Did the Union Cabinet Just Set the Stage for NRC by Pushing for 'Updated' NPR?

Two press releases by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in 2014 had made direct links between NPR and NRC. 

New Delhi: The Union cabinet on Tuesday cleared the way for updating the National Population Register (NPR) – a precursor process to the creation of the controversial National Register of Citizens – and allocated a budget of Rs 3,941 crore for this task. The government aims to finish the enumeration exercise between April 2020 and September 2020 in all states and Union Territories except Assam. 

The NPR is a process, first mooted by the first National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to collect basic demographic and biometric details for the creation of an identity database of every resident of the country. It will be conducted along with the house-listing exercise for Census 2021, for which the government allocated a separate amount of Rs 8,754 crore in Tuesday’s cabinet meeting. 

What is the NPR?

In simple words, the NPR is a list of “usual residents” in the country – a term used for a person with regard to the particular area he or she is living in for the past six months or where he or she intends to live for the next six months or more.

The first NPR was conducted in 2010 and an updating of the register was done in 2015 through a door-to-door survey. 

Though it is mandatory for every citizen to register themselves in the NPR, which will be conducted under the provisions of the Citizenship Act, 1955, and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, it is not clear what the outcome of the earlier enumeration exercises was. 

Whatever the government may say today to defuse the raging controversy over the Citizenship Amendment) Act and the NRC, it has in the past repeatedly stressed that the NPR and NRC are linked.

As the then minister of state for home affairs told the Rajya Sabha on November 26, 2014, “The National Population Register (NPR) is a register of all the usual residents which include citizens and non-citizens as well. The NPR is the first step towards creation of National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) by verifying the citizenship status of every usual resident.” (emphasis added)

According to the specified form during the first enumeration and updating exercise, the NPR collected 15 demographic details from each resident – name, date of birth, place of birth, address, relationship to head of household, sex, marital status, occupational activity, names of mother, father and spouse, nationality, educational qualification and duration of stay at current address and permanent address.

According to the Indian Express, the new form will require every resident to provide additional data points on pain of being fined: date and place of birth of parents, last place of residence, Permanent Account Number (PAN), Aadhaar (on a voluntary basis), voter ID card number, driving licence number and mobile number.

The requirement that every resident declare the date and place of their parents’ birth will not only be overly onerous but suggests the NRC – when it is eventually pursued – might use metrics beyond the simple test for determining citizenship that the Citizenship Act itself envisages.

Any individual born in India before July 1, 1987 is an Indian by birth regardless of the identity or age or place of birth of his or her parents. Children born in India after 2004 are Indians by birth only if at least one parent is Indian and the other is not an “illegal immigrant”.

Also read: NRC or No NRC: Who Is Lying, Narendra Modi or Amit Shah?

As protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the NRC have spread across the country, many state governments believe that the updating of the NPR is a prelude to the NRC. They have opposed it on the basis that the updated NPR may smoothen the process of the NRC, which the Union government plans to conduct to identify and then drive out “infiltrators”. 

The NRC has become contentious as it may require Indian citizens to prove their citizenship through multiple documents, which the poor will struggle to produce. Following the CAA, which treats all non-Muslim undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan as refugees and expedites the grant of Indian citizenship to them, the NRC is also now being seen as an exclusionary exercise that may empower the government to declare marginalised people, and especially Muslims, as “doubtful citizens” and then eventually as “infiltrators”. 

Are NPR and NRC linked?

Though Union information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar insists the NPR and and the NRC have nothing to do with each other, the opposition parties insist there is a linkage.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) in a press statement said, “By the amendment of the Citizenship Act of 1955 and the rules notified on December 10, 2003 by the Vajpayee government, the National Population Register is the basis on which the National Register of Citizens is prepared. It is clear that the NPR is the first stage of the exercise to implement the NRC.”

It added that “this linkage was made clear as early as July 23, 2014, soon after the Modi government assumed office, in an answer to a question (starred question No. 229, Rajya Sabha) by the Minister of State for Home Affairs.”

The then junior home minister Kiren Rijiju, in a written reply to MP Asaduddin Owaisi in the Lok Sabha, had said, “The government has now decided to create the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) based on the information collected under the scheme of NPR by verifying the citizenship status of all individuals in the country.”

