Two days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared at a rally in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan that the issue of a nationwide National Register of Citizens had never been discussed by his government, the Union Cabinet has approved upgrading of the National Population Register. This by the government’s own admission, as stated by Union minister Kiren Rijiju in response to a question in Parliament in 2014, is the first step towards creation of a National Register of Indian Citizens, notwithstanding Home Minister Amit Shah’s assertion to a news agency on Tuesday that there is no link between NPR and NRC.
In the wake of the nationwide protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the NRC, which have led to an unfortunate loss of lives, the prime minister sought to assuage fears by saying there is no proposal for a nationwide NRC even though Home Minister Amit Shah had said in Parliament just a few weeks ago that the exercise was a certainty. Now with the Cabinet nod for the NPR upgrade, it is clear that the government has not really backed down on its NRC project.
The signals being sent by the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and sundry BJP leaders, aimed at clearing the air, are only adding to the confusion as the protests against CAA-NRC do not show any signs of dying down. Several states, including those ruled by NDA’s allies and those parties which supported the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament, have objected to the NRC and asserted that they would not allow its implementation. Government ministers and BJP spokespersons went on overdrive to convince people that there was absolutely no link between the CAA and NRC as the former was only meant to speed up citizenship for persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and had no effect on Indian citizens.
However, while public memory is short, TV cameras do not lie and Mr. Shah’s promise to the Bengal electorate during the 2019 campaign that CAA would precede NRC is on record for everyone to see and hear. The NPRNRC- CAA link is as clear as daylight and the West Bengal, Kerala and Rajasthan chief ministers have already decided to stop the NPR project in their states. In the midst of youth unrest over the discriminatory citizenship law, a failing economy, spiralling prices that have left the poor more destitute and the middle class out of pocket, it is hoped better sense will prevail and the government will shelve its deeply divisive project.
The costs involved, both financial and emotional, as the undocumented, especially migrant labourers and the homeless, scramble for papers to prove their citizenship, are too high for the nation to bear. The money involved in this exercise would be better spent on education and healthcare that will alleviate the lives of the underprivileged and leave a lasting legacy for the NDA government.