The Guardian • Issue #1961

Assam’s statelessness crisis continues

Assam tea growers.

In August 2019, a National Register of Citizens was published in Assam. It has created a crisis of statelessness in the region which is ongoing today. Assam is a state in northeastern India which is home to around 33mil people. It is located just to the south of the Eastern Himalayas and is bordered by Bhutan to the north and Bangladesh to the south. A substantial portion of the state’s population are Bengali-speaking muslims who migrated from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after the 1971 war with Pakistan. From 1979, massive protests against the influx of immigrants occured in the state leading to the 1985 Assam Accord between the government and protestors, which declared anyone arriving in Assam after the 24th March 1971 (the end of the war with Pakistan) a foreigner.

NATIONAL REGISTER OF CITIZENS

In 2019 the government introduced a list of citizens in Assam, in an attempt to stop illegal immigration into the state. The list, known at the National Register of Citizens (NRC), excluded 1.9 mil of Assam’s residents, the majority of them Bengali-speaking muslims. The compilation of the NRC has the backing of the national government and was overseen by the Indian Supreme Court.

Those excluded from the list have to prove their citizenship before the Foreign Tribunal (FT) in order to be allowed to remain in India. These are not judicial bodies, but are staffed by members of the community. Reasons for decisions and records of proceedings are not being kept, or kept informally by concerned lawyers and activists. The FT has been criticised by lawyers, activists, and human rights groups for extreme bias and ex parte (without trial) judgments.

The burden of proving their citizenship is placed on the applicant, but many residents of the impoverished state lack access to the kinds of records that can prove this due to poor government record-keeping, illiteracy or lack of money. Inconsistencies in official records are also being used to declare people foreigners if there are differences in spelling or ages on the voter rolls.

Journalist Rohini Mohan analysed these judgments in 2019 and found that 82 per cent of them resulted in deportation, with Bengali-speaking muslims more likely than other groups to be deported, although other Bengali-speaking people are also being targeted. 78 per cent of hearings were held ‘on the papers’ without the applicant being heard at all. The government says this is necessary for efficiency as many “foreigners” had absconded and could not be found. Many people against whom ex parte judgment was passed were in fact living in local villages, were easily locatable and in some cases, were unaware of any proceedings against them.

Ostensibly, the punishment for being declared a foreigner is deportation, but Bangladesh has refused to accept such deportees. In reality, those declared foreigners are subject to arrest and detention,  potentially indefinitely, awaiting deportation. These detention centres are described as overcrowded and poorly maintained. One activist described the situation as one of “grave and extensive human distress and suffering.”

STATELESSNESS CRISIS

Two after the publication of the NRC, the consequences for the 2 million excluded people in Assam are still being felt. Those excluded from the list are effectively stateless. They are not entitled to the various rights which attach to Indian citizenship, and are increasingly unable to own property, access welfare or vote.

Statelessness is an area of increasing concern in international law. In 2014, the UNHCR launched the IBelong campaign in a bid to end statelessness worldwide. There are an estimated 10 mil stateless people in the world, but it is hard to be sure of exact numbers. There is a lack of agreement over what statelessness is and stateless people are difficult to count, given their inherent marginalisation, and lack of representation in official records. There is no doubt however that millions of people in Assam are now excluded from citizenship.

All of this is happening against a backdrop of Hindu nationalism. The BJP, the Hindu nationalist party to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs, have recently won the state election in Assam to retain their seat in the region. They ran on an anti-muslim, anti-immigration platform which targeted the minority Bengali-speaking muslim population and framed them as a “threat” to the Hindu majority in Assam. Human Rights activists fear that this climate will feed ethnic and religious tensions in the region and lead to violence as has happened in 1983 when hundreds of people were killed by anti-muslim mobs.

The crisis in Assam has been compared to the genocidal crackdown on Rohingya muslims from Myanmar, which forced millions of people across the border into Bangladesh, resulting in a refugee crisis in the region. Citizenship is a nationalist fiction, designed to formalise the line between “us” and “them.” Nevertheless, this fiction has important consequences for those excluded from its ambit. The ongoing situation in Assam deserves our attention and our support. Governments must not be allowed to weaponise citizenship.

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