The NPR obfuscations
There has never been any question that NPR was created as the stepping stone for the NRC. The Citizenship Rules of 2003 clearly states this. The Registrar General of India (RGI) has also repeatedly said that the NRC would be created as a sub-set of the larger NPR dataset. Despite an incontrovertible trail, BJP leaders are now seeking to change the narrative on NPR, perhaps in a desperate move to contain the public outcry.
Amid widespread protests and debates on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the role of the National Population Register (NPR) had almost been forgotten until the Union Cabinet recently approved the continuation of that exercise along with the 2021 census. Since then, several senior BJP politicians have been making blatantly false and contradictory assertions about the relationship between NPR and NRC. I was part of the founding team of UIDAI and I was witness to some of the early engagements with the then Registrar General of India (RGI) on NPR. I have since been closely tracking and writing on the topic and I feel that it is my obligation to add my voice on the imminent threat that NPR, along with CAA, pose to the very idea of India.
For starters, there has never been any question that NPR was created as the stepping stone for the NRC. The Citizenship Rules of 2003 clearly states, “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 scrutinized 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...”
The RGI had repeatedly stated through its website that the NRC would be created as a sub-set of the larger NPR dataset. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, headed by BJP’s Shri. Yashwant Sinha reaffirmed that in 2011: “…the population register will form the basis on which citizenship would be determined in the future.” Shri. Chidambaram, the then Home Minister had also spoken of this linkage on several occasions, although he now seems to be prevaricating.
Despite this incontrovertible trail, BJP leaders are now seeking to change the narrative on NPR, perhaps in a desperate move to contain the public outcry. Even the RGI website has been sanitized to back-fit the PMO’s rhetoric, to make NPR appear as a benign exercise independent of NRC. But, fortuitously, the Directorate of Census Operations, Tamilnadu website hasn’t yet caught up with the make-over, and it says: “NPR is prepared under the provisions of the Citizenship Act, 1955 and The Citizenship…Rules, 2003…It is compulsory for every citizen of the country to register in National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC)…The NPR is the first step towards the preparation of the NRIC.” [Now, NRC]
It is remarkable that despite this available record, the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu, for example, is asserting that “NPR had no relation whatsoever to the proposed National Register of Citizens.” Should he not have checked with his own officials first before towing the PMO’s party line?
In the last many months, we have repeatedly heard the Home Minister Shri Amit Shah threaten the roll-out of NRC across the country. I wrote about it back in May ("The National Register of Cruelty"). So, I was astounded to hear the Prime Minister aver that the cabinet had never discussed the issue of nation-wide NRC. But the fact that the cabinet just approved the next phase of the NPR belies that claim. No discussion of NPR could have taken place without a discussion of its end-game, the NRC. On the other hand, if we accept the PMO’s declaration that there is no plan for nation-wide NRC, then there is no reason at all for the NPR exercise to continue.
In another effort at damage control, the government is now seeking to reassure people that the ‘Assam model’ of asking people to produce legacy documents will not be necessary for the rest of the country.
While it is true that the NPR survey is entirely based on ‘self-declaration,’ what the government is coy about is what happens next and when:
- Will some official at the Local Registrar’s office scan through the NPR data at some future date to redline those whose citizenship is suspect in his/her view?
- Will they then selectively demand that those persons produce legacy documents like in Assam to prove their bona fides in the country?
- In today’s environment of pervasive anti-Muslim bigotry, what are the chances that those local officials will treat every entry on the NPR with the same regard, using the same measuring stick?
- What are the chances that millions of poor people, especially Dalits and Adivasis, will be able to produce the necessary documents?
- At the end of the day, can the government assure us that thousands of genuine citizens, especially Muslims, will not be declared stateless?
Unless people get convincing answers to these troubling questions, they have every right to ask if their participation in the NPR next year does not amount to involuntary acquiescence to the NRC -- which could come back to haunt their families at a later time of the government’s choosing.
Last year, the Supreme Court of India held one of the longest ever hearings on Aadhaar, amid concerns about the right to privacy and potential misuse of data. In a great irony, neither the court nor the petitioners paid much attention to the NPR, which collects vastly more information than Aadhaar, but with no legal protections against misuse by the government. To my personal consternation, Aadhaar is now indirectly implicated in NPR by sharing its biometrics data. With the BJP government’s utter disregard for the truth and open hostility to the minorities, I fear that what was sought to be protected in the case of Aadhaar is getting a free pass under the NPR. If the court were to scrutinize NPR with the same rigour as it did Aadhaar, there is little doubt that it will conclude that its continuation in the current form is untenable.
When I suggested the name ‘Aadhaar’ for what was then called UID, my colleagues and I had one thing at the top of our minds. We saw it as an opportunity to empower millions of poor hitherto left out of the welfare systems. Aadhaar, meaning foundation or support in multiple Indian languages, was selected as it resonated with the idea of ‘inclusion.’ Today, this government seems solely preoccupied with the idea of ‘exclusion’ of the minorities through CAA and NPR. Sadly, instead of listening to the people, BJP politicians have unleashed an insidious campaign against the people, accusing the opposition of spreading falsehoods and labelling millions of protesters on the streets as ‘insects’ and worse. Such course language coming from some of the highest elected officials is unbecoming of their oath of office.
If the Prime Minister is really concerned about rumours and falsehoods, I respectfully submit that he look within the government.
(Raju Rajagopal was the former Civil Society Outreach Coordinator for UIDAI and is the co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights USA (.org))