On November 21, when Home Minister Amit Shah announced in Parliament that a National Register of Citizens would be conducted across India, he claimed that nobody needs to be scared of the exercise because “it is just a process.” But what sort of a bureaucratic process will the NRC be in practice and why might it be more dangerous than any other Indian state practice of identification or registration so far?

The NRC will be a peculiarly dangerous bureaucratic exercise, whatever the measure of proof demanded by it. Even a relatively simple procedure would not make the process of getting a name registered on the NRC easy due to two striking features of the bureaucratic state: its constant doubting of the veracity of almost all documents and its famed proceduralism.

The financial costs of the NRC as well as the question of whether the Indian state even has the capacity or the moral legitimacy to execute such a gargantuan task has already been discussed. My intention here is to assume this process will be set into motion and to consider what its repercussions will be. This draws upon my longstanding ethnographic research within small government offices with the frontline bureaucracy in northern India.


The NRC is a process that requires those who self-identify as citizens of this nation-state to furnish evidence that confirms them as, indeed, Indians. What will be the precise form of this evidence, required to be presented in terms of the types of documents or “specified particulars”, is still to be confirmed. But if the way the exercise was conducted in Assam is anything to go by, then the documents required could be an impossible task for almost all of us.

There have been mutterings and vague, anonymous declarations announced through official channels that this is going to be a “simple procedure”. For the sake of argument, let us say that the threshold of proof – by which we know we mean papers, documents, IDs and other material artifacts of the state – is somewhat less of an impossibility than it was in the case of Assam. In that state, a staggering 1.9 million individuals have effectively been left stateless after an NRC was conducted there because of an agreement with Assamese nationalists in 1985.

Workers at the National Register of Citizens office check documents submitted by people for the NRC on August 28. Credit: Biju Boro/AFP

If the burden of documentary proof remains as high as it was in Assam, then the critique is self-evident: most Indians – especially the poor, illiterate, women, members of marginalised communities such as Adivasis and Dalits – do not and cannot possess the documents that can prove their citizenship. In the absence of being able to provide this documentary proof, several millions of people would shift status, as it were, overnight from being rights-bearing Indian citizens to grovelling, effectively-stateless, subjects. Such massive disenfranchisement through a reliance on evidence as impossible to provide would, surely, be a first in the history of modern nation states anywhere in the world.

To understand why the NRC will be such a dangerous bureaucratic process we need to get to grips with a distinctive characteristic of the Indian state: it’s consistent and constant doubting of whether the kaghaz (papers/documents) presented to it is asli (real) or farzi (fake).

Doubting documents

There is a long history to this fear of forgery and generalised doubting of documents as well as state agents in India. This mistrust had, paradoxically, formed the kaghazi raj that has been the basis of governance in India since at least colonial times. As I have argued in my book Paper Tiger, this is only being further strengthened under neoliberal strictures of transparency and accountability. It was clear to me during my fieldwork conducted in Uttarakhand between 2006 and 2008 that the question of whether a document is farzi or an asli one was a central preoccupation of almost all bureaucrats.

The combination of seals, letterheads, stamps, signatures, prose-styles, and movement through appropriate procedures and files is what lends some reassurance to them that the document in consideration is, in fact, not farzi. The question of establishing authentic proof in the form of trustworthy documents becomes particularly intense when they are dealing with IDs or any form of documentation that confers some entitlement or benefit to citizens.

Assamese villagers waiting outside a National Register of Citizens centre to get their documents verified by government officials.

Even in cases where there are targets on local bureaucrats to expend money or confer entitlements, there is much suspicion of documents and testimonies, and a huge reluctance to accept them as legitimate. What then of an exercise such as the NRC, which is almost defined by its lack of trust in the individual as a legitimate member of the state? How much doubting will be in operation then? One of the most ominous aspects of the NRC is that it further institutionalises mistrust of individuals and the doubting of documents in at least three ways.

First, through the creation of a bureaucratic category of a “doubtful citizen”. We know that most claims by citizens of the state are immediately regarded with intense suspicion.Even when the correct documents are presented as proof, they too are considered carefully for potential farzi-ness. Now the NRC – through rule 4 (4) issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs – will actually institutionalise such doubting by creating a term that can be conveniently and indiscriminately deployed. Words and categories matter profoundly in bureaucratic worlds. They open up the space for an action that previously might not have existed.

Secondly, there is no procedure as of yet on who a doubtful citizen is and how might the Local Registrar arrive upon that conclusion. This obscurity can – and will – be extremely dangerous as it vests huge discretionary power within the body of the Local Registrar who can decide that someone is doubtful even if they do possess the “particulars” required. Imagine turning up with a complete file only to be told that there is something dubious about the documents but what precisely the doubt is about cannot be etched out.

