For over a week, the country has witnessed widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), especially in combination with the proposed all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC). Indians are debating what the combination means for various sections, and discussing why Muslims, in particular, are worried.
What does NRC mean to you?
It depends on whether you are a resident of Assam, which has already had an NRC exercise, or whether you belong to another state. While Assam is the only state to have an NRC, first prepared in 1951 and finally updated in 2019, the proposed nationwide exercise would be a first for the rest of India. Legally, there is no paradigm yet for a nationwide NRC.
On December 9, when Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament that a nationwide NRC is on the cards, he distinguished it from the new citizenship law and said the NRC will have no religious filter. It is unclear if the government will bring in a fresh law to mandate a nationwide NRC. A list of FAQs put out by the Press Information Bureau of the government clarifies “it is important to know that, at the national level, no announcement has been made to begin NRC”. The NRC exercise, as Shah has repeatedly said, is to identify illegal immigrants from Indian citizens.
After protests spread, the government has sought to downplay its narrative on NRC. Minister of State (Home) Kishan Reddy said the government has not decided when the exercise would begin or what its modalities would be. “The draft is also not yet prepared. Neither the cabinet nor the legal department has approved it. NRC is not going to happen immediately. Some people in the name of NRC are trying to spread fear,” he said.
Why is Assam different?
In Assam, the NRC update was mandated by the Supreme Court in 2013. Assam has a history that is shaped by migration, and the protests there are against only CAA, not against NRC. The Assam Accord, signed by the governments of Assam and India, and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad in 1985, after a six-year mass movement, essentially declared that a resident of Assam is an Indian citizen if she could prove her presence, or an ancestor’s presence, in Assam before March 25, 1971. That is the cutoff date for NRC, which CAA extends to December 31, 2014 to non-Muslim migrants from three countries.
To prove their or their ancestors’ presence before 1971, applicants in Assam had to produce any one of 14 possible documents:
- 1951 NRC; or
- Electoral roll(s) up to March 24, 1971; or
- Anyone of 12 other kinds of papers, such as land & tenancy records; citizenship papers; passport; Board/University certificate.
Additionally, if the document submitted is in the name of an ancestor, then another document proving relationship was required to be submitted — such as a ration card, LIC/bank document or an educational certificate that contains the names of the applicant as well as the parent/ancestor.
So, what documents will be required for NRC outside Assam?
In its FAQs, the PIB said: “If it is implemented, it does not mean that anyone will be asked for proof of being Indian… Just like we present our identity cards or any other document for registering our names in the voter list or getting Aadhaar Card made, similar documents shall need to be provided for NRC, as and when it is carried out,” it said.
The PIB said there is no compulsion to submit any document by/of the parents. Noting that a decision is yet to be taken on acceptable documents, it said: “This is likely to include voter cards, passports, Aadhaar, licenses, insurance papers, birth certificates, school leaving certificates, documents relating to land or home or other similar documents issued by government officials. The list is likely to include more documents so that no Indian citizen has to suffer unnecessarily.”
The PIB said that in case of an illiterate person who does not have any documents, “authorities will allow that person to bring a witness”. “Also, other evidence and community verification etc will be allowed.”
It added that no Indian citizen will be put to undue trouble. Since the NRC process is to identify citizens, the references to “Indian citizens” in the FAQs remains unexplained.
What could be a cutoff date for a nationwide NRC?
While this has not been defined, citizenship laws are in place. According to the Citizenship Act, 1955, amended in 1986, anyone born in India up to July 1, 1987 is an Indian citizen by birth. For those born on or after July 1, 1987, the law set out a fresh condition: one of the parents must be an Indian citizen. By a 2003 amendment, for any individual born on or after December 3, 2004 to be considered an Indian citizen, one parent must be an Indian citizen while the other must not be an illegal immigrant.
This does not apply to Assam, due to the cutoff of 1971. For the rest of the country, those born outside the country after January 26, 1950, and residing in India without proper documents is an illegal immigrant.
Why is it being said that it plays out differently for Hindus?
While Shah has assured that the NRC process would not differentiate based on religion, the CAA+NRC process is likely to play out differently for some Hindus.
