There is a tapestry of propaganda and half-truths covering the controversial National Population Register (NPR) which seems to have a born-again version that stirs more suspicion than trust. There is so much noise over the issue that it would be a classic case of missing the wood for the trees unless we understand both the context and the content of the intended database.
The question we need to ask in the context of wide-ranging protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the violence that is shaking Uttar Pradesh in the aftermath of the law that essentially gives non-Muslims a special green channel to become Indian citizens is: what are the details we need to examine the NPR?
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP is merrily proffering opposition leader P. Chidambaram's video on the NPR as evidence that it is not really new, Ajay Maken, the minister of state for home during the UPA years has explained how the form required to be filled under the BJP-led NDA government's version of the NPR seeks far more details, especially on parentage and the places of birth for parents.
In the context of the Citizenship Act being passed amid criticism from bodies including the United Nations, that requires an ominous ring. The NPR row, coming in a week in which the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Mohan Bhagwat, is laying a criterion for the definition of Hindu as one who "worships" Bharat and numbers the citizens at 130 crore, is even more ominous. What we have then is a citizenship law that sees Hinduism as an entity, while the ideological parent of the ruling party projects the country itself in a quasi-religious package as it requires "worship". Is this really the 21st Century in which freedom of thought is appreciated including the right to dissent? Isn't adherence to the Constitution and abiding by the law of the land enough for one's Indian-ness?
The NDA's approach to the citizenship law and the backlash effect is strikingly similar to its ways during the demonetisation of high-value currency notes in 2016. Just as it did then, when it moved from a summary outlawing of notes with a cut-off-date and then to an evangelical zeal for digital cash and then a relaxation of some of the rules accompanying the demonetisation, it is now moving from a controversial blanket clause in the Citizenship Act to assurances for Indian Muslims, accompanied by an evidently self-contradictory denial on the status of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and its virtual substitution by the NPR in a "voluntary" format.
Let us take a deep breath now. What was this all about?
The Congress-era NPR, albeit shrouded in home-ministry-inspired turf controversy because of its overlap with the Aadhar unique identity project under Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, was not necessarily or primarily one that hinted at any kind of surveillance or exclusion. The Aadhaar project faced a separate challenge by pro-privacy activists in a matter that landed in the Supreme Court. But Nilekani himself contested and lost the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 on a Congress ticket. In that sense, both NPR and the Aadhar project were indeed the UPA's babies. But the concerns then were either over privacy or over turf battles, not over core issues of citizenship.
The catch is that after the BJP came to power in 2014, it has been weaponised as a surveillance tool rather than an instrument of development used for social welfare schemes.
The NPR and Aadhar have a legitimate right to exist as development tools, given the widespread poverty in the country and an across-the-board consensus among political parties on giving laggard citizens a stake in economic growth through subsidies, handouts or participation in development/welfare schemes.
However, what we have witnessed in the NDA era is a linkage syndrome under which the government lassoes in various kinds of data under a single database with cowboy panache. The lasso can become a noose anytime. It is glib to say that honest citizens have nothing to fear, but there is no guarantee that there would be no political abuse of an institutional process. From linking income-tax returns to Aadhar to requiring the Aadhar number to be filled in the latest NPR format, what we see is the emergence of a Big Brother State rather than a welfare state.
True, every state has a twin responsibility -- of balancing law enforcement with development needs. But we increasingly hear less of the Jan Dhan Yojana or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and more of "infiltrators" and "offenders" and "accused." Given the BJP's manifesto-led emphasis on both illegal immigration and combating black money, this is only logical, but somewhere along the way, the development tool has become a surveillance weapon. And that is bound to be questioned in a society governed under a Constitution not aligned to any one culture or religion and swears by economic and social justice.
Prime Minister Modi's self-referential description of him being a "chowkidar" (guard) in the campaign that helped him retain power in 2019 and his government's subsequent emphasis on security issues over development goals have clearly altered the political landscape. The NPR envisaged in the UPA era was mandatory but was essentially one that added census data and legal residency status to Aadhar-centric biometrics. It did have a tinge of security concern (which would be legitimate) but the emphasis was on residency, not citizenship.
What we have, therefore, now is raw material for a trust deficit in which the security orientation of the state takes the focus of governance away from welfare schemes even as the economy dodders in low-growth zones. Is it any surprise that the NPR 2.0 is being equated with the seemingly abandoned NRC?
(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Business Standard, Hindustan Times and The Economic Times. He tweets as @madversity. Views expressed are personal.)