Identity Project

While the BJP pushes Aadhaar at the Centre, it has called for a halt on new enrolments in Assam

In a state that is counting its 'original inhabitants', the government worries that so-called illegal immigrants will be issued Aadhaar numbers.

It is a strange contradiction. The Union government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, is expanding the ambit of Aadhaar, a 12-digit unique identification number, with proposals to make it mandatory for a host of services. Yet Assam, a BJP-ruled state, has seen a ban on Aadhaar enrolments for the last three months.

“The state government has refused to give us permission for any new enrolment since December 31,” said a senior official of the Unique Identification Authority of India, the Union government agency responsible for rolling out Aadhaar. The state government wants the National Register of Citizens – that was first compiled in 1951 – to be updated before there are any new enrolments, said the official, who did not wish to be identified.

Citizens of Assam

Assam is currently in the process of counting its population and updating its National Register of Citizens for the first time since 1951, in a bid to detect illegal immigrants. According to the Assam Accord of 1985, those who came to the state after midnight on March 24, 1971, do not qualify for citizenship.

Assam has one of the lowest Aadhaar enrolment rates in the county. Till March 2016, the number stood at 3.1%. The national enrolment rate at the time was 93%, government data reveals.

According to the Unique Identification Authority of India official, not more than 6% of the people in the state have an Aadhaar card at present. “Most people who do have it got it made outside the state,” the official said.

In 2014, when the Congress was in power in Assam, Aadhaar enrolment camps were set up in three districts: Nagaon, Sonitpur and Golaghat. The registrar general of India was responsible for enrolment in these districts. Apart from people in these districts, Union government employees working in the state were issued Aadhaar cards.

The enrolment drive, however, soon lost steam, as the Congress was unwilling to back the project, which had by then started to be seen as a programme personally favoured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, claimed an official of the Unique Identification Authority of India, in Guwahati.

The political dilemma

Hrishikesh Goswami, media advisor to Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who took over after the BJP won the Assembly elections last year, said that the state government was worried that if Aadhaar enrolment was allowed to continue before the National Register of Citizens was updated, so-called illegal immigrants would end up being issued with Aadhaar numbers.

“It will give illegal Bangladeshis a legal backing and that is not acceptable to the people of the state,” said Goswami. “The government wants to avoid any controversy, so Aadhaar has been kept on hold till the NRC [National Register of Citizens] update process finishes.”

Senior officials from the Unique Identification Authority of India have been lobbying with Sonowal to get the ban on Aadhaar enrolment lifted, said government officials. However, Sonowal is reported to have been reluctant to do so. The state government’s hesitation, say government officials, stems from the worry that lifting the ban might send out the wrong signals to its constituency.

“The government is working out the optics,” said the senior Unique Identification Authority of India official, who has been part of discussions with the state government. “On one hand, you came to power promising to send back all illegal immigrants, and on the other, you are helping the same set of people gain legitimacy by giving them an Aadhaar [card]. Imagine the backlash the government would have faced.”

Anxious queries

Ever since the Finance Bill of 2017 was passed, with amendments, in the Lok Sabha on March 22, the Unique Identification Authority of India office in Guwahati has been flooded with anxious queries.

One of the provisions of the bill makes having an Aadhaar number mandatory for filing income-tax returns. The other requires Permanent Account Numbers be linked to Aadhaar in order for that number to remain valid.

Officials have been at their wits’ end to explain the situation to anxious people who approach them. “There is very little we can do if the state government does not give us permission,” said a Unique Identification Authority of India employee in Guwahati. “The entire process has been held ransom to the whims and fancies of politicians. In 2014, it was the Congress, now it is the BJP.”

In the past, the BJP has been critical of Assam’s low Aadhaar enrolment rate. “Aadhaar is not a citizen debit card and it has nothing to do with citizenship rights,” the party’s spokesperson Nalin Kohli had said last year, reprimanding the previous Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government for going slow on Aadhaar enrolment.

Now, Sonowal’s media advisor Goswami insisted that people would not be inconvenienced if they did not have an Aadhaar number. “Nobody has ever lost out on any subsidy or any social scheme because of the Aadhaar in Assam”, he said. He added that the state government would work out a way to address the new stipulation that Permanent Account Numbers be linked to Aadhaar.

In some cases, the state has got by on exemptions. Earlier this year, the Central Board of Secondary Education had exempted students of Assam from having to enter their Aadhaar details while applying for the entrance test to the Indian Institutes of Technology.

Meanwhile, the National Register of Citizens has suffered several delays. The Supreme Court had set March 1, 2016, as a deadline to publish the final list of legal citizens. This deadline has been missed by more than a year now.

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