Did 4 Million in India Actually Become Stateless Overnight

A released list of citizens has many worried about the future citizenship status of those excluded.

On July 30th a three year effort in India to update Assam, India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC), overseen by the Indian Supreme Court, released its final draft list. It is the first update since 1951 when the NRC was first carried out to count citizens and their holdings. Critics view the list as a reflection of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s policies as many of the four million excluded are Muslims, who make up ⅓ of Assam’s 32 million.  

And because of the increased discrimination against Muslims in Assam, the intentions of the NRC update are under question.  Many see the proposed 2016 Citizenship Amendment Bill as an embodiment of the discrimination. The amendment, were it to be passed, would grant citizenship to Hindus who fled Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh—but not Muslims. Considering this, UN human rights experts have voiced the opinion that “local authorities… are deemed to be particularly hostile.”

The main concern though for international organizations is that even with legitimate documents, many officials are faulting individuals for minor technical issues. These errors include spelling errors, age inconsistencies, or confusion caused by various names. Aakar Patel, Executive Director of Amnesty International India, addressed such potentially misguided intentions by cautioning the government that the “NRC should not become a political tool.”

But how does one prove their citizenship? Each individual and every member of their family must provide two forms of documentation. The first is considered List A: documentation of an individual’s ancestors who were either on the 1951 NRC or any voter lists between 1951 and March 24, 1971.  The cut-off date is in accordance with the 1985 Assam Accords, which stated any individuals who fled violence after Bangladesh declared independence a foreigner.

Then the individual most prove their connection to their legacy person through List B documents, such as a birth certificate.  Still, both set of documents are difficult to obtain as many are poor illiterate families who either cannot access historical records or simply do not have the relevant documents.

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Villagers wait outside their local NRC Center to verify their documents (Source: Reuters).

And for those not on the final list, they will be left with only those rights “guaranteed by the UN” according to Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal. In other words, these individuals would be stateless: losing land rights, voting rights, and even access to welfare. For those individuals, the state has mentioned foreigners returning to Bangladesh; but Bangladesh has said it is not aware of any of its citizens living in Assam. And even though many news platforms have noted the construction of a new detention center to better process foreigners, Sonowal has said no one will be sent to detention centers

Considering this, South Asian director of the Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly said the government must “ensure the rights of Muslims and other vulnerable communities.” And for many human rights activists, such protections are crucial to preventing a parallel to the Rohingya’s loss of citizenship in 1982.

Currently, officials are reaching out to individuals not on the list and educating them on how they can file claims and objections to their status. Members of the Supreme Court have also emphasized that the list “can’t be the basis for any action by any authority” in its current draft form. Although the  “legal system will [ultimately] take its own course” according to Siddhartha Bhattacharya, Minister of Law and Justice.

 

 

TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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