The Centre Refuses to Disclose NPR Questionnaire

Separate budget and previous exercise indicate that NPR survey can be postponed and done independently from the Census

Muhammed Sabith

The confusion around the National Population Register (NPR) continues as the union government remains hesitant in revealing the final questionnaire/schedule to be used for the exercise.

The NPR, which was first introduced a decade ago, has gained public attention now because it is supposed to be the basis of the proposed National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC).

Many fear that the NRIC, or NRC, may be discriminatory against Muslims in the light of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, or the CAA, 2019. While the NRC proposes to identify the “illegal migrants” and “foreigners,” the CAA offers alternative options to undocumented individuals, excluding Muslims, to obtain Indian citizenship.

NPR – a register of “usual residents”

The National Population Register (NPR) is a register containing a list of all “usual residents” of the country.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, a “usual resident of the country” is one who has been residing in a local area for at least the last six months, or intends to stay in a particular location for the next six months.

Under the NPR, detailed data of all the residents of India are to be collected.

The union government has decided to update the NPR along with the first phase of the Census 2021. The Census is scheduled to be done under two phases – “Houselisting & Housing Census” in the first phase and the “Population Enumeration” in the second phase. The NPR will be updated during the first phase, according to the government

Notably, the NPR is also connected with the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC), which is yet to be prepared by the union government. The NRIC is often called shortly as NRC, even though the original NRC is a register of Indian citizens that has already been prepared exclusively for the state of Assam.

The NPR is the first step towards establishing the NRIC, or the nation-wide NRC.

The NRIC is a proposed register of all Indian citizens. It is expected to help the government identify who are Indian citizens and who are “foreigners.” Notably, anyone who doesn’t have documents to “prove” their citizenship may be counted as foreigners.

The NRC was in the limelight in 2003-04, when the then BJP government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee made some crucial changes in the Citizenship Act, 1955. The changes, which were incorporated in the Citizenship Act through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, stated that “[t]he Central Government may compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue national identity card to him.” Anyone who fails to convince the government officials that they are Indian citizens is very likely to be arrested and moved to a detention centre, as has already been done in Assam.

The CAA passed in 2003 also stated that “The Central Government may maintain a National Register of Indian Citizens [emphasis added] and for that purpose establish a National Registration Authority.”

Interestingly, the union government informed the parliament, at least twice this year alone (here and here), that the government hasn’t taken a decision on nationwide NRC.

However, it is hard for many to take these official statements at face value. Even if the government hasn’t decided on the NRC “now,” it could decide on it at any time in the future. Because, an existing law (the CAA, 2003) clearly talks about the registration of “every citizen of India,” issuance of “national identity card” to them and creation of a “National Register of Indian Citizens” by the union government.

Government wants to conduct Census and NPR together, but releases only Census questionnaire

In March this year, Nityanand Rai, the minister of state for home affairs, informed the parliament that the government decided to conduct Census 2021, under the Census Act, 1948, in “two phases” — Houselisting & Housing Census during April-September, 2020 and Population Enumeration in February, 2021. The minister also said “it was also decided to update the National Population Register (NPR) under the Citizenship Act, 1955 along with the first phase of Census.”

However, the first phase of Census, updating of NPR and other related field activities have been postponed due to the pandemic, Nityanand Rai further informed the parliament. The minister also said that “mobile applications for collection of data and a portal for management and monitoring of various Census related activities have been developed.” 

The National Population Register (NPR) is something that was first introduced by the BJP government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003. A register of “usual residents” of the country, the NPR was then designed to be prepared from village to national level, under provisions of the Citizenship Act, 1955 (which was amended in 2003) and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003.

Defining the NPR, the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, stated that the “Population Register means the register containing details of persons usually residing in a village or rural area or town or ward or demarcated area (demarcated by the Registrar General of Citizen Registration) within a ward in a town or urban area.”

