Long rows of monk-like figures walk with grim determination along a great staircase—a staircase that heads neither up, nor down. “That staircase is a rather sad, pessimistic subject, as well as being very profound and absurd,” the great graphic artist Maurits Escher observed of his masterwork Ascending and Descending. “Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; every step is about 10 inches high, terribly tiring—and where does it all get us? Nowhere.”
Protestors have assailed the government’s plans to implement the National Register of Citizens, arguing it is a tool for a mass disenfranchisement of Indian Muslims. Liberals believe the protestors are right; Hindu nationalists that they are paranoiacs.
This much, though, is absolutely certain: the NRC is going to be a gargantuan physical implementation of Escher’s mathematical black humour; a stairway into a special purgatory that could only have been dreamed up by an Indian bureaucrat.
For reasons well documented by the government itself, the NRC won’t be able to provide an accurate listing of Indian citizens, nor help address India’s illegal immigrant problem. The strangest part of the story is this: Governments have known for years that it’s a conceptually flawed idea with giant implementation issues—but have persisted with it anyway, despite their varying ideological persuasions.
Step 1: What’s the National Population Register all about? And what does it have to do with the National Register of Citizens?
Following Tuesday’s meeting of the Cabinet, Union minister Prakash Javdekar announced that the government had authorised the collection of data for the National Population Register—a listing of every resident of the country. He was at pains to make clear that the exercise, which will run from April to September, 2020, had nothing to do with the controversial National Register of Citizens.
The thing is, the government’s official documentation tells a quite different story from the minister’s assertions. For example, Ministry of Home Affairs’ Annual Report, describing the functions of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, citing legal statutes, clearly states that “the National Population Register is the first step towards the creation of the National Register of Indian Citizens”.
Similarly, the Government of India’s Citizenship Rules, notified in 2003, “The Central Government shall, for the purpose of National Register of Indian Citizens, cause to carry throughout the country a house-to-house enumeration for collection of specified particulars relating to each family and individual”.
In theory, of course, Javdekar is right: the government’s free to use the NPR data—which will, along with the Census, cost a mere ₹13,000 crore to generate—only for the purposes of helping service delivery. This, though, begs the question, though, of why we have Aadhaar—which, according to the government, has near-universal coverage, and extremely high levels of accuracy.
Step 2: How does the NPR-NRC process work? And why should anyone be concerned about it if they’re citizens of India?
This is where the story of the NPR-NRC begins to get worrying—unless you happen to enjoy standing in queues outside petty bureaucrats’ offices. In his press conference, Javdekar asserted that NPR enumerators would simply ask families for information, and accept their declarations at face-value, thus ruling out any possibility of harassment. He was right, except his explanation shouldn’t have ended where it did: It’s what happens after the NPR data is gathered that is the issue.
From the Government of India’s Citizenship Rules, we have a clear picture of what’s going to happen with NPR data. In each sub-division or tehsil, a sub-district magistrate or executive magistrate will be appointed Registrar of Citizens, to scan the NPR for entries she or he deems to be “doubtful”. Fascinatingly, there are no listed criteria for a “doubtful” entry: the Registrar of Citizens judgment, biases, and mystical revelations will all get a free play.
In the event that the Registrar of Citizens questions your claim to be Indian, those born before 1987 will have to provide proof that they were born in India, and those born after 1987 that at least one of their parents was an Indian national and that the other was not an illegal immigrant. There are several legal judgments making clear that Aadhaar cards, or even passports, aren’t proof of citizenship; you’ll need actual proofs of birth.
Bear in mind that many Indians born today—some 15 percent, according to the Census—still don’t get birth certificates, and you have some idea where this is headed. Bear in mind that, some decades ago, documentation was even thinner, and you get a better idea. In one case, documented by an independent investigation. Samina Bibi was declared a foreigner because she could not remember the constituency where her grandfather cast his vote in 1966. Abu Bakkar Siddiqui was declared a foreigner because his grandfather's name was spelt Aper Ali in one document and Afer Ali in another.
Finally, bear in mind that the executive magistrate looking at the paperwork isn’t a trained criminal investigator, who can actually rationally decide whether the document is credible or not: the reality is that the case for citizenship, more likely than not, will be built on crisp, ₹500 notes.
Step 3: But India’s facing an illegal immigration crisis. Surely, harsh measures are needed?
