It is entirely possible, as the government argued after the Cabinet cleared the proposal to go ahead with the National Population Register (NPR) on Tuesday, that the NPR is the same thing the UPA had started when it was in power, that there was no proof of citizenship being asked for—that is what the National Register of Citizens, NRC, would do—and what the Cabinet had cleared was just the collection of routine data from those normally resident in an area; indeed, no one was going to be forced to give any documents to prove what they told those conducting the NPR census. Since the results of the exercise were, in fact, going to be used for various government welfare schemes, the NPR exercise has been clubbed with the 2021 Census.
If there was an air of suspicion, a belief that NPR was just a precursor to NRC, even after two senior ministers gave strenuous clarifications at the post-Cabinet media briefing, the government has only itself to blame. For one, the Cabinet clearance came even as the countrywide agitation over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)—and its link with the NRC—was going on. So, the argument went that, with the countrywide agitations forcing the government to say that there was no plan to go ahead with the NRC, it decided to go ahead with the NPR, which was nothing but a step towards the NRC; since the prime minister had said there was no discussion on NRC despite the home minister repeatedly saying NRC would follow the CAA, this added to the suspicion over the government’s intent.
And, though the government said, after the Cabinet clearance, that there was no connection whatsoever between NPR and NRC, there is enough evidence to show this isn’t quite correct. Apart from various statements on the connection between the two by various NDA ministers in Parliament over the years, even the rules of the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2003 talk of a ‘population register’ (the NPR) and how citizenship can be struck down during the verification process; the rules talk of the power to ask people to furnish any information in connection with the determination of citizenship, and clearly mention the National Register of Indian Citizens. So do most annual reports of the ministry of home affairs, regardless of whether the UPA or the NDA was in power.
The 2014-15 one—NDA era—says that “as a first step towards creation of a National Register of Indian Citizens the government has decided to create a National Population Register”. Even the 2008-09 report—of the UPA era—says “after the NPR is so made ready, it would be possible to create National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) independently as a subset of NPR”.
The UPA did not go ahead with the NRIC even as it pushed the NPR, possibly because, as the home ministry’s 2005-06 annual report put it, “verification of the citizenship of each individual… is extremely cumbersome as the document base for proving citizenship is not readily available in the rural areas”.
No one can doubt India needs to identify its illegal immigrants, especially since this has important security ramifications, but if the exercise results in genuine citizens in either rural areas or the poor—and less literate—also finding it difficult to prove citizenship, the NDA needs to think very carefully before taking the next step after NPR. And, since the CAA has made it clear that Hindu/Buddhist/Christian/Sikh/Jain illegal immigrants will find it easier to get citizenship, it is only natural that Muslims will be worried about being singled out.
Instead of issuing bland denials, and then springing a nasty surprise on the nation, the BJP would be well-advised to come up with solutions to the problem of proving citizenship, or promise that the NRC is not going to be implemented.
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Source: Financial Express