The Centre introduced the National Register of Citizens (NRC) by placing Section 14A in the existing Citizenship Act of 1955, through an amendment in 2003. This added provision gives discretion to the government to either go ahead with the exercise of NRC or not. It is not an obligatory exercise.
To give effect to this provision, the NDA government framed its rules in 2003. Under them, the scheme is to collect the data of every individual resident in the country, which in turn determines the fate of an Indian resident, whether the credentials are good enough to qualify a person’s in the NRC or not. If the individual does not qualify for NRC, the officer can write in the National Population Register (NPR) that the citizenship is “doubtful”, following which the proceedings of verification of that citizen can precede. The “doubtful” person is then given an opportunity to be heard, after which the local officer can take a call on the pending issue. The filing of appeal, etc, shall come into action thereafter.
India also has the Census Act of 1948. Under this Act, the data of Indians are collected every 10 years for the purposes of mapping the distribution of the population with respect to its density, physical group, urban and rural concentration, housing condition, occupation, literacy, religion, sex, civil conditions, etc. Though the person is legally bound to answer requisite questions, as prescribed by the government under this Act, there are also exceptions where protection of name is guaranteed.
An important aspect of it is that census records are neither accessible for inspection nor admissible as evidence in civil and criminal proceedings. Recently, the Aadhaar Act of 2016 was enacted for identification purposes. This data collection and biometric information of individuals raised serious privacy issues, which led the Supreme Court to uphold the right to privacy as an integral part of several fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. Finally, the SC held that it was unconstitutional for a body, corporate or individual, to seek authentication based on the Aadhaar number. The data collected under the Aadhaar scheme is protected by a statute against misuse, but the data collected during the NPR process is not.
In the process of data collection for the NPR, as the scheme presently stands, every citizen shall have to disclose as much information as possible because his or her existence will now be at stake. This is in fact an evidence collection process to identify whether an Indian qualifies to be a citizen or not. The onus of providing such information is on the citizen and that information becomes crucial evidence.
This is a whole lot different from the data taken under census or under Aadhaar. It is essentially a disguised process of generating vital evidence with respect to a person’s existence and hence is potentially extremely dangerous. If a person does not keep the local enumerator happy by providing all the information that is asked for, the person is at the risk of the officer marking him or her “doubtful”. If perchance the name appears on NRC, a person stands the risk of losing everything in fighting for his or her case as a citizen.
On the other hand, if a person provides all the information asked for, there is still no guarantee that this data shall remain protected. The exercise of the updation of the NPR coupled with a clear expressed intention to immediately proceed with NRC, in which doubtful entries shall be marked, makes each individual vulnerable. Many vested parties can misuse this information for commercial and political gain.
Secondly, it shall further overburden the judiciary of the country, which is already working at a glacial pace, given the sheer volume of cases and the shortage of judges and infrastructure. A country with such a massive population, where illiterate and the poor are in millions, the doubtful entries in the population register will accumulate into a colossal figure. The issues relating to how the NRC was conducted in Assam bear witness to how mechanically this process was undertaken and how the higher courts closed their eyes in most of the cases. When it becomes a nationwide problem, the judiciary may well be faced with its biggest challenge in the history of independent India.
Thirdly, in this process, whoever is marked “doubtful” will undergo grave mental agony and societal repercussions. Their dignity, which is again guaranteed, will also be hit. Similar exercises have been dropped by the UK, Australia, Canada and many other countries midway because of the sheer cost of the undertaking. India may also have to do so. It would be better if the government began conducting preliminary investigations and identifying “doubtful” citizens based on reasonable doubt of an individual not being citizen rather than putting every law abiding individual to pass an excruciating litmus test.
This article was published in Mumbai Mirror on 18th February, 2020