Mangla Das v. Union of India, Review.Pet./73/2021 (Gauhati High Court)

Read the judgment here.

Summary: The Gauahati High Court granted the Petitioner, a person declared as a “foreigner”, the liberty to seek citizenship under the Gazette notification of 2015 on the ground that he was a persecuted minority as he belonged to the Hindu faith and migrated from Bangladesh. 

Facts: The Petitioner filed a review petition before the Gauhati High Court to request for the review of an order in which the High Court had dismissed a writ petition challenging an order of the Foreigners’ Tribunal declaring the Petitioner to be a foreigner. The High Court had dismissed the writ petition on the ground that the Petitioner failed to establish his lineage with his claimed father and thus there was no error apparent in the Foreigner Tribunal’s order. Subsequently, the Petitioner approached the Supreme Court, asking it to grant relief to file a review petition before the Gauhati High Court. The Petitioner argued that there existed two documents that were relevant to the issue but could not be produced before the High Court in spite of due diligence. The first document was a 2015 Gazette Notification issued by the Government of India under Section 3 of the Foreigners Act and the second was the draft NRC in which the name of the petitioner appeared. The Supreme Court did not interfere with the judgment of the Gauhati High Court but gave the liberty to the Petitioner to institute a review petition before the same. Accordingly, this review petition was filed. 

Holding: The Petitioner argued that he had a right to be granted Indian citizenship under the Gazette Notification passed in 2015. The notification dated 07.09.15. stated that the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 would not apply to the minority communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who “were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution” and entered into India on or before 31st December 2014 without valid documents or with expired documents. Based on this, the Petitioner argued that “there exists a right in favour of the petitioner to be granted Indian Citizenship on the ground that the petitioner belongs to the Hindu religious faith and was required to leave his original Country of Bangladesh because of fear of religious persecution” (paragraph 5). The High Court granted liberty to the petitioner to approach the appropriate authority to file an application raising the plea that he is entitled the grant of Indian Citizenship. It also granted interim protection of two months’ time to the petitioner to file such application, and directed that the authority shall pass a reasoned order without being influenced by the conclusions and findings arrived at by the HC in its previous decision dismissing the writ petition. 

Significance: The case deals with a declared foreigner approaching the Gauhati High Court on a review petition seeking to apply for citizenship. It is significant because this is the first instance we know of where a person who is a declared foreigner by the Foreigners Tribunal is seeking to apply for citizenship because of religious persecution. While the order does not refer to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, it is only under the CAA, 2019 that persons covered under the 2015 Gazette Notification are exempted from the definition of “illegal migrant” and hence eligible to apply for citizenship. This indicates that the CAA 2019 is operational and can be invoked as a path back into citizenship by non-Muslim declared foreigners in Assam. 

Refer to a more detailed note on the CAA 2019 and its continuing implementation here.

Hostile Territory: Behind the Indian Government’s Response to the New Refugee Stream from Myanmar

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, where he coordinates the South East Asia Research Programme. He is also a former GIBSA Visiting Fellow to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin. He works on armed conflict, foreign policy, forced displacement and citizenship.

“I take this opportunity to renew the commitment of India, a generous host to and not a source of refugees, for the protection of refugees and cooperation with the international community,” declared Dr Sadre Alam, India’s First Secretary at India’s Permanent Mission in the UN headquarters in Geneva, during the fifth round of formal consultations on the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) held in June 2018. India reiterated the same narrative in all the other consultative rounds, and even spoke against the dilution of the non-refoulement principle in the Compact’s first thematic discussion.

Barely three years later, in early March 2021, as people from neighbouring Myanmar fled into India to escape the brutal crackdown of a new military regime, the same Indian government that Dr Alam spoke on behalf of in Geneva sent a certain letter to four Northeastern states sharing a border with Burma, which said the following:

“It has been reported that illegal influx from Myanmar has started. Attention is invited to MHA letter…wherein instructions were issued to sensitize all law enforcement and intelligence agencies for taking prompt steps in ‘identifying the illegal migrants’ and initiate the deportation processes expeditiously and without delay.” 

The letter, exuding much urgency in tone, went on to remind the governments of these border states that they have no power to grant “refugee status to any foreigner” and that India has not ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Optional Protocol. This missive from the Narendra Modi-led central government in New Delhi came two days after the coup regime in Myanmar requested India to hand over eight Burmese police officers who had defected and fled to the neighbouring Indian state of Mizoram some days earlier.

Later that month, the Home Department of the Manipur government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), shot off an even more terse letter to five district chiefs, directing the local administrations and civil society organisations “to not open any camps to provide food and shelter” to the fleeing asylum seekers who had entered India from Myanmar. It even asked the district administrations to “politely turn [the asylum seekers] away”. The peculiarly uncharitable letter quickly caught the attention of Indian media (and social media) and fueled widespread outrage, ultimately forcing the government in Imphal to withdraw it.

The glaring contradiction between India’s stated position on refugees at international forums and the reality of its asylum policy at home isn’t lost on anyone. In fact, the entire episode is a profound reflection of the Indian state’s pathological anxiety over its Northeastern borders. More importantly, it reveals a changing attitude towards asylum seekers within the current political context – one from passive acceptance to sweeping rejection. This, however, is hardly the full story. 

Shifting attitudes 

While New Delhi has gradually softened its position on the incoming Burmese refugees since the initial overreaction, its first response – deploying paramilitary forces to seal the border and directing states to instantly deport the asylum seekers – shows New Delhi’s shifting stance towards refugees. There was a time not long ago when the Indian government welcomed anti-military dissenters from Myanmar with open arms and even set up camps for them. While that benevolence was eventually seen by successive Indian governments as politically damaging and India became more reticent in admitting Burmese asylum seekers, people kept trickling in over the decades without New Delhi bothering too much. 

The refugee streams mostly included Chins and later, the Rohingya, who were fleeing extreme persecution and sectarian violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Many of them were registered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in New Delhi as refugees, with the previous UPA government even issuing Long Term Visas to several with refugee cards. UNHCR was also able to largely undertake its operations with limited interference from the government. 

“Despite increasing security concerns, refugees and asylum-seekers continue to have access to the territory of India and asylum procedures. The Government allows all refugees and asylum-seekers to have access to public health, education services and the national legal system. However, a lack of awareness of these services and the local language, constitute practical barriers to effective access,” noted the 2012 UNHCR report on India as part of the Universal Periodic Review process at the UN Human Rights Council. 

India, notably, did all of these despite not being a state party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Optional Protocol. But today, the message from New Delhi is somewhat different. It is that India is no longer willing to use its executive discretion to shelter asylum seekers, least of all recognise them as ‘refugees’; that people in dire straits outside India shouldn’t take her open-door policy for granted; and that if those in India’s neighbouring countries still manage to reach the Indian border from their side, they should be ready to confront paramilitary personnel or worse, court arrest. 

