As part of its Hindutva ideology, the Bharatiya Janata Party has energetically pushed two polices that seek to fundamentally change the nature of Indian citizenship. The party has repeatedly announced that it will institute a National Register of Citizens, an unprecedented measure that seeks to get every citizen to prove their citizenship. In December, it also passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which for the first time, brings in a religious element to India’s citizenship law.
Even more troublingly, the party has reiterated that the two initiatives are linked. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has implied on several occasions that with the Citizenship Amendment Act being implemented before the National Register of Citizens, only Muslims will have to prove their citizenship.
This attempt to institute a communal citizenship verification drive has set off alarm bells across India. Many Muslims now fear any attempt at data collection, seeing in it a drive towards an NRC. The result of this panic has been a widespread refusal to submit data to any agency suspected of being sent on behalf of the Indian state.
In just one district of West Bengal, for example, at least six incidents of NGO worker being accosted based on rumours that they were collecting NPR data have emerged after the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed in December. [Read this ground report from Birbhum.]
In another instance in Uttar Pradesh, state government employees collecting health data were held hostage by a mob. In Rajasthan, two women collecting data for the Economic Census were attacked on suspicion of collecting NPR data. In Kerala, a state government official conducting an agricultural census was forced to call the police after a mob accosted him.
This panic has meant that multiple state government attempts at data collection as well as the Union government’s National Sample Survey are now facing enormous roadblocks. A Scroll.in report found that for the first time in 148 years, the Census is also in danger, given that door-to-door data collection for the NPR and Census are scheduled to be conducted simultaneously.
Pronab Sen, former Chief Statistician of India and head of the Modi’s government’s Standing Committee on Economic Statistics explained how dire the situation would be if the Census were to collapse: “So, you may well have a situation where you are unable to do the Census properly and if the Census is not done properly, then for the next 10 years, no household survey would be reliable because all household surveys rely on the Census as the frame.”
Without data, India will be unable to frame developmental policies. Even more alarmingly, no country can afford a situation where widespread panic means even a government act as simple as a survey is not possible.
The cause for this panic is clear: the BJP’s attempts to force through an NRC has set off an destabilising chain of events. The party must now immediately fix the problem it has created.
Given that the National Popular Register is the first step to the National Register of Citizens, two states – West Bengal and Kerala – have already suspended it. However, this is not enough. Both states are still seeing continuous public alarm over the NPR. It is clear that the Modi government itself needs to suspend the National Population Register and repeal the 2003 Citizenship Rules, which create the legal framework for a National Register of Citizens.