India Left 19 Million People Out Of A Citizen Register, Now What?
The recent publication of the final list for the National Register of Citizens was met with shock by many. For those who found their names excluded, they will now have to file their cases before a foreigners tribunal. However, if they are still declared to be foreigners even before the Tribunal, they could face the potential of being ‘stateless’. In addition to this, they also face the possibility of being detained in one of the many detention facilities that are slowly expanding across Assam.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 has been a controversial bill since its inception. It seeks to introduce religion as a basis for granting citizenship. In particular, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from three Muslim majority countries, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan are now eligible for citizenship within India at a more expedited process.
The Government claims that the bill is an attempt to protect minorities facing persecution in their home countries. However, a glance at the groups the Bill specifically addresses, indicates otherwise. The Bill fails to acknowledge that other Muslims can be persecuted within Muslim-dominated countries. Further, it excludes immigrants from Sri Lanka and Myanmar that have witnessed serious internal disturbances in the recent years. This suggests that the Government is not really concerned about immigrants in non-Muslim majority countries, colouring its ‘good’ intentions.
The bill now has the potential of displacing thousands of people who have lived in India all their lives. The bill also seems to be altering the secular nature of the Indian democracy by placing a strong impetus on religious identity as a basis for being declared a citizen.
History leading up to the Bill
Assam has been the center of protests concerning the implementation of the bill. These protests have a long historical context. This can be traced to the emergence of anxieties of displacement held by indigenous Assamese people during the waves of Bengali immigration during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971.
An anti-foreigner wave which was dubbed as the “Assam Movement” arose out of these protests as a way to hold onto to the distinct Assamese culture. Eventually, to reach a consensus regarding the issue, the Government signed an accord with the leaders of the movement that set certain standards for proving citizenship and attempted to limit the incoming immigration.
However, the protests against the Bill continue today as the Assamese fear cultural, social and economic domination of Bangla-speaking people irrespective of their religious affiliations. The introduction of the citizenship Bill was an integral part of the Modi Government’s campaign during elections. While the idea of introducing a citizenship Bill was initially supported by many Assamese organizations, most are unhappy with it in its current form.
In the midst of these protests, millions of people will likely be facing deportation. Since, Bangladesh will not interfere in this matter as India considers it to be an ‘internal matter’, these individuals will likely be stateless and detained within India. There are a multitude of issues concerning the implementation of the Bill as well as the content of the Bill itself and its potential effects.
The Bill requires one to have meticulously kept a record of their entire lives through meticulous documentation. However, the people most affected by this are poor people who do not have access to many documents or lose access to the same either due to internal violence or natural disasters.
The process has also raised several questions of inefficiency due to numerous clerical errors that has led to exclusions in the first few drafts of the list that were published. Many people who have been born in Assam, lived their whole lives in the country and have family as well have been excluded from the list. Some individuals have already been detained leading to the splitting up of numerous families. The State Government of Assam will soon be building an addition 10 camps to detain any illegal immigrants.
The State Government has insisted that it will provide legal help to people excluded from the list. However, due to the magnitude of the issue, it is uncertain of how and when they will begin to help thousands of individuals who are unable to navigate through the process due to its high onus on documentation.
The final publication of the list at the ending of August seemed to provide no solution to the numerous problems that have arisen so far. Individuals left out will only be considered foreigners once the special tribunals determine the same. This long and arduous process can cause serious impediments to the everyday lives of a large number of people.
The Citizenship Bill also seems to throw light on the recent attitudes towards immigration in general. In 2014, the Supreme Court found no problem in the language used by the Government to describe the need for the Bill, such as ‘invasions by hordes of immigrants’. The Court also compromised on the need for methods that were more transparent for individuals to discern the basis on which they were excluded from the list. This stance further disadvantaged the most vulnerable.
In the coming times, the special tribunals set up to address these individual cases, will face a herculean task. They will have to afford the opportunity for each individual to produce their case and make a balanced decision. The only hope is that individuals who have already been disadvantaged by these exclusions do not further face issues of unfair processes during the span of their cases.
While the Supreme Court has made certain concessions from time to time, it emphasis on efficiency has also ensured that the process of determining citizenship has become extremely obscure. It draws one back to how minorities are being treated across the country and how the image of the new ‘citizen’ is slowly seeping into integral political decisions.
 Assam Sanmilitia Mahansangha v. Union of India, (2015) 3 SCC 1.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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