vote banks for a few political parties. Immediately after the home minister’s statement, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had vehemently opposed any such move in her state. “No one could take anyone's citizenship away in Bengal,” she had said.
But can an all-India NRC address this complex issue? Experts CNBC-TV18 spoke to are not thrilled with the idea. And many have found the proposed initiative impractical and unfeasible.
An uphill task
“How do you go about this entire exercise with a population of 1.25 billion people of which 700 to 800 million people may not even have birth certificates,” says senior advocate Sanjay Hegde. “By a mere administrative exercise, you cannot come to a definitive finding that somebody is not a citizen. The exercise will end up with a lot of undocumented inhabitants,” he adds.
It doesn’t help that previous such nationwide exercises by the government have turned out to be damp squibs. The adverse aftermath of demonetisation is still being debated with lack of data to prove if it actually curbed black money. Similarly, the goods and services tax is being blamed for destabilising the unorganised sector.
Likewise, the implementation of NRC in Assam was nothing short of a disaster. There are claims that many illegal residents have been included in the list and several indigenous residents have been kept out. There have also been cases where a brother finds his name on the list but his siblings are kept out, or a father makes it to the list but his children don’t.
A pan-India registry would be an entirely different exercise than the Assam NRC which was just an update on the 1951 citizens’ list.
According to the information shared by Indian Civil Liberties Union, in a pan-India NRC exercise, those born before 1987 will have to show that they were born in India before July 1987. Those born after July 1987 but before December 2004 will have to prove two things: a) they were born in India, and b) proof that either of their parents are/were Indian citizens. Those born after 2004 will have to prove that both their parents are Indian citizens. In case their parents have different nationalities, they will need to prove that one of the parents is Indian citizen and the other parent is not an illegal immigrant.
“Mere lack of proof will not automatically make the person an illegal immigrant,” says Hegde. “The 1.9 million people identified as illegal immigrants in Assam have the option to challenge their exclusion in the Foreigners’ Tribunal. If the FT’s verdict is not satisfactory, they can approach respective High Courts and the Supreme Court,” he added.
The govt's NRC game plan
Proving someone an illegal immigrant could, therefore, be a lengthy process. And the questions don’t end here.
“What will the government do with the identified illegal immigrants?” asks foreign affairs expert Sushant Sareen. “Supposedly, you identify 20 million people as illegal immigrants across India, where will the government deport these people? Will any country voluntarily or willingly accept such a huge number? Will the government put 20 million people in detention centres? Who will bear the cost of running these detention centres?” asks Sareen.
Given the challenges to this perceivable mammoth exercise and the uncertain outcome, many suspect the ruling party’s intention behind announcing a nationwide NRC by 2024. Harekrishna Deka, former DGP of Assam, had written on cnbctv18.com why he feels the government's NRC game plan is deeply disturbing.
“The government will disenfranchise those who fail to prove citizenship, snatch voting rights from those especially with a non-Hindu name and consolidate Hindu votes,” says Hegde.
Responding to such fears, the home minister had clarified in the Rajya Sabha that a pan-India NRC will not target any particular religion. But critics refuse to trust Shah’s assurance.
“If not Muslims, who else are you targeting? Do you want Hindu citizens to prove they are Indians?” asks Hegde.
But Sareen disagrees with Hegde’s argument.
“I don’t foresee any horrible things happening as being anticipated. The government will be mindful of the consequences of disenfranchising genuine Indian Muslims just because they are unable to prove citizenship. Seeing NRC as anti-Muslim is a perception problem. Every country has some way of identifying illegal immigrants. India too needs to tackle illegal immigration but it’s mindboggling to imagine how this exercise will be practically implemented.”
Call for free and open debate
The government is planning to update the National Population Register (NPR) by September 2020. Once the NPR is completed and published, it is expected to be the basis for preparing the National Register of Indian Citizens.
Activists demand that the government must conduct a free and open debate in Parliament before launching a nationwide NRC.
Says civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad: “Citizenship in India is based on the non-negotiable principles of equality and non-discrimination. Moreover, there are clear constitutional and legal bindings. This government, therefore, needs to answer a) if the NRC exercise will be an inclusive constitutional process b) what will be the criteria for being registered (included) or left out (excluded) from the NPR process which will precede the NRC and lead to it. What are the documents that will be required? c) What will be the cut-off date?”
Setalvad further highlights the problem of undocumented genuine Indians who might become the first casualties of NRC.
“UNICEF figures point to the fact that only 52 percent births are registered in India. Not all Indians have a passport, many don’t own land, there is a huge migrant labour population across the country who don’t have basic voting rights even after 70 years of independence, and only 240 million people have homes in their own name,” Setalvad pointed out.
She says the government must publicly and rationally debate these issues in Parliament before rolling out NRC across India. “In Assam, several marginalised sections, Bengali Hindus as much as Muslims were deliberately kept out,” she noted.
In a survey conducted by the Rights and Risks Analysis Group, it was found that in Assam, each person excluded from the list spent Rs 19,065 on an average to challenge their exclusion before Foreigners' Tribunals.
The Assam NRC has reportedly cost the exchequer about Rs 1,600 crore for a population of 3.29 crore. Imagine the financial burden on the taxpayer for 1.3 billion people. With the government struggling to meet its committed expenditures, is there room to spend thousands of crores on an exercise that may only lead to further chaos? Or is this just another divisive propaganda aimed at the 2024 elections?
First Published: IST