Sometime in 2011, the Congress-led UPA saw the Indian middle class turn on it. That year, anti-corruption protests in Delhi drew significant middle-class support, prompted by wall-to-wall media coverage. At around the same time, courts and the bureaucracy started to attack the Union government on charges of corruption, citing two cases of massive, alleged scams – corruption in the allocation of telecom spectrum as well as coal blocks (even though neither eventually resulted in any United Progressive Alliance politicians being convicted). The Indian middle class is tiny – but as this episode shows, it can also have influence far beyond its numbers. So what is this influential demographic thinking about the current Union government?
Economically, India’s growth is worse off that it has even been during its seven decades as an independent country. For the first quarter of 2020-2021, the Indian gross domestic product contracted by a never-before-seen nearly 24%. And even that might be an understatement, with the shrinkage in the informal sector not being properly measured. Former chief statistician of India, Pronab Sen projects that economic shrinkage could go up to 35%. For the past two decades, India appeared on the top of global GDP growth rankings – but not anymore. The middle class were one of the primary beneficiaries of economic growth that came after the elaborate system of Central government-controls on private industry or Licence Raj was dismantled in 1991. In fact, right till 2019, middle-class Indians (along with the rich) reported high rates of income growth.
The end of this run, then, will come as a shock to the Indian middle class. In fact, research by think tank Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows that middle-class jobs have taken the biggest hit due to India’s draconian Covid-19 shutdown. From April to July, as many as 18.9 million salaried jobs were lost. Moreover, this pain is expected to last for some time. “While salaried jobs are not lost easily, once lost they are also far more difficult to retrieve,” explained CMIE. “Therefore, their ballooning numbers are a source of worry.”
Unsurprisingly, for the first time in six years, the Modi government is seeing small indications that the middle class could be unhappy. The past month has seen hectic online protest against the delay of the results of the Staff Selection Commission examination (for lower-grade Union government jobs) as well as a delay in conducting an exam for the Railway Recruitment Board’s Non-Technical Popular Categories. In one dramatic instance, Varun Awasthi, an educator with edutech form Unacademy, while speaking about the delayed exams, even warned that students would “pick up AK-47s instead of pens”. Similar anger was seen against the Modi government for refusing to postpone undergraduate engineering and medical entrance examinations during the pandemic, with students launching a successful campaign to click the “dislike” button on Prime Minister Modi’s weekly radio broadcasts.
Maybe sensing some signs of disquiet, earlier during his Independence Day speech, Modi had made sure to single out the middle class and emphasise what his government had done for them. However, any predictions that we will see a repeat of 2011 might be jumping the gun. For one, most of the Indian middle class loves Modi and more broadly the BJP. As many as 38% of the middle class and 44% of the upper middle class voted BJP in 2019, by far the most popular party in that category. To cut this another way: since the BJP appeals only to Hindus amongst the middle class – an astounding 61% of Hindu upper-caste voters picked the BJP in 2019 – with the caste group’s allegiance to the saffron party forming India’s most stable vote bank. Given the close relationship between caste and class in India, the vast majority of the Hindu middle class would be upper caste.
This sort of stable relationship points to a deep ideological commitment to the BJP – rather than a transactional once that would be quickly shaken up by the economic crash. To add to this is the fact that no other party at the moment appeals to middle-class sensibilities. As a result, reporting by scroll.in has shown that the middle class is hurting economically – but would stop short of blaming Modi for the crisis. In some cases, in fact, Modi is even praised by the very same people suffering as a result of his government’s policies.
Data from the National Population Register (NPR) Will be Used to Identify ‘Doubtful’ Citizens and, in Turn, Create a National Register of Citizens (NRC)
As protests sweep through India over the Citizenship Amendment Act as well as the National Register of Citizens, an inconspicuous bureaucratic process to create a National Population Register has come under fire. In West Bengal, the Mamata Banerjee government stayed work on the National Population Register on Monday citing the “interest of public order”. While the National Population Register has not made waves elsewhere, in West Bengal, activists and protesters have attacked the exercise, alleging that it is actually the first step to creating an all-India National Register of Citizens.
The National Register of Citizens is controversial: while its purported aim is to identify illegal immigrants, there are fears it could arbitrarily exclude genuine Indian citizens. Ignoring these concerns, Union Home Minister Amit Shah has said the Bharatiya Janata Party government will implement the NRC nationwide before 2024. The Bharatiya Janata Party has argued that the National Population Register has nothing to do with the National Register of Citizens and is part of the Census. Scroll.in spoke to experts as well as accessed the legal orders around the National Population Register and found this is not true. The NPR has no relation to the Census and is, in fact, connected to the proposed all-India NRC.
What is the NPR?
According to online literature published by the Union government, the objective of the National Population Register “is to create a comprehensive identity database of every usual resident in the country”. This database “would contain demographic as well as biometric particulars”. What sort of information would the National Population Register collect? Scroll.in has viewed the 14 questions that form part of the exercise, for which a pilot project began in August. The questions include demographic details such as name, age, sex, relationship in household, nationality, educational qualifications, occupation, date of birth, marital status, residential address, birthplace and mother tongue.
