The Modi-II government is unique in many ways; many of its moves have no precedents in India. It has gone into a spree of making several counts of residents of the country and issuing them identity cards. The first was the NRC for Assam which though complete was not without complaints. The second is the count under the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, under which the government has begun to confer citizenship on migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who crossed into India having been “religiously persecuted” up to 31 December 2014.
The Home Minister, Amit Shah who presented it in the two houses, did not explain why and how these three countries were chosen and why migrants who arrived over five years ago. He had no answer either why in contravention of Articles V to XI, religion was made a criterion for being a citizen of India and why migrants of other races, e.g. Muslims were excluded. At least two States – West Bengal and Kerala – have refused to implement the Act, as according to them it flouts the Constitution and is unfair to Muslims.
Protest rallies of common people and students are being held in many parts of the country; buses and trains were set on fire, demanding withdrawal of the Act. Petitions have been filed in courts. If the court clears it, the process will start, as the Act has come into being on 10 January. Probably, some kind of smart card of citizenship will be issued to the eligible, who will possess, and will have to produce, this in addition to a plethora of cards for ration, voting, Aadhaar, PAN, ATMs, hospital entry and so on, adding to the confusion that already exists in respect of identity cards.
As if this was not enough, Modi- II government has announced another head-count under the National Population Registration (NPR) as a prelude to the decennial Census, due next year. It will be done according to the Citizenship Act 1955 and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003. The data for NPR was last collected in 2010 along with the house-listing by Census of India 2011 and was updated in 2015 by door-todoor survey and has since been fully digitized.
The ensuing updating is a prelude to the house-listing under Census 2021 to be conducted from April to September 2020 all over India. The NPR will enlist all people residing in India; it will register citizens and non-citizens as well. The then Minister of State for Home Affairs stated that “the NPR is the first step towards creation of National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC), or the NRC. It is not understood why decennial censuses being there, NPR was undertaken from 1955.
If this is thoroughly done, will the 2021 Census be necessary? If censuses seek additional data, they could be included in the data for NPR; this way the huge expense and deployment of additional staff on the Census could be avoided. The NPR website carried a notice to the effect that it is a mandatory prelude to the NRC; it has been withdrawn possibly in view of massive agitation against the NRC. The NRC was mandated by the 1955 Citizenship Act, as amended in 2003; under the direction of the Supreme Court. It has been completed for Assam only in 2013 and 2014.
Although not discussed in the cabinet yet, Mr. Shah is determined to complete it for the rest of India. He said in April 2019: “A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal”. As per Citizenship Rules, 2003, the government can order the preparation of the NRC, based on the data collected during the NPR; local officials will then decide if the person’s name will be added to the NRC or not, i.e., decide his citizenship status.
No new rules or laws are needed to conduct this exercise in the whole of India. Assam, being a border state with huge illegal immigration, an NRC for the State was created in 1951 based on that year’s Census data but it was not maintained afterwards. The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983 was passed by Parliament, forming a separate tribunal for identifying illegal migrants in Assam but the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional in 2005, after which the Government of India agreed to update the Assam NRC.
Following unsatisfactory progress of update across a decade, the Supreme Court began directing and monitoring the process in 2013. The final updated NRC for Assam, published on 31 August 2019, contained 31 million names out of 33 million, leaving out 1.9 million applicants. Contrary to the BJP’s expectation, over 80 per cent of the excluded are Bengali Hindus of Bangladesh, who, being a major voter base, may now be made citizens under the CAA. The NDA-II government has committed in its Election manifesto (Sankalpa Patra, 2019) to implement the NRC for all States and UTs. Residents of a locality living there for at least six months with plans to continue for another six months or more are enlisted in NPR.
According to the Citizenship Rules, 2003, the government can issue an order to prepare the NPR and create the NRC based on the data gathered in the NPR. As per the 2003 Citizenship rules, the local officials would then decide if the person’s name will be added to the NRC or not, thereby deciding his citizenship status. No new rules or laws are needed to conduct this exercise in the whole of India. Since 2014, the two NDA governments have been announcing in Parliament and outside that the NRIC, or NRC, will be based on the data collected under the NPR which came into being in 2010 with the names of 119 crore residents of India figuring in it; only recently, officers are denying it, sensing mass protests.
This data was further updated in 2015 by linking with biometric data from Aadhaar database. The NPR, planned for 2020, will also include details such as the place of birth of the parents, last place of residence, serial number for official documents. Under Section 3(2) (c) of the Foreigners Act, 1946, the Central government can deport foreigners who are staying illegally in India. For housing a large number of illegal foreigners who may be declared as such by the final NRC and the Foreigners’ Tribunals, the government is building several detention camps throughout the country.
One of the first such centres had come up in Assam during the Congress rule in 2008. In 2014, the Centre told all states to set up at least one detention centre so as not to mix illegal immigrants with jail inmates. . On 9 January 2019, the Union government, released a ‘2019 Model Detention Manual’ which stated that every city or district, having a major immigration check post, must have a detention centre. The Ministry of Home Affairs revealed in Parliament that, there are six operational detention centres in Assam as on 28 November 2019. Four others are operational in other States.
Delhi has three detention centres; the Special Branch of Delhi Police supervises the ward holding the Pakistanis, while people of other nationalities are under the watch of the FRRO which along with Delhi Police works under the Home Ministry. Detention centres have opened in Mapusa in Goa, Sondekoppa in Nelamangala (located 40 kms from Bangalore) and they are under construction at Nerul in Navi Mumbai, Goindwal Sahib in Tarn Taran district in Punjab and in Alwar in Rajasthan.
The first detention centre in Assam came up in 2008, when the Congress was in power in the state, under orders of the court. In 2011 the Congress government built three more camps in the region. The Government of Assam is constructing ten more detention camps besides six already in place. The first such new exclusive detention camp is under construction in Goalpara district at a cost of around Rs 46 crore and a capacity to hold 3,000 people. The detention center will cover approximately 2.88 lakh square feet (about the size of seven football grounds) and have 15 floors; it was to be ready by December 2019.
Can all relevant identity and other data be encrypted in one card? Surely technology should make it possible. There have to be two such cards – one for the juvenile (up to 17 years of age) and the other for adults with photo and microchip embedded. Because faces change up to adolescence, no photo is necessary for juveniles; only permanent birthmarks (like moles and black patches) need be given. Enormous State funds were spent on preparation and issue of ration, EPIC (voters”) Aadhaar and NRC (in Assam) cards.
On 24 December 2019, the Union Cabinet approved ?3,941 crore (US$550 million) for updating the National Population Register (NPR). NRC cards are redundant except for identifying migrants across the border; census can do this job. It is not known how many of over 1.9 million illegal migrants who have been excluded from the final NRC for Assam have been deported, or lodged in detention centres within jails. In 2018, some activists brought to the notice of the Supreme Court the condition of families locked separately in six detention centres of Assam; some are said to have died.
The BJP government in Assam has not announced any policy about excluded immigrants. Let not India’s detention centres be like infamous ‘concentration camps’ for Jews in Hitler’s Germany where many were gunned to death or perished in gas chambers in what has come to be known as the ‘holocaust’. . If all opposition parties press for, and cooperate with, governments for merging all relevant data of other existing cards in the 2021 census, encrypt data in one card and supersede existing identity cards for all residents of India, the snowballing confusion about too many counts and cards will end forever.
(The writer retired as Registrar of Newspapers for India)