Infrastructure as Digital Politics: Media Practices and the Assam NRC Citizen Identification Project
Digital Politics in Millennial India
The Center for Internet Society
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam focuses on updating the list of Indian citizens in the state. A highly sensitive, controversial and massive exercise, the government has had several strategies to manage this project. One of the ways has been in which the government has engaged with and positioned itself, vis-a-vis the media, specifically through Facebook and Twitter, and on its own official website. This paper by Khetrimayum Monish Singh and Nazifa Ahmed is a discourse analysis of media content and user opinions on Facebook, and media responses on the NRC official website. These reflect bureaucratic practices of efficiency, transparency, trust and anxiety management; user feedback, confusion, political concerns and opinions help in accounting for and navigating through the system, and contribute to building up the NRC as an information infrastructure. We focus on how these two processes through media practices co-produce ‘the sociotechnical building and maintenance’ (Star and Bowker, 1999; Star and Ruhleder, 1996) of the NRC as an information infrastructure.
This paper draws from the current media practices of the NRC office, both mainstream and online, as a part of the bureaucratic efforts for public awareness, information dissemination and an image building exercise. It focuses on the processes of official media management, both mainstream and online media, perceived as an efficient state practice in the NRC update, while user anxieties around citizenship claims present constant negotiation and navigation through this infrastructure. The NRC infrastructure represents the nature of ‘the sociotechnical imaginaries’ (Jasanoff and Kim, 2015) and a constant co-production of state-citizen mediation in India.
The NRC, as a list of only Indian citizens, is a subset of the National Population Register of India. Assam, as a state, has had a long history of identity based politics against illegal immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh. This resulted in the Assam Accord in 1985, which subsequently led to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 1986. This Act defined the changing definitions of citizenship claims, given the previous political demands and situation in Assam. One of demands of the Assam Accord was the updating of the National Register of Citizens in the state, and the identification and deportation of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Following the demands of the Assam Accord, the Citizenship Act Rules 2003, and subsequent Supreme Court orders, the Office of the State Coordinator (NRC) Assam was set up to undertake the massive exercise of updating the citizens’ list.
One of the important ways in which massive exercise was broadcasted was in the form of online tutorials and videos, advertisements and pamphlets detailing the application process and the required documents for proving one‟s claims to Indian citizenship. Online media practices, specifically on Facebook, played an important role in channelizing bureaucratic narratives and user feedback in building up and operationalizing the NRC as a information platform; narratives of both institutional efficiency and failure which helped co-produce ‘the sociotechnical building and maintenance’ (Star and Bowker, 1999; Star and Ruhleder, 1996) of the NRC as an information infrastructure.
Studying Media as a part of the NRC Data Infrastructure
In Science and Technology Studies (STS), approaches to infrastructures represent a mediation, circulation and exchange of goods, ideas and people over spaces (Graham and Marvin, 1996). Thomas Hughes considered large technical systems (LTS), as a form of a sociotechnical arrangement of systems (Hughes, 1983). More recent studies on infrastructure understand this sociotechnical arrangement as ‘a relational concept’ (Star and Ruhleder, 1996). We consider infrastructure as a formation of more than its material components; that while they exist as concrete physical objects, they also represent forms of institutional and user agency. These assemblages, materialized in its composition and functioning, sustain and circumscribe ‘the sociotechnical building and maintenance’ of the infrastructure (Star and Bowker, 1999; Star and Ruhleder, 1996). At the same time, while dealing with information infrastructure, we ‘need to look at the whole array of organizational forms, and institutions that accompany, make possible, and inflect the development of new technology, their related practices and their distribution’ (Bowker et al., 2010).
Therefore, as an infrastructure, we analyze the NRC as an object and artifact that influences the circulation through popular media, as a form of ‘digital circulation’ (Beer, 2013); in this instance, digital media practices government, users’ opinions online, and subsequent legal and identity based public discourse made possible through this specific circulation. As an information infrastructure, the NRC represents an ‘inverse infrastructure’ (Egyedi et al. 2012), a concept which focuses on ”understanding of infrastructures for communication that are built ‘from below’ by users and citizens” (Balbi et al. 2016). In discussing ‘inverse infrastructure’, Egyedi et al. talk about ‘user-driven, self-organizing, decentralized infrastructures’ such as Wikipedia or city-wide wi-fi networks, in which the end-users manage and maintain the specific infrastructure. Here we would like to extend it to the understanding of NRC also as a user-oriented and user-driven decentralized interactive platform. This platform, through its narratives of efficiency and failure contributes in maintaining the sociotechnical maintenance of the NRC as an information infrastructure.
