The Indian Judiciary and Its Record on Statelessness

Anushri Uttarwar is a fourth-year B.BA. LL.B.(Hons.) student and Student Fellow at Centre for Public Interest Law, Jindal Global Law School. Arunima Nair is a second-year LL.B. student at Jindal Global Law School and an Editor of the Parichay Blog. Anushri and Arunima are among the authors of Securing Citizenship: India’s legal obligations towards precarious citizens and stateless persons, released in November 2020. 

Securing Citizenship highlights India’s legal obligations towards stateless persons and precarious citizens within its territory. It does so by expounding the applicable international human rights framework to the state, with every person’s right to nationality and every state’s duty to prevent statelessness as its two integral interwoven threads. Additionally, the report links the said international framework to the Indian state’s corresponding obligations under present domestic law. This article discusses one such aspect viz. the approach of Indian courts in cases involving persons of uncertain nationalities.  

The Indian state’s efforts to uphold every individual’s right to nationality and its duty to avoid and reduce statelessness have been minimal. It has not signed either of the two international conventions on statelessness and has not actively engaged in any global efforts to fight statelessness. As we have noted in our report, neither the Foreigners Act, nor the Citizenship Act, nor the Passport Act and their attendant rules, account for the legal lacunas that can create statelessness. The statutory terms ‘illegal migrant’, ‘foreigner’, and ‘citizen’ cannot be interchangeably applied to a stateless person. The present citizenship determination regime, which places the burden of proof upon the impugned individual and suffers from a well-documented lack of functional independence and procedural safeguards, has actively jeopardized the citizenship status of 1.9 million individuals in Assam in August 2019 (with subsequent deletions and an ongoing Government-led demand for 10-20% re-verification of the 2019 NRC).  

The Indian judiciary’s record on this front has been mixed. The Supreme Court’s judgments in the Sarbananda Sonowal cases (2005 and 2006) decisively laid down the roadmap governing citizenship determination in India. In these cases, the petitioners had impugned the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983 (‘IMDT’) and the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order, 2006, both of which placed the onus upon the state to prove an individual’s foreigner status. The Court agreed and struck them down as unconstitutional. It anchored its reasoning in a broad interpretation of “external aggression” in Article 355 of the Constitution, stating that a “vast and incessant flow of millions” of illegal migrants from Bangladesh into Assam was akin to a “war”, posing a serious existential threat to the economic and social fabric of Assamese society. The Bench cast it as the Central Government’s “foremost duty” to protect its citizens from such aggression; statutes like the IMDT made it far too “cumbersome” to detect and deport foreigners and fulfill this duty, as opposed to the far more “effective” Foreigners Act. Sarbananda Sonowal is still good law; it is the underlying foundation for subsequent Supreme Court decisions, such as the one kick-starting the updation of the NRC and its eventual monitoring of the modalities of the entire NRC exercise

Nevertheless, the Indian Judiciary has occasionally taken cognizance of the tumultuous issue at hand. In each of those occasions where the courts decided to address the said issue, they have consistently observed the insufficiency of domestic laws addressing statelessness and the disastrous consequences of statelessness. These observations have aided them in interpreting the existing domestic statutes liberally so as to prevent the individual in question from being rendered stateless. Interestingly, in these cases, while the courts reasoned their judgments in line with international law on statelessness, they did not make concrete references to it. Four such cases have been outlined below. 

In Gangadhar Yeshwanth Bhandare, the respondent was found to have been a part of a secret Indian governmental mission. His participation in that mission had caused him delay in adhering to the guidelines that had to be followed by those in pre-liberation Portuguese territories who wanted to be considered Indian citizens. It was then alleged that he was not an Indian citizen. The Supreme Court held that the respondent was indeed an Indian citizen since he had renounced his Portuguese nationality already and to hold him to not be an Indian citizen at this stage would render him stateless. Such a consequence was unacceptable for the Court. 

Similarly, in Jan Balaz, the Gujarat High Court interpreted the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955 liberally to prevent the chances of the children born to an Indian surrogate from becoming stateless. The court observed that the children in question would not be able to claim citizenship by birth in Germany (due to the country not recognising surrogacy). It observed that they would have been rendered stateless if they were not accorded Indian citizenship, thereby affirming that they would be eligible for Indian citizenship by birth.  

In Prabhleen Kaur, the petitioner’s nationality was suspected, thereby causing her passport renewal application to be rejected by the relevant authority. The Delhi High Court held that rejecting her application on a mere doubt is manifestly unjust at that stage, as it could leave her stateless, indicating that she can only be ascribed an Indian nationality. 

Once again, in Ramesh Chennamaneni the Telangana High Court pioneeringly held that the power of the Indian government to deprive one’s citizenship under Section 10 of the Act is restricted by several constraints, including the duty of a state to avoid statelessness within its territory. Since in the situation before it, deprivation of citizenship would result in the petitioner being left stateless, the court set aside the committee decision that cancelled his citizenship. 

