Excerpt: Legal Recognition of Status of Statelessness in India

The following post is an excerpt from the upcoming report Securing Citizenship’ on India’s legal obligations towards precarious citizens and stateless persons authored by the Centre for Public Interest Law, JGLS and Faculty of Law, Université Catholique de Lille. The Report reviews and comments on the key contemporary legal issues pertaining to citizenship and statelessness in India. Divided into three chapters – Citizenship StatusDetention and Socio-Economic Rights – the Report presents recommendations to strengthen the existing legal framework. This excerpt is the first in a three-part series of excerpts from the report. The next two excerpts will cover ‘Rights of Child Detainees’, and ‘Socio-Economic Rights of Stateless Persons’. The entire Report will be published in the final week of November, and the schedule of events can be found here.

II. LEGAL RECOGNITION OF STATELESSNESS IN INDIA

A. Recognition of Status

Statelessness poses a moral and normative challenge to the legitimacy of the international state system. In simpler terms, since the world is comprehensively divided between nation states, then every person should be able to claim citizenship and its attendant rights somewhere. Yet, thousands of people around the world face barriers in claiming citizenship rights in any nation because of several aggravating factors.

There are several stateless groups in India who either arrived or were born in India as stateless persons, such as the Tibetans and the Rohingyas. This section pertains to these stateless persons in Indian territory whose citizenship was not deprived as a result of any action of the Indian state. They have no avenues of return to their country of nationality as a result of their statelessness i.e. their state does not accept them as nationals. Thus, they are prohibited from exercising their right to return. In this situation, they cannot be deported and continue to reside in India as subjects of a legal framework which does not formally recognise their status.

A close reading of the Indian domestic law framework governing the status of non-citizens [the Constitution (Articles 5 – 11); the Citizenship Act, 1955 (Sections 2, 3, 6, 6A, 6B, 10); the Foreigners Act, 1946 (Sections 2, 3, 8, 9); and the Passports Act, 1967 (Section 4)] reveals that the definitional categories determining the legal status of an individual are inadequate for guaranteeing the rights of stateless persons. The use of the terms ‘illegal migrant’, ‘foreigner’, and ‘citizen’, as distinct and oppositional categories, operates on the implicit assumption that the person whose status is to be ascertained must be in possession of at least one nationality, even if that nationality is not Indian. None of these terms can be used interchangeably for a stateless person; the Acts simply do not define or acknowledge the phenomenon of statelessness.

International law on the right to nationality of every individual along with the obligation on the state to prevent and reduce statelessness commands states to naturalise all stateless persons in their territory. Hence, it is imperative that the Indian state recognise stateless persons formally and issue identity certificates to them, thereby ensuring recognition of their equal legal personhood for them to avail their rights. These certificates will ensure that their special situation would be addressed. The only pieces of legislation that recognise the status of stateless persons are the Passports Rules, 1980, framed under the Passports Act, 1967, which grant the MEA the power to issue certificates of identity. However, the duty of the state under international law, constitutional law and human rights law (as argued above) does not end with issuing certificates of identity. India must grant them nationality in accordance with international law obligations to ensure that they can enjoy their right to nationality.

As emphasised in previous sections, the lack of legal status is a direct infringement of an individual’s right to a dignified life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. In a juridical framework, a dignified existence can only be secured through recognition as an individual member of the civic community, which in turn forms the foundation for the free exercise of bodily integrity, autonomy, and self-determination. In Sheikh Abdul Aziz, the Delhi High Court recognised this urgency of determining the legal status of the petitioner. The Court excoriated the Central Government for its inaction in issuing a stateless certificate to the petitioner after nationality determination had failed, particularly after he had been confined in detention for an additional seven years, well beyond his initial sentence under Section 14 of the Foreigners Act. It understood that the issuance of a stateless certificate, under Rule 4 of the Passports Rules, 1980, and the subsequent granting of a Long-Term Visa (‘LTV’), were essential for the petitioner’s release from detention, and enabling his right to a dignified existence upon Indian soil. In National Human Rights Commission (Chakma case), the Supreme Court held that eligible stateless individuals, like the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh, have constitutional and statutory rights to be considered for Indian citizenship. Local administrative officers cannot refuse to act upon Chakma individuals’ applications under Section 5 of the Citizenship Act to the Central Government. The Court also held that the state is obliged to protect Chakmas from eviction and threats of assault even while their citizenship applications are pending. These cases indicate Indian courts’ proactive approach in reducing indeterminacy of status for individuals, assuring the terms of their membership in the civic community. 

For stateless persons in India, international law necessitates that the burden is always upon the Indian state to fairly and expeditiously determine legal status for such persons. As we have argued at length above, the state’s sovereign prerogative in citizenship matters is implicitly circumscribed by international law and human rights standards. Therefore, it is the state’s obligation to establish whether they are recognised nationals of any other country. If the state fails in establishing that, they must be naturalised i.e. granted Indian nationality.

It is also important to note that statelessness should not operate as an impediment to an eventual path to Indian citizenship. The naturalisation of stateless persons within the ambit of India’s existing citizenship laws has precedent: the Delhi High Court in Namgyal Dolkar ordered the MEA to issue an Indian passport to the petitioner who, despite holding a stateless identity certificate and being born to two Tibetan refugees, was eligible for Indian citizenship by birth under Section 3 (1)(a) of the Citizenship Act.

The significance of naturalising stateless persons residing in a State was recently followed by the ECtHR as well. In Sudita Keita, the applicant had arrived in Hungary in 2002. He was subsequently recognised as a stateless person after the local courts recognised that the burden on the applicant to prove lawful stay was contrary to Hungary’s international law obligations relating to statelessness. Furthermore, in the case at hand, the ECtHR held that the stateless applicant had been left in a vulnerable position for 15 years without access to an effective and accessible naturalisation procedure. With reference to international law on statelessness, the Court highlighted that his situation had resulted in grave difficulties in access to healthcare and employment and violated his right to private and family life.

This report further argues that the stateless persons should be automatically naturalised (i.e. grant of nationality) since any formal requirements in this regard would place an undue burden upon them. Such a process would fail to recognise the underlying discrimination and lack of access to documents. This is visible in the Sri Lankan experience with grant of nationality as elaborated in Section I.C.1 of this chapter in the full report.

Hence, it is only through naturalisation that stateless persons can access the full extent of their rights. Their exceptionally vulnerable situation and international law obligations demands that the state shall automatically recognise them as citizens.

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