There is no rights violation immediately manifest on the matter of the National Register of Citizens in Assam. The language being deployed is for the most part reasonable. The Supreme Court has insisted that no coercive action can be taken for now, the Election Commission has said that those off the list with valid voter ID cards can still vote and the state has said that the process of filling out the register is still not complete.
The Assam government has said that what was released is but a draft list and those whose names are missing from the register have until September 28 to seek a correction. “No one will be sent to detention camps,” said Assam’s finance and health minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma.
“Rights or privileges will not be taken away from them just because their names have not appeared in the draft NRC.” The central government has also said that after the final list is published in December, applicants left out will have an opportunity to seek a correction from the Foreigners Tribunals.
The problems, and the concerns, are about what is to follow. The NRC is being filled in to identify “illegal immigrants”. But the government has not formulated an official policy for those people who are excluded from the Register and declared foreigners by the tribunals.
In December 2017, Sarma said that, “the NRC is being done to identify illegal Bangladeshis residing in Assam,” and that “all those whose names do not figure in the NRC will have to be deported.” However, Bangladesh has not agreed to claims that these people are irregular migrants, making deportation to Bangladesh unlikely. India does not have an agreement on deportation with Bangladesh.
So what happens to those who are left out? At the moment the official line on this is missing and that is deeply troubling. In a part of the world where paperwork and documentation is not easy for the citizen, there has been little regard to those who fall through the cracks of the NRC.
The people of Assam were asked to establish their citizenship by providing specific documents, which prove that they or their family lived in the country before 24 March, 1971. This means that those who were born in Assam, and even those whose parents were born in Assam, but cannot prove residence from before 47 years ago, can be declared as foreigners.
What happens to people once they are declared stateless? And this is a distinct possibility as the time to September 28 winds down. The fear and the concern is that that the process will arbitrarily deprive people, who have lived in India for decades, of their nationality.
The fate of those who may lose their nationality, as a consequence of this process, is unclear. It should be repeated, particularly given some of the rhetoric about “sending foreigners back” that India does not even have an agreement with other countries, particularly Bangladesh, on deportation.
It is crucial that the government make public their plan for dealing with those at risk of being rendered stateless and ensure that their rights are not violated. It is bordering on cruelty to deliberately leave millions of people in the dark about their fate.
The government must extend the time period for appeals and to ensure that all appeals are processed in transparent and non-discriminatory manner. Care should also be taken to ensure that families are not torn apart, and appropriate legal aid should be provided to those who are at risk of losing their nationality.
Assam has long sought to preserve its ethnic identity, but rendering millions of people stateless is not the answer.
Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India.