India's National Register of Citizens Threatens Mass Statelessness

Written by
Uma Menon
June 2, 2023

by Uma Menon, '24 for Annotations Blog

In the lead-up to the May 2023 assembly elections in the Indian state of Karnataka, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) included in their platform a plan to implement a country-wide National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC would serve as a database of demographic information on all Indian citizens and would exclude those purported to be illegal immigrants. To be included in the registry, residents would present documentation of roots in the country preceding 1971, the same year when Bangladesh became independent and a large influx of migrants entered India.

National registers are not a novel concept in India. The northeastern state of Assam published an NRC in 1951, which was later updated after the release of a 2013 Supreme Court order that responded to a petition by NGO Assam Public Works. The policy is a result of longstanding anti-immigrant sentiment in Assam, evidenced by the Anti-Bengali movement of the 1970s which was motivated by a fear that Bengali newcomers would threaten Assamese identity and culture. The new draft of the new Assam NRC was published on December 31, 2017, followed by another draft on July 31, 2018, and a final draft on August 31, 2019. When the final NRC was released, 1.9 million of Assam’s 33 million residents had been excluded, a large portion of whom belonged to marginalized communities such as low-income groups, ethnic Bengalis, underage married women, and LGBTQ+ individuals. For these communities, challenges in proving heritage and residency, such as presenting sufficient documentation and accessing legal aid, puts many members at risk of being left stateless by the Assam NRC.

Jamia Millia Islamia students and locals protesting against CAA NRC

"Jamia Millia Islamia students and locals protesting against CAA NRC" is licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

Existing scholarship focuses largely on the change in legal status that results from NRC exclusion and the history of anti-immigrant sentiment in Assam. Due to the recency of the policy, as well as a lack of government transparency, limited knowledge exists on the NRC’s impacts on everyday lives. To better understand the extent to which the NRC in Assam produced the political and economic disenfranchisement of excluded populations, I studied the impact of exclusion on people’s ability to access welfare—specifically, food rations through the Public Distribution System. Legally, exclusion from the 2019 NRC should not impede individuals’ access to state welfare since the document has not yet been verified by the Registrar General of India, a step required by the Supreme Court before the NRC is to be finalized. Even after the NRC is finalized, individuals still have the opportunity to appeal their decisions at Foreigners Tribunals before they are officially rendered stateless.

However, by conducting a content analysis of 347 media reports, I found that in practice, individuals not listed on the Assam NRC have been unable to access welfare in the form of food rations, bank accounts, employment, and other basic opportunities. Using the NewsBank database, I examined articles published between September 31, 2017—three months prior to the release of the first draft—and December 18, 2022, at the conclusion of this study. The search was restricted to articles published in India and filtered by articles that contained the phrases “National Register of Citizens,” “Assam,” and “Aadhaar.” Articles that contained the phrases “National Population Register,” or “NPR,” were excluded from the study, as this is a separate policy which although similar to NRC has different implementation procedures, scale, and implications. I also examined government and policy documents, such as the 2016 Aadhaar Act and related Supreme Court rulings, to understand legal requirements for eligibility and the disparity between policy and reality.

One of the biggest findings from my media analysis was that exclusion from the NRC prevented enrollment in India’s biometric identification system. After the release of Assam’s second draft in 2018, the state started a claims and objections phase, at which point biometric details were collected for excluded individuals. News sources reported that the state intended to use this data to generate separate identification for NRC-excluded individuals. However, in November 2020, media began to report that biometric data had been frozen for NRC-excluded individuals who participated in the claims and objections phase,thereby preventing them from enrolling in India’s biometric identification system, Aadhaar. Notably, biometrics were frozen for those excluded from the second draft, not the final draft, which meant that around 2.7 million individuals were affected. Such a freezing of details appears to be both extralegal and unexpected, given that it was not mentioned in the government’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and that media sources did not become aware of it until two years after the SOP was created. This, combined with the fact that the registry’s inclusion criteria were themselves designed to exclude and disenfranchise marginalized groups, means that some of Assam’s most vulnerable communities are being denied benefits. As such, the government’s attempt to root out those perceived to threaten Assamese culture through a citizenship policy has resulted in pernicious disenfranchisement where legal status does not match up to Aadhaar eligibility since even those who made it on to the final NRC after being excluded from the second draft have found themselves unable to access welfare.

Attari–Wagah border, ceremony and crowds

"Attari–Wagah border, ceremony and crowds" is licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

India’s One Nation, One Ration Card Scheme, rolled out in 2019, requires individuals to link their ration cards to their Aadhaar identification. However, such a linkage is infeasible for individuals who do not possess Aadhaar identification as a result of NRC exclusion. Although Section 7 of the 2016 Aadhaar Act and subsequent government circulars require that those without Aadhaar “be offered alternate and viable means of identification,” there has been no standardization of what such an alternative looks like. As a result, individuals excluded from the NRC have reported that they have been denied food rations by shop dealers and been unable to receive welfare benefits since their bank accounts cannot be linked to Aadhaar.

The case of the NRC in Assam demonstrates an egregious failure on the part of the government. Not only does the NRC represent an effort to exclude marginalized communities from citizenship, but it also highlights coordination and planning issues within the government. Moving forward, the government must redesign how agencies, particularly state governments, the judiciary, and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), communicate, share information, and ensure services for residents. If Aadhaar is to be mandated for the receipt of basic welfare benefits, errors and miscommunications must be eliminated. In the case of Assam, despite support from the state government to unfreeze biometric details for those excluded from the NRC, this has not yet happened since approval from the Supreme Court, the body overseeing NRC updation, is necessary to order UIDAI to make this change. Yet, the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India has given UIDAI nebulous discretion over determining who is eligible for Aadhaar, resulting in attempts by UIDAI to verify individuals’ citizenship status on their own. This is problematic given that the UIDAI was designed solely to deal with matters of Aadhaar, not immigration issues, and lacks the appropriate mechanisms and expertise to perform citizenship verification.

Expansion of the NRC to the national level would pose a severe humanitarian crisis. If millions of individuals are excluded from such a document, they will no longer be citizens of India. When combined with India’s 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, which only provides a pathway to citizenship for non-Muslims, a national NRC would render millions of people who call India home stateless. It is unclear how the government of India would treat these individuals: whether they might be detained and deported, or whether they might remain in the country but unable to formally access government services. Implementation of an NRC is also riddled with procedural and legal issues, including the freezing of biometric details and the absence of a clear alternative to Aadhaar. Leaders in support of the NRC ought to consider the policy’s harmful consequences, which stand in contradiction to India’s constitutional principles of human rights and secularism. 

Headshot of Uma Menon, Undergraduate Class of 2024
Meet the Author: Uma Menon

Uma Menon is an undergraduate '24 student at Princeton University's School of Public and International Affairs. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and The Progressive, among other publications. On campus, she served as Editor-in-Chief of the Nassau Literary Review, Operational Vice President for the Princeton Debate Panel, Research Team Leader for the Princeton Asylum Project, and Service Focus Fellow. She is from Winter Park, Florida.