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The Production of Statelessness in Assam

Samir Kumar Das

/ 8 Minuten zu lesen

In 2014, India's Supreme Court initiated a revision of the National Register of Citizens in the state of Assam thus implementing a promise given by the Government back in 1985. As a result, 1.9 million people face statelessness.

Protesters in Kolkata, India, on Sept. 2, 2019, demand that Indian citizenship be granted to people who had previously been stripped of it by being excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the Indian state of Assam. (© picture-alliance, | Avijit Ghosh)

A 'stateless person' is defined by the United Nations as one who is not recognised as "a national by any state under the operation of its law". The Indian state of Assam in the northeast of the country has been at the centre of the debate on Interner Link: statelessness in recent years: a little over 1.9 million people living in the state have been facing the threat of becoming stateless due to the initiative of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC), supposed to be an official record of all persons who are legal citizens of India living in Assam.

Short history of migration within and to the region

Being part of an integrated agro-climatic region called Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin, the region that covers much of today's Indian state of Assam has a long history of peasant migration. Peasants from the lower floodplains of the Gangetic delta would migrate to the upper reaches whenever there were floods or other natural disasters and coastal land would subside in the Bay of Bengal with the rise in sea level. While Ahom kings ruling the larger part of Assam during 1228-1826 were instrumental in bringing a variety of groups of people from outside the region for running their administration at different points of time, population flows accelerated significantly after British colonial rule was established in 1826. This was also the time when the demand for plantation labour increased with the discovery of tea as a commercial commodity. All this resulted in rapid demographic transformation of the region.

Resentment on the rise

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Assamese middle-class intellectuals have been voicing their resentments against the unlimited immigration. However, the ensuing decades did not see a full-scale campaign for the expulsion of immigrants. It was only during the last few years of the Assam Movement (1979-1985) that the anti-immigrant sentiment took on a violent form. The Assam Movement, led by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU), founded in 1967, was a civil uprising against (illegal) immigration (primarily from Bangladesh and Nepal). The increasingly violent protest movement culminated in a massacre in the almost exclusively Muslim village of Nellie and neighbouring communities on February 18, 1983, in which an estimated 2,000 people were killed. In 1985, a Memorandum of Understanding – popularly known as Assam Accord – reached between the leaders of the movement and Government officials brought the six-year long movement to an end. One of the provisions included the promise of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) prepared for Assam in 1951 in order to detect (and deport) foreigners living in the state of Assam illegally. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a state political party in Assam, came to power in 1985 riding on the popularity of the movement, although its (first) five-year rule (1985-1990) came as a dampener: All the estimates of 'foreigners' made during the heyday of the Assam movement ranged between half a million to seven million 'foreigners' allegedly living in the state. However, not more than six thousand persons could be detected following the due process of law and far less could actually be deported during AGP's rule.

Updating the NRC

The Memorandum of Understanding did little to solve the "immigrant problem" as it was not sufficiently backed by executive action. Several court cases were filed until in 2014, India's Supreme Court in the case of Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha v. State of Assam urged to finally implement the promised update of the NRC and declared that it would supervise the process. Thus, people living in Assam were required to provide documentation such as birth certificates, marriage certificates and extracts from the electoral register to prove that they or their ancestors had already been living in the state of Assam before 25 March 1971, the beginning of Bangladesh's war of independence which caused millions of people to seek refuge in India, especially in the bordering regions like Assam. As many as 1.9 million persons were unable to produce the requisite documents and were therefore excluded from the NRC and declared non-citizens. While the number appears to be large, it could hardly satisfy those who went to Court in the first place in order to urge the Government to take a blow against illegal immigration. For them, the number of delisted persons was 'too small' and a few of the claimants demanded hundred percent verification of the final register. Furthermore, according to some unofficial estimates about 1.2 to 1.3 million people out of those 1.9 million who did not manage to provide the necessary proof to be included in the NRC are Hindus – the dominant religious majority of India. In effect, the outcome was not acceptable to those who had initially felt elated at the prospect of decitizenizing the minorities in the name of delisting the 'foreigners'. Finally, many of the delisted persons were reported to have lost the documents specified by the Court to prove their citizenship due to reasons beyond their control (like floods, earthquakes etc.). It is also assumed that the legal awareness of many of the delisted persons is low or that they were simply too poor to meet the expenses necessary for seeking legal remedy. The updated NRC became nobody’s baby and all the parties involved in the process eventually dissociated from the outcome.

