Govt Affidavit in SC Confirms NRC on the Cards Despite PM’s Speech
MHA response to anti-CAA petitions shows that govt considers the NRC to be necessary and it is still on the cards.
“It is submitted that the preparation of a national register of citizens is a necessary exercise for any sovereign country for mere identification of citizens from non-citizens.”MHA’s counter-affidavit in response to anti-CAA petitions in SC, para 47
Does this statement, provided on oath by the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Supreme Court contradict the position taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December 2019 that his government has not even discussed a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise?
On 22 December 2019, PM Modi had, in a speech at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi to kick off the BJP’s Delhi election campaign, said:
“I want to tell the 130 crore citizens of India that since my government has come to power in 2014, there has been no discussion on NRC anywhere.”(English translation of comments by PM Narendra Modi)
The Centre’s Position on a Nationwide NRC
This statement by the prime minister, soon after the protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) had erupted across the country, had raised eyebrows, given the previous statements of the government.
One of the main arguments raised by protesters and those opposed to the CAA is that it will be used in conjunction with the nationwide NRC to create a discriminatory regime of citizenship.
This would come about because while those not listed in the NRC would be stripped of citizenship, non-Muslims could use the CAA as a sort of safety net to ensure they were not declared illegal migrants, and get a fast-track to citizenship again.
While the PM has dismissed such arguments as fear-mongering, the basis for this concern was in fact the messaging of Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Shah has expressly said, numerous times now, that no Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others covered by the CAA should be afraid of the NRC process, including in his famous “Chronology Samjhiye” speech in April 2019.
Shah had reiterated in November (see below) and December 2019 that the NRC process would be implemented across the country, saying in his latter speech that the process would be completed and all infiltrators thrown out before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
These statements were also in keeping with the BJP’s manifesto for the 2019 general elections, which said the NRC would be implemented across the country – Shah had in fact consistently made this a part of his speeches in the run up to the polls.
In the official President’s Address after the party’s thumping win in those elections, President Ram Nath Kovind also noted that the new government would implement the NRC on a priority basis in areas affected by infiltration.
Back on 22 July 2014, the Modi government had answered in the Lok Sabha that:
“The government has decided to create the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) based on the information collected under the scheme of National Population Register (NPR) by verifying the citizenship status of all individuals in the country. The proposals for sanction of expenditure are under formulation.”
The National Population Register (NPR) exercise mentioned in this answer was notified in August 2019, and will be carried out from April to September 2020. Funds of Rs 3,941 crore were allocated for the NPR exercise in December 2019.
Counter-Affidavit in SC Isn’t Necessarily a Contradiction of PM’s Speech...
In light of all this, it is understandable that some are viewing the statement in the MHA counter-affidavit to the Supreme Court about the necessity of the NRC as a contradiction of the prime minister’s comments at the Ramlila Maidan in December.
However, this isn’t entirely accurate. The submissions in the counter-affidavit relate to the various arguments made in the 150+ petitions challenging the constitutionality of the CAA. This line about the necessity of the NRC in para 47 is part of the government’s rebuttal to the argument in those anti-CAA petitions that the proposed nationwide NRC violates Article 21 of the Constitution – the right to life and personal liberty.
In some of those petitions, Section 14A of the Citizenship Act 1955 – which allows for the creation of a nationwide NRC – has been challenged as well. This provision was added to our citizenship law in 2003 (during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government), along with the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003, which sets out the modalities for the creation of the nationwide NRC, including the NPR.
As a result, when the counter-affidavit talks about the necessity of the NRC, this isn’t just about the Modi government’s policy, it’s about something which has been part of the law of the land for the last 17 years, including 10 years of a different political affiliation. A defence of the NRC is only to be expected, therefore, in a Union government response to arguments that the NRC is unconstitutional.
Note that PM Modi in his speech never said that the NRC was unnecessary, or wrong. So even if we consider the statement in the counter-affidavit to be about his government’s policy, this is not a contradiction.
... But it Does Confirm the Modi Govt Has NOT Disavowed the NRC
Having said that, it is clear from this affidavit that this current government is not opposed to the idea of a nationwide NRC, and so we cannot construe the Prime Minister’s statement to be a disavowal of the NRC itself.
Ever since December, there has been an attempt by PM Modi’s supporters and even journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai to use his speech to say that anti-CAA protesters don’t need to worry about the NRC anymore, and that Muslims are not in any danger of being excluded by the NRC-CAA combination.
The counter-affidavit makes it clear, however, that the government does approve of the idea of an NRC, does consider it a necessity, and in fact, if we see the rest of para 47, considers it a legal obligation for the Centre to carry out the exercise when read together with the Foreigners Act 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920.
This means that the real position of the Modi government is in fact the one espoused in their party manifesto, and repeated several times by Home Minister Amit Shah, that the NRC will be implemented across the country.
The continuation of the NPR exercise – despite the fact that the Supreme Court is still hearing challenges to the CAA which also argue the NPR is unconstitutional and despite the ongoing coronavirus health crisis – would only seem to bolster that view.
To be clear, the claim by the prime minister that there hadn’t even been discussions about the NRC by his government since 2014 was in any case not correct, as the unstarred answer in the Lok Sabha in July 2014 (link above) already showed. For more ways in which the prime minister’s speech on 22 December 2019 was misleading, see here.
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