The forced displacement of more than one million Rohingya from Myanmar has vividly shown to the world the damaging consequences that may result from mass statelessness. Now neighbouring India is quietly engineering what threatens to be the largest exercise worldwide in creating potential statelessness.
More than 1.9 million people in India’s Assam state face being stripped of their citizenship after they have, in effect, been declared as ‘non-citizens’ through the publication of the ‘final’ National Register of Citizens (NRC) list on 31 August 2019.
While this is less than the four million people excluded from earlier drafts, fears of a statelessness crisis are growing.
The NRC process is the latest manifestation of a flawed and politicised project that is radically recasting India’s conception of citizenship. Originally founded on embracing the nation’s diverse social groups, citizenship is now increasingly being used as an instrument of exclusion.
The NRC itself is the culmination of a long history of political agitation and, at times, violent conflict between local Assamese people and the State’s Bengali-speaking population. Many of these arrived several decades ago after fleeing the mass atrocities that marked the establishment, in 1971, of neighbouring Bangladesh as an independent country.
Originally drawn up in 1951, the updating of the NRC has now been spurred by two distinct but overlapping agendas – anti-Bengali sentiment in Assam against both Muslim and Hindu Bengalis, and the Indian central government’s Hindu-nationalist, and increasingly anti-Muslim, stance.
Under the NRC update process, each of Assam’s more than 30 million people have to prove that they are ‘genuine’ Indian nationals, with the burden of proof being placed squarely on the individual.
Applicants have to provide documentary proof to the effect that either they or their ancestors lived in Assam prior to 1971. This can be a major challenge for many poor populations in India who lack adequate documentation or are illiterate.
A convoluted and opaque process, often involving multiple steps of verification and re-verification, has turned the process into a bureaucratic nightmare. Local reports indicate that misinformation and the economic costs of the exercise have hit the poor and women the hardest. Many have found the process intimidating and arbitrary.
Those not on the ‘final’ NRC list now have 120 days to appear before hundreds of ‘Foreigner Tribunals’ where they can challenge their exclusion. It is likely they will face many months of uncertainty before their fate is decided.
A media investigation of these quasi-judicial tribunals meanwhile has revealed deep flaws in the system that challenge guarantees of due process.
Notifications to appear before the tribunals often don’t reach people, leading to a large number of orders being issued in the absence of claimants. It is a problem compounded by the lack of adequate legal representation.
Simple spelling errors or other inconsistencies in documents are a frequent cause for exclusion. Media and local observers also allege an entrenched bias against Bengali-speaking Muslims in the decision-making of many tribunal members and administrators.
Official information on what will happen to those who are ultimately declared to be non-citizens or ‘foreigners’ is scant.
Under existing policies, migrants considered to be illegal are liable to arrest and detention. Already around 1,000 people who have been declared foreigners previously are languishing in detention centres in Assam, often in criminal prisons and with no statutory limit on the period of their detention. More detention centres are under construction.
Fears of deportation are widespread, but neighbouring Bangladesh has no intention of taking in nearly two million people, and has even been reassured by the Indian government that the NRC process is an ‘internal matter’. Yet, it is hard to see how mass denationalisation and the resulting potential instability can remain confined to Assam’s borders.
The lack of anything resembling a plan for what happens after the NRC is only heightening the fears of affected individuals and families.
A local NGO report found ‘extreme anxiety’ and distress among people excluded from the NRC. Many expressed a sense of shame and humiliation at being excluded, and there have been at least 31 documented cases of suicide in relation to the NRC.
The international reaction to India’s handling of the Assam situation has been rather mute.
In a joint letter to the Indian government several UN special rapporteurs expressed their concerns over the shortcomings of the NRC process and its violation of numerous obligations under international human rights law. But India is neither a signatory to the 1954 UN Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons nor the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi has warned that the process could be an enormous blow to global efforts to eradicate statelessness.
To counter the harmful effects of the NRC process, the world’s largest democracy will have to rely on its own robust media landscape, as well as the many concerned legal professionals and domestic civil society actors who have amped up their criticism.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of India, which is overseeing the ambitious NRC process, has manoeuvred itself into a politically and legally uncomfortable position which is increasingly embroiling the court in the politics surrounding questions of citizenship.
The fact that the Court both supervises the administration of the NRC update and deals with appeals against it has also put into question the effectiveness of institutional checks-and-balances.
Even more worryingly, senior Indian government officials, undisturbed by the impending calamity in Assam, are now flagging plans to roll out similar citizens’ registers across India.
India’s self-made citizenship crisis urgently needs a more humane and inclusive solution before it propels out of control.
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