NRC as an Information Infrastructure
Mainstream media responses echoed the anxiety of the government focused on creating a historic success based on which it would be error-free. Unlike social media, media responses on website dealt mainly with accusations of NRC update (in contrast to the social media experience between users and NRC Team) process being negligent about keeping submitted user documents safe, budgetary cutbacks and on ground discrepancies mainly during verification. On many counts the NRC administration handled media engaged in diverting attention back to the success of NRC team and urging the public to not lose hope in this ‘efficient’ infrastructure for an illegal-immigrant free Assam irrespective of one‟s language, religion or other background.
Social media played an important role in sustaining an interactive environment, different from the paper-based bureaucratic interactions with the public. Online queries included document clarification, verification and specifically queries regarding the post draft process, as well as helpline numbers and other resources which had been advertised on multiple posts on social media. Unlike official interactions in government offices, the ‘digital circulation’ and dissemination of official information and user feedback represent specific bureaucratic processes and public response simultaneously circulating through the NRC information infrastructure.
While NRC Facebook page was mostly as a resource for query resolution and grievance redressal, the official responses reflected an ongoing public engagement with resolving and managing trust: ‘If you have submitted your NRC application offline, please visit your designated NRC Seva Kendra (NSK) and the officials there will help you. If you have submitted your application online, then please call our helpline number. Regards, Team NRC.’ / ‘If you have submitted online then call 15107 and provide them the name of the Head Of the Family as entered in the application form or the phone number through which you registered during submission of online application form. If submitted at NSK then get in touch your designated NRC Seva Kendra. Regards.’ (NRC Assam 2017) / ‘Thanks @NRC Assam for updating my Member Details on time and 7 websites for check ARN details and lowering the Network traffic. Appreciate you and Please give post update to claim any corrections.’ (Facebook user comment, January 2018).
Several comments showed the reliance on social media for prompt replies, news update and query resolution: ‘…question regarding verification. what will be the procedure for verification of documents for forms submitted online. Local NRC centre don’t have any record of forms submitted online’. (10 Feb 2016) / ‘…what about field verification in Guwahaticity.com?’ / ‘..when physical verification is going start at Guwahati.’ (Facebook user comment, Nov 2015) / ‘Why is your Online submission system completely down on crucial final day ???? It will be chaos . Respond’ / ‘ONLINE FORM SUBMISSION Portal is not functioning… please let us know by when the same wl b working’ / (NRC Assam) ‘It was down for few hours. Working fine now.’ (Facebook user comment/ response, August 2015).
The real time feedback system reflected political support, participation and of the NRC exercise as an efficient system. For example, users commented on a statement made by the NRC State Coordinator, Prateek Hajela‟s assurance of being able to detect multitudes of fake or forged document, and that he and his team were devising strategies for an error-free NRC. Against this, users expressed the need for stringent action against unscrupulous individuals: ‘Hats off to Mr P Hajela. Let’s hope he is able to conclude this mammoth job uninterrupted. He deserves the best Assamese award. Keep up the good work. Citizens are with you.’ / ‘Sir, we are trying to give our more than 100% under your leadership to ensure a correct NRC..’ / ‘We want a 100% correct NRC.Misspelling of names in voter list is a matter of concern,the genuine citizen should be harassed in the name of misspelled names.’ / ‘sir, Are there any provision to take legal measures against those persons who have taken fraudulent means?’ / ‘Mr.Hajela thank you very much Today we want 100% correct NRC.’ / ‘Good job Prateek Hajela. Hope everything is done in the strictest of manner. As many of the fake documents were from lower Assam, it is no doubt that illegal immigrants are trying hard to get their names in to the NRC. I hope they are detected to the full & flushed out and we get a clean NRC list.’ / ‘People are doing hard works in different levels in NRC, under the leadership of Prateek Hajela Sir. Different Documents are now being verified in different levels & in different destinations. When in the next phase, the family tree is made available in digitised way , like the LDC earlier , more cases of false claims/wrong claims to get entered in updated NRC may come out, it is apprehended.’ / ‘Ms.XYZ, Great job done but there are few officials who get manipulated and except the wrong member in the family tree. This has happened in Guwahati metro only . Please check it out . Otherwise all the hard work and dedication of your team will go in vain.’ (Facebook user comments, February 2016).