The government had a legal mandate to make that assertion since Section 14A of the Citizenship Act, provides for compulsory registration of every citizen and the issue of a “national identity card” to him or her. It also said that the Union government may maintain a “National Register of Indian Citizens”.

Although technically the NPR is a catalogue of ‘usual residents’ based on their place of residence while the NRC is a process to register Indian citizens with the objective of identifying “infiltrators,” the opposition parties believe the NPR at this stage can easily become a prelude to the divisive NRC to be carried out nationally.  

This is because the 2003 Citizenship Act rules specifically envisage the creation of an NRC from the NPR master list.

The process is spelt out in the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003:

“For the purposes of preparation and inclusion in the Local Register of Indian Citizens, the particulars collected of every family and individual in the Population Register shall be verified and scrutinised by the Local Registrar…

During the verification process, particulars of such individuals, whose Citizenship is doubtful, shall be entered by the Local Registrar with appropriate remark in the Population Register for further enquiry and in case of doubtful Citizenship, the individual or the family shall be informed in a specified proforma immediately after the verification process is over.” (emphasis added)

Against this backdrop, Union home minister Amit Shah’s assurance in an interview to ANI that the enumeration exercise being planned was only for the NPR and not the NRC seems disingenuous:

While Shah is right that “nobody will lose citizenship because of NPR”, the data collected during the exercise would very much become the basis for an individual to first be moved to the category of “doubtful citizen” and then declared an “illegal immigrant”, liable to detention.

Shah also attempted to parry queries on the purpose behind the building of detention centres by claiming the centres were for “illegal migrants” and were not connected to the NRC or CAA, ignoring the fact that the NRC process is intended to catch “illegal migrants” and lock them up pending deportation – a point he himself repeatedly made when he said “each and every infiltrator” would be rounded up and expelled.

NPR-NRC linkage first established by Union home ministry

While Union home minister Amit Shah continues to insist the NPR and NRC are not linked, two press releases by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in 2014 made direct links between NPR and NRC. 

The first was regarding the issue of an NPR smart card on July 15, 2014.

The Citizenship Act, 1955 provides that the Central Government may compulsorily register every Citizen of India and issue National Identity Card to him. Accordingly, Government has decided to create National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) by verifying citizenship status of all persons in the National Population Register (NPR) and issue National Identity Cards to all the Citizens of India.”

The second press release by the MHA was issued on November 26, 2014 and admitted the link between them more clearly. 

“The National Population Register (NPR) is a register of all the usual residents which include citizens and non-citizens as well. The NPR is the first step towards creation of National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) by verifying the citizenship status of every usual residents.”

Many at the time had questioned the necessity of an NPR updating exercise when similar details had already been collected by the UIDAI for Aadhaar. However, Rijiju in a written reply to MP T.N.Seema in the Rajya Sabha had clarified to say that NPR is a different process and that “there is no proposal to merge the existing Aadhar database to the NPR under consideration of the government.” 

The Union cabinet’s decision to begin the NPR process may likely become another contentious issue against the current political backdrop. At least 12 chief ministers have already declared that they will not let the NRC be implemented in their respective states. 

Only a week ago, Mamata Banerjee stayed all preparations for NPR updation in West Bengal. Her government sent a letter to all district magistrates ordering them to stop all activity regarding NPR in “in the interest of public order”. Responding to the decision, state’s BJP president Dilip Ghosh slammed the TMC government but not without making direct links between NPR and NRC.

“Mamata Banerjee has become so much dependent on Bangladeshi infiltrators that she has no option but to keep harming the interests of the country, come what may,” Ghosh, who is also the Lok Sabha MP from Midnapore said.

Terming the NPR as the “first step” to the NRC, even Kerala’s Left Front government stayed all activities related to the preparations for updating the NPR. “The government is duty-bound to continue its cooperation for the conduct of the Census as that exercise in an inevitable one. The decision to stay the NPR-related activities in the state was taken against the backdrop of the factors that the issue is before the Supreme Court and the amended citizenship Act has deviated from the Constitutional values,’’ the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s office said in a statement.