UN official urges India to ensure no one is left stateless in Assam

Published September 3, 2019
About 31.1 million people were included on the list Assam’s government released on Saturday, omitting 1.9 million. The list known as the National Register of Citizens, or NRC is unique to Assam state, in India’s far northeast bordering Bangladesh. — AFP/File
About 31.1 million people were included on the list Assam’s government released on Saturday, omitting 1.9 million. The list known as the National Register of Citizens, or NRC is unique to Assam state, in India’s far northeast bordering Bangladesh. — AFP/File

BERLIN: The UN’s top refugee official urged India to ensure no one is left stateless by the exclusion of nearly two million people from a citizenship list in Assam state.

“Any process that could leave large numbers of people without a nationality would be an enormous blow to global efforts to eradicate statelessness,” Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement issued on Sunday in Geneva.

He urged India to ensure no one ends up stateless, “including by ensuring adequate access to information, legal aid, and legal recourse in accordance with the highest standards of due process.”

About 31.1 million people were included on the list Assam’s government released on Saturday, omitting 1.9 million. The list known as the National Register of Citizens, or NRC is unique to Assam state, in India’s far northeast bordering Bangladesh.

The government has said it compiled the list to detect and deport undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh but has also clarified that those left off the final citizenship list won’t be declared foreigners.

It’s unclear what happens next. Those left off the list can appeal to unique tribunals, but if they lose, they could be sent to detention centres being set up by the government.India’s foreign ministry has defended a controversial citizenship register in Assam state after criticism from the United Nations, saying the almost two million people excluded from the list would not become “stateless”.

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — which also runs Assam, in the country’s north-east — had backed the National Register of Citizens (NRC) saying it was necessary to detect “foreign infiltrators”.But foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar defended the process, saying the NRC “does not make the excluded person ‘stateless’” and any decisions taken would be consistent with Indian law and its “democratic traditions”.

“It (the NRC) also does not make him or her a ‘foreigner’, within the legal meaning of the term,” Kumar said in a statement released late on Sunday.

“For those who are not in the final list, (they) will not be detained and will continue to enjoy all the rights as before until they have exhausted all the remedies available under the law.” Assam, a poor and isolated state of 33 million, is largely surrounded by Bangladesh and has long seen influxes of migrants — even during Britain’s colonial rule.

But under the NRC, only those who can demonstrate they or their forebears were in India before 1971 can be included in the list.

Those left off have 120 days to appeal at so-called Foreigners Tribunals, and can also appeal their case through the courts.

A senior government official told reporters on Monday that some 500 tribunals would be up-and-running by December, and “even those cases who don’t approach the tribunal will be scrutinised by the tribunal”.

He added that the government would provide legal support to those who can’t afford to pursue their cases through the judicial system.

Critics have said the NRC process reflects the BJP’s goal to serve Hindus, with a large chunk of those excluded expected to be Muslims.

Published in Dawn, September 3rd, 2019

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