Assam: The biggest mass-disenfranchisement of the 21st Century


On 31 August 2019, after a long-drawn out process, the final version of the Assam National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published. 31,121,004 residents of Assam were included in the NRC and therefore recognised as citizens, whereas 1,906,657 residents –approximately 6% of the population of Assam -were excluded, pushing them to the brink of statelessness.

Further to a 2014 Supreme Court Order, in 2015, the Assam state government announced it would initiate a process of updating the NRC, requiring every person in Assam who claimed Indian citizenship, to submit proof of their ancestry (or birth) in the country pre-dating 1971, the year that Bangladesh was formed. This process arose out of a history of xenophobia and discrimination against both Indian and non-Indian migrants of Bengali ethnicity, with Muslim Bengalis being the most disproportionately impacted. Women who are less likely to be literate or have documentation due to societal prejudices and norms and their children have also been excluded. The immense pressure that this process has placed on individuals and their families, including the cost of applying and appealing, the loss of work, the strain on family life, the emotional and psychological impact, the loss of liberty through detention and therise in hate-crimes and hate-speech, is extremely worrying. Local NGOs have reported that the NRC process has already claimed the lives of a number of people who have died by suicide.

The failure to implement adequate procedural safeguards and the consequent arbitrariness of the NRC process has also been a significant concern. Further, while India claims that those excluded from the NRC are not yet stateless, they are undeniably at extreme risk of imminent statelessness, as they have effectively been stripped of their citizenship, with a 120-day window to appeal. International law prohibits the arbitrary deprivation of nationality and obligates states to avoid statelessness, while guaranteeing the right of every child to acquire and preserve their nationality and to be protected from statelessness.

Despite mounting evidence that this process would result in a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe and repeated calls to action by UN human rights mechanisms, including a number of special procedures mandate holders, the failure of the international community over the last two years, to exert sustained pressure on India to reverse the process, shows that little has been learnt from the Rohingya crisis or the many crises before.

The finalisation of the NRC coincided with the halfway mark of UNHCR’s iBelong Campaign to end statelessness by 2024. It came just 37 days before state representatives are to congregate at the High-Level Segment on Statelessness in Geneva, to make further pledges towards ending statelessness. We call on all states and institutions of the international community to use the platform provided by the High-Level Segment to call out India’s arbitrary and discriminatory actions and to recapture the spirit in which the right to nationality was first included in the canon of human rights –as a safeguard against inhuman horrors.

Although the lives and years lost can never be reclaimed, it is still not too late to reverse what now seems an inevitable outcome of mass-disenfranchisement. But it will require extraordinary political leadership within Assam, India and globally, particularly in a context in which the politics of demonization are taking centre stage. It is for the people of the world to provide moral direction to their representatives and demand better of them. And so, as members of the global community, we join our voices to demand better of states and of the UN. The international human rights standards that bind us together by protecting us all, demand that governments and multilateral institutions take bold action. The exercise of collective responsibility in defence of human rights is critical to averting a crisis manufactured by one country, which has global significance and resonance. In particular, we urge the international community to exert pressure on India to:

1 - Bring this process to a closure in a non-discriminatory and non-arbitrary manner, with full regard to due process rights and a commitment to protect the right to a nationality and to avoid statelessness of all long-term residents and their children;
2 - Prevent detention, deportation, degrading treatment, incitement to violence, collective punishment, and other forms of human rights abuses;
3 - Ensure justice for those victimised by the arbitrary and discriminatory procedure;
4 - Facilitate a process of dialogue and community building; and5.assist individuals affected by the NRC process through support to legal aid providers, humanitarian assistance, and other measures.

Signed by:

