Three United Nations special rapporteurs and the vice chairperson of a group on arbitrary detention have written to the Indian government expressing concern about the National Register of Citizens in Assam.
They had written to India’s Ministry of External Affairs in June as well, taking note of the “increased anxieties and concerns among the Bengali Muslim minority of Assam”. They had sought a response from the government within 60 days, but it did not reply.
In a letter dated December 13, the experts said: “We are particularly concerned that the way in which the NRC update has been conducted potentially affects a great number of Muslims and persons of Bengali descent, as well as other minorities, who may be wrongfully excluded from the updated NRC because of their historical and continuing treatment as foreigners and illegal immigrants in Assam.”
The final draft of the register, published on July 30, had left out nearly 40 lakh people, including some MLAs and a former chief minister. Those excluded will come under the purview of the Foreigners’ Tribunals and will have to prove their citizenship or face unlimited detention if they fail to do so. The claims and objections process is currently on, and will continue till December 31. Officials will begin to verify it from February 15.
“Furthermore, given the poor understanding and operationalisation of the ‘claims and objections’ period, as well as the relatively short deadline during which it has been undertaken, it appears that many of those perhaps unduly excluded from the list did not have a fair and adequate opportunity to challenge their exclusion,” the letter added. “Finally, finalisation of the NRC in the current form, has left much uncertainty for those excluded, including fears of losing citizenship, statelessness, as well as fears of indefinite detention, or even deportation.”
They added: “In a region with very poor record-keeping, the current status of the verification process has the potential to create a massive category of people who are on Indian territory but cannot prove citizenship of either India or Bangladesh, thereby risking becoming stateless.” The experts said they were also scared that the process was “stoking ethnic tensions in a region that has already experienced a tumultuous history of identity-based tensions, and suffered from strained inter-communal relationships, including multiple outbreaks of serious violence”.
The letter was written by Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Elina Steinerte, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on minority issues Fernand de Varennes and Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance E Tendayi Achiume. They work under the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.
When the exercise was launched in 2015, 3.29 crore people applied to get their names on it. The stated aim of the exercise is to separate genuine Indian citizens from “illegal migrants” who might be living in Assam.
According to the terms of the exercise, anyone who cannot prove that they or their ancestors entered the state before midnight on March 24, 1971, will be declared a foreigner. The exercise has been embroiled in several controversies, including allegations of bias against certain communities.