Rather than wade into the current uninformed shouting matches about Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), Moneylife readers prefer an informed view. So, let us take the road less travelled and think this through using an example.
(Just a note: Whatever we discuss about NRC here, refers to an ideal NRC. In whatever form the NRC is announced, it can never be same as NRC of Assam.
The Assam NRC is totally different concept with a different issue, for which historical context is necessary. Those who want to start at NRC of Assam, must first read the historical context. So, the discussion below is for an ideal NRC.
Imagine you are government officer of a country, say Hungary, and a person, approaches you saying she is Angela Bennett and she has no documents, but she is a citizen. You have to determine if she is or she is not a citizen. If you want to know whether the person before you is a citizen, you have to put two sets of queries.
The First Question: Who Are You?
That will be the first question you ask Angela. When asked officially, this question has a particular meaning. You have to determine, if the person before you IS ACTUALLY Angela Bennett. You are determining her identity. There are various documents to prove identity, a school identity card, company identity card, or driving licence. These documents are nothing but references of institutions that (should) have validated the person’s identity.
What if She Has No Documents?
As a helpful government officer of Hungary, you will ask Angela for her address and show her photo to residents there to determine if the photo is that of Angela or not. Once you have determined that she is actually Angela Bennett (her identity), the next step follows.
Once identity is established, you have to determine if Angela is actually a citizen or not. This is determined by checking if Angela Bennett figures in government approved databases such as hospital birth records, birth and death registry, voter list, or passport issued lists.
To determine citizenship, you will access her information records through computerised government databases. Then you will verify if the information (a) that she provides; (b) information that her identifiers provide and (c) her information in the government database ALL tally together. If yes, then voila! She is the citizen Angela Bennett.
What if This Were in India?
In India, the problem is multi-fold. First, there are many non-hospital births, then many hospitals do not keep proper records, records are damaged or inaccessible.
Further, a government office in one part of the country cannot access government records from other parts of the country. Therefore, the burden of providing a certificate to show that your name appears in a government record falls on the person who has to obtain it.
So, in India, Angela will have to provide a certificate from the place where she was born or where she went to school.
The next step is to verify if the records of the person actually exist in the place she says they do. So, if Angela appears in Delhi saying her school is in Hyderabad, someone needs to verify if that school actually has Angela’s name in their records. This part, as passport-holders know, is police verification.
So how do the police verify details if you have no documentary record to verify? Police use the age-old India system of hawala. The hawala system (different from scam) implies that some prominent person vouches for you. At village level, the panchs vouch for you. This grants you citizenship. Thus, so long as people without documents were getting passports, so will they get registered in NRC.
The United States of America, in the 1800s, was a large country with difficulty to verify disconnected records. They also had a similar system where a parish priest or the Sheriff would identify persons.
Modern Indian System
In the modern system, Aadhaar provides one form of identification. But it is not a proof of citizenship. You have to go through documentary verification process. If there is a central database it will be possible to quickly and efficiently determine if you are a citizen or not.
That database is the registry of citizens in every country. Whether this is the function of India’s NRC is not clear as no details of NRC have been announced.
An ideal NRC will give you a number, similar to Aadhaar, which can be used to verify your credentials as a citizen. NRC will prove decisive for determining certain rights—for example, voting or determining eligibility for government benefits.
This registry concept is similar in almost all developed countries. However, some countries have used this registry innovatively, e.g., Estonian government, a beacon for e-governance and citizens privacy, uses the population registry to protect information of its citizens.
Determining Citizenship is important
At any given point, a country has the following types of people. Citizens, who belong to that country; legal residents, who live long term in that country on a work visa; legal but friendly aliens, who are usually tourists or in-transit passengers; illegal aliens who have come to the country without a record; AND enemy aliens, who are illegal aliens from countries which are not friendly with the host country.
In general, when you approach the government, they assume you are a legal resident of the country. Most laws that are applicable to citizens are also applicable to legal residents, and legal aliens. Many (not most) laws are also applicable to illegal but friendly aliens. Almost none is applicable to illegal enemy aliens. So, determining if the person before the government is a citizen, alien, friendly alien, and enemy alien is part of the job of government.
Depending on what you are asking from the government, they seek a relevant scale of proof. For example, if you are asking for a water connection (right to life), mere residential proof suffices. If you ask for a driving licence (right to drive), your identity is sufficient. If you are asking for voting card (right to vote) or a passport, citizenship proof is required. If you are asking for a subsidy or state benefits, you need citizenship proof AND proof that you are entitled to the subsidy or benefit. Readers will note that an escalating scale of proof is required.
Norway, till 1980s, would assign naturalised citizens a number starting with 9, creating a distinction. That’s because, in developed countries, there used to be different rights (stated or unstated) for different classes of citizens. Now, most developed countries have removed the distinction. However, it is coming back in some countries as their population ages. So, UK and US are considering giving citizenship to people, who will not get access to healthcare and other benefits for certain period of time (say 10-15 years).
In India, all citizens have the same rights (or no rights as cynics will say). So, an Adnan Sami, immigrant from Pakistan and now a naturalised citizen, enjoys the same rights as the rest of us, citizens.
The current system in India is quite haphazard. It is a wonder that we do not have a population registry till date. This registry should have been established in the 1950s itself.
Let us ensure that registry is able to create benefits for citizens in terms of privacy and security. So Kagaz is necessary unless we want government to use facial and gait recognition!
[Watch the 1995 movie called “The Net” where Sandra Bullock plays “Angela Bennett”, a person whose identity is stolen, and she does not have any documents and needs to establish her identity (not citizenship).]
(Rahul Prakash Deodhar is an Advocate, Bombay High Court. He can be reached at [email protected], on twitter at @rahuldeodhar or at his website www.rahuldeodhar.com. The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Moneylife)