1. Advocates for Non-Discrimination and Access to Knowledge (ANAK) (Malaysia)
2. African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS)
3. Agora Society (Malaysia)
4. All India Union of Forest Working People
5. Alliance for Social Dialogue -Social Science Baha (Nepal)
6. Amnesty International
7. Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial
8. Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN)
9. ASKV Refugee Support (Netherlands)
10. Association des jeunes formateurs (AJFACE)
11. Baghdad Women’s Association
12. Benet Lobby Group (Uganda)
13. Beyond Borders (Malaysia)
14. Borneo Komrad (Malaysia)
15. Boston University International Human Rights Clinic
16. Botswana Labour Migrants Association
17. Canadian Centre on Statelessness
18. Caribbean Institute for Human Rights (ICADH)
19. CEDESO (Republica Dominicana)
20. Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
21. Centre de Développement Soutenable (CEDESOU) (Haiti)
22. Centre for Advancement of Development Rights (CEADER)
23. Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University (Bangladesh)
24. CF “Right to Protection” (Ukraine)
25. Clínica Jurídica de Migrantes y Refugiados, Universidad Diego Portales
26. Coalition de la Société Civile Ivoirienne contre l’Apatridie (CICA)
27. Conscience International Sierra Leone
28. Conseil National des Femmes de Madagascar (CNFM)
29. Consonant (UK)
30. Council of Minorities (Bangladesh)
31. Cross Cultural Foundation (Uganda)
32. Defence of Human Rights and Public Services Trust (Pakistan)
33. Development and Justice Initiative (India)
34. Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas (DHRRA) (Malaysia)
35. East Forum Foundation
36. Elom Empowerment
37. European Network on Statelessness
38. FACES Pakistan
39. Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND)
40. FAWE (Madagascar)
41. Focus Development Association (Madagascar)
42. Foreign Spouses Support Group (FSSG) (Malaysia)
43. Forum for Women In Development (FWID)
44. Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR) (Bulgaria)
45. FTMF Fikambanan’ny Tanora Mandala fahamarinana mba ho fampandrosoana ny Firenena
46. Fundación Cepaim Acción Integral con Migrantes
47. Geneva Council for Rights and Liberties
48. Greek Forum of Refugees
49. Haki Centre Organization (Kenya)
50. Halina Nieć Legal Aid Center (Poland)
51. Hazards Centre (India)
52. Human Rights Defenders Association (India)
53. Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa (Canada)
54. INHURED International
55. Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa
56. Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI)
57. International Commission of Jurists
58. International Detention Coalition
59. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
60. International Human Rights Clinic, Inter-American University of Puerto Rico
61. International Justice Mission
62. International Observatory of Human Rights
63. International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI)
64. Kenya Human Rights Commission
65. KMF/CNOE-Fanabeazana Olompirenena -Comité National d’Observation des Elections-Educations des Citoyens
66. Law Center of Advocates (Republic of Moldova)
67. Lawyers for Human Rights (South Africa)
68. Lawyers for Liberty (Malaysia)
69. Liberty 32 (Madagascar)
70. Maastricht Center for Citizenship, Migration and Development (MACIMIDE)
71. Malaysian Association of Integrated Traditional Indian Medicine (PEPTIIM)
72. Maragoli Community Association (Uganda)
73. Mother Association for Rights and Development (MARD)
74. Minority Rights Group International
75. Minority Rights Organization (Cambodia)
76. Mouvement Ivoirien des Droits Humains (MIDH)
77. Movimiento (Dominican Republic)
78. Namati
79. Naripokkho (Bangladesh)
80. Observatory Caribbean Migrants (OBMICA)
81. Odhikar (Bangladesh)
82. ONG Ravintsara
83. Open Society Justice Initiative
84. Our Journey (Malaysia)
85. Parivartan (Golaghat Assam, India)
86. Peace Centre (South Africa)
87. People’s Legal Aid Centre (Sudan)
88. Persatuan Penasihat Pengguna (Malaysia)
89. Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, Melbourne Law School
90. Popular Education and Action Centre (India)
91. Pusat Komas (Malaysia)
92. Red Comun N
93. Rencontre Africaine des Droits de l’Homme (RADDHO)
94. Restless Beings
95. Rights Now Pakistan
96. Rights Realization Centre
97. Rohingya Human Rights Network (Canada)
98. Rural Consumer Organization (RCO)
99. Ruwad alHoukouk FR
100. Sabah Human Rights Centre (Malaysia)
101. Salam for Democracy and Human Rights
102. Save the Children South Africa
103. Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town
104. SMILE Myanmar
105. Society for Human Rights & Prisoners Aid (SHARP) (Pakistan)
106. South Asia Collective
107. Southern Africa Litigation Centre
108. Southern African Nationality Network
109. Statelessness Network Asia Pacific (SNAP)
110. The 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone
111. The Brunei Project
112. Tirana Legal Aid Society (TLAS) (Albania)
113. Together 4 Good
114. Transparency International -Initiative Madagascar
115. Union of Stateless Malaysians (USTMY)
116. United Stateless (USA)
117. University of Liverpool Law Clinic Staff
118. West African Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons Network
119. Woman Welfare & Consumer Association Malaysia
120. Women’s Refugee Commission
121. World Council of Churches, Commission of the Churches on International Affairs
122. Yayasan Chow Kit (Malaysia)
123. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights
124. Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children

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