The Citizenship Rules also talked about a comprehensive, “national register” of Indian citizens. It termed the register as the “National Register of Indian Citizens,” and defined the same as a “register containing details of Indian Citizens living in India and outside India.”

Two things make the new NPR dangerous. One, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah government reportedly wants to collect more details of the respondents. Two, there is a widespread concern that the NPR exercise, together with the proposed NRIC and controversial CAA, may eventually exclusively target the Muslims. A provision, which was added in the Citizenship Act through the CAA 2019, makes it easier to secure Indian citizenship for people belonging to any religious community, except Muslim.

Under the NPR exercise in 2011, the respondents were asked to give personal and demographic details including the person’s name, relationship to head of household, father’s name, mother’s name, marital status, spouse’s name, sex, date of birth, place of birth, nationality, present address, duration of stay at the present address, permanent residential address, job, and educational qualification.

Regarding the proposed “updating” of the NPR in 2021-22, the complete questionnaire that the government prepared for it is not yet in public domain.

The government hasn’t released the questionnaire/schedule for the NPR even when it has released the questionnaire/schedule for the first phase (Houselisting and Housing Census) of the Census 2021. Notably, the government informed the parliament many times (here and here) that it would conduct both the NPR updating and first phase of the Census 2021 simultaneously.

So, an important question here is why the government is withholding the NPR questionnaire while releasing the questionnaire for the Census’ first phase?

In an ‘exclusive story’, ‘The Hindu’ newspaper recently reported that the union government wants to ask some contentious questions, which already raised alarm across the country, during the NPR survey. Those details that the BJP government wants to collect from the respondents include “mother tongue, place of birth of father and mother and last place of residence,” according to the report.

‘The Hindu’ report, citing a document compiled by a committee under the Registrar General of India and shared with District Census officers, also said the respondent will also have to specify the “name of State and district” if the place of birth of father and mother is in India, and mention the country’s name if they were not born in India.

If true, these questions will create great trouble for thousands of undocumented, illiterate, and poor Indians. But while most of them may be allowed to use the ‘CAA’ channel to continue as Indian citizens, the Muslims shall be the only community who will have to face long lasting consequences, including denial of citizenship and lifelong detention.

Following the fresh media revelations on the NPR and its contentious questionnaire, some leading Muslim leaders, like Asaduddin Owaisi, asked the government to reconsider its decisions on the exercise. “NPR is first step of NRC; it serves no other purpose and may harm census. If BJP insists on NPR, then movement against CAA-NPR-NRC may have to restart,” Owaisi warned.

Even as the Home Ministry continues to avoid disclosing the complete questionnaire it plans to ask the citizens for “updating the NPR,” the government recently informed the parliament that “demographic and other particulars of each family and individual were to be updated/collected.” In the past, the government avoided pointed questions from the opposition on the topic (here and here).  

Does the government need to conduct the Census and NPR surveys together?

Muslims and many other citizens concerned raise questions against the NPR, not against the Census. They are concerned about the NPR because the data collected through it will be used for NRIC.

Here, the question is whether the government can go ahead with the Census and postpone the NPR exercise. And the answer is, “YES.”

The government can conduct the NPR after the Census, after clearing the genuine and widespread concerns among Muslim minority community and other citizens concerned, about the consequences of the NPR updating. The union government can delink the NPR survey from Census survey, and postpone the former, at least for two reasons.

One, the government has already allocated separate, huge budget exclusively for the NPR updating exercise, so the NPR survey doesn’t need to be done along with the Census. Two, the previous updating of the NPR was done independently, by conducting door to door survey, in 2015. These two facts suggest that the government can easily do the proposed fresh updating of the NPR similarly – independently and disconnected with the Census exercise. Also, the government said “no document is to be collected” during the updating of the NPR.

How the NPR is connected with CAA and NRC, and why the three together pose a serious threat to the country’s marginalised communities, particularly Muslims?

