On Wednesday, the ministry of home affairs fielded a raft of Lok Sabha questions on India’s new citizenship law and the protests against it. Its written answers were dotted with evasions as well as contradictions of earlier statements made by senior members of the government, including Home Minister Amit Shah himself.

Asked whether the government had any plans to implement a nationwide National Register of Citizens, for instance, the home ministry answered it had “not taken any decision to prepare” one. However, as recently as December, Amit Shah had stated in the Lok Sabha that a nationwide NRC would be conducted. This was in keeping with a promise he had made several times during last year’s Lok Sabha election campaign.

After protests broke out across India in December against the new citizenship initiatives, the government released a document, answering doubts and questions about the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Act. It repeated the claim that no NRC was underway. However, as reported by Scroll.in, the first step to the NRC is the National Population Register, pilot projects for which were conducted in 2019. So far, two states, Kerala and West Bengal, have halted work on the NPR.

In the same set of questions tabled in Lok Sabha on Tuesday, the government was asked about the timeline for the implementation of the NRC, whether it had accounted for the burden the NRC would place on citizens and whether it had taken states into confidence. Taking the position that no decision had been taken “till now” on a nationwide NRC, the ministry dismissed these questions.

On detention centres

The home ministry was also asked if the government had constructed detention centres in Assam for people who could not provide the documents to prove citizenship for the state-specific NRC. When Assam’s updated list was published last year, over 19 lakh applicants were excluded.

The ministry replied that the state government had not constructed any detention camps exclusively to hold people who did not have the requisite documents for Assam’s NRC. It did not mention that those left out would be referred to foreigners’ tribunals – quasi-judicial bodies tasked with deciding matters of disputed nationality. If applicants cannot prove citizenship before the tribunals, they are liable to be detained. Besides, the construction of a detention centre sanctioned by Delhi in Assam’s Goalpara district has made rapid progress over the last year.

Labourers construct a detention centre for alleged undocumented immigrants at a village in Assam's Goalpara district in September 2019. Credit: Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters

In answer to another list of questions, the ministry says a model detention centre manual had been issued to states, covering the legal provisions for detaining and deporting foreign nationals, the categories of persons to be detained and the amenities to be provided in such facilities. It claims that such centres were set up in accordance with a Supreme Court order, and are meant for undocumented immigrants or foreign nationals who had completed their sentences but not been deported yet. In Assam, however, a large number of long-time residents were declared foreigners by the tribunals, very often in ex-parte judgments, and locked up in detention centres.

The ministry also maintained that the Centre did not keep records of the number of such facilities or detainees. However, last year, it told the Rajya Sabha that 988 detainees were held in six detention centres in Assam as of November 22, 2019.

The ministry also admitted that there was no direction to release detainees from communities covered by the Citizenship Amendment Act after it was passed in December 2019. The Act makes Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Parsi, Jain and Christian migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship, even if they did not have the requisite documents.

In January 2016, however, the Centre had advised the Assam government to review cases in Gauhati High Court, and to release the concerned persons if they fulfilled the criteria of two notifications issued by the ministry of external affairs in 2015. These tweaked the passport entry rules for persons for the same six minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who had presumably fled religious persecution, allowing them to stay on even if they did not have valid travel documents.

When asked whether the government had dropped cases pending against persons from such communities pending in the foreigners tribunals, the ministry replied all such proceedings would be moot if they were conferred citizenship. Yet, to apply for Indian citizenship under the CAA, such persons first have to prove their identity as foreigners eligible for exemptions. This is arguably impossible so long as their nationality is yet to be determined by the tribunals.

On Assam’s NRC

Asked whether there were plans to verify those included in the list once more, the Centre replied such a plea had been rejected by the Supreme Court. The Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Assam government, however, has kept up a demand for the reverification of 20% of the names from border districts.

The government was asked on the steps it proposed to take once Assam’s NRC was finalised after review appeals and a timeline for these measures. Individuals left out could appeal before the foreigners’ tribunal within 120 days “from the date of such an order”, the ministry said, and their names would accordingly be included or deleted from Assam’s NRC.

If it meant the publication of the NRC list, it has been five months since it was released and the process of appeals has not even begun. The ministry is also silent on what would happen to those people whose final appeals are dismissed by the tribunals, whether they would be deported, detained in camps or allowed to remain in the country without citizenship rights.

On citizenship for refugees

The ministry was also asked about the number of applications for citizenship after the CAA came into force and the number of refugees granted citizenship under the law. To both, it merely said the act came into force on January 10 and “persons covered by this Amendment Act” could submit applications once the rules to do so were notified by the Centre.

Asked for religion-wise data on the number of people given citizenship in the last seven decades, the ministry said religion-wise data was not maintained and it did not have records before 1966. However, it gave a break-up of the last 10 years’ data. From 2010 to 2019, the ministry said that 21,408 foreigners had been granted citizenship.

On deportation of Bangladeshis

Asked about the number of Bangladeshi immigrants deported so far, the ministry provided 2016 figures from the Bureau of Immigration: 308 persons. It does not mention whether these were migrants routinely “pushed back” at the border, foreign nationals convicted of offences and repatriated after their sentences were served, or people declared foreigners in Assam and sent to Bangladesh.

On the working of CAA

The ministry was also reticent on certain aspects of the Citizenship Amendment Act. For instance, there was no direct answer for why it had set a cut-off date of December 31, 2014, for people applying for citizenship under the law. It only said the date was mentioned in the two 2015 notifications issued by the external affairs ministry, allowing people from the six specified groups to stay on.