The NRC Facebook page also allowed for political anxiety and rhetoric of the NRC as a bureaucratic exercise to be materialized within this information infrastructure. For example, there was an enthusiasm for smooth operation of NRC verification teams especially in districts which are marked as ‘the hub of illegal immigrants.’ (Facebook user comment, August 2016). Even though the activities of the verification teams were posted for other districts, the only posts which received comments were for verification in specific districts and char areas (river islands). It also brought forth assumptions around undocumented distribution of ‘immigrant’ population. For instance, user opinions about the divide between Upper Assam and Lower Assam demography: ‘We see most of the members documents verification under pending in lower assam.but upper assam almost clear in this regard. They(upper assam ) got more than 80% or more in first draft. But in lower assam it’s about less than 40%.Why?’ / ‘that is because lower assam is flooded with bangladeshis..’ / ‘Ohhh that may.’ / ‘(Translation): @…….. There is no point in creating a lot of noise… these crows have to be ousted)
The online assertions by ethnic communities allowed claims to legality to be made visible within the infrastructure: ‘Thank you sir. We Tangsa people of Tinsukia dist. Margherita sub division are have our faith upon you & your good office. Yrs sincerly, Nong youngkuk, President-TangsaJatio porishad,Assam. Tirap.’ (Facebook user comments, Nov 30, 2017) / ‘Dr NRC Team do speed up the process of Nrc updation at an early dateas foreigners are behaving in a more aggressive manner claiming their rights over this land of Assam’ / ‘The NRC team deserves the compliments of the entire society for the arduous task they are carrying out relentlessly and now in its final stage. Our best wishes. Do let us know if any public action is required’ (Facebook user comments, Feb 16, 2016). This was specifically true in the case of the Original Inhabitants status given to several communities in the state. There was a fear amongst people who call themselves the original Assamese inhabitants that the lack of necessary documents or relevant information may be used to victimize them: ‘Till now i have not heard a single Boro people whose name is not included….truth is truth…We are the true citizen of Assam and India.’ (User comment, January 2018).
Many comments at the same time also reflected the anxieties regarding the futility of the exercise if not properly implemented: ‘I think NRC will just end up harrassing the public. Many people might not be able to show their legacy. Already millions of Bangladeshis are in Asaam, and forget about Assam, even Republic of India can’t deport them all. Suppose after NRC we find 40 lakh Bangladeshis, how you are going to deport them to Bangladesh, or they will be inducted in India as some other class of resident. If we can’t deport them what is the use of this NRC exercise?…’ (August 2015) / ‘IF ALL THE PEOPLE WILL GET NRC THAT MEANS NO FOREIGNERS IN ASSAM THAN WHY NRC ?? SPENDING MONEY OR MAKING MONEY??’ (January 2015).
The NRC also allowed for difference, as a category deeply embedded in the exercise, to be made visible and addressed on a platform. This was evident in the linguistic assertions around legality. For instance, an NRC poster on Facebook which was written in Bengali sparked concerns amongst users who questioned whether any form of Bangladeshi appeasement was going on: ‘(Translation) Why write in Bengali?’ / ‘There are bengali speaking people also.in Assam. Advertisements in barak valley go.in Bengali’ / ‘(Translation) In that case, everybody wil claim for citizenship rights in Assam’ / ‘Why is it not in assamese??.. People living in assam are assamese.. It should be assamese as our mothertongue is ASSAMESE..’ (User comments, August 2015). While many people had earlier scorned the NRC team for using Bengali in their posters issued for the public, new users of Bengali dominant districts stressed the need to address certain districts only in Bengali and not in Assamese: ‘While u r addressing people of Karimganj, why u chose English instead of Bengali????Bengali is also a official language of Assam.’ (User comment, January 2015).