The NPR, NRC and the CAA are very much connected with each other. However, the union government sometimes in the past tried to disconnect these three, especially after the nation-wide protests erupted following the enactment of the CAA in the late 2019.  

The union home minister Amit Shah told media that there is no link between the NPR and NRIC. Various official documents, however, challenge the government’s attempts to disconnect the three (CAA, NPR and NRIC). The union government itself made it clear, for several times, that both the NPR and NRC are connected with each other, and that the NPR is “the first step towards implementation of the NRC.”

“The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003”, under Section 4 (“Preparation of the National Register of Indian Citizens”), states:

(1) The Central Government shall, for the purpose of National Register of Indian Citizens, cause to carry throughout the country a house‑to‑house enumeration for collection of specified particulars relating to each family and individual, residing in a local area including the Citizenship status.

(2) The Registrar General of Citizen Registration shall notify the period and duration of the enumeration in the Official Gazette.

(3) For the purposes of preparation and inclusion in the Local Register of Indian Citizens, the particulars collected of every family and individual in the Population Register shall be verified and scrutinised by the Local Registrar, who may be assisted by one or more persons as specified by the Registrar General of Citizen Registration.

(4) During the verification process, particulars of such individuals, whose Citizenship is doubtful, shall be entered by the Local Registrar with appropriate remark in the Population Register for further enquiry and in case of doubtful Citizenship, the individual or the family shall be informed in a specified proforma immediately after the verification process is over.

“The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003”, was released after the parliament passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003.

According to the official website of the Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, the National Population Register (NPR) has been designed to be prepared from village to national level under provisions of “The Citizenship Act, 1955”, and “The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003.”

The Citizenship Act (Amendment), 2019, states that no “illegal migrants” will be granted citizenship. It also states that “any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014 … shall not be treated as illegal migrant for the purposes of this Act.” In other words, everyone except Muslims have been offered some relief, an alternative way to pass the government’s ‘citizenship test.’

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, said that the Registrar General of India “shall act as the National Registration Authority and he shall function as the Registrar General of Citizen Registration.” Here, it needs to be noted that the Registrar General of India also holds the charge of the Census Commissioner.

In other words, any senior bureaucrat, appointed by the government in the post of “Registrar General of India,” would oversee the entire Census, NPR and the NRC exercises.

The Assam lesson

The proposed NRIC, to be prepared based on the NPR, is not going to be something new in the country. A register of citizens was recently finalised in Assam, excluding more than 19,00,000 citizens.

The exercise effectively announced more than 19 lakh people as “foreigners” after they failed to prove that their family lived in the state before 1971 March. The NRC in Assam included only those who could establish that they, or their ancestors, were in India on or before March 24, 1971. Notably, the Assam NRC outcome did not satisfy many, including the local BJP unit.

To accommodate those people who fail to “prove” that they are Indian citizens, Assam has built at least six detention camps so far. Dibrugarh, Goalpara, Jorhat, Kokrajhar, Silchar and Tezpur have one detention centre each, according to reports.

Each detention centre could lodge some hundreds or thousands of people, and reports suggest that the government plans to set up more centres as the existing ones cannot accommodate all the persons excluded from the NRC.

According to different reports, the detention centres already set up in Assam lack basic facilities for a normal human life, and hence the lives in those centres are extremely difficult. Former detainees narrated the inhumane living conditions at those centres, which they described as “dark place, devoid of light and hope,” with the inmates being monitored by three or four convicted criminals, planted by detention centre officials in each cell, “to discipline the detainees.” “Sometimes 60 to 70 people were crammed into one room like a herd of cattle. After 5 pm, there was no one to listen to our plight,” said one detainee.

Recently, the Guwahati High Court said that the detention centres must be set up “outside the jail premises” and that the state government should ensure the availability of basic facilities, such as “electricity, water and hygiene”, at these centres. However, there are no reports that suggest any improvement in the living conditions at these detention centres.