What now?

The Government is in a quandary. For it does not seem to have any clear roadmap to what it would do with all the delisted persons who were unable to produce proof of their citizenship. While there are not many options, each of them has its implications for the future nature of the citizenship regime in India and her diplomatic relations that might not always be easy on India’s part to handle:

First, the delisted persons are likely to be deported to the country they have come from. While India is well within her right to determine who her citizens are, she is not equally entitled to decide whether a declared non-citizen in India is a citizen of any particular country, unless that country correspondingly accepts her as one of its citizens. Thus, to cite an instance, neighbouring Bangladesh seldom feels obliged to recognise a person otherwise excluded from the NRC as a Bangladeshi citizen just because legal institutions of India declared her as such. Incidentally, India and Bangladesh do not have any bilateral agreement for readmission of nationals of the relevant country. Besides, Bangladesh’s policy of maintaining that not a single Bangladeshi has illegally entered – let alone settled in India – is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to the resolution of the question of how to deal with the delisted persons and illegal immigration in general. Back in 2014, the Supreme Court of India directed the Union Government in New Delhi to "enter into necessary discussion with the Government of Bangladesh to streamline the procedure of deportation". Bangladesh, on the other hand, maintains that dealing with the outcome of the update of the NRC is 'India’s internal problem'. In the absence of any bilateral agreement between the countries, security forces often resort to the practice of "pushing back" the people who allegedly have crossed the borders without valid papers, instead of subjecting them to the due process of law.

Second, there is the alternative of keeping the people excluded from the NRC in detention centres till they are sent to the countries they have reportedly come from. Currently, there are six such centres in Assam, where the delisted and potentially stateless people are accommodated. As of November 2019, 1,043 persons were kept in these centres, according to government data.

Third, there is the alternative of selective re-citizenization. Here, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the Parliament of India in 2019 comes into play. The CAA and the NRC are closely interconnected in the sense that the former strives for (re-)citizenizing a select group of communities, based on their religion, who are otherwise facing deportation. The count of 'minority' refugees as per the CAA remains restricted to the six communities of the Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists who migrated to India from the three neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before 31 December 2014. The Act provides for their regularization as Indian citizens if they can prove that they (a) have been citizens of the specified countries prior to their immigration; (b) have migrated to India on or before that date and (c) were forced to migrate from their respective countries, due to persecution, or fear of persecution. The absence of Muslims –India’s largest minority – from the list has been a source of debate both in India and abroad. While the sources close to the ruling party maintain that each of the three countries has Islam as the state religion and the listed communities have been vulnerable to persecution in all of them, the critics fear that this selective policy has the potential of jeopardising India’s secular and multicultural character. If the persons excluded from the NRC cannot be either re-citizenized or sent back, they are likely to be exploited as disenfranchised, cheap labour in the country.

India is not a signatory to the International Refugee Convention (1951), the Protocol (1967) and the International Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (1954) – the three key legal instruments that oblige the signatory states to guarantee certain basic rights for refugees and stateless persons. On the one hand, it is often argued, mostly by a section of refugee rights activists, that India should sign these legal instruments and the NRC exercise in Assam gave further impetus to this demand. On the other hand, it is argued that India is known to be reluctant to bow to international pressure. Besides, history bears out that India’s track record of treating refugees and stateless persons is incomparably better than that of any of her neighbours. Faced with intense criticisms both at home and abroad, the Government seemingly prefers to wait and let the controversy settle before it plans to implement the NRC.



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  4. Das, Samir Kumar (1997), Regionalism in Power: The Case of Asom Gana Parishad. New Delhi: Omsons, pp.123-125.

  5. Raturi, Ankit (2020), 'Analysis of the Implementation of the NRC with Respect to Statelessness in Assam', in Christ University Law Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 77-95.

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  7. Roy, Anupama (2016), 'The Ambivalence of Citizenship in Assam', in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, No.26 & 27, 25 June, pp. 41-45.

  8. Ranjan, Amit (2018), 'Assam’s National Register of Citizenship: Background, Process and Impact of the Final Draft', ISAS Working Paper 306, September. Singapore: Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.


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Dr. Samir Kumar Das is Professor of Political Science at the University of Calcutta, India. In his research he focuses on issues of ethnicity, identity, security, migration, rights and justice. Among his latest books is Migrations, Identities and Democratic Practices in India (Routledge, 2018).