For a nation that has always fretted about its borders and territorial sovereignty, and yet allowed all manner of persecuted people to take shelter within its borders during troubled times, this is a tragically uncharacteristic memo to send out to the world.

Counter-attitudes

There is a chink in this otherwise dreary story – one that offers hope and drives a profound point about not just Indian federalism, but also its judicial integrity. 

Just a few weeks after the Modi government ordered four Northeastern states to prevent the refugee influx and send back “illegal migrants” to Myanmar, Zoramthanga, the current Chief Minister of Mizoram (which has so far received the lion’s share of Burmese refugees) sent a rare letter of defiance to the Prime Minister. Labeling the situation in Myanmar as a “human catastrophe of gigantic proportions”, he plainly stated that New Delhi’s order was “not acceptable to Mizoram”. 

“India cannot turn a blind eye to this humanitarian crisis unfolding right in front of us in our own backyard,” Zoramthanga wrote, without mincing words.

While the central government hasn’t yet publicly responded to the letter, it hasn’t outrightly stopped Burmese asylum seekers from entering India or hindered local humanitarian work since Zoramthanga dissented. On the contrary, Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, even offered to provide limited humanitarian assistance to the refugees (it is another matter that the offer is yet to materialise). It is perhaps because of the Mizo CM’s letter that the number of refugees from Myanmar has steadily climbed up to a sizable 16,000. More are expected to enter India in the months to come, as Myanmar descends into a full-fledged civil conflict. 

Zoramthanga’s letter is a reminder of a certain reality, which no policymaker or political leader in New Delhi can wittingly dodge – that the central government cannot have a veto on every single matter in the country even if it wants to. Local interests and social dynamics will continue to have great sway over both national politics and statecraft, including on matters concerning other countries. 

This is particularly true in the case of India’s Northeast – a complex, multi-ethnic, heterogeneous region with historical ties to its border regions. A large chunk of those fleeing across the border from Myanmar to India happen to be Chins, who share the common ‘Zo’ ethnic umbrella with the Mizos. Both communities have maintained a fraternal relationship for centuries that transcends international borders and the very history of postcolonial state-making. A single letter from the Home Ministry in New Delhi wasn’t going to break that ancient legacy of ethnic togetherness.     

In fact, the Modi government’s knee-jerk attempt to bypass Aizawl while deciding its asylum policy on Chin refugees is a pinpoint reflection of how detached the Centre in India remains from its peripheries, despite its concerted attempts to co-opt the Northeast into its political-cultural fold and foreign policy narratives (such as the ‘Act East Policy’).

Since Zoramthanga’s refusal to toe New Delhi’s line, the refugees from across the border have found a familiar home in Mizoram. Despite severe logistical and material insufficiencies, compounded by the looming threat of a COVID-19 surge, ordinary Mizos have gone the extra mile to ensure that the displaced have a roof above their heads and two square meals a day. In one video posted on Twitter, for instance, locals were seen building makeshift shelters for refugees in Mizoram’s Saikah village. This, perhaps, is what a “whole of society approach” – a phrase so very frequently recalled in the global refugee literature – really looks like. 

In that sense, the collective Mizo response to the Burmese refugees may be seen as a revolt against the political border. In a way, it is a rejection of the postcolonial nation-state as an entity that punctuates natural ethnographic continuities. However, it is not a rejection of those who cross the border. This is in stark contrast to the ethnonationalist view of the India-Bangladesh border in Assam wherein the border itself as a national entity is embraced, but those crossing it are rejected overwhelmingly. For the Assamese nationalists, the border is a subject of constant anxiety and an essential instrument of ethnic self-preservation that is vulnerable to “external aggressors” (read: undocumented migrants). On the other hand, for the Mizos, it is a banality that must be transcended precisely for the same objective – ethnic self-preservation. It is a different matter, however, that the Mizo response might have been different if they did not share ethno-cultural affinities with those crossing the border – like in the case of Assam. Rejection of border-crossers who are seen as the “other” by the population in destination regions is a pattern visible across most international borders, with variations in the degree and nature of the backlash.

Judicial Interventions 

Alongside Zoramthanga’s letter, another intervention – a judicial one this time – punctuated New Delhi’s restrictive asylum policy on Burmese refugees. In early May, the Manipur High Court directed the government to provide “safe transport and passage” to seven refugees working for Myanmar’s Mizzima news media portal – to travel to New Delhi and seek protection from the UNHCR. Not just that, the court validated their status as ‘asylum seekers’ – not ‘migrants’ – and established their legal right to not be sent back to Myanmar.

“They did not enter our country with the clear-cut and deliberate intention of breaking and violating our domestic laws. They fled the country of their origin under imminent threat to their lives and liberty,” the bench said.

The entire order, in fact, is in stark contrast to an earlier one passed by the Supreme Court of India in April, which allowed the central government to deport hundreds of Rohingya refugees currently detained in Jammu back to Myanmar. The apex court bench – led by former Chief Justice of India, S.A. Bobde – had taken an unusually obtuse view of the Rohingya refugee situation, refusing to cross-examine the government’s submission that they are a ‘national security threat’ to India or do its own research on the threatening ground reality in Myanmar, where the Rohingya remain a stateless minority who were violently chased out only four years ago. 

In an almost antithetical judicial reading, the Manipur High Court noted that “no material [was] produced in support” of the government’s claim that the seven refugees posed a “possible threat” to the “security of our country”. It went on to argue that “the media coverage that has surfaced from within Myanmar after the military coup, even if discounted to some extent, leaves this Court in no doubt that these Myanmarese persons, given their links with the banned Mizzima Media Organization, face imminent threat to their lives and liberty if they return.” 

Notably, the meticulously-researched order also highlights specific provisions within Indian law that offer certain safeguards to asylum seekers, such as the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ – the norm of not sending asylum seekers back to their home countries where they face a clear threat of persecution. It lays down the whole spectrum of binding and non-binding international instruments that contain the non-refoulement principle in one form or the other (including the most recent GCR) and ties it all to Article 51 of the Indian Constitution, which “casts a non-enforceable duty upon the ‘State’ to promote international peace and security, apart from fostering respect for international law and treaty-obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with one another.” It further goes on to remind the government that Articles 14 (equality before law) and 21 (right to life) of the Indian constitution guarantee certain legal safeguards even to non-citizens, and backs this up with past case precedents (such as the landmark National Human Rights Commission vs. State of Arunachal Pradesh and Another).

Most importantly, it argues that the “far-reaching and myriad protections afforded by Article 21 of our Constitution, as interpreted and adumbrated by our Supreme Court time and again, would indubitably encompass the right of non-refoulement.” There truly cannot be a more unequivocal reaffirmation of the non-refoulement principle by any Indian court, and one can only hope that future benches in the Supreme Court and other High Courts look to this order for precedence while adjudicating over asylum-related cases.