Apart from circumstances where a petitioner was at the risk of statelessness by virtue of the (in)actions of the Indian state, Indian courts have also acknowledged the need to legally recognize the status of stateless persons existent on Indian territory. By this we mean persons in India who have been rendered stateless by the actions of another state, not India. The Delhi High Court in Sheikh Abdul Aziz (W.P. (Crl.) 1426/2013) was confronted with a petitioner who had been languishing in immigration detention, far beyond his initial sentence under the Foreigners Act. The petitioner’s nationality determination had failed i.e. the Government could not confirm which nationality the man belonged to. The Court here pulled up the Government for its inaction in issuing a stateless certificate to the petitioner, and directed it to do so as the necessary first step towards the petitioner’s overdue release from detention. The stateless certificate, and the subsequent granting of a Long-Term Visa, were essential steps to ensure the petitioner did not become a phantom within the legal and civic community.  

Moreover, our report also argues that stateless certificates cannot and should not operate as obstacles to any application for citizenship. The Indian state has an obligation under international law to prevent and reduce statelessness, and to ensure that individuals can enjoy their right to nationality. Stateless individuals must not be stateless in perpetuity; their continuous residence and community ties in India should entitle them to be naturalised as citizens, per the procedures for naturalization. In the celebrated Chakma case, the Supreme Court created precedent by holding that stateless individuals like the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh had a statutory right to be considered for Indian citizenship under Section 5 of the Citizenship Act. Local administrative officials therefore had no grounds for stalling and refusing to forward Chakma individuals’ citizenship applications. The Delhi High Court, in a subsequent case dealing with a plea by a Tibetan individual who was born in India in 1986 to two Tibetan refugees, held that the petitioner’s stateless identity certificate did not bar her from being eligible for Indian citizenship by birth under Section 3(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act, and directed the MEA to process her application expeditiously. 

The pattern of the judiciary utilising international law standards on statelessness continues even in cases where the Court could not come to a decision immediately in favor of the petitioner, as the Patna High Court did recently in Kiran Gupta v State Election Commission. The appellant here was challenging an Election Commission decision that cancelled her Panchayat electoral victory, on the grounds that she was not an Indian citizen when elected. She was a Nepali citizen at birth, and had resided in India and raised her family for 17 years since her marriage to her Indian husband, along with possessing a Voter ID, a PAN card, and property in her name here. She had even terminated her Nepali citizenship in 2016. However, she admitted that she had failed to register for Indian citizenship under Section 5 of the Citizenship Act.  

The Court’s hands were tied: the conferral of Indian citizenship is clearly an Executive function, with the various procedures laid out in the statute. It held that it could not step into the shoes of the Executive and declare her an Indian citizen. Despite this, however, the Court demonstrated sensitivity towards the petitioner’s unusual situation. She was caught in a precarious situation where she possessed neither Indian nor Nepali documents of citizenship. In its final few pages, the Court crucially reiterates the duty upon the Indian state to prevent and reduce statelessness, in spite of signing neither statelessness convention. India has signed and ratified several other human rights treaties with provisions limiting nationality deprivation, such as the ICCPR, CEDAW, ICERD, and CRC. In its operative portion, the Court directed the Government to be mindful of the petitioner’s peculiar circumstances as and when she applies for citizenship. The Patna High Court demonstrates the capacity of courts to step in and affirm the internationally recognised and binding duties to prevent and reduce statelessness.  

At this juncture, it is imperative to note that the aforementioned cases present what we would consider ‘aspirational’ statelessness jurisprudence in the context of India. They are, unfortunately, exceptions rather than the norm: a litany of court decisions follow the overarching rationale of Sarbananda Sonowal and are either unaware of or wholly indifferent to individuals’ right against arbitrary deprivation of citizenship and the duty to prevent statelessness under international law. Foreigners Tribunals (‘FTs’) have consistently been passing orders that are arbitrary and ripe with procedural inadequacies, thereby designating an increasing number of individuals as foreigners. Adverse FT decisions are based on any and every minute clerical error or inconsistencies within their documents. Many such decisions have been upheld on appeal in the Gauhati High Court; as an indicative selection, in Nur Begum v Union of India and Sahera Khatun v Union of India, the burden of proof as per Section 9 of the Foreigners Act was interpreted stringently as one that rests absolutely upon the proceedee. In Jabeda Begum v Union of India, 15 official documents were found to be insufficient to discharge the said burden.  

To conclude, given the polar contrasts within the Indian statelessness jurisprudence, the judiciary’s role will remain incomplete unless accompanied by comprehensive legislative and policy changes. This would require India to not just formally accede to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions, but to also reform its current citizenship framework and explicitly allow for the expedited naturalisation of stateless persons. One hopes that the Executive catches up soon and fortifies its obligation. 

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