With the Union Cabinet's approval of Rs 3,941.35 crore for updating the National Population Register (NPR) on Tuesday, the Central government has taken the second big step towards preparing a nation-wide National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC). On July 31, 2019, the government had, through a notification in the official gazette, set the ball rolling for the NPR.
The whole exercise - first the NPR which would be scrutinised and verified before the NRIC is prepared - is not just about preparing a list of "usual residents" but also about identifying "illegal migrants" and "doubtful citizenship".
While the entire country has erupted in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 (CAA) and the NRC (or NRIC, which is a nation-wide NRC excluding Assam), as the two together would filter out only the Muslims for granting citizenship to outsiders, a far bigger danger is lurking for the rest of us in the form of "doubtful citizenship" that the NPR is mandated to mark out.
A provision for this "doubtful citizenship" has been given in the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003 (2003 Rules) under which the NPR is being prepared.
What is "doubtful citizenship"? Who is a "doubtful" citizen?
Sub-rule (4) of Rule 4 of the 2003 Rules - reproduced below - says that "during the verification process of the Population Register (or NPR), a step before the NRIC is prepared, an individual or a family would be marked as "doubtful" citizen or have "doubtful citizenship".
Graphic 1: Sub-rule (4) of Rule 4 of the 2003 Rules talking about "doubtful citizens"
What is "doubtful citizenship"? On what basis an individual or a family would be marked "doubtful" citizen as this provision talks about?
For one, "doubtful citizenship" has not been defined in the 2003 Rules. In fact, it does not even exist in the main law - Citizenship Act of 1955. The 2003 Rules were framed under this Citizenship Act of 1955 following the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2003 (CAA of 2003).
Secondly, the 2003 Rules, which sets the ground rule and provides for procedures and processes to be followed for preparing the NPR and NRIC does not say how an individual or a family would be identified as "doubtful".
All it says is that "Local Registrar" - in sub-rule (4) of Rule 4 - would be making such a marking.
Local officials to identify and decide "doubtful" citizens
Once an individual or a family is marked as "doubtful" citizen, they would be (a) asked to provide information "in a specified pro-forma" and (b) given opportunity to be heard by "the Sub-district or Taluk Registrar of Citizen Registration" before a final decision is taken on whether to include them in the NRIC or not.
While a Sub-district or Taluk Registrar gets all the power to decide who is an Indian citizen and who is not, the pro-forma on the basis of which it would be decided does not exist. Since this is the job of the 2003 Rules, it is clear that the entire exercise would depend on the whims and fancies of these local officials and hence, an immense possibility of arbitrariness and misuse.
Although there are subsequent provisions for publishing the register and "inviting any objections or for inclusion of any name..." in sub-section (6) the potential of this provision to harm can't be ignored or undermined.
Who could be harmed by "doubtful citizenship" provision?
Such an individual or family could be anyone - you, me or the much maligned "Urban Naxals", "anti-nationals", "habitual dissenters", or "tukde tukde gang", who either land in jail or are routinely asked to go to Pakistan for criticising governments by the high and mighty of the land.
When asked about the potential of the undefined and unspecified "doubtful citizenship" provision to harm, Prof Faizan Mustafa, constitutional expert and Vice Chancellor of the Hyderabad's NALSAR University of Law, said:
"In a polarised environment of today, Muslims, liberals and political dissenters will be the primary targets of exclusion through this draconian provision. Similarly, poor people, illiterate, landless, women and orphans may be marked as doubtful citizens. This will also lead to lot of corruption as these officials may seek illegal gratification to remove doubtful tag."
"Such a provision played havoc in Assam"
Prof Mustafa also recalled the Assam experience of a similar provision in the voters' list.
He said: "We have seen how 'doubtful voter' idea introduced by TN Seshan (former Chief Election Commissioner) in 1997 had played havoc in Assam. People were arbitrarily marked as doubtful voters randomly and now these people and their children got excluded from the Assam NRC. We should learn from past mistakes rather than mistake of one state be repeated at the national level."