But the NRC as an information infrastructure on the other hand also reflected the breakdown of an efficient system, where user articulations and opinions reflected a constant need to navigate through the system, specially related of technical failures: Several user concerns were also of technical challenges regarding online applications and verifications. For example: ‘I am trying to do the same through the online application system. But every time I try to ‘SAVE’ after putting the legacy details, a window appears and tells me that I have to put an 11 digit legacy data code for 1951 NRC, which I have already done. And yet the system tells me to put an 11 digit code. What do i do? PLEASE HELP!’ (August 2015); or user feedback: ‘The servers could have been better scaled with demand rather than going down with load. Also open APIs could have been provided for connecting from third party websites does reducing the load on the gui servers.’ (3 January 2018 at 15:25). The continuous updation/changing of web links to complaint redress page, closing of on-demand SMS service to know status of inclusion and non-operationalization of Legacy data search left many users clueless: ‘Is it possible to search Legacy data now ?? Pl mention alternative web link (if any) for Legacy data search.. becoz i think normal legacy search has been blocked at “nrcassam.nic.in”…’ / ‘Wht abt those who already registered for this service and till now waiting for final draft.’ (User comments, January 2016)
As an inverse infrastructure, the NRC relied on user-to-user informal network of feedback and query resolution, rather than the official one. For example, the following user posted his message on multiple posts whenever the State NRC Coordinator of Assam, Mr. Prateek Hajela was tagged: ‘…to the nrc assam respected protit hajila sir aap galat kar raha hai i am nirmal roy i have 1951 nrc of assam of my father and i have birth certificate of assam but phir bhi mera naam nrc assam me nahi hai mai aap ka naam se high court me jaati droho ka fir karunga’ / ‘Mr…. you can apeal or reapeal to enter your name in NRC with some reliable documents which you have. But can’t do that that said. Kisiko jaati drohi bolna asan hai ,but khudko sohi submit korna itna muskil nahi hai. You can try it again and aain. Ho sakta hai NRC ka primery centre me aapka koi purana dusman baith raha hai.’ / (E.g. 2) ‘…In the certificate date and year of joining the service was mentioned there. Even then my name is not included in the part draft NRC . am I not an Indian? What is the the cause? Sir Please reply.’ / ‘It’s plain common sense that the names itself says PART..hence part draft. Also people whose ancestors has migrated from other states it would take time to cross verify their documents. If you have proof of legacy data or any one of the list admissible documents issued prior 24 March, 1971 and linkage to them … no power in Republic of India can take away your citizenship.’ / ‘Thanks.’ (Facebook user comments, Nov., 2017) / (E.g. 3) How to check NRC new update of Assam: ‘https://youtu.be/HjR9zIVDLfk’ (November, 2017)/ ‘Yes,NRC authority couldn’t ans the valid q.I used my Grandfather’s legacy of 1951 NRC that the same is pending for verification, even his name is not enlisted thn how my name come?’ / ‘I mean ……Its a system generated software… So all the applicants verification was done individually. Remains are under processing…..’ (User comments, January 2018)
As a feedback system, the wide cases of errors in the NRC enumeration, as expressed in the Facebook page and NRCs complaint portal led them to assign few days in a week for NSKs for public complaint redress. This post was made public on the Facebook page of NRC Assam: ‘(Translation) NRC Assam launched a calendar marked with dates when an individual can visit the nearest NSKs if they wanted detailed information about themselves as published in the part draft NRC #OurNRCFairNRC #PartDraftNRC.’
The NRC information infrastructure therefore represents bureaucratic practices of efficiency, transparency, trust and anxiety management. In doing so, it represents the narrative of an efficient system. However, the circulation of user feedback, confusion, political concerns and opinions as an „inverse infrastructure‟ tells the story of user anxieties around system failure at specific moments of bureaucratic processes. In unpacking these practices, particular forms of anxiety and tensions centered around ‘legality’ of claims to citizenship also emerge. These media practices as a part of anxiety management and grievance redressal by the NRC office, also influences user behaviour through circulation of public opinion, political rhetoric, online anxieties around documentation and verification, identity and linguistic and ethnic claims. In doing so, the NRC as an information infrastructure becomes central to the specific forms of political aspirations, claims and participation. User opinions and feedback help in accounting for and navigating through the system, and contribute to building up the NRC as an information infrastructure. But question of legality through the various processes of documentation, application and verification processes and technical failures becomes a set of contending claims, both as a story of bureaucratic efficiency and failure of the NRC information infrastructure.
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The original research paper can be accessed here.