100 former officials challenge discriminatory Indian identity programme

By on 10/01/2020
There are fears national citizen ID efforts could disadvantage India’s Muslim population. (Image courtesy: Jorge Rogan).

Over 100 retired civil servants – including a former Cabinet secretary and chief information commissioner – have written an open letter urging the Indian government to back down on a national identity scheme, arguing that it will disadvantage Muslims and other marginalised groups. The officials said the scheme is “morally indefensible” and risks destabilising both the country and region.

The letter cites concerns about sections of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019 pertaining to the issue of national identity cards and the granting of amnesty to undocumented migrants from neighbouring countries, in provisions which specifically exclude Muslims. There are also concerns of bias around the National Population Register (NPR), which is to be expanded, and the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC).

In November the country’s home minister, Amit Shah, announced a plan to expand the NPR to the whole of India following a four-year trial in the north eastern state of Assam. Shah claimed it would help identify illegal immigrants in a “non-discriminatory” fashion. However, most of the 1.9 million people declared “foreign” in the Assam register are women, members of oppressed castes, religious minorities or poor.

The Assam case, along with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to Hindu nationalism, has led many to believe the national citizen ID effort could be used for selective targeting of specific communities and individuals, including the country’s 172 million-strong Muslim population.

“We have our grave reservations about the constitutional validity of the CAA provisions, which we also consider to be morally indefensible. We would like to emphasise that a statute that consciously excludes the Muslim religion from its purview is bound to give rise to apprehensions in what is a very large segment of India’s population,” the letter said, as reported by the Economic Times.

Former Cabinet secretary KM Chandrasekhar, former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah and retired lieutenant governor of Delhi Najeeb Jung are among those to have put their names to the letter.

“Our group of former civil servants, with many years of service in the public sphere, is firmly of the view that both the NPR and the NRIC are unnecessary and wasteful exercises, which will cause hardship to the public at large and will also entail public expenditure that is better spent on schemes benefiting the poor and disadvantaged sections of society,” the letter said.  

Losing international goodwill

It said the officials see a situation developing where India is “in danger of losing international goodwill and alienating its immediate neighbours, with adverse consequences for the security set-up in the sub-continent”.

The new citizenship rules have already sparked protests across the country. “At a time when the economic situation in the country warrants the closest attention of the government, India can ill afford a situation where the citizenry and the government enter into confrontation”, the letter continued.  

The letter said the registration system, which requires people to submit a combination of documents to confirm their residence and links to the country – including birth certificates, land deeds and prior inclusion within electoral rolls – is further flawed because the issuing and maintenance of birth certificates is not well managed in the country. Some people were rejected from the Assam register because their names were misspelled on their ID, or because their ID was in paper form.

The letter also cited the risk of corruption. “We are apprehensive that the vast powers to include or exclude a person from the Local Register of Indian Citizens that is going to be vested in the bureaucracy at a fairly junior level has the scope to be employed in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner, subject to local pressures and to meet specific political objectives, not to mention the unbridled scope for large-scale corruption.”

Tension over the plans between state and central government are also referred to in the letter, which said it is “not desirable to have a situation where the majority of state governments are not inclined to implement the NPR/NRIC, leading to an impasse in centre-state relations, so crucial in a federal set up like India”.  

The letter urged citizens to insist the government repeal the CAA, and also questioned the widespread setting up of Foreigners’ Tribunals and detention camps under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Amendment Order 2019. In Assam, they said, “a number of citizens lost their lives in the quest for affirming citizenship or have had to suffer the indignity of incarceration in detention camps”.  

At the time of publication, the government had not responded to the civil servants’ letter.

Aadhar ID system

This isn’t the first time a national citizen ID scheme has sparked controversy in India. In 2009, the government launched its Aadhar project with the aim of providing each of the country’s 1.3 billion people with a biometric identity and unique identification number.  

Critics raised concerns regarding privacy and surveillance, and human rights groups took legal action against the rollout of the Aadhar card in 2017, but the following year India’s Supreme Court ruled that the scheme could proceed. Most Indians now have an Aadhar card. However, it was not considered valid in Assam state’s NPR.  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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