India is Stripping 4 Million People of Citizenship

India is quietly stripping citizenship from over four million people, and human rights groups are not happy.

A draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published on July 30 by the Assam state government. The list comprises the names of citizens in India’s northern state who have been able to show via documentation that they were citizens within Assam before 24 March 1971. This date is important as it was the day immediately before the bloody events that led to Bangladesh declaring independence from Pakistan.

India contends that this list is important because it is needed to identify migrants whom the government says have been living illegally in the state but who are pretending to have valid citizenship.

“It’s a historic day for Assam and India as a whole,” Shailesh, the registrar general of India, is quoted as saying. “We have achieved a milestone of publishing the first complete draft NRC (National Register of Citizens).”

Supporters of this move, among them ethnic Assamese groups, say that it is vital to prevent so-called outsiders taking their jobs and taking over valuable resources. They praise Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party for its tough stance on citizenship claims.

Human rights groups are not celebrating, however.

Fears That Statelessness Could Lead to Arbitrary Detention

The poor are rendered incredibly vulnerable by this citizenship screening.

Millions of Indians living in Assam have no ability to access the historical documents they need to prove their citizenship. They are so poor that getting their daily needs meet, such as finding enough money for food, is a constant worry. They cannot afford to have documents printed and will not have so-called “legacy” documents that prove their citizenship from pre-1971.

One of the major fears over this move is that many of those who could be targeted are minority Muslims. There has been a concerted effort at the political level by Hindu nationalists to slowly but steadily strip Muslim nationals of their voting power and other rights.

There is a particular flash-point of tensions between self-defined ethnically Assamese and those seen as Muslim non-natives. Many Muslim residents have worked and contributed to the Assam state economy for much—if not all—of their lives and have families and jobs within the region.

This citizenship test, human rights groups believe, is an escalation of tensions. While it is arguably reasonable to have up-to-date citizenship records, that is not to the motivation behind the register.

“Assam has long sought to preserve its ethnic identity, but rendering millions of people stateless is not the answer,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch is quoted as saying. “Indian authorities need to move swiftly to ensure the rights of Muslims and other vulnerable communities in Assam are protected from statelessness.”

The government has said that no one will be made stateless by this citizenship drive and instead people who do have correct documentation can appeal and have the record changed. However, rights groups point out that the government has not formalized any procedures for those who are not able to prove citizenship.

For one thing, India has not agreed any formal terms for deporting these so-called “illegal” citizens to Bangladesh. India claims that no one will be put in detention camps, but it seems difficult to see a way forward without a formal process having been established, and detention camps appear to be a solution that, though going unsaid, is a natural interim measure.

There’s also another disturbing aspect to this unfolding human rights story.

When the list was first published back in December of 2017 it was much more encompassing. The National Register of Citizens then notified the Supreme Court, which is overseeing this drive, that 150,000 names would be stripped from the next draft for providing evidence that was invalid, false or “inadmissible”.

What is concerning is that a third of those were married women. Whether this is reflective of a broader trend or not will only become clear as the list evolves, but we have seen women in particular targeted in similar attempts to disenfranchise citizens.

“The NRC should not become a political tool to render stateless people who have been living in India for decades and have established strong links with the country,” Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India, is quoted as saying. “During the process of claims and appeals, the state government should ensure that the people excluded from the NRC are not deprived of any government services, nor targeted or stigmatized in any manner.”

In the past there have been incidents of armed groups taking the law into their own hands and targeting “illegal” citizens. The government has said it does not sanction or support any such activities, and it has said it will give adequate time for an appeals process, which it expects to be given proper respect. No deportations will occur during that time. However, making it difficult for minority Muslim, Shia and Ahmadiyya people to assert their citizenship will add fuel to the fire of anti-immigrant and purely racist groups.

While the specific details are very different, human rights groups are warning that this could precipitate another crisis like we have seen with Myanmar and Rohingya people. International pressure may be vital for ensuring that India honors the human rights of all its people.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

54 comments

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Marie W2 months ago

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Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson7 months ago

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HEIKKI R
HEIKKI R7 months ago

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Janis K8 months ago

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Joan E8 months ago

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John W
John W8 months ago

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Danuta W8 months ago

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Jack Y
Jack Y8 months ago

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Jack Y
Jack Y8 months ago

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Janis K
Janis K8 months ago

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