Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami claimed on Monday that answering questions for the controversial National Population Register (NPR) was optional "as stated" by the Centre. The Chief Minister had announced in December last year that work for the NPR exercise, which is criticised as providing the framework for the equally-controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC), will begin in April 2020.
Soon after the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) came into force in December last year, protests against the law which leaves out Muslims, have taken place across the country, including in Tamil Nadu. Sustained protests continue to take place in Chennai’s Old Washermenpet area as well as districts across the state.
However, unlike previous NPR exercises since 2010, this time around, the introduction of two new questions has sparked controversy— date and birthplace of an individual’s parents. These are similar to the requirements to prove citizenship under the CAA.
CM Palaniswami said, “Now, we have asked an explanation from the Centre. The central minister himself has said, he has given an option. You can tell (the details) if you know. You don't have to tell if you don't know. It is not compulsory. No evidence needs to be submitted. They have clearly said it. Even after that, DMK and opposition parties are instigating protests by defaming minorities and telling them fake news. DMK is fooling people and staging a drama.”
The Chief Minister appears to have been referring to a press conference by Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, where the BJP leader had said that “many questions are optional” in the NPR. He did not specify which ones.
On January 22, the Union Minister said, “I told you that day very clearly that there are many questions are optional. If you remember (answers to the questions), give it. If you don't remember— father mother's birthplace or birth date— if you don't know, then don't give it.” (sic)
When asked if the questions will be dropped altogether, he said, “That's not how it is. The question will be considered dropped, right? The one who answers will have given the answer. If it's not there, then (trails off).”
The Union Minister’s advice to people answering questions appears to contradict Citizenship Rules notified by the Ministry of Home Affairs in December 2003 under the Vajpayee government.
It states, “It shall be compulsory for every Citizen of India to assist the officials responsible for preparation of the National Register of Indian Citizens under rule 4 and get himself registered in the Local Register of Indian Citizens during the period of initialization. It shall be the responsibility of the head of every family, during the period specified for preparation of the Population Register, to give the correct details of name and number of members and other particulars, as specified in sub-rule (3) of rule 3, of the family of which he is the head.”
Both Palaniswami and Javadekar have said that the NPR exercise was first implemented by the Congress-led UPA government in 2010. However, with the introduction of the new questions and the NPR and census exercises taking place simultaneously, concerns have been raised about people unknowingly answering questions without fully being explained what they are answering for.
The Chief Minister said, “We guarantee that no one, whether it is a Muslim or minority person, born in Tamil Nadu will be affected in any way.”