The really bizarre part of the story is that successive governments haven’t taken the basic step of working out, scientifically, whether the problem justifies the solution. In Parliament, the government has said there are 20 million foreigners in India. The Ministry of Home Affairs, however, has never cited a source for this claim; it appears to have been drawn up on the basis of various intelligence assessments, not surveys. The only actual survey data we have is from the Census, which tells us that we have 5.3 million Indian residents who identify as being born outside the country—i.e., both illegal and legal migrants. This is actually much lower than in the 2001 census, which registered 6.2 mn. foreign-born residents (which makes sense, since the Partition generation is dying).
The data we have tells us that less than 1 percent of Indians is foreign-born. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all of them are illegal immigrants. The European Union had 38.2 million people born outside of a Member State living there in 2017 — some 4.4 percent of the population. Forty million people living in the United States, about one in every fifth person, is an immigrant. India might have a problem—but it doesn’t have a crisis.
Step 4: What will happen to the illegal immigrants that the NCR identifies?
It’s at this point that the sheer silliness of the entire exercise fully manifests itself. Even the government admits it doesn’t intend to push identified illegal immigrants back to Bangladesh, for the excellent reason that there's no actual proof of their national origin. Foreigners Tribunals in Assam had identified 91,609 persons as illegal immigrants until 31 March, 2018; a grand total of 128 were deported—this at massive expense.
Let’s say the government identifies millions of illegal immigrants and convicts them under the Foreigners Act. Then, after their prison sentence, they should be deported back home—but from the Assam case, we know that doesn’t happen because there’s no legal proof of their country of origin. India is, therefore, now building multiple detention centres across the country to serve as prisons-after-prisons.
In ongoing hearings in the Karnataka High Court, Judge KT Phaneendran instructed that adequate provision should be made for the education of children of detainees, as well as for their physical well-being. The Ministry of Home Affairs guidelines also state that that detention centres should have “well-lit, airy rooms adhering to basic hygiene standards and equipped with electricity, water and communication facilities”. However, no costing of this exercise has been done by the ministry.
There are similar detention centres around the world—but many countries are realising it isn’t a great solution, both because of the huge costs involved, and the ethics of indefinitely detaining people. Australia and the United States have no time limits on detention, and the US has some 30,000 people in detention on any given day. However, tens of thousands more are released because it’s just too expensive to hold them indefinitely. France, having learned from bitter experience, has a 32 day limit on detention.
Step 5: The real lessons for India is bureaucrats draw up supersized projects to give the appearance of doing something. Beware: it’s your money.
The strangest part of the story is that—given how ideologically polarised debate on the NRC has become—is that it wasn’t even Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea. Following the Kargil war in 1999, the government set up the Girish Chandra Saxena Committee to suggest reforms on national security. The committee suggested a national identity card scheme, which seemed unexceptionable in principle—though it’s worth pointing out that Pakistan’s troops breached the Line of Control because key Generals were asleep on the watch, not because they had fake Indian ID.
Nothing much happened until 26/11, when home minister P Chidambaram revived the citizenship card idea and implemented it on a test basis in some 3,300 coastal villages. Again, unexceptional—except for the minor fact that it wasn’t solving the actual problem, which was that terrorists breached India’s borders with guns, not citizenship cards.
Like so many government schemes, the idea rapidly supersized. In 2012, the Union government announced that National Population Register enumerators, having spent over ₹3,000 crore, had completed gathering the details of more than a billion residents of India and that the digitisation of the filled-in forms was complete. People were to report to enrollment camps to give their biometric data, for the issue of National Citizenship Card.
Then, the whole idea fizzled, because Aadhaar had launched in parallel—and it’s czar, Nandan Nilekani, refused to use NPR data, arguing it was full of errors. There was a proposal to merge data from Aadhaar and the NPR, but it soon became clear the two enumeration exercises had too much contradictory information for this to be possible.
Put simply, either the NPR data was hopelessly buggy, or the Aadhaar data was hopelessly buggy. We still don’t whether one was, or both were because it was never independently investigated.
Learning from this mess, India could have initiated studies of how many illegal immigrants the country has, as well as the viability and costs of interning them. We’d have discussions on what sensible immigration and refugee policy might be, so that border states like Assam don’t have to share the cultural dislocation and economic burdens alone. We’d be talking about how to have a universal system of registration of births and deaths, instead of leaving the determination of citizenship to semi-literate petty bureaucrats.
But now, not having fixed the problem, we’re doing it all over again, in the hope, the results will be different. Some people might call it craziness. Indian bureaucrats, of course, won’t.
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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2019 11:06:03 IST