More than 500,000 Muslims in Assam are in danger of losing their Indian citizenship
Women have been particularly affected.
The state of India implemented stricter standards regarding the documentation of citizenship.
As a result, 1.9 million people in the state of Assam were removed from India’s National Register of Citizens.
Approximately 500,000 of those affected were Muslims, many of them born and raised in India.
The state of Assam has since the 1950s seen an large influx of migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh (previously East Pakistan), especially during the country’s war of independence in 1971. Violent conflict between locals and migrants was mediated by the 1985 ‘Assam Accord’. This Accord stipulated that migrants who had entered India after March 25, 1971 were to be expelled.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of India directed the government to update the NRC in Assam. The state of India implemented new, stricter standards regarding the documentation of citizenship. As of August 2019, 1.9 million people in Assam were excluded from the NRC due to lack of required documentation. These individuals now face possible statelessness and detention.
In December 2019 the government introduced The Citizenship Amendment Act. This made it easier for non-Muslim migrants from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan) to apply for Indian citizenship. Muslims excluded from the National Register of Citizens still had to comply with strict documentation criteria to avoid becoming stateless.
India shares international borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan. These three were one country until 1947 when India and Pakistan got their independence. Since the 1950s there has been an influx of migrants to Assam from Bangladesh (earlier “East Pakistan”) which got its independence after a war in 1971.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of India directed the government to update the 1951 NRC list in Assam. Under the NRC process, the individuals have to prove through documentation of theirs or their ancestors entry or presence in India before March 24, 1971.
“We are residents of this city - and now we are asked to prove our citizenship”
Many individuals in India lack formal proof of identification. Due to strict documentation requirements, the NRC process reveals a disproportionate number of Muslim women in Assam are registered as ‘foreigners’. This despite being born in India and otherwise fulfilling the requirements for Indian citizenship.
Many have been removed from the National Register of Citizens due to technicalities, such as discrepancies in the spelling of names and addresses.
“I applied with all my family members. Me and my two sons and one of my sisters were excluded from Indian citizenship”
Accessibility and availabilty of documents have been unequal in India and expecially for the poor and marginalised. Following recent changes to the law of citizenship, however, many individuals born and raised within the borders of India, and who would otherwise qualify for Indian citizenship, are now unable to document their legal citizenship status. Because of this, human rights activists in India are concerned that the new law creates a situation where many individuals have become stateless.
Despite serving twenty years in the Indian Air Force, Sadaullah Ahmed was excluded from the National Register of Citizens because of minor discrepencies in the spelling of his father’s name.
“I incorrectly noted my school district as my home district. At the time of the proceedings, both my school principal and my father testified on my behalf. I was declared a foreigner based on a discrepancy in my address”
Women have been disproportionately affected by the new identification requirements. There are still many barriers to full gender equality in India, with women experiencing lack of education and employment opportunities. Due to early marriage, women are unable to prove ancestral lineage, which is one of the requirements to prove citizenship.
“The repercussions for Muslims in Assam, and for the rest of the country, were awful. What India effectively did was to convert 500,000 Muslims in India - who until then were presumed to be citizens into stateless people”
Muslims have been living in Assam since the 13th century. Today, Muslims represent roughly 40% of Assam’s population, making Assam one of the largest Muslim-populated state in India. As a religious minority, Muslims at various times in India’s history have experienced discrimination and persecution.
The Indian Citizenship Act of 1955 established that individuals can qualify for Indian citizenship by birth, descent, registration, naturalization or expansion of India’s territory. The process of updating the NRC in Assam, apply more stringent requirements of documentation. In 2019, the Indian parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), allowing for the naturalization of undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The CAA, however, makes no such concessions for Muslim migrants.
International human rights experts are critical of the fact that Muslims, so far in Assam in particular, are disproportionately at risk of being stripped of their Indian citizenship.
Additionally, construction of detention centre with capacity of 3,000 is nearly completed and state government have proposed construction of 10 more detention centres.
“I have been detained by the government for the past one and a half years. During this time I have not been able to see my four year old child.”
Individuals without legal resident status can be held in government detention centers. Men and women are held in separate detention centers, with children under 6 years of age held together with their mother.
There are currently six detention centers in Assam, able to hold over 3,300 individuals in total. Construction of an additional detention centre able to hold an additional 3,000 people is nearly completed. The state government has proposed construction of 10 additional facilities with a similar capacity.
A parallel judicial process for determination of whether a person is a foreigner or not. Around 130,000 declared foreigners by the tribunal. 1.9 million persons excluded from the NRC list, have the opportunity to appeal against such exclusion. There are concerns of abuse of power by the tribunal, having direct affect on one’s citizenship and risk to their family member.
“The UN Convention on Statelessness specifically prohibits any state from creating stateless people within its boundaries. India has created possibly the largest body of stateless persons in modern times.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to a nationality”. “Nationality” in this context refers to ‘citizenship’ - the formal status of belonging to a state and the legal rights and protections that this entails.
Everyone has a human right to nationality. Each state, however, has the right to decide which requirements individuals must fulfill in order to be recognized as citizens. People who are not recognized as citizens by any state are referred to as “stateless”.
Not all countries have ratified the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan are among those who have not signed.
Millions of people around the world are stateless. Statelessness can severely limit one’s ability to travel, work, own property, get an education, receive medical attention, open a bank account, or vote, among other things.
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