But, this is just one order. In general, the Indian legal framework is not very friendly to asylum seekers. In the absence of a national refugee law, the heavily punitive Foreigners Act 1946 comes into play, allowing governments to sweepingly portray asylum seekers as “illegal migrants”, which then courts could validate on legal technicalities. The sitting government, instead of broadening the legal-policy space for asylum, has only made it discriminatory and sectarian by introducing legal provisions that exempt migrants from six specific, non-Muslim religious groups belonging to three specific, Muslim-majority neighbouring countries from the punitive provisions of the Foreigners’ Act. These amendments made in 2015 eventually paved the way for the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019. Needless to say, asylum seekers from Myanmar aren’t covered under this law.

Is India violating international law?

The key premise that the Modi government cited while closing India’s borders to the fleeing Myanmar refugees or sending those who had already entered back to Myanmar is that India is not a state party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Optional Protocol. In itself, this isn’t wrong. 

The Convention provides the most explicit legal basis for refugee protection amongst all international treaties, and since India hasn’t ratified it yet, it is neither obligated to take in asylum seekers, nor bound by its core principle of ‘non-refoulement’. It is municipal law that takes precedence here, according to which, anyone who enters India without valid papers (such as a visa) is in violation of the Foreigners Act 1946 and is classified as an “illegal migrant” under the Citizenship Act, 1955

However, this is the narrowest possible interpretation of India’s international obligations to asylum norms. In fact, one may firmly argue that by sending Burmese asylum seekers who have already entered India back to Myanmar where they face a clear threat of persecution and torture by the military regime, India would be violating international law. There are two main reasons for this. 

One, ‘non-refoulement’ has been recognised as a peremptory norm of international law (or jus cogens), taking it beyond the sole remit of the Refugee Convention. This means that even those countries that have not ratified the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Optional Protocol, like India, are bound by it. 

To be clear, whether the non-refoulement principle really has reached the status of jus cogens remains up for debate amongst international law theoreticians and practitioners. At the same time, a growing body of academic literature and more importantly, a series of advisory opinions (see Point 21 of this) issued by the Executive Committee of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have validated the universally binding nature of non-refoulement based on “consistent State practice combined with a recognition on the part of States that the principle has a normative character”.  

Two, the non-refoulement principle is enshrined within other international instruments that India has ratified or signed. Primarily, this includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which India ratified way back in 1979. According to a UNHCR advisory opinion (see footnote 37), the principle is woven into the Covenant through the Right to Life provision in Article 6. This simply means that a member state may not send an asylum seeker back to their home country where their right to life may be violated. 

In the Myanmar refugees’ context, this is relevant because more than 1049 civilians have been killed by the military regime since the 1 February coup, according to one estimate. Further, in Chin State and Sagaing Division, both sharing borders with India, intense clashes between regime forces and civilian militias have erupted in recent weeks, fueling a growing humanitarian crisis and even driving accusations of war crimes against civilians.  

Secondarily, India remains normatively committed, though not legally obligated, to the non-refoulement principle by virtue of signing the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), both of which enshrine it. Since the coup, Myanmar has seen hundreds of enforced disappearances and extensive use of torture in detention. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which India has signed, contains the non-refoulement principle in Article 14. 

The Global Compact on Refugees, which was officially affirmed by the UN General Assembly in December 2018 and in the development of which India “took an active role”, explicitly recognises the non-refoulement principle as “a cardinal principle” (see Clauses 5 and 87 of the Compact). While these are only soft commitments, abiding by them steadfastly would place India as a positive norm-setting country in the domain of international humanitarian law.

Refugees are people, not pathogens

It is a rather jarring juxtaposition of circumstances – how the Indian government scrambled heavily-armed paramilitary forces to keep away a few thousand refugees even as it mobilised resources to also keep a rapidly-spreading deadly virus at bay. For a moment, it looked like refugees who were literally fleeing for their lives were no different from a mutating pathogen that is out to take lives – as if both threatened Indians in equal measure. In fact, one could argue that the central government was more proactive in stopping the refugees than the new strains of Coronavirus.

Yet, this stoic, if not hostile, attitude towards the new refugees from Myanmar is hardly surprising. The majoritarian political ideology that drives the ruling dispensation in New Delhi today is inherently and reflexively anti-immigrant (and ‘refugees’ are, broadly speaking, a certain class of immigrants). It is premised on the idea of maintaining a sense of national demographic purity (eventually segueing to cultural purity) by keeping “the outsiders” away and appearing muscular while doing so. While the impulse to preserve territorial and demographic integrity through border control has been a longstanding trait of the Indian state, regardless of the government in power, the current regime has only dialed it up with an intent to deploy it as a hypernationalistic political tool.

An attendant aspect of such an ideology is projecting asylum seekers as threats to India’s ‘national security’ and territorial integrity, and the very act of border-crossing as a de facto criminal act. This heavily securitised approach to immigration and borders, which predates the BJP, has been most pronounced in India’s Northeast, a region that is seen by the politico-security establishment in New Delhi as particularly vulnerable to external security threats because of its porous borders, ethnic rebellions, and historical-cultural continuities with neighbouring countries. If the idea is to ‘tame’ the region, then taming the borders becomes the sine qua non.  

This is exactly why successive governments and even the higher judiciary have borrowed terms such as “external aggression” from the Indian Constitution to characterise cross-border migration, as in the context of the India-Bangladesh border. The ruling government has only successfully doubled down on this hyper-securitised border policy while also introducing a political element to it. 

The Indian state is not likely to shed this institutional thinking anytime soon, not at least under the current BJP-led political regime in power at both the centre and various border states in the Northeast, despite its blustering rhetoric about humanitarianism and protecting persecuted minorities in the neighbourhood. After all, this is the same government that reiterates its “commitment on protection of refugees” every year at the UN and at the same time, declares in the country’s highest court that “India cannot be the refugee capital of the world.”

This contradictory policy approach allows the government to dodge criticism at the UN while enjoying the freedom to push its anti-migrant political propaganda at home. Ultimately, the homeland approach is designed to serve as a deterrent against asylum-seeking and entrench a certain idea in the popular imagination that India’s borders are sacrosanct, regardless of what international or municipal law may stipulate. This is sour news not just for prospective asylum seekers in strife-torn neighbourhood countries, such as Myanmar, but also for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants who are already in India. Yet, India remains a vast country with a deeply pluralistic demography and border regions that carry complex transnational legacies. Delhi may find it hard to rule by decree in such quarters, as it did this time when the Mizo Chief Minister put his foot down to help his people.

Call for Applications: Statelessness Intensive Course 2022

The Peter McMullin Centre for Statelessness is inviting applications for its Statelessness Intensive Course 2022, to be held online in February 2022.

