Deprivation of Citizenship

The Centre for Public Interest Law, Jindal Global Law School is currently offering the year-long Clinic on Citizenship and Statelessness, where students are developing research outputs on citizenship issues in India and assessing the citizenship determination framework under international law. This research note, prepared by Khush Aalam Singh, is part of the clinic’s outcomes.

Deprivation of citizenship can be defined as an involuntary loss of citizenship status that was previously held by a person. It is a predominantly legal concept which carries serious consequences. This is because citizenship of a state gives a person access to several rights and protections guaranteed by the state. Acquiring citizenship carries a sense of recognition in social, political, and legal terms. Citizenship also provides access to the conditions and services which are vital for a person’s dignified existence. If a person is deprived of their citizenship, they no longer have a claim to its benefits. This can also get carried forward to the person’s descendants, impacting their access to rights. Additionally, citizenship deprivation may result in the removal of the person from the territory of the state, thereby violating their right to reside in their country.

The idea of deprivation of citizenship has been echoed in various similar expressions. These include terms such as: revocation of citizenship, involuntary loss of citizenship, denationalisation, citizenship erasure etc. While revocation, denationalisation, and involuntary loss do not carry substantial difference from deprivation, citizenship erasure is a concept that requires further classification. Citizenship erasure is described as the “arbitrary retroactive non-recognition” of citizenship of a person. This has been considered distinct from deprivation as it denies the very existence of citizenship status claimed by a person outright, whereas deprivation is carried out in accordance with law. In other words, deprivation takes place in accordance with deprivation provisions contained in a state’s citizenship law, whereas erasure does not involve the formal procedure. Nonetheless, for the purposes of this note, citizenship erasure falls within the ambit of deprivation, as the consequence is the loss of nationality which was not voluntary in nature. In many situations, deprivation of nationality can result in a person becoming stateless. This may leave them vulnerable to human rights violations without any effective recourse.

Deprivation of Citizenship in Domestic and International Law

Under Indian law, the principal framework for deprivation of nationality is the Citizenship Act, 1955 as well as the rules made thereunder. Section 10(2) of the Act empowers the Central Government to deprive a person of their citizenship. This power to deprive citizenship, however, applies only in the case of persons who have acquired citizenship by naturalisation, registration or by ordinary residence in Indian territory five years prior to the commencement of the Constitution. This means that persons who are born in Indian territory or to parents who are Indian citizens cannot be deprived of their citizenship under this provision (jus soli and jus sanguinis citizenship).

Deprivation of citizenship under Section 10 of the Act can only be ordered on specific grounds. The implication of these grounds is that the state cannot arbitrarily deprive persons of their citizenship. The grounds set out in Section 10 must be adhered to. These include (among others) – obtaining citizenship by fraud, disloyalty or disaffection by act or speech to the Indian Constitution, unlawful trade or communication with an enemy, etc. Section 10(3) provides that the Central Government shall not deprive a person of their citizenship unless it is satisfied that the continuation of citizenship is not conducive to the public good. The Telangana High Court in Dr. Ramesh Chenammameni v. Union of India has held that the requirement under Section 10(3) is mandatory, and that a person cannot be deprived solely on the ground of satisfying the conditions under Section 10(3). The Central Government has to satisfy both counts – that the person in question has violated the provisions of Section 10(2) and that the continuation of citizenship is not conducive to the public good.

The principal framework under international law dealing with deprivation of citizenship is the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Article 8 of the Convention prohibits depriving a person of their nationality where the result of such action would be the person becoming stateless. Clauses 2 and 3 of the Article contain exceptions to this prohibition, which include obtaining nationality of the Contracting State by fraud or misrepresentation, conduct that is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the state etc. Article 9 of the Convention prohibits deprivation of nationality of a person or a group of persons on racial, ethnic, religious or political grounds. While India is not a signatory to this Convention, its courts have been mindful of statelessness as a consequence of deprivation of citizenship.

Additionally, India is obliged under its treaty obligations to prevent statelessness as a consequence of deprivation of nationality. It is also obliged to ensure that no person is arbitrarily deprived of their nationality. Article 15(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) prohibits arbitrary deprivation of nationality. This prohibition has now been recognised as a well-established norm of customary international law. Furthermore, India had a vital role to play in advocating for the insertion of Article 15(2) during the drafting of the UDHR.

The Right against Arbitrary Deprivation of Nationality

The right against arbitrary deprivation of nationality finds mention in the UDHR and several international conventions, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) etc. This is supplemented by its inclusion in regional frameworks, such as the American Convention of Human Rights (Article 20). This right is of crucial importance when looking at instances of deprivation of citizenship. This is because this right covers two situations of deprivation. Deprivation can be a result of the procedure established in municipal law or by discriminatory refusal to recognise a person or group of persons as citizens. The understanding of arbitrariness under international law is not limited to something being ‘against the law’. It has been understood in a broader sense, encompassing elements of unfairness, inappropriateness and injustice. Arbitrariness also seeks to ensure that ‘lawful’ interference with rights of a person is reasonable. This requires robust substantive and procedural safeguards, as well as conformity to both domestic and international law.

There are several aspects of citizenship deprivation in India that remain unaddressed, raising strong concerns about arbitrariness. Several bonafide Indian citizens face the threat of arbitrary deprivation of their nationality as a result of the process of expelling ‘foreigners’. In particular, over 1.9 million persons in Assam excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are at the brink of statelessness. Their fate will be decided by the Foreigners Tribunals which raise many significant due process concerns. The current policy on deprivation does not account for deprivation of citizenship through parallel procedures sanctioned by law. Furthermore, there are several inadequacies in terms of substantive and procedural rights for persons being deprived of their citizenship. As a result of wrongful deprivation, a person will languish in detention for the purpose of deportation. These consequences are particularly grave and debilitating, therefore requiring extreme caution and respect for human dignity. Thus, citizenship deprivation calls for greater attention as an urgent issue that needs to be addressed.

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