26, Jun 2018 | CJP Team
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being updated in Assam and there is a potential humanitarian crisis brewing with fears that thousands of people could be excluded from the list and be rendered stateless. The matter has now caught the attention of the United Nations prompting four Special Rapporteurs to write to Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs.
The letter is written by Fernand de Varennes (Special Rapporteur on minority issues), E. Tendayi Achiume (Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance), David Kaye (Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression) and Ahmed Shaheed (Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief). It is dated June 11, 2018.
The letter has raised a slew of concerns with respect to the update to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The rapporteurs have raised questions about possible discrimination against the Bengali Muslim minority, the controversial May 2 order of the NRC State Co-ordinator that asked the names of family members of a declared foreigner to be kept pending from the NRC, as well as a host of other issues.
About the NRC
The National Register for Citizens (NRC), a record of ‘legitimate’ Indian citizens living in Assam, is being updated for the first time since 1951. The ostensible objective is to weed out ‘Illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’. However, the numbers tell a chilling story… one of a conspiracy of ‘othering’ and exclusion.
Lakhs of Assamese people, many of them from poor and marginalised communities, are under threat of having their legitimate citizenship revoked. CJP believes this is discriminatory. Join us and raise your voice against this injustice. Become a member to know more about our campaign in Assam.
The Bengali Muslim and the Bangladeshi Bogeyman
On the subject of Bengali Muslims, the letter says,
There is no official policy outlining the implications for those who will be excluded from the final NRC. It is reported that they will be treated as foreigners and that their citizenship rights may be revoked in the absence of a prior trial. They may subsequently be asked to prove their citizenship before so-called Foreigners’ Tribunals. In December 2017, a local government minister in Assam was quoted as stating that “the NRC is being done to identify illegal Bangladeshis residing in Assam” and that “all those whose names do not figure in the NRC will have to be deported.” In this context, the NRC update has generated increased anxiety and concerns among the Bengali Muslim minority in Assam, who have long been discriminated against due to their perceived status as foreigners, despite possessing the necessary documents to prove their citizenship. While it is acknowledged that the updating process is generally committed to retaining Indian citizens on the NRC, concerns have been raised that local authorities in Assam, which are deemed to be particularly hostile towards Muslims and people of Bengali descent, may manipulate the verification system in an attempt to exclude many genuine Indian citizens from the updated NRC.”
It further highlights the plight of Bengali Muslims and raises concerns about the matter saying,
Bengali Muslims continue to be disproportionately affected and targeted by Foreigners’ Tribunals as most persons asked to prove their citizenship before Tribunals reportedly lack the necessary means to do so. Even in cases when individuals produce the required documentation to prove their citizenship, many Bengali Muslims appear to be declared as foreigners based on technical reasons. The Tribunals are governed by the Foreigners Act 1946, which places the burden of proof on the accused to demonstrate his or her citizenship status. Officials of these Tribunals are empowered to find persons to be foreigners, on the basis of minor technical discrepancies in their citizenship documents, such as misspelling of names and age inconsistencies. In this regard, it is also alleged that there has been a notable and significant increase in the Tribunals’ findings of foreigner status as a result of the new Government coming into power. It is alleged that the Tribunals have been declaring large numbers of Bengali Muslims in Assam as foreigners, resulting in statelessness and risk of detention.
Finally, it is alleged that the potential discriminatory effects of the updated NRC should be seen in light of the history of discrimination and violence faced by Muslims of Bengali origin due to their status as ethnic, religious and linguistic minority and their perceived foreignness. Although the Bengali origin Muslims in Assam descend from peasant workers brought from the former Bengal and East Bengal starting in the 19th century under colonial rule, they have long been portrayed as irregular migrants. As a result of this rhetoric, Bengali Muslims have historically been the target of various human rights violations, including forced displacement, arbitrary expulsions and killings.”
