In mid-2019, the government of India published the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a state record listing only ‘genuine citizens’ living in the north-eastern state of Assam. Human rights experts are gravely worried that 1.9 million people – half of whom are believed to be Muslims – have been excluded from this list. In other words, nearly two million people living in Assam have been declared ‘non-citizens’ or foreigners.
In a state where the population already suffers from poverty and marginalisation, people excluded from the NRC are now at risk of statelessness – meaning they are not recognised as belonging to any country. This leaves them vulnerable to numerous human rights abuses. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues has warned that it could be ‘the biggest exercise in statelessness since the second world war’.
A few months after the NRC was published, the Parliament of India passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), enhancing the risk of protracted statelessness for many of the people affected. These two acts must be understood as part of a climate of increasing religious division and discrimination against Muslims, marked by bloody conflicts across the country.
What is the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam?
The NRC has roots in two converging ethno-nationalist movements.
The first of these is an anti-Bengali ideology in Assam whose adherents claim that Muslim and Hindu Bengalis are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. During the 1970–71 war which led to the creation of Bangladesh, millions fled into India.
The UN warns that this could be ‘the biggest exercise in statelessness since the second world war’.
In 1979, agitators began claiming that illegal immigrants were entered on Assam’s electoral rolls, triggering years of conflict which concluded with a peace deal in 1985. Conditions included updating the register of Assam’s citizens, compiled for the first time in 1951.
In 2013, the Supreme Court issued a decision requiring the Government to finalise the NRC update.
The following year, a new party was elected — the BJP led by Narendra Modi. Its Hindu nationalist (and anti-Muslim) narrative overlapped with the anti-immigrant cause in Assam. The BJP supported the implementation of the NRC and published the final NRC in August 2019.
A flawed process
People had the responsibility of proving their eligibility to be listed in the NRC by providing proof that they or their ancestors entered India before midnight 24 March, 1971.
The results of this flawed process were disastrous.
Arbitrary decision-making created absurd situations where parents were included on the NRC but some of their children were not. Challenges to proving citizenship included documents lost during floods, erosion or internal displacement.
Women were particularly disadvantaged because of greater rates of illiteracy compared to men (around one in three women in Assam is illiterate) and because they tend to move away from home upon marriage, losing access to vital documents.
Has India made 1.9 million people stateless?
The status of the 1.9 million people left off the list is unclear. People had 120 days to appeal to Foreigners’ Tribunals which were plagued by reports of political pressure on tribunal members to declare Muslims and Bengalis foreigners.
The BJP has not clarified what its intentions are once the appeals process ends. The party had insisted that alleged illegal immigrants would be deported but Bangladesh denies that they are Bangladeshi citizens.
A flawed process with disastrous consequences.
What then is the future of the stateless people, when there is nowhere to deport them? With the construction of India’s largest detention centre nearing completion in Assam, human rights experts fear that people deprived of nationality in Assam could be indefinitely detained.
The devastating impact on the lives of the people of Assam is immense. A reported 89% of people are suffering from extreme levels of anxiety and at least 31 deaths by suicide have been connected to the process.
The Citizenship Amendment Act – a second blow to vulnerable minorities
In December 2019, the Parliament of India passed a second piece of legislation called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which further exacerbates the risk of prolonged statelessness for some people excluded from the NRC. Indian law generally prohibits ‘illegal migrants’ from becoming citizens. Through the CAA, an exception is created for people from neighbouring countries who entered India prior to 2015 and identify as Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian.
With the construction of India’s largest detention centre nearing completion, human rights experts fear that people deprived of nationality in Assam could be indefinitely detained.
Opposition parties criticised it as a discriminatory policy because it excludes Muslims and other minority religious groups from citizenship. Muslims who make up an estimated half of the 1.9 million people in Assam are not only potentially stateless but also are denied an avenue to acquiring Indian nationality under the CAA, unlike members of the religious groups included in the CAA.
What are human rights experts saying about the NRC and CAA?
The UNHCR raised concerns about the potential statelessness created by the NRC, urging the Indian government to mitigate this risk. Instead, by enacting the CAA, the BJP increased the risk of statelessness for Muslims in Assam. This adds credence to the NRC’s image as a mechanism to purge Assam of unwanted ethnic and religious groups.
Academics, human rights organisations, and UN bodies have also criticised the CAA for endangering peoples’ rights to equality before the law, freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination and non-refoulement, a principle that prevents states from forcing asylum seekers to return to a country where they might face persecution.
A mechanism to purge Assam of unwanted ethnic and religious groups
Over one hundred petitions have been filed to the Supreme Court of India over the CAA’s constitutional validity. Petitioners are challenging the law on the grounds that it infringes the right to equality before the law and non-discrimination on religious grounds enshrined in India’s Constitution.
A departure from India’s Constitution
The NRC and the CAA are a seismic shift from the conception of Indian citizenship in the Constitution. Any person born in the territory of India and domiciled in India is entitled to Indian citizenship under the Constitution.
Petitioners are challenging the law on the grounds that it infringes the right to equality before the law and non-discrimination on religious grounds enshrined in India’s Constitution.
The Citizenship Act 1955 then stipulated descent-based citizenship for people born on or after 1 July 1987, but is silent on ethnicity or religion.
The NRC and the CAA (which amends the 1955 Act) are therefore a rupture from the secular, inclusive foundations of the Indian state envisioned in the Constitution. The NRC tied citizenship to descent, whilst the CAA grounds eligibility for citizenship on religious affiliation.
Both these policies are widely viewed as extensions of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist platform which is based on the idea of Hindutva – that India is a Hindu nation. The preliminary results of the NRC and CAA illustrate the catastrophic consequences this ideology has for minorities and the nation’s founding ideal of secularism.
A Nation-wide NRC?
India, like many countries around the world, is now in a national lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19. In this time where an effective response to the pandemic needs national unity, the community is overtly divided.
Both these policies are widely viewed as extensions of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist platform which is based on the idea of Hindutva – that India is a Hindu nation.
Despite wavering on its 2019 election manifesto to implement an India-wide NRC, the BJP continues to implement and update the National Population Register.
Statelessness is created by national law and policy, and it can, therefore, be resolved with political will and national efforts. However, in its current climate, it is hard to envisage a fundamental change of political will within India. The future of millions of India’s Muslim population remains uncertain and the NRC and CAA are an enormous setback to the global campaign to end the scourge of statelessness.