Over the last three years, the Peter McMullin Centre’s Statelessness Intensive Course has established itself in the statelessness studies calendar as a world-class program, offering an invaluable learning experience for a diverse cohort of participants from all over the world.

Suitable for a wide range of participants, this multidisciplinary course provides participants with the skills and practical tools to understand and address the problem of statelessness. Focusing on case studies from the Asia Pacific region, where the issue of statelessness is particularly salient, the course covers such issues as:

  • the meaning of nationality in international law
  • the core international treaties relevant to statelessness
  • the right to nationality and deprivation of nationality
  • the intersection between refugeehood and statelessness
  • statelessness determination frameworks
  • the nexus between statelessness, minorities, discrimination and development
  • childhood statelessness
  • the relationship between statelessness and gender discrimination
  • identity, birth registration and the prevention of statelessness

The online format comprises daily Zoom sessions (four hours each day), along with three hours of flexible learning per day, and accommodates multiple time zones as much as possible.

Course dates:  Wed 16th – Tue 22nd February 2022 (excl. weekend)
Deadline for applications: 30 September 2021

For further details on the course and registration process, see the Centre’s page here.

Parichay Monthly Roundup: July 2021

We, at Parichay, have launched a monthly newsletter to give you updates on citizenship in India and the globe, and highlight some exciting new work that we have been doing. Click here to subscribe!


Updates from Parichay

  • In a provocative essay on the blog, Nivedita Menon, implores us to recognize the feminist issues which lie at the heart of any citizenship discourse. More specifically, in Menon’s words, the essay concerns itself with four questions: 

“First, are citizenship and citizenship rights unambiguously empowering? Second, why is citizenship a feminist issue? Third, should we not cast citizenship rights within the frame of place of work, rather than place of birth? Fourth, what about the place of the non-human in a just and ecologically aligned society?”

  • Leah Verghese and Shruthi Naik by analysing 818 orders passed by Foreigners Tribunal No. 4 in Hajo between 16 June 2017 and 30 December 2019, explore the process of adjudication of citizenship in Assam, in terms of fairness, procedural aspects, and time taken through an analysis of these orders and highlight the flawed citizenship process which haunt Assam. 
  • ​On 28th May, the Central Government issued a notification which empowered the Collectors in certain districts of Gujarat, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab, to operate under Sections 5 and 6 of the Citizenship Act, 1955 and grant citizenship to the minority communities (Hindus, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists) from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Darshana Mitra and Rupali Francesca Samuel have prepared a brief on the order which sets out the contents of the May 2021 order, and its relation, if any, to the CAA 2019. 

Developments in India

  • In a moving article, Mohammad Iqbal, informs us about the Kafkaesque nightmare which haunts Pakistani Hindus in India – a process which engulfs statelessness and renders lives precarious. Unsurprisingly then, various refugees were seen demanding an expedited Citizenship Process, on the World Refugees Day. 
  • In Thamarai v. Union of India, the Madras High Court recently dismissed a plea moved against the deportation of a Sri Lankan national. The Court by suggesting that the law in Maneka Gandhi case cannot be stretched beyond a point, held that:

​​“[He] does not have a fundamental right to stay in India and get Indian citizenship. He knows that his stay in India cannot be eternal. He has to leave India one day or the other”

  • Suggesting that India and the UNHCR failed to provide healthcare and vaccination for Chin refugees, Kimi Colney in a compelling piece, offers insight into the varying forms of violence which are perpetuated against vulnerable groups. ​
  • Observing the importance of citizenship for a person, the Gauhati High Court recently held that citizenship being a very important right of a person should ordinarily be decided on merit rather than by default”

Across Borders: Conversations on Citizenship

  • Recently, Germany has passed a new citizenship law for descendants of Nazi Victims – the law makes it easier for descendants of those who fled Nazi persecution to obtain citizenship. Subsequently, if people have been stripped of their citizenship on political, racial or religious grounds can have it restored, and so can their descendants.
  • The Bahamas Court of Appeal upheld a historic Supreme Court ruling that children born out of wedlock to foreign women and Bahamian men are entitled to citizenship at birth. 
  • Dahlia Scheindlin, informs us of the cruelty which lies at the heart of Israel’s Citizenship Law – a cruelty which for Scheindlin, remains rooted in racist foundations, and arguably, provides a key insight to the violent politics which haunts Israel. ​

What have we been reading? 

  • Articulating a moment in history wherein we are witnessing the “death of asylum itself”, Alison Mountz​‘s recent work, maps out the role of spaces and geographies in allowing the sovereign to place lives in precarious and vulnerable zones. In suggesting that detention spaces are often ‘a global constellation of sites and places where people and places are exploited to carry out exclusion’, Mountz complicates traditional theoretical debates surrounding ‘states of exception’ by highlighting their incomplete-ness. Despite the ominous realisations, Mountz argues that ‘they [activists, migrants, NGOs, etc] are countering the death of asylum with the life of activism’ – a life which we hope to emulate in spaces near us. 

We look forward to bringing you more updates next month! Until then, feel free to reach out at editorial-team@parichayblog.org for comments or feedback. Subscribe here.

CAA revisited: How the May 2021 order of the MHA furthers a discriminatory citizenship regime

On May 28, 2021, the Ministry of Home Affairs passed an order under Section 16 of the Citizenship Act, 1955 which empowers the Central Government to delegate powers under the Act. However, exceeding mere delegation, this o rder created a specific procedure for naturalisation and registration for citizenship in respect of applicants from ‘minority communities’ in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, namely Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists, resident in specified districts in five states. This order was immediately challenged by the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in an interlocutory application that they filed in an earlier writ petition challenging the constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. IUML’s primary objection was that this order seeks to implement the CAA 2019 in a roundabout fashion, even while the constitutionality challenge is under examination by the Supreme Court. The Union Government in its reply stated that the notification had nothing to do with the CAA, and merely allows for delegation of powers of registration and naturalisation under certain specific circumstances, to a class of ‘legal’ migrants. As on date, two other writ petitioners who challenged the CAA, have filed applications also challenging this order.

At Parichay, we have prepared a detailed brief on the May 2021 order. This brief sets out the contents of the May 2021 order, and its relation, if any, to the CAA 2019. To summarise, this brief argues the following:

  1. The CAA, 2019 exempts persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Parsi or Buddhist communities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh from falling within the definition of “illegal migrant” in Section 2(1)(b) of the Citizenship Act, 1955. We argue that this amended definition now allows even those without valid documents to apply for citizenship under the procedure laid down under May 2021 notification. However, this benefit is not available to similarly situated Muslim applicants.
  2. The May 2021 order significantly truncates the procedure for registration and naturalisation of citizens under Sections 5 and 6 of the Citizenship Act, but denies similarly situated Muslim applicants this benefit.
  3. The May 2021 order implements the amendment to the Third Schedule of the Citizenship Act, 1955 brought into force by the CAA, 2019. This amendment reduced the residency requirement for naturalisation under Section 6 from 11 years to 5 years for Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Parsi or Buddhist communities per se (without any requirement of claiming religious persecution) who come from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh.
  4. The May 2021 order creates a distinction between applicants of Indian origin for the purposes of registration under Section 5, by retaining what is admittedly an onerous and difficult process of citizenship registration for Muslims of Indian origin, while easing the process for Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Buddhists and Parsis of Indian origin.

