All Routes Lead To Statelessness In Assam: Losing Citizenship Despite Proving It

After proving her Indian Citizenship to the Foreigners Tribunal, Fatima thought trying times were over. Until another notice came for her.

After a long struggle, Fatima* was able to secure her Indian citizenship in the Foreigners Tribunal. She went home relieved, back to her family. 

Fatima had a whole bunch of documents that proved her roots. She submitted a copy of the 1966 and 1970 voter list to prove her citizenship before the cut-off date of 25 March 1971.  She also submitted two certificates from her village head and a bank identity card to establish links to her father, and a name correction affidavit for a minor discrepancy in her father’s name in the documents.

She produced also four witnesses to prove her nationality which the Foreigners Tribunal found to be satisfactory and declared her an Indian citizen on 30 July 2018. A few months later, she was again sent a notice by the same Tribunal. 

“I tried to tell the Tribunal member that I have already proved my citizenship. But she replied saying that the order was wrong,” says Fatima

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Fatima doesn’t understand why she was sent a notice despite having proved her citizenship. Credit: Devraj Chaliha

She once again produced all her documents and witnesses. However, this time the Tribunal members found a way to dismiss most of what she had submitted. The Tribunal that had once accepted an affidavit to prove the spelling difference in her father’s name, this time rejected the same, calling it a ‘mere self-declaration.’ The voter lists with Fatima’s name along with her husband were not accepted since they were photocopies. The certificates issued by the village head were not accepted because the issuing authorities had not been produced before the Tribunal. The bank ID card could not ‘solely be relied upon’. And, the fact that she did not produce voter lists after 1970 with her parents’ names was apparently not explained satisfactorily enough for the member. 

Voter lists prior to 1966, 1951 NRC record, proof of her birthplace and land document, were all cited as required and missing. Added to this were the Tribunal’s questions. They asked Fatima to name her grandfather’s place of birth, which she didn’t know. 

“To me, it felt like the Member was trying to corner me into confusion by asking the same questions in a twisted manner. When I didn’t seem very sure about something, she noted it down in her diary,” Fatima told Amnesty International India. 

On 20 May 2019, she was declared a foreigner based on the Tribunal member’s opinion that Fatima obtained ‘documents at the last moment’ and took advantage of the delay in her case to submit the documents. 

A Case for Harassment

Fatima’s case points at the vague procedure adopted by the Foreigners Tribunals to decide the right of citizenship for an individual. Amnesty International India’s analysis of the tribunal opinions across the state, show acute disparity in what is acceptable and what is not, as proof of one’s citizenship. It also shows the burden of detailed documentation that is laid upon the individual. Lack of documents alone must not lead to deprivation of citizenship, especially in India, where maintaining uniform documentation has been a great challenge, even for the state. 

Expecting that from vulnerable communities who have not received formal education and who often migrate internally for work can be looked at as a form of harassment. 

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Many like Fatima have been forced to prove their citizenship not once but twice. Credit: Devraj Chaliha

While Fatima was awaiting her turn outside the Tribunal, she met several other women who were being troubled for similar reasons. “All of them said we have the documents and we are Indians. One of them even got a positive judgment,” she said. Fatima is now appealing the case to the Gauhati High Court and is positive that she will be given a fair judgement. She has been able to find land documents dating 1947 that can strengthen her claim. 

Speaking to Amnesty International India, Sanjay Hegde, a senior Supreme Court lawyer said: 

“It is only in the case of gross violations that the courts will intervene. It is very easy for constitutional courts to shut their eyes to the facts of each case and remember that behind the paper lies a human being who is at the risk of losing their nationality because they did not have any documents. The entire perspective emanates from a migrant-unfriendly culture bordering on xenophobia and a desire to keep these people from normal human existence.”

Awaiting her fate, Fatima often thinks about why God sent her down this path. 

“Maybe He is testing my faith.”

*Name changed to protect identity.

Read how unable to prove a link to her father, Safina lost her citizenship in Assam.

Read Amnesty International India’s briefing, Designed To Exclude.