Family members of Declared Foreigners
On May 2, Prateek Hajela, State Coordinator for the NRC had issued an order to all Deputy Registrars of Citizen Registration (DRCR) and Local Registrars of Citizen Registration (LRCR) stating
As per this Judgement, the Superintendent of Police (B) are required to make references of such persons, namely, brothers, sisters and other family members of Declared Foreigners (DF) to the Foreigners Tribunals and their names are accordingly not be included in the NRC until finalisation of such references. LRCRs will have to keep eligibility status of all such persons pending till decision on their Indian Citizenship is confirmed by the concerned Foreigners Tribunal similar to the procedure for D-voters. As such LRCRs will have to record their decisions as “Hold” with LRCR Remarks recorded as “DFS”. DFS will mean Siblings and other Family Members of Declared Foreigners (DFs).”
However, on May 25, a clarification was issued saying,
With reference to the subject cited above and in continuation with the letter under reference, it is hereby clarified that recording of decision as ‘Hold’ by Local Registrar of Citizen Registration (LRCRs) for any such person, namely , brothers , sisters and other family members of Declared Foreigners (DF) will be taken only after receipt of information from respective SP(Border) that reference has been made of such person to the Foreigners Tribunals.”
The controversial order was challenged in the Guwahati High Court, but the court dismissed the writ petition and upheld the NRC State Coordinator’s order. The letter by the UN Special Rapporteurs is dated June 11 and therefore came before the Guwahati HC decision. This is what the letter states:
These concerns have been heightened by the alleged misinterpretation of a High Court judgement of 2 May 2017 (Gauhati High Court, WP(C) 360/2017). In this judgement, the Court directs the Assam Border Police to open inquiries concerning the relatives of persons declared as foreigners and to subsequently refer them to the so-called Foreigners’ Tribunals. Based on this judgement, the State Coordinator of the NRC reportedly issued two orders dated 2 May 2018 (memo No. SPMU/NRC/HF-FT/537/2018/15-A) and 25 May 2018 (memo no. SPMU/NRC/HC-FT/537/2018/23). Pursuant to the orders, border police authorities are required to refer family members of “declared foreigners” to the Foreigners’ Tribunals. The duty to conduct a prior inquiry is not mentioned in the orders. Once relevant NRC authorities have been informed about the referral of a case, the concerned family member will automatically be excluded from the NRC. Their status will be recorded as “pending” until their citizenship has been determined by a Foreigners’ Tribunal. It is therefore alleged that these orders may lead to the wrongful exclusion of close to two million names from the NRC, without a prior investigation and trial.”
Sudden increase in ‘Foreigners’
The UN Special Rapporteurs have also brought up that there has been a sudden spike in the number of people being declared foreigners. They have also expressed concerns about the functioning of Foreigners’ Tribunals. The letter says,
Concerns about the implementation of the NRC update have also been heightened by the increasing number of persons declared to be foreigners by Foreigners’ Tribunals. Out of a total of 468,934 referals to the Tribunals between 1985 and 2016, 80,194 people were declared foreigners. This figure increased drastically in 2017, reaching 13,434 in just eleven months. In this context, it is reported that members of Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam experience increasing pressure from State authorities to declare more persons as foreigners. On 21st June 2017, 19 members of the Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam were dismissed on ground of their under-performance over the last two years. More than 15 additional Tribunal members were issued with a strict warning to increase their efficiency. Considering that tribunal members serve on a contractual basis for two years, which may be extended on a needs and performance basis, these actions were perceived to be a thinly veiled threat to other Tribunal members.”
The letter also brings up the issue of ‘doubtful’ or D-Voters and expresses concerns over the allegedly arbitrary processes followed by Election Commission officials in declaring people D-Voters. It also raises questions about human rights violations, arbitrary detention and deportation, the exclusion of Muslims from the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 as well as a host of other subjects. It has also asked for clarifications vis a vis the treatment of those who are deemed stateless and steps taken to uphold rights of minorities. The entire letter may be read here.