New Delhi: The Union government’s decision to update the National Population Register (NPR) has triggered an intense political battle over the last few days with the Congress quoting government documents to say the NPR is the first step to implementing the controversial pan-India National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, on the other hand, have hit out at the Sonia Gandhi-led party, noting that the first NPR updating exercise was carried out by the United Progressive Alliance government – in 2010.
The NPR records personal details of everyone in the country who is a “usual resident”, and the opposition has accused the Modi government of intending to use its data to prepare the NRC – whose stated aim is to drive out “illegal immigrants” from India.
While the updating of NPR has been carried out twice in the past – once during the UPA period and then during the first term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the recent drive to update it comes at a time when there is a nationwide movement against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act and NRC.
The fear is that a large number of poor people will be unable to provide whatever documentation the government decides is needed to qualify for the NRC and will get labeled ‘doubtful citizens’.
Many opposition parties believe that in the hands of a government like the BJP – which makes no bones about its commitment to Hindutva and the idea of a ‘Hindu rashtra’ – the NPR-NRC-CAA exercise could end up disproportionately targeting Muslims in India
As the clamour over the NPR grew, the saffron party released a video from 2010 that showed the then home minister P. Chidambaram launching the NPR, where he had said that an exercise like this has not been initiated anywhere in the world.
Union minister Prakash Javadekar, while attacking the Congress, said that the updating exercise being unrolled is simply a continuation of what the UPA government had started.
The BJP’s IT cell head Amit Malaviya tweeted in support of the statement, even as BJP leaders emphasised that NPR is not linked to the NRC. Subsequently, a bunch of BJP leaders called Rahul Gandhi, former president of the party who has been campaigning against NPR and NRC, a “liar”.
P Chidambaram, Home Minister during UPA era, gloating at the launch (2010-11) of National Population Register (NPR) exercise.
It is for the first time in human history we are beginning to identify, count, record, enumerate and eventually issue a identity card to 120 cr people… pic.twitter.com/IZGT6TlFft
— Amit Malviya (@amitmalviya) December 25, 2019
The BJP maintained that NPR will be updated only to streamline provision of welfare schemes.
However, the Congress pointed out that there is a qualitative difference between the NPR during the UPA time and the one the Modi government aims to carry out.
Chidambaram said that the emphasis of the NPR in 2010 by the UPA government was on “residency” and not “citizenship”.
“We were enumerating the ‘usual residents’ of the country. The emphasis is on residency not citizenship,” The NPR was to aid the preparation of the 2011 census. Every usual resident was to be enumerated irrespective of his or her religion or place of birth, he said.
He asserted that the Modi government’s updating of NPR would be carried out under the 2003 Citizenship At rules, and not the Census Act, as was done during the UPA government.
He further said that the UPA government did not mention the NRC at all while updating the NPR in 2010, while the Modi government’s own documents categorically make links between the NPR and NRC. For example, the Annual Report of the Ministry of Home Affairs, 2019, notes,
“The National Population Register (NPR) is the first step towards the creation of the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) under the provisions of the aforementioned Statute.”
Every “usual resident” was to be enumerated (during the UPA time) without reference to citizenship, he said.
The BJP-led government has a larger and more sinister agenda and that is why the NPR approved by them yesterday is very dangerous and different in terms of the TEXT as well as the CONTEXT of NPR 2010.
— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) December 26, 2019
If the BJP’s motives are bonafide, let the Government unconditionally state that they support the NPR form and design of 2010 and have no intention of linking it to the controversial NRC.
— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) December 26, 2019
Congress leader Ajay Maken too charged back at the BJP. He said that the first NPR exercise was started in 2003 during the NDA-I government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He said that only 31 lakh people in 12 states and a Union territory were picked for the NPR pilot project. He added that when the UPA came to power, the project was still under consideration. It was stopped later on the advice of a committee of secretaries, he said.
NPR data was shelved during the UPA in favour of Aadhaar, which practically catalogued the same details of Indian residents.
Maken reiterated Chidambaram’s arguments and said that the enumeration of usual residents in the NPR during the UPA had no links with NRC. “I am saying again and again that following the NRC is a second step, which we never intended to take,” he said. The 2003 amendment to the Citizenship Act said that the government “may” compulsorily register all citizens. “We never converted that into ‘shall’ and we will never convert it into ‘shall’ because we know the complexities,” he added.
While both parties have stuck to their positions, the NPR, in reality, was conceptualised because of a fear of illegal immigrants. The NDA-I government felt that ‘Pakistani infiltrators’ – not undocumented migrants but militants – may have entered Indian territory after the Kargil war. A similar fear crept into the UPA machinery after the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai, following which the government started talking about NPR. However, Aadhaar was subsequently favoured over NPR.
The Modi government revived the NPR idea by linking it to the NRC, which has been right at the top of its political agenda. The Congress has never spoken about a NRC-like process, except in Assam.
With the CAA now in place, there is an added fear that the NPR-NRC can become an instrument not just to identify undocumented migrants but also to persecute religious minorities and other marginalised sections in India. That is why NPR in the current context is more problematic than its precedents.