NPR Was Also Done by UPA. So Why ‘Fear’ Modi Govt’s Intentions?

A big concern over Modi govt’s NPR project is that biometrics of all residents during the compilation will be taken.

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Whichever way top leaders of the Modi government spin it, they cannot de-link the three elements of the citizenship row: the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). One flows from the other.

The government itself has stated this repeatedly — in Parliament, in election speeches, and in the BJP’s manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Denials and protestations amid continuing street protests, buttressed by stringent criticism from opposition parties, have only created a crisis of credibility of a magnitude never experienced by the Modi government in the five and a half years it has been in office.

NPR-NRC Linkage Was First Established by Vajpayee Govt in 2003

The devil, as usual, is in the details. This is something the government seems to have overlooked. It thought it could wriggle out of the NRC controversy by shifting focus to the NPR. But that decision has provoked a fresh storm with at least two state governments in virtual revolt: West Bengal and Kerala. Both have refused to conduct the NPR exercise. Their rejection of a union cabinet decision raises the spectre of a constitutional crisis, and threatens to upset the delicate equilibrium of centre-state relations.

Significantly, the linkage between NPR and NRC was first established by the Vajpayee government in 2003.

An amendment to the Citizenship Act 1955 mooted the idea of the NPR, and rules notified in December that year specifically stated that this would be the master list for the preparation of an NRC.

The Vajpayee government, with LK Advani as home minister, decided to issue identity cards to all citizens, and a pilot project was undertaken for 31 lakh residents listed in the NPR.

In fact, some ID cards were actually handed out by Advani with much fanfare. But by the time the Vajpayee government lost power in 2004, only 12 lakh of the 31 lakh persons picked for the pilot project had been covered. The process was deemed a failure and stopped.

NPR-NRC Link Re-Established By Modi Govt — Introducing ‘Religion’ Clause

What is important to note is that the amendments to the Citizenship Act in 2003 did not introduce the controversial religion clause. The 2019 amended act brings in religion as the basis for citizenship. In that sense, the Vajpayee government’s project was quite different to the one envisaged by the Modi regime. It certainly did not arouse the kind of fears that are currently swirling among minorities and marginalised sections.

The NPR-NRC link was re-established in 2014 by the Modi government.

The then minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, told the Rajya Sabha in a written reply on 23 July that year: “The government has now decided to create the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) based on the information collected under the scheme of NPR by verifying the citizenship status of all individuals in the country.’’

Home Minister Amit Shah was technically correct when he said in a televised interview after the cabinet decided to update the NPR, that the two processes are quite different. What he did not say, however, is what gives the game away: that the NPR can be used to create an NRC at any time, should the government decide to do so, as was stated by members of both the Vajpayee and Modi governments at different points.

It would be disingenuous to suggest then that there is no link between the two.

Can Govt Spring NRC Once NPR Is Completed?

The announcement to update the NPR came suddenly and unexpectedly. It happened just as anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests were engulfing the country in flames, and just two days after Narendra Modi declared at an election rally in Delhi that his government had “never even discussed” the NRC proposal.

The NPR announcement seemed to be a feeble attempt to prove Modi correct. See? The union cabinet did not discuss NRC. It decided on NPR instead!

However, details of the NPR project reveal that the government can spring the NRC any time once the population register is complete.

Unlike the population register compiled by the Congress-led UPA government under P Chidambaram as home minister, the Modi government’s enumeration will seek answers to a set of questions that are bound to raise suspicions about the government’s intentions.

The queries include disclosure of name and place of birth of both parents, and last place of residence. There are fears that these details will help the government to identify those who can be classified as non-citizens.

Concerns Regarding NPR

Another point of concern and possible controversy is the decision to collect biometrics of all residents during the compilation of NPR. This was done for the Aadhar scheme, and the issue has been entangled in a raging privacy debate ever since.

Suspicions about the government’s intent and purpose in updating the NPR are not entirely unfounded then.

And government leaders have not succeeded in assuaging anxieties and fears either by word or deed.

Since the NPR process would need the cooperation of state governments, which have to provide the manpower for the enumeration, the centre will have to reach out to chief ministers across the country. But with the BJP ceding territory to opposition and regional parties in state elections, this kind of outreach may prove difficult unless Modi revives his 2014 promise of ‘cooperative federalism’.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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