    Most importantly, if the May 2021 order is purportedly in the interests of refugee protection, then it is time to consider the adoption of a non-discriminatory and inclusive refugee policy in consonance with India’s constitutional values.

Section 6A and Assam

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 Samia Khan, is part of the clinic’s outcomes.

In the year 1950, the Immigrant (Expulsion from Assam) Act was passed by the Parliament. The objects and purpose of the Act read: “During the last few months a serious situation had arisen from the immigration of a very large number of East Bengal residents into Assam. Such large migration is disturbing the economy of the province besides giving rise to a serious law and order problem” (see here). While the Act allowed the Central Government to give “directions in regard to” the removal of individuals from Assam, the application of the Act was barred against individuals who “on account of civil disturbances or the fear of such disturbances in any area” of Pakistan had been “displaced” or left their residence. While this Act marked the beginning of issues concerning migration, these issues came into the limelight with the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, which led to a widespread migration from Bangladesh to Assam. 

The subsequent enfranchisement of refugees/migrants prompted the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to spearhead an “anti-foreigner” agitation in 1979, demanding “detection, disenfranchisement and deportation” of foreigners. Despite this agitation and resistance, Indira Gandhi’s government called for assembly elections in Assam in February 1983. While the AASU demanded for a boycott of elections, sections of Bengali Muslims decided to vote nonetheless in order to “effectively prove their claim to Indian citizenship”. These tensions culminated in the Nellie massacre which claimed around 1800 people according to official records, most of whom were Bengali Muslims. In the aftermath of Nellie, two legal developments followed. First, in 1985, a political settlement was reached between the agitators and the Central and State Governments, named the Assam Accord. Introduced through an amendment, Section 6A of the Citizenship Act was a legislative enactment for furthering the terms of this accord. Under Section 6A, any person who entered Assam from Bangladesh before the 1st of January, 1966 will be deemed a citizen of India. Persons who settled in the state between January 2, 1966 and March 24, 1971 would have to register themselves according to the rules laid down by the Central Government and would enjoy all other rights except the right to vote for a ten-year period. (see here) At the lapse of the ten-year period, they would become eligible to be enrolled in the electoral rolls. Finally, all those who migrated after the aforementioned date were to be expelled. 

The second important development happened two years before the Assam Accord, wherein Parliament passed the  Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals Act) of 1983. Read with Illegal Migrant Rules of 1984, these two would act in conjunction to “detect and deport” foreigners by Tribunals established under this Act. The IMDT Act allowed for complaints to be brought to the police by a person living within a 3 kilometer radius of the foreigner suspected to have entered India without the necessary travel documents. It also placed the burden of proof on the State and the complainant, to establish the person’s status as “illegal migrant”. However, the Act was challenged by Sarbananda Sonowal before the Supreme Court. 

In pronouncing the judgement, the Court relied upon a report by the Governor of Assam, S.K. Sinha which claimed that, “Muslim militant organisations [had] mushroomed in Assam” as a result of illegal migration from Bangladesh. While Governor Sinha’s report was not backed by any data or surveys, the Court nonetheless held that there was an “external aggression” against the State of Assam. Subsequently, invoking Article 355 of the Constitution, the Court held that IMDT’s placement of burdens was insufficient to check the issues laid down in Sinha’s report, and hence went on to hold the Act and the Rules unconstitutional. After Sarbananda Sonowal, the regime, rather than being governed by IMDT, returned to Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, the Foreigners Act, and the Foreigners Tribunal Order.

Section 6A and the Assam Accord are often seen as the “genesis of the updated NRC in Assam”. Section 6A is instrumental in the creation of the National Register of Citizens (‘NRC’) in Assam, which is currently being updated under the supervision of the Supreme Court. The process requires a person to prove their Indian citizenship by providing government documents that establish their family legacy and their right to reside in India. This tedious process is often impossible for persons with limited resources, resulting in them being left off the NRC and stripped of the protection offered by citizenship.

It is in this context that Section 6A of the Citizenship Act was challenged before the Supreme Court in a petition by a Guwahati-based civil society organisation, Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha (ASM) in 2012. While referring the case to a bigger bench, Justice Nariman framed thirteen questions of law. 

While a five-judge constitution bench was instituted by Chief Justice J.S. Khehar in 2017 which conducted two hearings, it was decided to reconstitute a fresh bench later. Subsequently, as the question still remains unanswered, it is evident that the lack of clarity has resulted in a lack of clarity about applicable legal standards for citizenship determination in Assam. There is an imminent need for the Supreme Court to rule on the validity of the Section. Delaying the ruling will only be harmful to the lives of thousands whose citizenship hangs in the balance.

Suggested Reading Material :-

  1. Anupama Roy, Mapping Citizenship in India (Oxford University Press 2010) ch 2.
  2. Abdul Kalam Azad, M. Mohsin Alam Bhat and Harsh Mander, ‘Citizenship and the Mass Production of Statelessness in Assam’, India Exclusion Report 2019-2020 http://centreforequitystudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/India-Exclusion-Report-2019-20-e-copy.pdf accessed 16 June 2021.
  3. Ashna Ashesh and Arun Thiruvengadam, ‘Report on Citizenship Law: India’, GlobalCit Country Report July 2017 https://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/47124/GLOBALCIT_CR_2017_12.pdf?sequence=1 accessed 16 June 2021.
  4. Niraja Gopala Jayal, ‘Citizenship’ in Sujit Choudhary, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution (Oxford University Press 2016).

Refugees

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 Soumyajit Joardar, is part of the clinic’s outcomes.

Introduction: The Refugee Convention of 1951

The term ‘refugee’ refers to people who are forced to flee their country due to the threat of persecution. The first refugees were white protestants who had to flee France due to religious persecution in 17th century Europe. However, the concept garnered further interest only in the aftermath of World War II. Subsequently, in 1950, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was instituted to safeguard the interests of the Europeans displaced during the conflict period.

The Refugee Convention 1951 defines ‘refugee’ as a person who is unable or unwilling to avail the protection of their country of nationality and is residing outside their country due to the fear of prosecution based on factors such as race and religion or membership of any other social group. Article 33 of the Convention, through the principle of non-refoulement, has forbidden nations from returning refugees to the country where they would face the threat of persecution. Article 31 prevents States from penalising refugees for illegal entry until they present themselves to the authorities and show cause. Article 32 of the Convention protects expulsion of refugees except on grounds of national security or public order in accordance with due process.

