One of the secretaries in the Union government grew agitated when it was pointed out to him that though he might be holding an Indian passport, an Aadhaar number and a voter identity card, it did not necessarily mean he was a citizen of India.
Shocked, the secretary wondered how. It was explained to him that none of these documents validates him as an Indian citizen, according to the existing laws, and the onus was on him to prove his citizenship before the state.
This is because the Union government neglected to provide certification or a national identity card in accordance with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2003, with its genesis in the Citizenship Act, 1955. A citizen is eligible for all entitlements, including voting rights, whereas a resident can be a foreign national.
The latest law says a person can be a citizen of India by birth, naturalisation, descent, incorporation of territory and through the government's special grants, provided he or she meets certain specifications. For instance, those born after December 3, 2004, can claim citizenship by birth only if both parents are Indian citizens or one of them is a citizen of India and the other is not an illegal migrant. Those born between July 1, 1987, and December 2, 2004, have to prove that either parent was an Indian citizen at the time of his or her birth. The restriction does not apply to those born on or after January 26, 1950, and before July 1, 1987.
But people born between January 26, 1950, and July 1, 1987, need to produce any of the 19 documents, including birth certificate, radio licence issued in the 1970s, land records, matriculation certification and death certificate, to have their names registered in the National Register of Indian Citizens. The 2003 law says the Registrar General of India (RGI) must create this citizens' register and issue a national identity card to citizens after verifying their documents and antecedents. Only the RGI's office can provide certification for citizenship.
"Even people in the highest echelons of society and the bureaucracy have not proved their citizenship to the right authority. The law makes it compulsory for everyone to enroll for the National Register of Indian Citizens," said a senior government official.
"It is also true that the voting right is only given to a citizen but in India, the Election Commission could not verify through a robust mechanism whether someone is an Indian citizen or a person from another country. Faking documents is very common in India and it is a Rs 1,000 crore industry in the border areas," the official added.
The Citizenship Act of 1955 was amended following the recommendations of the K Subrahmanyam committee set up to look into security lapses that led to the Kargil war in 1999. The purpose of amending the law was to weed out illegal migrants and provide a credible individual identification system. It gave the RGI the authority to develop a mechanism through which each citizenship claim was verified.
As a follow-up to the Act, the government took up a pilot project in 2003-07 in the border and coastal areas and found 98 per cent of residents were citizens of the country by birth. But the citizenship scheme remained in cold storage till the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed over 166 people. After that, the government was quick to launch an exercise to create the National Population Register (NPR) for all residents, a precursor to the citizen register . The NPR has been created and digitised.
The next logical step is to visit each household and obtain documents from residents about their birth claims. These documents will be cross-checked against data collected during the census and NPR process.
The officials say a proposal worth Rs 5,500 crore is pending for months at the Prime Minister Office (PMO) for creating the citizens' register and issuance of national identity card. After the PMO's nod, it will be presented to Cabinet for a final approval.
"It will take another three years to finish the entire exercise and issue the national identity cards," said the official quoted above.
Many believe the government is reluctant to give citizenship clearance due to political reasons. Many parties depend on migrant votes, but it will be almost impossible for an illegal migrant to obtain a fake voter identity card and vote during the elections.