In the run-up to the passage of the legislation, Shah repeatedly focused on the chronology of passing it first and then implementing NRC. This is crucial at least for a section of Hindus, who can trace their ancestry to Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the NRC exercise is carried out across India, the excluded group could consist of Hindus as well. In Assam, for example, out of over 3.29 crore applicants for NRC, roughly 3.1 crore made it to the final list with at least 19 lakh exclusions, many of whom are Hindus.
Even if the final exclusions from a nationwide NRC are, say, only 5% of the population, that would mean at least 6.5 crore individuals across India. Now there are many Hindus, predominantly in the Northeast, West Bengal and to an extent in Gujarat, Delhi, Rajasthan and Punjab, who can trace their ancestry to the three countries included in the citizenship law. Shah said in Parliament that no documents will be asked of those who apply for citizenship under the new law, giving a possible exit route to some of the Hindus potentially excluded from the NRC.
This may not be same for Hindus throughout the country, say a Hindu in Andhra Pradesh or Kerala who cannot trace ancestry to “persecuted minorities” in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh.
Opposition leaders have accused the ruling BJP of trying appease the Bengali Hindu vote-bank by passing CAA and raising the pitch on a nationwide NRC. West Bengal is headed for polls in mid-2021.
Can any Hindu, if out of NRC, hold the Citizenship Amendment Act as a shield?
In Parliament, Home Minister Shah did present it as a shield for Hindus left out of the Assam NRC. He said all other legal proceedings will stand abated when an individual applies for citizenship under CAA. Without CAA, everyone left out of the NRC would have eventually faced, or is already facing, proceedings in Assam’s Foreigners Tribunals.
However, it is not clear whether the same shield will be available to Hindus left out of NRC in other states. Even in Assam, it brings up a contradiction. This was raised by Congress MP Kapil Sibal who, in Rajya Sabha, brought up how a Hindu in Assam who is left out of NRC can use the citizenship law as a shield.
“You know what they’ve said in their legacy papers? That they are residents of India. You are forcing them by law to lie that they were persecuted and came from Bangladesh,” Sibal said.
Can the shield not be made available to a Hindu resident of Chikmagalur in Karnataka, or Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, or Kozhikode in Kerala?
This remains unclear. Apart from the fact that a Hindu resident of these areas may have to contradict themselves in their NRC and CAA applications, it raises an additional area of uncertainty. In Assam or West Bengal, a Bengali Hindu can claim to be from Bangladesh. In central and south India, the question is whether an applicant under CAA can claim to be from any of the three countries — Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan — mentioned in CAA.
Since rules for CAA have not been framed yet, the process to be followed to apply for fast-track citizenship for non- Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan remains unclear.
Is all this the reason why Muslims are particularly worried about CAA combined with nationwide NRC?
Yes, the worries arise out of the fact that the CAA shield is not available to them. If a Muslim cannot meet the eligibility criteria for NRC, once those are finalised, she will lose citizenship when the NRC is published without her name. A second concern is about the NRC process itself — if exclusion is going to take place due to absence of documents, or deficiencies in documents submitted. There is apprehension that the Muslim community, many of whom are backward, will get excluded due to deficiencies in the documents like spelling errors. This happened with many applicants (both Hindu and Muslim) during the NRC process in Assam — a state where Muslims of migrant ancestry are generally very careful about preserving their documents for generations.
Also feeding into Muslim worries is the prospect of detention centres, existing and upcoming, to house those who will be left out of the NRC. Assam already has six detention centres attached to jails and is setting up an exclusive one in Goalpara. Mumbai and Bengaluru set up centres this year.
In several statements, Shah has left out Muslims while talking about a nationwide NRC. “We (BJP) will remove every single infiltrator from the country except Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs,” Shah said on April 11 at a rally in West Bengal. A BJP handle tweeted this statement but subsequently deleted it.
Have Muslim political leaders expressed these worries?
AIMIM’S Asaduddin Owaisi, during the debate in Lok Sabha, had alleged that the intent of the legislation was to make Muslims stateless. “If this Bill is allowed, the Foreigners Tribunals will only deal with cases related to Muslims,” he said.
SP member S T Hasan had called the citizenship law a precursor to NRC. “Muslims do not have a proof of residence even for five years… Muslims are afraid that their name will not appear in the NRC and they will be declared as infiltrators,” he had said.
