Uncertain Destiny For Millions In Assam Post NRC

Amnesty International India
Bengaluru/ New Delhi: 31 August 2019 10:23 am

More than 1.9 million people have been left out from the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was published today, in Assam. Amnesty International India expresses its deep concerns about the functioning of the 100 or more Foreigners Tribunals, which will decide whether those excluded from the NRC list are Indian citizens or not. Amnesty International India strongly urges the Assam Government to ensure that the Foreigners Tribunals function with utmost transparency and are in line with the fair trial standards guaranteed under national and international law.

“The Foreigners Tribunals, which will decide the Indian citizenship of millions of people, are quasi-judicial bodies where persons claimed to be foreigners have the responsibility to prove that they are Indian citizens. Several reports have demonstrated how the proceedings before Foreigners Tribunals are arbitrary, while their orders are biased and discriminatory. Although, the Government of India is within its sovereign right to update NRC, it must ensure that it is not depriving a person of his/her nationality on arbitrary or vague grounds, by diminishing procedural due process, or if such deprivation stands to render a person stateless,” said Aakar Patel, Head of Amnesty International India.

Instances of the foreigners tribunals declaring citizens as ‘irregular foreigners’ over clerical errors—such as minor differences in spellings of names or age in electoral rolls, or slight contradictions between answers given in cross-examinations and what is written in the documents—are appallingly common. Amnesty International India spoke to the family of Subrata Dey, who died in detention on 26 May 2018. His mother and brother said that his name was spelt as Subodh in his identity documents. His claim of being an Indian was, therefore, rejected by the Foreigners Tribunal after which he was sent to a detention centre in Goalpara, Assam. His family was ready to file an appeal in the Gauhati High Court when they learnt of his death in the detention centre.

“The nationality determination process of the Foreigners Tribunals is divorced from the reality of documents in India. Many Indians, especially those belonging to poor and marginalized communities, do not have certified copies of identity documents or are unable to produce it on time to prove their citizenship. This is particularly true in the case of Assam, a state that has significant population of internally displaced persons because of frequent outbreaks of violence, and natural disasters. In many instances, people are facing detention and deportation largely because they do not have documents to show their parents or even grandparents were Indian citizens. It is unreasonable to expect people fleeing from violence and natural disasters to preserve half a century-old original identity documents,” said Aakar Patel.

Amnesty International India remains concerned about gender discrimination in the proceedings before the tribunals which are heavily weighed against married women. Reasons stemming from deeply rooted patriarchal structures such as child marriage, non-inheritance of property and residence in other states before marriage have caused mass non-verification of their documents. This has devastating consequences on their children, who are automatically excluded from acquiring Indian citizenship, clearly violating India’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Children, to which it’s a party and raising grave concerns about the sheer scale of statelessness.

Further, the Government of India, in response to a question asked by Shashi Tharoor, a Member of Parliament, had revealed that as many as 63,959 persons were declared foreigners in Assam between 1985 and February 2019 through ex-parte orders by the Foreigners Tribunals.  Ex-parte orders are those where the judgment is pronounced without the physical presence of those claimed to be foreigners. This is a blow to their right to a fair hearing, as guaranteed under both Indian and international law.

Various media reports have alluded to the Assam Government applying pressure on members to allegedly declare large numbers of people as “irregular foreigners”. On 20 June 2017, 19 foreigner tribunal members were dismissed by the Home and Political Department of Assam Government for their “under performance in the last two years”, and 15 others were asked to accelerate their rate of disposal of cases. The undue pressure exerted by the state government over the appointment and termination of the members raises questions on the independence and impartiality of the tribunals, jeopardizing the people’s right to a fair trial. It also undermines the life-changing implications of the decisions of Foreigners Tribunals.

“Assam is on the brink of a crisis which would not only lead to a loss of nationality and liberty of a large group of people but also erosion of their basic rights – severely affecting the lives of generations to come. Transparency in foreigner tribunal proceedings and strict adherence to fair trial standards can prevent this impending crisis,” said Aakar Patel.

BACKGROUND

The National Register of Citizens (NRC), is a register containing the details of Indian citizens living in and outside India. In Assam, people apply before a designated NRC Seva Kendra (Help Centre).

Although this process is mandated to be conducted regularly across the country, it has only taken place in the state of Assam due to legal and political exigencies, once in 1951 after the first census of independent India while the second one is currently under-process. Following repeated protests and violence over irregular migration from Bangladesh in Assam, the Supreme Court, in 2014, directed the Government of India to update the NRC in the state under the Court’s monitoring with the aim of identifying Indian citizens and legitimate residents. The exercise finally began in 2015.

The register only lists those people as citizens who can prove that they or their ancestors entered India before midnight on 24 March 1971 – the eve of the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. This cut-off date is only applicable to Assam.

In 1971, after the Bangladesh Liberation War, there was a huge influx of refugees from what was East Pakistan into India. This resulted in ethnic tensions, which provided a basis for a widespread anti-foreigner movement in Assam known as the ‘Assam Agitation’. The agitation, led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU), went on from 1979 to 1985.

It demanded the “detection” of all foreigners, their deletion from the voters’ lists, and subsequent deportation. The agitation was based on the fear that the growing immigrant population was a burden on the resources of the state and would make the people of Assam a minority in their own land.

The agitators refused to recognise the authority of elected representatives and accused politicians of using “irregular migrants” as “vote banks” to win elections. The agitators also wanted the state to use the 1951 National Register of Citizens to determine the citizenship of all those residing in the state even though the Census Act 1948 prohibits its admissibility as evidence in any proceeding.

The Assam Agitation ended with the signing of the Assam Accord. This accord was signed between the AASU, the Indian government and the Assam state government. Some of the key provisions of the Accord related to securing the international border between India and Bangladesh, including, by building a wall and barbed wire fencing; and ‘detection’ and expulsion of foreigners who entered Assam on or after 25 March 1971 which was codified as Section 6A of the Citizenship Act 1955.

For more information please contact:

Nazia Erum
Email: [email protected]
Phone: 9606187741