Citizenship and Related Issues

[op-ed snap] The misadventure of a new citizenship regime

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : NRC

Mains level : Citizenship issues

Context

Too much moves on counting

  • The Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner has recently completed a 10-year project of data collection, at the household level, for the Census of 2021.
  • The individual level data collection for the National Population Register is also to be uploaded next summer, alongside the Census.
  • As of January 2019, nearly 123 crore Aadhaar cards had been issued.

Nationwide NRC in queue

  • In Parliament, recently, an exercise in counting was proposed, for a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC).
  • While its predecessors were counting “residents” rather than “citizens”, the objective of this latest initiative is to count citizens — specifically to sift and sort citizens from non-citizens.
  • This move is to include and exclude, and having done so to weed out “infiltrators” destined for detention camps and potential deportation.

Eliminating aliens

  • The rationale for a nationwide NRC, its feasibility, and, above all, its moral legitimacy, is questionable.
  • Under the Foreigners’ Act, 1946, the burden of proof rests on the individual charged with being a foreigner.
  • Since the Citizenship Act provides no independent mechanism for identifying aliens — remember the Supreme Court struck down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, or IMDT Act, in 2005 — the NRC effectively places an entire population under suspicion of alienage.
  • This is tantamount not only to using an elephant to crush an ant, but of torturing the elephant to do it.

Why is Nationwide NRC unfeasible?

The cost of ‘authentication’

Expenses

  • Let us also consider the resources needed to conduct such an NRC before discussing the deep moral misgivings such a project must provoke.
  • The Assam NRC is reported to have cost ₹1,600 crore with 50,000 officials deployed to enroll almost 3.3 crore applicants in an exercise that even its champions acknowledge to be deeply flawed excluding 19 lakh people.
  • On this basis, and taking as an indicative number the Indian electorate of 87.9 crore, a nationwide NRC would require an outlay of ₹4.26 lakh crore.
  • This is more than double the presumptive loss in the 2G scam, and four times the budgetary outlay for education this year.

Personnels required

  • The work of “authenticating” 87.9 crore people would entail the deployment of 1.33 crore officials.
  • In 2011-12 (the most recent official data available), the total number of government employees in India was 2.9 crore.
  • If, like the Census, this exercise is to be managed exclusively by the Central government, the additional personnel needed would make this a truly novel employment generation programme.

Not an easy task

  • Yet the limitation of administrative capacity in India is a public secret.
  • One way or another, the entire population of India and more than half its government officials will be involved, for at least the next 10 years, in counting and being counted.
  • The remainder can be involved in building the new detention centres that will be needed to incarcerate the unhappily excluded.

Learning from Assam

  • Few lessons have evidently been learned from the Assam experience that yielded unanticipated outcomes, especially unwelcome to those who were most enthusiastic about it.
  • It would increase the illegal practices of “paper citizenship” acquired through “networks of kinship” and “networks of profit”.
  • As in Assam, such an enrolment drive could actually put undocumented nationals at risk of losing their citizenship in a futile search for non-national migrants who are invariably better documented.
  • The fear of not having papers has already led to many suicides; we should brace ourselves for many more.

Confusion over cutoff date

  • Among the many uncertainties that persist is that about the cut-off date. March 1971 has little relevance beyond Assam.
  • The speculation about a July 1948 date for the rest of India is implausible in light of constitutional provisions, post-Partition jurisprudence, and the enactment of the Citizenship Act in 1955.
  • Second, will enrolment in the NRC be compulsory or voluntary (as in Assam), and what might the consequences of not seeking registration be?
  • Finally, there is the federal imperative of seeking the consent of State governments. Already, many States in northeast India are erupting in protest.
  • It is sobering to recall that political considerations alone have prevented the implementation, for over two decades, of the Supreme Court ruling awarding citizenship to Chakma and Hajong tribals in Arunachal Pradesh.

Weak assurances of CAB

  • It has been asserted in Parliament that the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) are unrelated.
  • Such assurances are however unlikely to assuage the anxieties of Muslim citizens given the larger ecosystem for minorities in India.
  • Vigilante violence against minorities and legal impunity for its perpetrators, the triple talaq legislation and the reading down of Article 370, are suggestive of a state-society consensus on the status of minorities as second-class citizens in the New India.

A move for racial citizenship?

  • At the end of a prolonged debate the Constituent Assembly settled on the principle of jus soli or birth-based citizenship as being “enlightened, modern, civilized” as opposed to the “racial citizenship” implied by the rival descent-based principle of jus sanguinis.
  • A shift from soil to blood as the basis of citizenship began to occur from 1985 onwards.
  • In 2004, an exception to birth-based citizenship was created for individuals born in India but having one parent who was an illegal migrant (impliedly Bangladeshi Muslim) at the time of their birth.
  • The CAB and the NRC will only consolidate this shift to a jus sanguinis citizenship regime.

Conclusion

  • Constitutionally, India is a political community whose citizens avow the idea of the nation as a civic entity, transcending ethnic differences.
  • The NRC-CAB combination signals a transformative shift from a civic-national conception to an ethno-national conception of India, as a political community in which identity determines gradations of citizenship.
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