Citizenship is perhaps the most important link between an individual and a state. Nations guard their citizenship- by imposing stringent criteria for the acquisition of citizenship and by maintaining a registry which lists the names of all citizens, just as what the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam purports to do. However, such a proposition may be difficult to fulfil given the structural challenges surrounding the legal and bureaucratic framework that exists in India. Even in a comparatively small state such as Assam, assessing and recording the citizenship statuses of over 31 million people would be a difficult task. It has been acknowledged by courts of law in India that there cannot be any one document that proves citizenship, because of the complexity and innumerable changes pertaining to the nationality laws promulgated since Indian independence. In such a scenario, around 4 million people potentially risk becoming stateless involuntarily, just because they could not produce documents that prove their citizenship. In a country known for its bureaucratic mismanagement, can it be categorically stated that the final draft of the NRC is indeed a perfect reflection of the citizenship statuses of those included and omitted from the Register? If not, then the state is on the verge of involuntarily revoking the citizenship of Indians without giving due regard to its own nationality laws, for instance, the birthright citizenship provisions of the Indian Citizenship Act, discussed further in the article. However, like every sovereign state, India has an unconditional right to determine who is and is not its citizen. How could these two conflicting principles be reconciled? A historical context may reduce the confusion.
The NRC was first prepared in 1951, after the first census of independent India. The Register sought to compile the names of all citizens in order to remove ambiguity and offer clarity on matters relating to the huge inflow and outflow of people following the Partition of India. However, the NRC was updated only until the midnight of 24th March 1971, in light of the troubles between East Pakistan and West Pakistan, the latter of which would become Bangladesh. The major problem with the NRC is that in order for a person to update their particulars in the Register, he/she must prove that their names were present in the electoral roll between 26th January 1951 and 24th March 1971, or they must have descended from such persons who meet the above criteria. Such a requirement would mean that a person whose name was not included in the electoral roll, despite being born in India, is not a citizen. This anomaly arises due to the conflicting provisions between the Indian Citizenship Act and the criteria of the NRC, both of which may be difficult to reconcile – the former provides birthright citizenship to all persons born in India between 26th January 1950 and 1st July 1987, while the latter requires proof of enrolment during the prescribed timeframe or a proof of descent from such person(s) in order to consider the applicants as citizens. Does this mean that all eligible citizens who did not enrol to vote in the said timeframe and consequently their descendants are non-citizens? Meeting the requirements of the NRC is in itself a herculean task because it requires the production of electoral or other prescribed documents issued on or before 24th March 1971. The descendants of such persons must prove their descent, which further complicates matters especially if their ancestors through whom they are claiming descent persons are already deceased. Unfortunately, omission from the register can have real-life consequences such as deportation, inability in securing social benefits from the government and involuntary statelessness. People may have to relocate to a different country if they can prove other citizenship(s) or they are left in a limbo where their existence is not evidenced by any documentation. Statelessness may perpetuate over many generations because current citizenship laws in India require at least one parent to be a citizen for an individual to acquire citizenship at birth. It also creates a vicious cycle of denying access to basic human needs such as health care and education, which will further exacerbate poverty. It must be clarified, however, that the primary argument is not against maintaining a register of citizenship, which India has every right to do as a sovereign nation; however, it is imperative that such record such be accurate and up-to-date.
Many countries around the world like Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada have maintained some type of record that can be used to determine the citizenship status if an application is submitted. Other countries including Singapore and Brazil issue their citizens' specific documentation in the form of an identity card or a certificate that proves the citizenship status of its bearer. It can be argued on general terms that such a mechanism is both practical and necessary, especially in such countries with strong social welfare systems, because it facilitates the determination of whether a person is rightly entitled to the services provided by the government. With such varied perspective maintaining a register may seem like a necessary solution to consolidate the public services offered to Indian citizens, although adopting similar systems in a country like India would likely be marred by inefficiency and errors, as was evident in the Aadhaar enrolment process. In such a circumstance, a minor error could imply that thousands, if not millions, could be unfairly excluded from such a registry. Moreover, the final draft of the NRC relating to Assam and the controversies it has since caused, serve as a premonition of the greater troubles that may arise if it is implemented on an all-India scale. It may result in the mass exile of legitimate citizens who are unable to produce the requisite documentation.
The assurances of the Central Government regarding the accuracy of the final draft of the NRC in 2018 has fallen on deaf ears especially because the opposition to such a move, have accused the government of basing the potential omission of 4 million people from the NRC draft in Assam on religious overtones. Although it must be conceded that willful mistakes and omissions are rare, certain political elements may take advantage of the situation to influence the data in the registry, thereby excluding certain Indian citizens belonging to the economic, social and religious minority. Scapegoating less-powerful people in the name of national security is not a novel development in India; moreover, it can be used as a tool by governments from across the political spectrum to portray an image of being tough on illegal immigration, thereby pleasing their voter base. As for the NRC, it can be predicted that it will be embroiled in litigation and bureaucratic entanglement in the foreseeable future. Maintaining a register of citizens may seem to be necessary given the ever-increasing threats to national security; for it to work in a country like India, however, it needs to be complemented by practical implementation measures such as robust and accurate recording of births and deaths, and ensuring that the nationality of a person is rightfully determined, preferably at birth. Otherwise, an out-of-the-blue drafting of such records based on criteria adopted over forty years ago will result in a bureaucratic quagmire that we are currently witnessing in Assam.
(Ed.). (2018, August 1). Numbing numbers: on draft NRC. The Hindu. Retrieved from https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/numbing-numbers/article24566360.ece
NRC Assam (2018, August 5). NRC: In a Nutshell. Retrieved from http://nrcassam.nic.in/nrc-nutshell.html
Irshad, S. M. (2018, August 4). Assam NRC row: Immigrants contribute to economy, not challenge it; govt should look beyond population numbers. Firstpost. Retrieved from https://www.firstpost.com/india/assam-nrc-row-immigrants-contribute-to-economy-not-challenge-it-govt-should-look-beyond-population-numbers-4890991.html
Image credit: The Indian Express
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