Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed to the people of India on Delhi’s historic Ramlila Grounds on December 22 that his government had never since 2014 even considered implementing a nation-wide National Indian Register of Citizens. But the NRC was part of the President’s address in Parliament in June, and had been promised by Modi’s Home Minister and closest lieutenant Amit Shah several times in Parliament and outside. It was therefore an obvious flagrant untruth spoken by a person holding the most powerful public office in the republic.
But some took comfort from his brazen fabrication as they saw in it a signal that he was stepping down from this core agenda of his government and its ideological mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It appeared that perhaps, unsettled by the largest spontaneous countrywide protests in all corners of the country seen after Independence, the prime minister had decided to push the national NRC into the cold storage, at least for the present.
However, within days, it became abundantly clear that his purpose was not to reassure the masses of dissenting Indian people, even less to respect their intense disquiet about a measure that so many saw as divisive and destructive of the constitution. It served two other very different purpose. It gave a fig-leaf – albeit a very flimsy one – to supporters of the government. And more importantly, it was fodder to deliberately build a smokescreen to mislead and further confuse public opinion.
The home minister was quick to state on record that the NRC would not be implemented but only, he repeatedly underlined, for the present. Both he and the prime minister refused to rule it out. But there was another most unmistakable indicator, again a deliberate signal, that the government remained determined to continue to thrust the country down the dangerous and divisive pathway that it had charted for the republic. This was by holding a highly visible and public cabinet meeting, during the peak of the protests, announcing that the government would begin work on a National Population Register.
The minister who made the announcement said that the NPR had nothing to do with the NRC. But public trust in our prime minister and his cabinet has never plummeted as low as it is today, because of the calculated official mendacities unleashed regularly on the people around matters as critical as the state of the economy, jobs, growth, and now most dangerously about citizenship, which is the foundational right as it is the right to have rights. Without public debate, without any transparency, a regime is being unleashed in which every citizen will have to establish her citizenship if the executive chooses to doubt it. This is being rammed through processes which are intentionally clouded in official secrecy. The only unambiguous message the Union government continues to convey, amplified by the RSS, is that the state seeks to dismantle the citizenship of people of only one kind of religious identity.
Supporters of the ruling establishment argue that, despite the prime minister’s announcement, the widespread fears that persist that the implementation of the National Population Register, alongside the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, will lead to mass exclusion of Indians, particularly Muslim citizens, are fanciful, indeed mischievous fear-mongering. The protestors, on the other hand, have a clear insight that the government is attempting to discriminate based on a person’s religious identity, and that this strikes fatally at the core of the constitutional morality of the republic. But by the explicit design of the Union government, by its silences and falsehoods and dog-whistles, it may not always be easy for them to see clearly how the three policies tie together, and what they portend.
To understand this, we need to begin first with the Citizenship Amendment 2003, which was introduced by the Vajpayee government, and was what laid the foundations for the process of targeted disenfranchisement which the Modi government has taken forward with such resolve. If the Bharatiya Janata Party had been returned to power in 2004, it is quite likely that the NRC-NPR may have been initiated much earlier.
The Citizenship Amendment 2003 laid down firstly that a person cannot claim citizenship, even if born and raised in India, if any one of her parents is an “illegal immigrant”. It then prescribed the creation of a National Register of Indian Citizens as an instrument to identify “illegal immigrants”. How the NRC would be executed would be prescribed by Rules under the Act. Rules are not required to be approved by Parliament, because the executive is authorised to make Rules as part of subordinate legislation. It is the Citizenship Rules 2003 that provide that the Central government, through the Registrar General, can start compiling an National Popular Register “for the purpose of National Register of Indian Citizens”.
Thus, contrary to the disingenuous insistence of senior government functionaries, the is integral to the NRC. Under the rules, the NPR amounts to the “initialisation” of an NRC. The Registrar General has already initiated this process through a notification in July 2019.
After the compilation of NPR, local government functionaries are permitted to identify persons whose citizenship is “doubtful”. These powers will lie with junior officials at the level of the tahsildar upwards. Not only will the officials have completely unguided discretion to classify residents as “doubtful” citizens, they can also demand any person to provide any information or documents.