India stripping millions of citizenship follows a dangerous precedent

Nearly 2 million people in Assam, a state in northeast India known internationally in part for its tea plantations, have been left off a register of citizens meant to exclude illegal immigrants. Photo by  Dwijen Mahanta .

Nearly 2 million people in Assam, a state in northeast India known internationally in part for its tea plantations, have been left off a register of citizens meant to exclude illegal immigrants. Photo by Dwijen Mahanta.

(OPINION) Last month, India published the final version of its National Register of Citizens, a list of people who can prove that they came to India before March 24, 1971. The date is important as it was the day before neighboring Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan and millions fled Bangladesh into India. People who are left off of the list are not considered to be citizens of India and are ultimately deemed to be stateless.

The rationale for the National Register of Citizens was, as claimed by Indian authorities, to establish a process that would help to distinguish those who are illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

According to the official statement published on Aug. 31, 31.1 million people were included in the list, leaving out 1.9 million people deemed to be ineligible for inclusion in the list (or did not make a claim to be included). The number of those excluded is not surprising considering the high evidential burdens imposed. The applicants were asked to submit documents dating back to 1970s. Many families would not have been able to produce the necessary documents due to illiteracy or poor record-keeping (especially of documents going back to 1970s).

Furthermore, according to the Office of the State Coordinator of National Registration, the applicants had to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they fulfilled all criteria. This is a standard of proof typical for criminal trials where the prosecution has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime he is charged with. Here, the burden of proof rested with the applicants.

The list has the effect of stripping individuals of their citizenship. Around 1.9 million people in the north-eastern state of Assam are at risk of becoming stateless. Those left off of the list will have 120 days to appeal against the decision to exclude them from the National Register of Citizens. Those wishing to appeal will have their case heard by the so-called Foreigners Tribunals, special courts set up to deal with questions of citizenship. 

The Foreigners Tribunals have themselves been the subject of concern and so people are discouraged from resorting to them. Journalist Rohini Mohan reviewed over 500 judgements of the Foreigners Tribunals and identified failings, including that the individuals were not informed of the proceedings and so were not able to represent themselves. In their absence, they were declared illegal immigrants.

Reportedly, thousands of people suspected of being “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” are already detained in temporary camps. The existing detention camps are overcrowded and offer very poor living conditions. Reportedly, rooms suitable for 40 people are sometimes occupied by 120 people. More camps are yet to be built. Apart from detaining those deemed illegal immigrants, the Indian government has been enforcing yet another practice that needs to be investigated and addressed, namely of separating children from their parents. Children are particularly vulnerable, especially in the overcrowded detention camps.

It is not yet clear what will happen to the 1.9 million people left off of the National Register of Citizens if their appeals fail. Will they be deemed stateless? Will they be deported to Bangladesh? Will they be able to remain in India but be deprived of any rights that they would ordinarily enjoy as citizens? Or will they remain in the detention camps indefinitely?

The National Register of Citizens has been criticized for targeting minorities, and especially, the Bengali minority, which is predominately of Muslim origin. While there is no suggestion that the mechanism, and the policy behind it, targets individuals belonging to religious minorities, the issue should not be overlooked. This, together with other challenges faced by religious minorities in India, should raise alarm bells and calls for oversight of the process. Indeed, the act of stripping individuals of their citizenship echoes the early stages of treatment afforded to the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar by the Burmese government.

The targeting of Muslim minorities and subsequent branding as illegal immigrants draws chilling parallels to the situation in Myanmar. It is crucial to address the issue now before the plight of those left out of the National Register of Citizens gets worse. The consequence of such branding is unknown at this stage, yet what is clear is that the newly stateless people will become victims of a litany of challenges that ordinarily come with the status.

Ewelina U. Ochab is a legal researcher and human rights advocate, PhD candidate and author of the book “Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East” and more than 30 UN reports. She works on the topic of persecution of minorities around the world. This piece was re-published from Forbes with permission.