A man whose name has been left out in the National Register of Citizens draft collects forms to file appeals at a NRC Sewa Kendra in Guwahati on August 11, 2018. Credit: AFP

Thirdly, there is the further step of allowing anyone to raise an objection to your name being added on the draft of the Local Register of Indian citizens. Such an objection can be made within 30 days of the draft being published after which the sub-district or Taluk Registrar will have three months to consider the objection to the inclusion of name in the local register before they send it upwards in the state hierarchy to the district register, which will further move the list up to the National Register of Indian Citizens.

Once again, we don’t know on what grounds objections can or will be raised and how the concerned official will consider the objection. What we do know is it will create extreme pressure on both the bureaucracy and the individuals wanting to get their names registered; add to the overall dubiousness of documents and testimonies; and cede immense power to a few officials with minimal measures of regulation and redress.

Paper tiger

If one feature of Indian bureaucracy is its obsession with paperwork, which is simultaneously valued and mistrusted, another one is a blind proceduralism. No matter how mundane or ridiculous, the following of ordained process is considered the safest means to fend off potential criticisms and future audits. It also serves local officials well when they are confronted, as is inevitable, with a barrage of mixed and contradictory messages.

We are seeing mixed messaging already with the NRC where what Amit Shah described as a “communication gap” is already evident between him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Such contradictory statements and “communication gaps” where, for instance, the Home Ministry says one thing and the Prime Minister’s Office says another are absolutely commonplace in the everyday life of the Indian state. Furthermore, as these orders move from New Delhi to the states and then further down the state structures to districts and blocks, the policies – in broken down, sequential, doable acts – become even more mangled.

People stand in a queue to check their names on the final list of the National Register of Citizens in an office in Pavakati village of Morigoan district of Assam in August 201. Credit: AFP

What happens when a particular bureaucratic process is initiated but the local state finds it hard to fathom with mixed messaging – political, judicial, executive – coming in from all angles? In my experience, an obsession with adhering to the (imagined) stipulated procedure sets in, which is centred upon the production of more and more paper, holding of more and more meetings, and putting together a material – papery – world of the state.

It leads to the establishment of an alternate, sarkari world of paper that has a tenuous connection to the asli or that which is real. This is the Indian state as a paper tiger. Such is the power of this bureaucratic logic that is tethered in procedure, rules, paper, and a particular hierarchical following of the orders that even well-intentioned laws and policies falter. What then of the NRC, which is so patently about drawing out sharp lines of inclusion and exclusion?

This strict adherence to a complex and unclear procedure with a central reliance on documents – including those that are impossible to produce but also those that are considered dubious – will create havoc of an unprecedented form. We have already seen in the case of Aadhar how exclusions or faulty operations of the biometrically linked ID have led to widespread suffering including hundreds of human fatalities. The costs of being left out of such state-ordained systems of recognition are unimaginable, especially for minorities and the poor.

Amit Shah claimed in one TV interview that no documents will be required to be registered for the NRC. Even if that was to be the case, though one cannot see how it will be possible given the logic and structure of the Indian state, there would still be gross exclusions from the NRC. This would involve a devolving of all power to the level of the Local Registrar who would then have a carte blanche to discriminate against members of marginalised or vulnerable communities, such as Muslims, women, Adivasis, and Dalits.

Or even if she doesn’t belong to any of these collectives, but for some reason, was to offend the street-level bureaucrats then she could be easily turned away. If she were to press for grievance redressal, provided such a structure was even to be established in reality and not just on paper, then too she would face similar forms of prejudicial treatments. This is how discrimination operates sociologically and an exercise with stakes as high and procedures as weak as the NRC would immediately open up.

A road sign for a new detention centre being built for people who were not included in the NRC final list, in Goalpara district in Assam. Credit: AFP

If we have understood the Shahi chronology correctly, then the Citizenship Amendment Act provides an escape hatch for non-Muslims to appeal for citizenship even if excluded from the NRC. Undoubtedly, Muslims would be most severely impacted by the evil CAA-NRC twins. But, as outlined above, so would literally millions of other – marginalised and vulnerable – Indians.

The NRC, once unleashed, will divide and devour India in ways that cannot be underestimated. It will cause suffering of a peculiarly bureaucratic form: by creating a suffocating paper-based reality of who is really an Indian; a kaghazi duniya we will struggle to be part of and find impossible to escape – whether our names make their way into the register or not.

Nayanika Mathur is Associate Professor in the Anthropology of South Asia at the University of Oxford.