Kundu and Mohanan: Defining Indian citizenship is a complex challenge

Amir Ullah Khan and Riaz F Shaikh

World over, the focus has been on migrants for the past few years. The outgoing President of the US made migration the cornerstone of his successful Presidential campaign in 2016. He did the same this year but failed to get re-elected. In India, elections in Bihar started off with the BJP President again raising the issue of cross border migration. Ironically, this came just as Bangladesh started doing well and even surpassed India in per capita GDP terms. The debate on citizenship however goes on as it becomes a political issue that is causing serious concern among the Muslim populations, particularly in border states.

The CDPP has been holding a series of discussions on the various issues regarding citizenship and its political and economic impact. This year, the COVID-19 virus and the resultant pandemic took over as the dominant narrative and the protests over Citizenship had to be called off. The government also did not talk about the CAA even after having repeatedly announced the launch of the NPR exercise. The recent announcements have also all been about issues like love jihad and cow cabinets in Madhya Pradesh.

However, what needed to be explored clearly are the various points of view on the citizenship issue? What does citizenship imply? How do some residents get excluded from being counted as citizens? The debate is indeed serious as it impacts millions of people who have claims to land and who have been living in the country for decades. The most complicated issue is one that concerns migrants. Do those who migrate from across the border have a claim on citizenship? Those who migrate within the country, often the poor, and without residential documents or proof of addresses, are the most vulnerable. We saw millions of them uprooted this year due to the lockdown. How do they establish their citizenship, which is one among the various other problems they would face.

Prof.  Amitabh Kundu, who chairs a committee on Urbanisation, and P C Mohanan, formerly Chairperson of the National Statistical Commission, in their paper state that the CAA (2019) has serious implications when considered in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which will be prepared using the National Population Register (NPR). Experience has shown that preparing location-based registers by local authorities familiar with locally available documentations will have serious repercussions on the citizenship claims of many individuals, migrants in particular. Another big issue is internal migration for employment purpose. After the economic lockdown induced reverse migration, there have been some alarming pronouncements by various state governments.  

They take a broader perspective of citizenship and go beyond simply the right to live in a country and move freely within it, have voting rights and equal access to the law. They insist on access to employment anywhere in the country, no discrimination in any civil matter, and access to all welfare programmes of the state. The history of India with its arbitrary partition and continued influx of population from across the borders, makes the defining of Indian citizenship a particularly complex challenge, especially given the (politically charged) competitive claims on land and other resources requiring the need to restrict granting citizenship on the one hand, and the long tradition of largely document-free imperfect civil registration system on the other.  

Kundu and Mohanan dissect the anatomy of the population register and identify the coverage and content errors. Post-enumeration checks for the 2011 register showed an under-count of 2.31% and a double-count of 0.01% of the total population. This translates to almost 3 crore people of the country for whom we do not have any information, and increased mobility is likely to increase this number further. The undercount in the census itself was of another 3 crore people. While the disaggregated Census data cannot be disclosed, the NPR and NRC are public documents with serious consequences for the excluded. Given the social tension and uncertainties, it could result in corruption and violence at the ground level. The main purpose of NRC is to identify and deport legal immigrants. The burden of proof is the highest on the weakest section, and citizenship policies will impact migrants most. The social, cultural, political, and economic heterogeneity brought by migrants is seen with suspicion across India and its states.  

Several states have, or are considering, legal job reservations for locals which go against Article 16 of the Constitution promising equal employment opportunities and the Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act (1979). The authors remind us of the spectacular failure of labour-unfriendly ordinances in 14th century post-plague, feudal England that led to the disastrous Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Harsh and draconian laws have, through the ages, caused revolts and large scale out migration. History may not repeat itself, but we certainly must learn from it. 

The discussion that followed also raised several interesting and important points. The NPR-NRC exercise gives too much power to the local authorities, and hence raises the question of whether actually implementing the CAA-NRC-NPR will provide the ruling party at the centre enough political mileage in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. However, regardless of whether these are implemented or not, the fact that the political process for these has been started itself may have some unintended and frightening consequences. Especially for our own citizens who migrate from one state to another, and now face hostility simply because state governments are legislating against labour from other states.

Prof Amir Ullah Khan and Dr Riaz F Shaikh are Researchers at the Centre for Development Policy and Practice