On the details of documents required to prove citizenship, the ministry said Indian citizenship could be acquired by birth, descent, registration or naturalisation, and was governed by rules under the Citizenship Act of 1955. It is not yet clear what documents would be needed for citizenship under the new amendment or for a prospective NRC.

Residents of Assam's Morigoan queue up in September to check whether their names are on the final National Register Of Citizens. Credit: PTI

On citizenship for Muslims

Two questions dealt with the citizenship of Muslims: whether Muslim refugees would granted Indian citizenship from now on and how non-citizen Muslims would be treated.

“Legal migrants” from all communities could acquire citizenship by naturalisation or registration, the ministry said. The implication is that undocumented Muslim refugees would not be eligible for citizenship, unlike those from other communities. “Many migrants” from the “majority religion” in neighbouring countries had acquired citizenship this way, it claimed, although it said religion-wise data was not maintained. It is not clear which neighbouring countries it was referring to: Muslim-majority countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan or others like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, China, Nepal and Bhutan.

The ministry also claimed all non-citizens were “equally covered under the provisions of Foreigners Act, 1946, The Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939, the Passport (Entry into India) Act”. Yet, the 2015 amendment to the passport entry rules ensures only non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan are allowed to stay on without valid travel documents. Another amendment made to long-term visa rules in October 2018 stipulated that only the six specified groups from those three countries would be eligible to apply. A long-term visa is one of the main criteria for acquiring citizenship through naturalisation.

On the National Population Register

A number of questions dealt with the National Population Register, considered a precursor to the nationwide NRC. The ministry was asked whether enumerators would make earmark individuals whose citizenship appeared doubtful and whether they would be informed after the verification process was over. No verification for citizenship would be conducted during the NPR survey, the ministry claimed.

But it was vague on the questionnaire for the new NPR, the documentary evidence to be provided for it and which documents were mandatory. It claimed the NPR was a “register containing details of persons usually residing in a village or rural area or town or ward or demarcated area within a ward”. The new NPR would be a sequel to those compiled in 2010 and 2015, under the citizenship rules of 2003. “Demographic and other particulars” of each family and individual would be collected. No documents would be collected during the updating of the NRC. The “respondent has to provide information” to the “best of his knowledge and belief”, although Aadhaar numbers would only be collected voluntarily.

The ministry was silent on whether the questionnaire prepared for pilot surveys conducted in 2019 would be finalised. This had eight data points that were not included in the previous versions of the population register, neither were they backed by the 2003 rules. It sought information on “date and place of birth of parents, Aadhaar number, passport number, mobile number, voter identity card number, driving license number and mother tongue of the respondent”. The ministry did not clarify whether the other data points would be mandatory. It had no direct answer to whether the collection of such data was a contravened an individual’s right to privacy.

Asked if the ministry was aware that states like Kerala had vowed not to implement the NPR, the ministry replied it was in “discussion with the States having concerns”.

Asked whether the NPR would be the basis for a nationwide NRC, the ministry fell back on the old truism: “Till now, the Government has not taken any decision to prepare National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) at the National level”.

On anti-CAA protests

Was the government aware of the stir against the Citizenship Amendment Act across the country, including Assam, one question read. “Yes Sir,” was the ministry’s reply.

It was also variously asked if it was aware of the reasons for the agitation, the concerns of protestors, what had been done to address these concerns and whether the government would reconsider the CAA in the light of these protests. To these, the ministry had a blanket answer: “public order” and “police” were state concerns.

A demonstration against India's new citizenship law in Kolkata on January 21. Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/ AFP

A number of questions probed more specifically into the details of the damage and violence during the protests. What was the number of persons killed, injured, detained or prosecuted? What was the estimated damage to property reported? How many policemen were killed, injured or prosecuted for high-handedness? What were the number of colleges and universities closed for the protests?

The ministry only provided information for protests in Delhi, where it directly controls the police. It did not say whether any policemen had been prosecuted for high-handedness. It did, however, divulge that 99 persons had been arrested in 66 protests and 11 arrests had been made. There was also a list of damages to property, from vehicles and toilet vans to barricades, police booths, divider railings and media cameras. It also gives a locality-wise break up of protests an “unlawful activities by the mob”. These range from “gathering in large number” despite Section 144 being imposed, stone pelting, damaging public property and allegedly attacking a team from News Nation TV.

A separate set of questions probed into actions taken by the Delhi Police against students, specifically referring to the violence that broke out at the Jamia Millia Islamia University campus on December 15. What were the cases registered against Jamia students in the last two months and what were their alleged offences? Did the Delhi Police enter the campus without the permission of the university authorities and why? What action had been taken against the police for the attack on students from the university and the number of students injured?

According to the ministry, the Delhi police had registered three cases against “the mob”, found guilty of “unlawful activities” and defacing public property, and 15 had been arrested. It went on to say that 62 police personnel and 127 people, including 36 students, were injured. It repeated the Delhi Police account of the events at Jamia on December 15: they had entered the campus “chasing the violent congregation of students/ mob, to nab/disperse the offenders and to protect Government property as well as saving the lives of innocent students residing in the Campus area”. It was silent on action taken against the police for injuring students.

Another question asked about the details of the cases registered against protesting students in other universities. This may have alluded to the events at Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 5, when a masked mob vandalised hostels and injured students, including JNU students’ union leader Aishe Ghosh, who was caught on camera with blood streaming down her face. Days later, Ghosh herself and eight others were named as suspects in violence that took place from January 3 to 5. A month later, no members of the masked mob have been arrested.

While the home ministry was forthcoming with its version of the Jamia violence, it claimed there was no database of cases for protests in other universities.