The Indian Union Muslim League, with four MPs, has challenged the law before the Supreme Court, on the ground that with CAA and the nationwide NRC, the direct and inevitable consequence of it was those belonging to Islam would be “disproportionately targeted” on failing to prove citizenship, in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution.
What has the government said to address such fears of Muslims?
In an interview to India Today, Home Minister Shah said CAA is not linked to NRC. “No Indian citizen needs to worry at all, no one will be thrown out. We will make special provisions to ensure that no Indian citizen from minority communities is victimised in the NRC process. But we can’t leave the borders open as well. Countries are not run like that,” he said.
“It is important for everyone to understand that intruders or illegal migrants do not only eat away resources and opportunities meant for Hindus but also Muslims. Not even a single person of a minority who is an Indian citizen will be harmed in the NRC, but not even one intruder will be spared.”
The FAQs released by the PIB, too, sought to address such fears:
- “Do Indian Muslims need to worry about CAA+NRC? There is no need for an Indian citizen of any religion to worry about CAA or NRC.”
- “Will people be excluded in NRC on religious grounds? No, NRC is not about any religion at all. Whenever NRC will be implemented, it will neither be applied on the basis of religion nor can it be implemented on the basis of religion. No one can be excluded just on the basis that he/she follows a particular religion.”
Does CAA lose its lethality if the proposal of a nationwide NRC is put aside?
Owaisi had moved an amendment in Lok Sabha saying the law should be applicable for all persecuted religious minorities. This was aimed at making a point that if there is a nationwide NRC, the CAA will not be discriminatory towards one specific community. And the corollary is also seen as true: If there is no nationwide NRC, the CAA will lose its lethality, vis-a-vis Indian Muslims.
Trinamool Congress MP Prof Saugata Roy, while opposing the previous version of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in January, had said the law would be welcomed if it excludes Bangladesh, and it would be acceptable to Assam too.
Challenges to the CAA before the Supreme Court, however, are likely be decided taking into account the constitutionality of the law. It is unclear whether the court will consider what CAA means alongside the prospect of a nationwide NRC.
Are there many undocumented Indians?
According to the UIDAI website, 124.95 crore persons have been issued Aadhaar cards until December 21 this year. According to the telecom regulator TRAI, India had 102.6 crore active mobile users in 2018. Given India’s population (over 121 crore according to the 2011 Census, and 133.9 crore in 2017 according to the World Bank), the inference is that most people in the country are documented under Aadhaar or by virtue of a mobile connection. However, neither of these is proof of citizenship. While Union Minister Prakash Javadekar has said an Aadhaar card would be enough to prove citizenship, Section 9 of the Aadhaar Act states that the Aadhaar number or the authentication thereof shall not, by itself, confer any right of, or be proof of citizenship or domicile.
Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections this year, the Election Commission said 90 crore voters were registered. In the 2001 Census, over 60 crore individuals (59% of the then population) were aged over 18 (voting age), but given the different reference years, it is difficult to draw any inference from there.
Several states have ruled out implementation of a nationwide NRC. What does their defiance mean?
Opposition-ruled West Bengal, Kerala and Punjab are making a political point by declaring NRC will not be implemented in their states. Citizenship, aliens and naturalisation are subject matters listed in List 1 of the Seventh Schedule that fall exclusively under the domain of Parliament.
Additionally, Kerala joined West Bengal as the second state to put on hold the update of the National Population Register (NPR) —a lead-up to the 2021 Census —amid fears that it was the “first step” to the NRC.
The NPR, a list of “usual residents of the country” is being prepared under provisions of the Citizenship Act 1955 and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003. It is mandatory for every “usual resident of India” to register in NPR. Unlike NRC, the NPR is not a citizenship enumeration drive, as it would record even foreigners staying in a locality for more than six months.
Indians with documentation
That is the World Bank figure for 2017. In Census 2011, the Indian government had counted 121 crore.
As of December 2019. Even accounting for population growth, it is still a large proportion.
In 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Just for reference, in 2001, 59% (over 60 crore) of the population was of voting age.
As of November 2019, under National Food Security Act
As of December 21, 2019
Number of PANs until February 2019 (according to CBDT chairman Sushil Chandra)
Mobile phone users
Active mobile phone users in 2018, according to telecom regulator TRAI