In 1967, an additional Protocol was enacted to further safeguard the interests of the refugees. It removed the temporal and geographic limitations of the 1951 Convention. While India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, it is bound by certain principles of the Convention, such as non-refoulment, as they have become customary international law.

India’s International and Constitutional Law Obligations Towards Refugees

India is also a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), 1966, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), 1963. Hence, India is obligated to protect and preserve the rights of the refugees by virtue of principles such as non-refoulement and in light of its other civil rights related obligations under the ICCPR, ICESCR and the CERD.

India’s Treatment of Refugees: An Overview

India’s experience with Refugees began in the aftermath of the partition, when it dealt with mass inflow from Pakistan (and vice-versa) due to religious persecution. Nonetheless, in the years since then, India has not adopted a uniform policy on the issue. Instead, the treatment refugees receive depends on their country of origin.

The government has taken active steps to cater to the refugees from Tibet and Tamils from Sri Lanka. The Ministry of Home Affairs has categorically stated that India refers to only Sri Lankan Tamils and Tibetans as refugees and has specifically aided the Tibetans in multi-dimensional ways. The Tibetans have been provided land for settlement in Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in addition to access to education, health care and welfare of their community interests. The Sri Lankan refugees, however, have not received the attention of the government. They find themselves languishing in camps in Tamil Nadu. These camps lack basic facilities such as sanitation and security. However, groups like the Chakmas or the Rohingyas are not treated like the Tibetans or Sri Lankan Tamils. Instead, India has been lackadaisical in providing basic facilities to the Chakma and Hajong refugees.    

Refugees from Myanmar have been treated differently and have been referred to UNHCR by the government. The role of the UNHCR is to preserve the interest of refugees and asylum seekers not protected by the Government of India. The UNHCR currently hosts 40,859 refugees and asylum seekers. Once determined by UNHCR as refugees, the individuals receive refugee cards which allow them access to education in government schools and free medical treatment in government hospitals. It also acts as a guarantee against forced deportation.

Having been surrounded by countries such as Bangladesh and Myanmar, India is in a unique position to take into account cultural interests of its neighbours alongside demographical considerations. However, the usual responses from India are limited to resources and infrastructure as a hindrance to accept refugees. There has been a resounding political consensus on this issue.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has taken a consistent position regarding the refusal of rights to the refugees to settle in the country. There has been a persistent understanding that the refugees are a burden on the taxpayers of the country. However, the fact that the refugees contribute significantly to the country’s economy is overlooked. Unfortunately, public discourse around India’s failure to fulfil its international law obligations towards Refugees is minimal. The status quo of non-uniformity reigns the landscape.

Suggested Readings:

  1. P Oberoi. (2001) “South Asia and the Creation of the International Refugee Regime” Refuge, available at https://refuge.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/refuge/article/view/21228/19899.  
  2. BS Chimni (2000) ‘Legal Conditions of Refugees in India’ in International Refugee Law: A Reader.  
  3. Refugees Defined and Described in The Refugee in International Law (3rd Edition) Guy S. Goodwin-Gill, Jane McAdam, OUP.
  4. CITIZEN REFUGEE: FORGING THE INDIAN NATION AFTER PARTITION by Uditi Sen.
  5. Responding to protracted refugee situations: Lessons from a decade of discussion (FORCED MIGRATION POLICY BRIEFING 6) by Dr James Milner and Professor Gil Loescher.
  6. The long partition and the making of modern South Asia (2010), New York: Columbia University Press.
  7. Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Annual Report 2018-19. https://www.mha.gov.in/sites/default/files/AnnualReport_English_01102019.pdf.
  8. UNHCR Fact Sheet on India 2020. https://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/UNHCR%20India%20fact%20sheet%2031%20December%202020.pdf

Foreigners’ Tribunals

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 Shuchi Purohit, is part of the clinic’s outcomes.

Foreigners’ Tribunals are quasi-judicial bodies set up by the Central Government to determine whether a person is a foreigner or not under the Foreigners’ (Tribunals) Order, 1964, created under the Foreigners Act, 1946. The Executive appoints judicial members to adjudicate cases before FTs. These tribunals differ from other tribunals or courts of law in India in terms of procedure, selection criteria of judicial members, examination of evidence, absence of an appellate body, etc. Presently, as many as 1.4 lakh cases of suspected foreigners are pending before 300 tribunals functioning in Assam. 

History and Establishment of Foreigners’ Tribunals

The primary aim behind setting up foreigners’ tribunals was to avoid arbitrary deportation. The Foreigners Act was first enacted in 1864, to limit the mobility of groups that the colonial British government saw as “disorderly or alien.” The Foreigner’s Act, 1946, which was adopted by independent India, incorporated this objective as well, in a situation where borders were porous and in flux, especially along the eastern borders. However, the Foreigners Act did not incorporate any mechanism for the identification and detection of foreigners. 

The 1961 Census Report focused on preparing data on irregular immigrants. 2,20,691 ‘infiltrants’ were found in Assam due to migration from East Pakistan. The Border police thereafter misused this data as they started detecting and deporting foreigners without any judicial process. The Ministry of Home Affairs then, through powers granted under Section 3 of the Foreigners Act, passed the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964, so that no person would be deported without a hearing. 

In 1983, the Government of India passed the Illegal Migrant (Determination by the Tribunal) Act, 1983 (‘IMDT Act’). The objective of this Act was to determine foreigners who entered India after 25 March 1971, according to Section 6A of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 1986. Such individuals were ineligible to obtain Indian citizenship and were detected and deported in accordance with the IMDT Act. The IMDT Act differed significantly from the Foreigners Order in one respect: it placed the burden of proof for demonstrating that the individual is a foreigner upon the state. It also defined the eligibility criteria to be a judicial member of the tribunal. An option of the review was available in case a difference of opinion arose among the judicial members.

However, there was growing turmoil in Assam as the leaders of Assam Agitation believed that the IMDT Act was unsuccessful in detecting and expelling foreigners and the issue of irregular immigration remained unresolved. Hence, in 2005, in Sarbananda Sonowal v. Union of India, the Supreme Court declared the IMDT Act as unconstitutional, as it found the procedure laid down in the Act to be “time-consuming”. The Court cited two reasons for its decision. First, that the Act failed to protect the people of Assam from external aggression by the migrants, which is the prerogative of the central government. Second, that in order to uphold national security, there was a need for identification of these foreigners to expedite their deportation. The Court struck down the IMDT Act as unconstitutional, and reverted to the Tribunal regime established under the Foreigners Act and Order, thus shifting the burden of proof to the individual suspected to be a foreigner. 

How do Foreigners’ Tribunals receive Cases?