"Doubtful citizenship has doubtful legal status"
PDT Achary, another constitutional expert and former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha (2005-10), said: "This provision is not relatable to any provision in the main law - the Citizenship Act of 1955. Therefore, its legal validity is doubtful."
When asked about the possibility of its misuse, he said: "In absence of a definition for "doubtful citizenship" it is likely to be misused against bona fide citizens by officials at the local levels."
No wonder the Central government has been preparing to build detention centres across the country.
Centre asked States/UTs to build "sufficient number of detention centres" first in Sept 2014
Contrary to its claims, the central government has actually instructed all states and union territories (UTs) to build detention centres, not once but at least thrice.
The evidence is found in the answers the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has given in writing to the Parliament. There are several such written answers from the MHA between December 2018 and December 2019.
One written answer from the MHA to the Rajya Sabha, on December 19, 2018 (Question Number 1030) - as produced below - says detailed instructions were first issued to the states and UTs on September 10, 2014 - that is, just four months after the Modi government first took charge - and then again on September 7, 2018.
The MHA asked the states and UTs to set up "sufficient number of detention centres/holding area/camps outside the Jail premises". Although these are meant for "illegal immigrants", continuation of the "doubtful citizenship" provision under the 2003 Rules that governs the NPR being rolled out now, raises doubts about what is not obvious in this answer.
Graphic 2: MHA instructed all states/UTs to open "sufficient number" of detention centres
The third instruction was given in January 2019 , when a "Model Detention Centre Manual" was circulated to all states and UTs "reiterating various instructions issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs from time to time with regard to setting up of detention centres".
Graphic 3: About Model Detention Centre Manual issued in Jan, 2019
Detention centres to be set up outside existing jails
In these answers, the MHA says such detention centres should be set up "outside the Jail premises". That is because the Central government wants to create more capacity.
This is evident in the fact that though one detention centre exists in Goalpara of Assam, housing 267 detainees - as revealed in the MHA's answer to the Lok Sabha on July 9, 2019 (Question Number 2660) , another one has been sanctioned at a cost of Rs 46.51 crore.
Graphic 4: For one detention centre, MHA sanctioned Rs 46.51 crore
Ground report suggests that this detention centre would house 3,000 detainees and is likely to be completed anytime now.
Total detention centres needed: 26,658; Total Cost: Rs 12.4 lakh crore (8.8% of GDP in FY19)
Assam witnessed a failure rate of 6 per cent in its NRC list - 19,06,657 people found excluded from a total of 3,30,27,661. At this rate, the NPR could very well mean a total of 7.99 core failing the citizenship test - 6 per cent of 133.3 crore - population projection for 2019 as per the National Commission on Population.
This is no exaggeration as Assam saw even the family members of former President of India Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974-77) failing the citizenship test twice, and a Kargil war veteran Mohammed Sana Ullah getting jailed for such a failure.
How many detention centres would be needed to house 7.99 crore people? Taking the Goalpara detention centre as a benchmark - for housing 3,000 detainees - India would need 26,658 detention centres.
At Rs 46.51 crore each, 26,658 detention centres would cost of Rs 12.4 lakh crore. This would be 8.8 per cent of the GDP in FY19 - the GDP size being Rs 140.78 lakh crore in FY19 at constant prices.
For the doubting Thomases, it should be made clear that the fund the Union Cabinet approved for NPR (2020) on Tuesday is not for Census 2021. Census is conducted under the Census Act of 1948. The NPR is being conducted under the 2003 Rules framed under the Citizenship Act of 1955 after the 2003 amendment.
Thus, the danger that emerges out of "doubtful citizenship" to be marked out arbitrarily by a local official and the detention centres being readied by the MHA are not imaginary but very real.
Just how many detention centres are being set up? When the MHA was asked, it said that this job has been "entrusted" to the states and UTs and hence, "no such data is centrally maintained".