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Life of a Tuple: National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Reform of Citizen Identification Infrastructure in Assam

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:

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. These binary categories represent tensions in defining eligibility of people to be on a list, modes of thinking around who gets included and who gets excluded, and finally, the challenges of defining and fitting into the various criteria that are used to create the list. At the same time, lists are designed and created to solve specific problems of governance. For example, 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.

At this stage, 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 first is the process of data collection, which requires citizens to produce evidence of familial relationship with people whose name appears on legacy data, that is in the available NRC, 1951 or in any of the available electoral rolls or other admissible documents up to midnight of March 24, 1971. Application forms were distributed door to door, made available at the NRC Seva Kendra (NSKs), could be downloaded from the NRC website, and even photocopies of blank forms could be used by enrollees. Legacy data was made available to enrollees at all NSKs and all the notified polling stations, through computerized search or manual search in paper copies, and on the NRC website. If the legacy data could not be found, an application could be made by providing any of the other admissible document issued up to midnight of March 24, 1971, such as land and tenancy records, citizenship certificate, refugee registration certificate, passport, government service employment certificate, birth certificate, board/ university education certificate, and record of court proceedings and so on.

The second is the process of data verification, where the data collected is verified for authenticity of bureaucratic documents submitted during data collection and the familial relationships claimed by the applicants, first with door-to-door field verification followed by verification at government offices to check the authenticity of collected documents. The final phase of verification involves creation of a family tree computationally from collected data and then matching it to digitized records of manual family trees submitted during data collection.

The third is publication of the draft NRC, wherein applicants are expected to check their tuples in the draft NRC for errors in data entry and raise objections if they suspect that a particular tuple corresponds to an illegal immigrant. From a design perspective, given that the updation of NRC is geared towards bureaucratically ascertaining who is a citizen of India through familial relationships that an applicant can establish with pre-existing legible citizens of the country, it is expected that the final NRC will not have any tuples of illegal immigrants, thereby, solving the problem of identifying who is a citizen and who is an immigrant.

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.

The data collection for the NRC update exercise was conducted by officials from July 2015 till August 31, 2015. The application process for the NRC was both online as well as offline. Offline application forms had to detail the genealogical/familial relationships between family members, and mention the Legacy Data Code (LDC) generated from the digitized records (of NRC 1951, and all electoral rolls up to the midnight of March 24, 1971) available on the NRC website. In the first round, household verification of documents were conducted by verification teams. This, also according to the website, began soon as the application process was over. The verification process was conducted as per Rule 3 of the Citizenship Rules 2003, by verification teams with quasi–judicial powers. Given that the verification process is discretionary (as per Citizenship Rules, 2003), it becomes extremely crucial for applicants as well as officials to be able to negotiate and confirm proof of citizenship.

The research project at this point will specifically focus the categories of the D voter (disenfranchised individuals/ alleged immigrants declared by the Foreigners Tribunal), the Original Inhabitants (OI), and women applicants.There are several issues which shape the nature of bureaucratic complications experienced by these social groups. For example, first, the document verification has not yet been completed due to delay in inter-state coordination [2]. Second, the Guwahati High Court’s recent decision to declare panchayat certificates as invalid for the purpose of updating the NRC has affected 27 lakh people, majority of which are women. Third, there have been several attempts at specifying and defining the meaning of OI status [3], and finally, there are several instances of harassment during verification and violation of human rights faced by applicants [4]. Meanwhile, other than these issues, due to the remaining verification of 1.28 crore applicants and security concerns, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as well the Registrar General of India (RGI) had petitioned the SC that the NRC draft publication date of December 31, 2017 to be extended to July 2018 [5]; a plea which was rejected by the SC, while notifying that the process be completed by January 2018 [6].

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. It is fragile because it involves sociopolitical work not only on part of the government bureaucracy to minimize potential exclusions and differentiate between claims to be on the database in an accountable manner, but also on part of citizens in representing themselves in terms of prescribed data categories and making accountable claims to be on the database. 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.


[1] Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India. "Introduction to National Population Register".

[2] Correspondent. 2017. "NRC verification delay giving jitters". The Sentinel, September 22.

[3] Correspondent. 2017. "SC reserves order, Centre-Dispur support HC ruling". The Sentinel, November 23.

[4] Correspondent. 2017. "NHRC issues notice to Assam over verification for NRC". DNA India, November 16.

[5] Correspondent. 2017. "Assam’s National Register of Citizens: 1.2 cr names yet to be verified". Indian Express, November 22.

[6] Correspondent 2017. "Assam NRC Update: SC rejects plea for deadline extension". The NorthEast Today. November 30.



Sumandro Chattapadhyay

As a Director at CIS, I co-lead the [email protected] programme, and engage with academic and policy research on data governance and digital economy. I can be reached at sumandro[at]cis-india[dot]org.