By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, November 22, 2019: The debate over citizenship has kicked political winds in India again with the NDA government headed by Narendra Modi pushing “The Citizenship Amendment Bill” (CAB) in the ongoing winter session of Parliament. Citizenship confers the right to have rights in a country which is why this Bill will go down as a historic one.

The idea of citizenship is rooted in the edifice of the state. A person has to be a citizen of some country. Most people acquire nationality at birth by being born in a place or by inheriting their parents’ nationality. But going by an estimate by the United Nations, about one crore people are stateless. Many of them live in ethnic populations who are discriminated against or subject to sudden changes in the law. There are an estimated eight lakh Rohingya people living stateless in Myanmar.

The move by the Modi government to have NRC will obviously include some and exclude others through long-drawn exercises such as countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC) and CAB.

The government is gearing up to prepare a National Population Register (NPR) by September 2020 to lay the foundation for rolling out a citizens’ register across the country. The NPR will be a list of common residents of the country. Once the NPR is completed and published, it is expected to be the basis for preparing the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC).

For the purpose of NPR, a common resident is defined as a person who has resided in a local area for past six months or more or a person who intends to reside in that area for the next six months or more. It is mandatory for every resident of India to register in the NPR.

“… And the field work for house-to-house enumeration throughout the country except Assam for collection of information relating to all persons who are usually residing within the jurisdiction of local registrar shall be undertaken between the 1st day of April, 2020 to 30th September, 2020,” said a notification issued by Registrar General of Citizen Registration and Census Commissioner.

The NPR is being prepared at the local (village/sub-town), sub-district, district, state and national level under provisions of the Citizenship Act 1955 and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003.

The primary purpose of the NPR is to create a comprehensive identity database of every usual resident in the country which would contain demographic as well as biometric particulars.

Assam is the only state to have a prior NRC compiled in 1951 and the update exercise took over four years and apparently cost the state exchequer Rs 1,600 crore. The NRC is meant to separate undocumented migrants from genuine citizens.

However, there have been protests by a section of people in the country which believe that national interest is not being served by current politics of NRC and citizenship shaped by sheer opportunism and narrow political interests. The Bill has been especially contentious in Northeast India, also the location of the first National Register of Citizens exercise, where 19 lakh people in Assam have been excluded from the list, leaving them in limbo.

The CAB faces vehement opposition in many north-eastern states though Home minister Amit Shah has categorically stated that CAB will not undermine the inner-line permits that are necessary to enter some of these states. He also underscored the “permanent” nature of Article 371 which showers special protections on these states while promising that the fate of Article 370 won’t befall it.

Even the BJP government in Arunachal Pradesh has indicated it will “unequivocally” oppose the legislation unless specific amendments are made. Still worse is the fact that the BJP’s ally in Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which had opposed the bill earlier this year as well, said it too would not support the bill. Protests were also recorded in Manipur after an 18-hour bandh was called on Tuesday.

In the past, the citizenship issue took a violent turn in Assam with a massive movement in the state against illegal immigration, which eventually led to the historic Assam Accord of 1985, signed by Movement leaders and the Rajiv Gandhi government. Accordingly, the 1986 amendment to the Citizenship Act created a special category of citizens in relation to Assam.

The CAB makes it easier for Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis from neighbouring countries to get Indian citizenship. The previous BJP government had introduced the bill in parliament but could not push through amid massive protests by a united opposition. The bill had later lapsed.

The BJP has been demanding updation of NRC across the country in line with its vision of redefining Indian nationhood as Hindu. Now that it is in power for the second term with full mandate, the Modi government is all set to push update the NRC all over the country notwithstanding the opposition from some state governments, prominent being West Bengal.

Nevertheless, the government has to tread a cautious approach keeping the Assam NRC experience in mind. When the final Assam NRC came out on August 31, it even impressed few in the BJP as too many Hindus were left out of the list. In fact, the state unit of the BJP rejected the list. The government must respect the sentiments of the people in Assam and the new pan-India NRC must rectify the errors.

India needs to compile a list of its genuine citizens, but the scrutiny process must be transparent and religion must be kept out of the whole process to ensure secular character of the country.

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