Accessing Citizenship: Patterns of Civil Registration and Insurgent Conflict in India

About the author(s):

Atharv Dhiman is a junior lecturer of political science at the University of Amsterdam, and a junior researcher in the ERC-funded CitizenGap project. He has specialised in the political economy of civil conflicts in India and has specifically worked on questions regarding the longevity of violent and non-violent political action. Atharv holds a MSc in Political Science (cum laude) from the University of Amsterdam. Prior to his studies at UvA, he was a research assistant at Panjab University (Chandigarh, North India). He speaks Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Pahadi, and is interested in the application of mixed methodologies such as qualitative-comparative analysis and geo-spatial analysis.

Imke Harbers is associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. She holds a PhD from Leiden University and has been a visiting fellow at the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her research focuses on subnational political institutions, state capacity, citizenship and democracy. She is also interested in multi-method research, and specifically in developing new approaches for integrating geo-spatial analysis and qualitative methods. In 2020, she received an ERC Starting Grant for CitizenGap, a project that analyzes the politics of birth registration. The project pursues two main questions: (1) How and why do states invest in civil registration? (2) How and why do citizens decide to obtain state-provided documents?

Citizenship grants access to the rights enjoyed by all members of the political community of a given state. To claim these rights, citizens must be able to provide evidence of membership based on birth place and/or parentage. Yet, according to recent World Bank estimates, about 850 million people lack official documents such as birth certificates, ID cards or passports that prove their legal identity. The absence of state-recognised documents can brand individuals as non-citizens or outsiders. For millions of people, as Wendy Hunter  and a recent volume edited by Tendayi Bloom and Lindsey Kingston show, the threat to the enjoyment of citizenship rights derives not from their legal status, but from their inability to demonstrate this status. Individuals without legal identity documents often come from marginalised communities or live in zones of limited state presence. This creates a vicious cycle as vulnerable individuals are rendered even more vulnerable by their lack state-recognised documents. 

Birth certificates are key to establishing legal identity, including claims of citizenship, and proof of parentage. In a recent working paper, we examine how armed conflict affects birth registration in India.[1] UNICEF estimates that as of 2016, around 20% of children under the age of five have not been registered with Indian civil authorities, suggesting that 2.7 million children in this age group do not possess birth certificates. Unregistered children often live in poor households and belong to marginalised communities. The South Asia Terrorism Portal identifies 76 active insurgent groups in India and an average of 2100 conflict-related fatalities per year between 2000-2022. Insurgent conflict tends to be concentrated in peripheral areas or along India’s international borders, such as the Northeast of the country and in Jammu & Kashmir, and in tribal areas that have long suffered from state neglect. In our paper, we examine patterns of birth registration in these areas, and find that armed conflict increases the risk that children remain unregistered beyond factors associated with social marginalisation previously identified in the literature.

Birth Registration and Armed Conflict

Armed conflict exacerbates the challenges of civil registration for citizens, while also raising the stakes of registration (see UNICEF 2007Fortin and Hampton). Identity documents are vital to access state-provided services such as cash transfers, public education and health. Since eligibility for such services generally depends on age, citizenship and/or residential status, identity documents are essential to monitor whether individuals meet such requirements. Citizens unable to produce state-recognised documents proving eligibility are often excluded even as conflict increases poverty and marginalisation, leaving citizens in conflict zones in particular need of support. The inability to demonstrate age may also leave children unable to effectively claim the protections to which they are entitled. In India, instances of child recruitment into armed conflicts have been reported in certain conflict areas, such as the Naxalite insurgency in Central-East India or the Kashmiri separatist movement in the North. Violence also leads to displacement as civilians flee conflict zones to seek safety elsewhere. Internally displaced people need documents to demonstrate that – as citizens – they are entitled to settle and receive assistance. In situations of displacement, birth certificates are also essential to document family relations to prevent the trafficking of children. 

Yet, civil registration during armed conflict is particularly difficult. In zones where armed groups are present and control territory, citizens often struggle to access civil registration. On the one hand, the state may be unable to protect local officials in conflict zones, making it difficult to staff the required bureaucracy. On the other hand, the state may be disinterested in ‘seeing’ populations in conflict zones. Slater and Kim refer to the state strategy that emerges from the state’s unwillingness to engage with populations perceived as disloyal or challenging as “standoffishness”. 

Citizens considering obtaining legal identity documents from the state may have security concerns, as such documents could be interpreted by insurgent groups as signs of disloyalty. Further, armed groups often operate in areas with limited infrastructure. Research in political science has shown that difficult terrain limits the state’s capacity to impose control and govern effectively, which in turn makes such areas prone to armed conflicts. The presence of armed groups further undermines the state’s ability to construct infrastructure seen as imposing state authority and aimed at eroding rebel control. In India, insurgent groups such as the Naxalites have targeted infrastructure projects in order to prevent state access and intervention. The lack of vital infrastructure then renders registration inaccessible for citizens and security concerns dampen demand for registration. 

What do we find?

To examine the relationship between conflict and birth registration, we draw on data from the 2015-16 wave of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS). The survey asks caregivers of children younger than five years whether a child has been registered with civil authorities and possesses a birth certificate. It also includes data on the age and gender of the child as well as on relevant household characteristics, such as poverty, location and social group membership. We generate a map of conflict intensity based on events reported in the Uppsala Conflict Data Program(UCDP) prior to 2010. The conflict data thus cover the period prior to the births of the cohort included in the survey’s birth registration data. For each primary sampling unit in the NFHS, we create a measure of local conflict exposure. The left panel in Figure 1 maps all primary sampling units in the survey, illustrating the broad geographic coverage of the NFHS. The right panel reflects conflict intensity based on kernel density smoothing of the UCDP data. Areas for which many conflict events are reported appear in darker shades, while those without nearby conflict events are lighter. In our analysis, we control for variables commonly associated with low registration such as the child’s age and gender, rural residence, altitude, household wealth, the head of household’s religion and whether the head of household is a member of a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe. We also control for the mother’s education

Our results show that children in areas affected by armed conflict are significantly less likely to possess birth certificates. That this effect emerges even when taking into account the social marginalisation that characterises many conflict zones, such as poverty and remoteness, highlights that conflict constitutes an additional risk factor for a lack of legal identity. Citizens in conflict zones are in particular need of protection and support, as conflict exacerbates existing vulnerabilities. Yet, citizens in conflict zones face difficulties obtaining state-recognised identity documents. Their vulnerability is therefore compounded by the fact that they are often left out of official records. 

Figure 1: Conflict Intensity and Local Conflict Exposure

Note: The left panel captures primary sampling units in the 2015-16 National Family Health Survey. The right panel reflects conflict intensity based on data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. 

[1] Please email the authors to request the full paper.

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