As protests sparked off by the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act in December jolt India, the debate is also roiling the country’s much diminished but still largest opposition party: the Congress.

The Congress has not been at the forefront of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. But, in its public statements, it has opposed the NRC. However, this theoretical stance is yet to translate into action on the ground. Congress-ruled state governments have not blocked the National Population Register, the first step to creating an all-India NRC.

This gap between pronouncement and practice has led to puzzlement and consternation amongs activists who oppose the CAA-NRC. They are concerned about the final direction the Congress will take.

With Kerala and West Bengal already issuing orders to stop work on the NPR, the Congress’ decision is critical. If the five Congress-ruled states as well as Maharashtra (where it is in the ruling coalition) refuse to collect data for their NPRs in addition to Kerala and West Bengal, it would practically stop the Bharatiya Janata Party’s NRC plans in their tracks.

As critics have noted, the NRC, in tandem with the Citizenship Amendment Act passed in December, could be used to render many Indian Muslims stateless.

2010 versus 2020

The Congress has, on several occasions, opposed the NRC. As has reported, however, the NRC for all of India will be done using data collected from a National Population Register – a list of all Indian residents.

This puts the Congress in a difficult spot, since the first NPR was carried out by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in 2010.

However, the Congress never made any attempt to use the NPR data to create an NRC. This is starkly different from the BJP, where every effort has been used to sell the vision of a combined NRC and CAA that would target only Muslims.

People familiar with matter told that the Congress wrestled with this for some time before eventually deciding to oppose the BJP’s NPR by underlining how it was different from the one carried out by its government. On Monday, former home minister and senior Congress spokesperson P Chidambaram told a media conference: “In terms of text and context, NPR 2010 and NPR 2020 are very different. NPR 2020 with the additional fields is a disguised attempt to do an Assam NRC-like exercise throughout the country and, therefore, it must be stoutly opposed.”

NPR status

However, the Congress stops here. Till now, it has made no attempt to actually cease work on the NPR in the five state governments it controls completely. When Chidambaram was asked if Congress states would stop the NPR, he said, “I don’t think the home ministry has sent any instruction so far to start the NPR. Let us wait for what they do, why jump the gun?”

This, say, activists is a factually incorrect position. “The NPR was notified by the Union government on July 31, 2019,” explained Kannan Gopinathan, a former IAS officer who is now campaigning against the NRC.

The Centre’s notification contains an order for the updating of the NPR “between the 1st day of April, 2020 to 30th September 2020”.

In this regard, the Union government wrote to the states in August to implement the NPR. After this, every state has republished the NPR notification in their own state gazette.

The Union government letter to the states in August, ordering them to publish the NPR notification in their respective gazettes.

As of now, only Kerala and West Bengal have violated these instructions by ceasing work on their NPRs.

Speech versus actions spoke to Vinod Verma, the political advisor to the Congress chief minister of Chhatisgarh, Bhupesh Baghel, who confirmed that the state government is yet to decide on what to do with the NPR. “We are not saying yes nor are we saying no [to the NPR],” said Verma. “We will decide based on how the matter plays out.”

This is in spite of the fact that Baghel has, in public, stridently opposed plans for an NRC. “I want to say from this stage that if they implement NRC, I will be the first person not to sign the register,” Baghel said in December.

This is the pattern across all Congress states. While in their public statements, Congress chief ministers (including in Maharashtra, where Congress is in coalition) have opposed the NRC, this does not mean they have acted to stay the NPR.

Concern and alarm

This Congress reluctance to move on the ground has alarmed many activists opposed to the CAA-NPR-NRC plan. “State governments who have said they are against NRC but are going ahead with NPR are either not clear on the process or are being dishonest,” argued Kannan Gopinathan. “These states need to categorically cease work on the NPR. If need be, they can cease work to ask for an undertaking from the Union government that this NPR data is not going to be used for an NRC. Then only can the NPR work be resumed.”

Kannan argues that failure to stop the NPR could even put the Census in danger. While the Census and NPR are not connected, the data collection would be done for both at the same time, thus confusing people wary of an NRC. “Fear of an NRC can now easily derail the census,” argued Gopinathan. “State governments should come out categorically on whether they are against NPR or not.”

Ranjit Sur, with the Association For Protection of Democratic Rights, points out there isn’t much time left. “The third and final stage of training, training enumerators, has started in many states,” he said. “As per the Union government’s notification, work on the NPR data collection is supposed to start in April.”

Sur continued: “We have criticised both the CPI(M) and the Trinamaool on this. But at least they stayed the NPR. The Congress is only delivering public statements – but not taking any action. This is worrying, given the number of states the Congress controls.”

Activist Harsh Mander also criticised the party’s lack of action. “Unfortunately, there is a lack of moral clarity in the Congress with respect to the NRC,” argued Mander.

Legal lens

The Congress is not unaware of this criticism. However, the party claims it is looking at the issue legally before it goes forward with any action. “I believe the Congress states are examining the legal aspects right now,” said Rajeev Gowda, Congress MP and spokesperson. “We will come out with a legally correct strategy in order to find a way to counter what the government is trying to do.”

At the moment, the legal aspects of how a state can refuse to follow instructions from the Union government on a matter pertaining to citizenship – which is part of the Centre’s area of functioning – is unclear.

Gowda explains that everyone was taken aback given the BJP’s moves to link the CAA and NRC. “No one expected this sort of intense and insidious intent on part of the government,” he said. “This [the NPR] started as a routine activity. Now once CAA was passed, everyone’s eyes were opened. We now need to look for constitutionally correct ways to ensure that the government is stymied”.