Centre for Internet & Society

We are proud to announce that a research grant from the Azim Premji University has enabled us to initiate a study of the ongoing updation process of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and the resultant reform of citizen identification infrastructure in India. The study is being led by Khetrimayum Monish Singh and Ranjit Singh, along with Sumandro Chattapadhyay. Here we present an initial brief about the study.

 

All posts related to this study can be found here: https://cis-india.org/raw/life-of-a-tuple/


In a relational database, a tuple is an ordered set of data constituting a record. Imagine a relational database as a table with pre-defined columns that define the scope of information required for each row. A tuple is a row in this table. Ultimately, in any database designed to ease practices of governance, the life story of a citizen becomes a tuple after the process of data collection, verification, and curation. This tuple has its own life and this project is designed around documenting its life story, which may or may not map seamlessly onto the life of the citizen that it aims to capture, encode, represent, and ultimately, alter.

Building a list in the context of governance, whether it is of citizens of a country or of people implicated in any government program, is a difficult exercise. At its most basic level, a list simultaneously creates two binary categories: people who are on the list and people who are not. The update of the National Register of Citizens is designed to respecify who is a citizen and who is an immigrant in Assam. While building such a list (a register of citizens, in this case) is geared towards ensuring that it becomes easier to deal problems of governing citizens and immigrants, it is also a process prone to contending complexities in conceptualization and implementation with the involvement of diverse stakeholders such as the state bureaucracy, technology companies, civil society groups, communities of people facing different challenges in enlisting as citizens and so on. Furthermore, it additionally involves contending with the sheer scale of transformation that a move from paper-based documents to digital tuples of citizen data demands. This project tries to document and deconstruct this particular process of creating a list/register of citizens, its subsequent effects on how tuples of data are recorded as resources to identify people as citizens and finally, its consequences on people who are represented or marginalized in this process.

Our research investigates the process of updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam as a case study to focus on one of the core problems of governance: the unique identification of citizens by the state. The NRC, as a part of the National Population Register (NPR), is a list of only Indian citizens, and is presently in the process of being updated only in Assam [1]. Our effort is geared towards tracing the process of updating the NRC from its conceptualization and design to its current deployment, while also closely attending to current on-the-ground reactions to its implementation.

Our research investigates the process of updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam as a case study to focus on one of the core problems of governance: the unique identification of citizens by the state. The NRC, as a part of the National Population Register (NPR), is a list of only Indian citizens, and is presently in the process of being updated only in Assam [1]. Our effort is geared towards tracing the process of updating the NRC from its conceptualization and design to its current deployment, while also closely attending to current on-the-ground reactions to its implementation.

Our research focuses on two specific aspects of the NRC update:

  • Challenges of legally defining citizenship: In this context, we will investigate the constitutional acts and provisions for making citizenship claims in India, embedded within the historical narratives of identity-politics in Assam and its culmination in the exercise of updating the NRC.
  • Challenges of procedurally implementing the NRC update: Here, we plan to explore the subsequent design process of updating the register by creating a standard set of required bureaucratic rules and legal provisions around defining eligibility criteria for Indian citizenship; and innovations and improvisations in addressing emergent technical and bureaucratic challenges in collecting, verifying, and curating data on citizens.
  • Starting with the first aspect of legally defining Indian citizenship, the project will document and discuss the various legal intricacies of defining the bureaucratic process of updating NRC that emerge along two sets of concerns at different levels of Indian government. First, at the state level, we will explore the sociopolitical tensions around illegal immigration from Bangladesh and the history of identity-based politics in Assam. Second, at the level of the central government, we plan to investigate the constitutional and legal rules and provisions that are used to define citizenship in India.

These two set of concerns have mutually shaped each other in the design of the current update process. At the level of the central government, the Citizenship Act 1955, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 1986, and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003 detail the changing definitions and process for citizen identification. Simultaneously, at the state government level, the identification and deportation of illegal foreigners from Assam has been one of the core demands in the Assam Accord, signed in 1985, between the Central government, the State government, AASU (All Assam Students Union) and the AAGSP (All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad). Subsequently, combining these concerns for the exercise of updating NRC, the Office of the State Coordinator (NRC) Assam prescribed specific procedures and documents for citizenship claims, as per the Constitutional Act, Citizenship Rules 2003, Assam Accord, and recent Supreme Court orders. According to these procedures, an applicant claiming Indian citizenship is required to find either themselves, or their parents or ancestors in tuples of legacy data, which is a dataset created by the Office of the State Coordinator (NRC) combining the available NRC, 1951 and the available Electoral Rolls up until the midnight of March 24, 1971. Applicant’s claim needs to be further supported by a set of secondary admissible bureaucratic documents to prove that both their parents were Indian citizens, which by extension, makes the applicant an Indian citizen.

Moving onto the second aspect of procedurally implementing the NRC update, our attempt is to understand the underlying challenges of fitting into prescribed categories of data collection, and within specific legal and technical specifications around claiming citizenship. In this regard, we plan to focus on the design and bureaucratic implementation of the updated NRC as an information infrastructure, which is centered on three key processes before the ultimate publication of the final NRC.

The preliminary fieldwork for our project was conducted in November 2016. The NRC update from the beginning has faced complex legal and bureaucratic issues. Since 2009, various petitions filed by Assam Public Works, Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, and other social organisations in the Supreme Court have sought to intervene in redefining citizenship provisions. The initial interviews with NRC officials, lawyers, and journalists have provided initial resources to articulate several arguments and counterpoints through which these legal interventions have helped shape bureaucratic procedures for citizenship claims in the NRC update.

We started this note on our research by drawing a relationship between the life of a person and its representation as a tuple or row in a relational database. While this representation is necessary for resolving problems of governance (such as figuring out who is eligible for what kind of government services), it remains a fragile accomplishment. Our project is geared towards exploring the practical accomplishment of mapping the life of a person onto the life of a tuple and inevitable tensions that emerge in the process of simplifying and commensurating lifeworlds of people with tuples of data.

Endnotes

[1] Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India. "Introduction to National Population Register". http://censusindia.gov.in/2011-Common/IntroductionToNpr.html.

 

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