There are three modes through which the Foreigners’ Tribunals receive cases: references from the Border Police, the Election Commission of India, and the National Register of Citizens. There are presently 1.9 million people who are excluded from the final draft of the NRC, waiting for their fate to be decided, as the process for their claim to citizenship before FT is yet to be started. 

Almost every district in Assam has Assam Police Border personnel stationed, who identify and investigate alleged foreigners based on their discretion. Cases identified by the Border Police are referred to FTs for final adjudication. However, civil society organisations argue that this power is often abused by the Border Police as they do not follow any investigatory guidelines to identify alleged foreigners, as laid down by the Gauhati High Court

Individuals can also be identified as foreigners by the Election Commission. In 1997, the ECI had identified around 2,30,000 voters as ‘doubtful,’ whose cases were then referred to FTs for adjudication. 

Finally, the National Register of Citizens in Assam is an exercise identifying all Indian citizens in the state. Individuals excluded from the list are identified as foreigners, who will have to prove their citizenship before FTs. In 2019, the final NRC list was released, which excluded around 19 lakh people from citizenship. In May 2021, the NRC Coordinator had filed an application before the Supreme Court seeking re-verification of the NRC, stating that some ‘issues of substantive importance’ cropped up while preparing the rejecting slips, thus delaying the process.

Lapses of Foreigners’ Tribunals in India

India is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and is hence bound by its treaty obligations. Article 14(1) of ICCPR states that every person is entitled to a “fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” The Foreigners Act falls short on each criterion set by ICCPR, as it fails to establish standardised criteria of eligibility for its members. 

Scholars and civil society organisations have raised concerns regarding the independence and impartiality of these tribunals. The appointed members of the Foreigners’ Tribunal do not have any specialized training in law or adjudication. This is evidenced by the Gauhati High Court’s circular seeking to appoint senior civil servants as members of the Foreigners’ Tribunal, as opposed to persons having prior adjudicatory or legal experience. Moreover, membership with the Tribunal is renewed or terminated depending on the conviction rate. Thus, members of the Foreigners’ Tribunal would be incentivised to declare more people as foreigners, to retain their seats. This leads to an inherent conflict of interest, which falls short of the requirement of impartiality.

The Act also fails to state the training a member needs to carry out the judicial duties, thus compromising the requirement of competency. In 2015, the training received by the 63 selected members spanned merely four days. Out of those, only two were former or serving judicial officers. Moreover, the Government of Assam has further lowered the threshold of experience required from 10 years to 7 years. The age limit of induction which was previously 45 years, is now 35.

The tribunals are empowered to regulate their own procedures, as provided by the 1964 Order. Civil society organisations have noted that in practice, this power is abused and the tribunals do not provide documents such as written statements, witness depositions, etc., which are necessary for an individual to fairly contest and appeal their case. More than 60% of cases are decided ex-parte, as most individuals do not receive show-cause notices. The Gauhati High Court had stated that since Foreigners’ Tribunals are not civil but rather quasi-judicial bodies, the principle of res judicata does not apply. However, the Supreme Court in Abdul Kuddus v. Union Of India, later overturned this ratio, finding instead that quasi-judicial orders rendered by Foreigners’ Tribunals have civil consequences. Therefore, the doctrine of res judicata would apply. Further, the orders passed by Foreigners’ Tribunals cannot easily be found in the public realm, making the entire process opaque.

The Foreigners Act and Order do not provide for a right to appeal against the decision of a Foreigners’ Tribunal and set up no appellate body. All appeals have to be made to the High Court and Supreme Court. There are various factors such as litigating costs, locations, the prolonged duration of appeals etc. which act as barriers to individuals approaching appellate courts for a review of their decision. Even if they wish to do so, this right has become judicially restricted through the decision of the State of Assam v. Moslem Mandal. The decision states that the tribunal is the final fact-finding body, post which facts cannot be challenged during the appeal. However, facts are the most important aspect of such cases. Lawyers practising in FTs note an alarming difference between the prescribed methods for fact-finding and how facts are actually obtained by the Border Police. The guidelines laid in Moslem Mandal propounded that the referring authority must forward their observations recording their satisfaction in such a manner that demonstrates their application of mind to the facts and circumstances of the case; however, the fact-collection procedure is largely ignored. 

Conclusion

The objective of the 1946 Act was to deport legitimate foreigners in the Indian territory, rather than to determine the citizenship status of the masses to declare them foreigners. The functioning of these tribunals fails to take into consideration the grave risks associated with statelessness. It forces targeted individuals to live in limbo with constant anxiety over their civil and political rights. 

Suggested readings

  1. Amnesty International India, ‘Designed To Exclude: How India’s Courts Are Allowing Foreigner Tribunals To Render People Stateless In Assam,’ (2019) <https://www.amnesty.be/IMG/pdf/rapport_inde.pdf>.
  2. Talha Abdul Rahman, ‘Identifying the Outsider: An Assessment of Foreigner Tribunals in the Indian State of Assam’ VOL 2 NO 1 (2020): STATELESSNESS & CITIZENSHIP REVIEW <https://statelessnessandcitizenshipreview.com/index.php/journal/article/view/141>. 
  3. Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, ‘Explainer: What Do the MHA’s Changes to 1964 Foreigners Tribunals Order Mean?’ (The Wire, 14 June 2019) <https://thewire.in/government/foreigners-tribunals-order-mha-changes
  4. State of Assam v. Moslem Mandal and Ors. (2013) 3 Gau LR 402.
  5. Mohsin Alam Bhat, ‘Twilight Citizenship’ (2020) 729 Seminar <https://www.india-seminar.com/2020/729/729_m_mohsin_alam_bhat.htm>. 
  6. Citizens Against Hate, ‘Making Foreigner: Report on NRC Updation in Assam and the Risk of Mass Statelessness’ (2018) <https://citizensagainsthate.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Making-Foreigner.pdf

Deportation and Detention

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 Andolan Sarkar, is part of the clinic’s outcomes.

A foreigner as defined in Section 2(a) of the Foreigners Act of 1946 (‘the Act’) means a person who is not a citizen of India.[1] The ambit of this act extends to stipulating the deportation or detention of such foreigners. The definition of a foreigner within the Act, however, is vague since it negates the distinction between refugees, illegal migrants, and asylum seekers.

Deportation entails the expulsion of a foreigner from their current resident country to their country of origin or any other third country by any lawful authority on grounds authorised by law. While detention entails the lawful confinement of any individual, such confinement must be prescribed by any statute and sanctioned by the Court. The relevance of this discussion hinges on the several petitions challenging deportation orders and  thousands of individuals being detained in detention centres in dingy conditions for prolonged periods without a fair trial.