Till now, nothing here is very different from the usual data the Union government collects via the Census. But then, the National Population Register also asks a respondent where his or her parents were born. Moreover, the National Population Register also asks for Aadhaar details, driver’s licence, voter identity card and mobile number “if available”. An official told Scroll.in it is not mandatory for respondents to share this information. However, with many respondents likely to give their Aadhaar details, this will allow the Union government, for the first time, to connect their biometric details with information like the birthplace of their parents.
How is NPR linked to the NRC?
The legal framework for the National Population Register is grounded in the Citizenship Act, 1955. In 2003, the Act was amended by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP government to introduce the category of an “illegal migrant”. To implement this amendment, a set of rules were issued. (Rules are practical instructions on how to execute a law on the ground.) At the time, these rules barely created a ripple. But they set in place a mechanism that could turn Indian society and politics upside down since they lay out a process to create a National Register of Citizens: “the register containing details of Indian Citizens living in India and outside India”.
The rules read: “The Central Government shall, for the purpose of National Register of Indian Citizens, cause to carry throughout the country a house-to-house enumeration for collection of specified particulars relating to each family and individual, residing in a local area including the Citizenship status”. For administrative purposes, there are a nested collection of registers: the “National Register of Indian Citizens shall be divided into sub-parts consisting of the State Register of Indian Citizens, the District Register of Indian Citizens, the Sub-district Register of Indian Citizens and the Local Register of Indian Citizens”.
How would these registers of citizens be created? The rules explicitly spell it out: “The Local Register of Indian citizens shall contain details of persons after due verification made from the Population Register.” When the Local Register is generated from the Population Register, a “verification process” would be carried out which would create the category of “doubtful citizenship”. The final National Register of Citizens would be prepared by asking doubtful citizens to prove they are Indians as part of a “claims and objections” process.
This Population Register mentioned in the rules is nothing other than the National Population Register. In a gazette notification issued on July 31, 2019, the Modi government passed an order to “prepare and update the Population Register” in every state other than Assam. To sum up: the National Population Register would create a list of all the residents of the country. And then the National Register of Citizens would take that list and identify people of “doubtful citizenship” – thus, by corollary creating a list of citizens. It is this process that leads Prasenjit Bose, economist and convenor of the Joint Forum against National Register of Citizens, to describe the National Population Register as the “first step on the road to the National Register of Citizens”.
Ranjit Sur, from the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights, concurs. “The only job of the National Population Register is to create an National Register of Citizens,” said Sur. “Let me emphasise on the ‘only’.” Protesters demonstrate amid tear gas fired by police during a demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in New Delhi on December 13. Credit: Reuters
How is the nationwide NRC different from the Assam NRC?
Notably, the National Register of Citizens process described above is different from the National Register of Citizens that has already taken place in Assam. This is because the 2003 rules carve out a special exception for the state.
In Assam, the National Register of Citizens would be created by “inviting applications from all the residents for collection of specified particulars relating to each family and individual, residing in a local area in the State including the citizenship status based on the National Register of Citizens 1951, and the electoral rolls up to the midnight of the 24th day of March 1971,” the 2003 rules state. In sharp contrast, the National Register of Citizens for the rest of India is to be drawn on the basis of the National Population Register.
As a result, there is a difference in how the National Register of Citizens for Assam and the rest of India will be conducted. “The Assam National Register of Citizens was populated using the application method but the all-India National Register of Citizens will be done through enumeration basis, by going house to house and collecting data in the form of the National Population Register,” explained Ranjit Sur. The Assam National Register of Citizens was widely criticised for being arbitrary. But now activists are noting that the National Population Register method that will be used to conduct the all-Indian National Register of Citizens is even more opaque. “In Assam, everyone knew the cut-off date and the documents required. Rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim, everyone had to stand in the same queue,” explained Prasenjit Bose. “But here everything is left to a bureaucrat. The state will decide who is a doubtful citizen and who is not. It is completely arbitrary.”
How is the NPR different from the Census?
That the National Population Register is part of the Census is a widespread notion. On Tuesday, in fact, reacting to the West Bengal government’s plans to stop work on the National Population Register, the BJP repeated this claim. “National Population Register builds up to the Census data 2021,” argued BJP MP Swapan Dasgupta. This claim, however, is not borne out legally. “The National Population Register is being conducted under the Citizenship Act, 1955 and the 2003 rules while the Census is done under the Census Act, 1948,” explained Ranjit Sur. “The Census data is kept secret and cannot be used for anything else. The National Population Register data will be publicly displayed as part of the claims and objections process and will be used to create a National Register of Citizens.”
Sur continued: “Their laws are different, their aims are different. National Population Register has nothing to do with the Census and anyone making that claim is simply saying so to misguide.” This mistaken notion might have something to do with the fact that the two exercises are conducted simultaneously. The Union government has stated that it will “update the National Population Register along with the House listing phase of Census 2021”.