The authority of the Indian State to deport arises from Section 3 of the Act which allows the State to make orders restricting the stay of “foreigners” within Indian territory. Threat to national security, illegal entry into the country, commission of crimes by foreigners, residence within the country after the expiration of visa, violation of visa conditions, and nationality under question are some of the grounds on which the State has previously administered deportation orders.

In Assam, in particular, vide Notification No. 1/7/61–F.III dated the 22nd March 1961, the authority of the state to adjudge individuals as foreigners under clauses (c) and (cc) of Sub–section (2) of Section 3 of the Foreigners Act, 1946, was extended to the Superintendent of Police and Deputy Commissioners under the Govt. of Assam. This was followed by the entrustment of such a power by the President vide Notification No. 14011/13/75-F.III dated 17.02.1976 by virtue of under clause (1) of Article 258 of the Constitution. This was however, subject to the various conditions.[2] The power of issuing orders for detention, however, was not entrusted and yet has been exercised wherein movement of foreigners is being curtailed and they are being placed in foreigner wards in jails or detention centres. This is in conformity with the Madras High Court judgement dated 21.09.2007 in Habeas Corpus Petition No. 1138 of 2006 titled Latha v. Public Department and Innocent v. State of Goa(which later reaffirmed this judgement)wherein it was deemed permissible for the state government to act under delegated powers under Section 3(2)(e) in keeping a foreigner in a detention camp.

Since there is immense administrative control without any definitive statutory grounds based on which deportation can take place, the State has often tried to pass arbitrary orders. For instance, in Kamil Siedczynski,[3] the State issued a Leave India Notice to a Polish student studying in West Bengal for participating in a protest against a new Indian legislation. The Court held such an order to be null and void, since it was arbitrary and without any reason. The Court held that the student was on a valid visa, and merely protesting against the State does not warrant a deportation.

Additionally, The State does not enjoy unfettered discretion to expel any foreigner. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution allows for the deprivation of life and liberty only on the basis of procedure established by law. The deportation of any foreigner must be in compliance with Article 21 and other international principles. A deportation order must be assessed by the courts to be just, fair, and reasonable as interpreted by Article 21.[4] A deportation order restricting the stay of a foreigner must also be proportionate to the end goal that it seeks to achieve.

Few principles in domestic and international law act as safeguards against the deportation of foreigners. For instance, Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention talks about non-refoulement, which means that no State can send foreigners back to the place where they may face the risk of persecution. India has often argued that it has no obligation to comply with the non-refoulement principle since it is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Nonetheless, India must abide by the non-refoulement principle while deporting foreigners as the principle has evolved to be a part of the customary international law and is embedded in several other international instruments to which India is a signatory.

Deportation and detention run hand in hand. Section 3(2)(g) of the Act empowers the State to make orders in relation to the arrest and detention of foreigners. Foreigners awaiting deportation, individuals who do not possess documents, or foreigners whose nationality cannot be determined are kept under detention. Detention is justified by the State on grounds that Article 19 is not applicable to foreigners.[5]

Furthermore, the actions of the government actors flout procedure when detaining individuals under the pretence of them being foreigners. As per Section 4(2) of the Act, every officer making an arrest under Section 4 shall, without unnecessary delay, take or send the person arrested before a Magistrate having jurisdiction in the case or to the officer in charge of the nearest police-station and the provisions of Section 61 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, (5 of 1898) shall, so far as may be, apply in the case of any such arrest. The same is not undertaken in the initiation of proceedings or competition of proceedings before the FTs.

Foreigners are detained for prolonged time periods due to lack of proper deportation procedures. Deportation can only take place when the receiving country is willing to accept the alleged foreigner. In several cases, foreigners are detained indefinitely as no other countries are willing to accept them. Many alleged foreigners claim to be Indian citizens, but are not able to challenge the decision of Foreigners’ Tribunals. This implies that several Indian citizens may have been wrongfully termed as foreigners and in the absence of any challenges, they still remain under wrongful detention. This runs contrary to the principles enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and Articles 9 and 14 of the ICCPR by virtue of which every individual, irrespective of their nationality, deserves a fair trial and has a right to approach the courts.[6]

It is to be noted that the power of detention enshrined in Section 3(2)(g) and Section 4 were deleted from the Foreigners Act vide the Foreigners Amendment Act, 1957 after the then Attorney General of India, Mr. MC Setalvad, conceded to its lack of compliance with Article 21 and Article 22 of the Constitution in the case of Hans Muller of Nuremberg v. Supdt. Presidency Jail, Calcutta, (1955) 1 SCR 1284. Such power was reintroduced by virtue of an amendment in 1962 in light of the war with China. It was via an amendment in 2013, that this power was addressed in Paragraph 3 of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964.

Additionally, courts have looked down upon indefinite detention, since it runs contrary to Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.[7] In Hussainara Khatoon,[8] the Court spoke about pre-trial detention and stated that “a procedure which keeps such large numbers of people behind bars without trial for so long cannot possibly be regarded as ‘reasonable, just or fair’”. Additionally, the courts, in the case of State of Assam v. Moslem Mandal, (2013) 3 GLR 402stated that there is a limitation of 2 months for the duration of how long a foreigner may be detained.

The detention of foreigners is administrative in nature. These foreigners have not committed any penal offence; therefore, they are placed in detention centres awaiting deportation. Even if convicted of a penal offence, they are placed there after completing their sentence. Foreigners in detention centres must be treated with dignity. Unfortunately, the condition of these detention-centres is highly appalling as they fail to provide the detainees with proper food, water, hygiene, healthcare and other basic facilities.[9] This runs contrary to the hearing in Santanu Borthakur v. Union of India, tagged with W.P. (Crl) 7/2020 titled Abantee Dutta v. Union of India.The courts, vide Order 07.10.2020, observed that foreigners could not be held in jails and that the detention centres created by state government is in compliance with the standards stipulated by the central government.

The Act, first, ought to make a clear distinction between all categories of non-citizens. Further,  it needs to mention definitive grounds based on which deportation can take place. In the absence of such grounds, the administration enjoys too much leeway in administering deportation orders. Most importantly, alleged foreigners cannot be made to live in inhuman conditions within these detention-centres for an indefinite time period. Foreigners ought to be governed by a regime of rights, where they are granted all the necessary facilities within the detention-centres. A foreigner enjoys all rights as mentioned under Article 21. The government and the local-administration should be the first points to ensure the well-being of all foreigners.    

SUGGESTED READINGS:


The Search for Foreigners in Assam – An Analysis of Cases Before a Foreigners’ Tribunal and the High Court

Leah Verghese and Shruthi Naik are executive team members at DAKSH India.

The Gauhati High Court recently set aside an order by a Foreigners’ Tribunal in Assam that declared Haidar Ali a foreigner for failing to establish linkage with seven people whose names appear along with his grandparents’ names in the 1970 voter list. This order has once again brought to the spotlight the flawed citizenship adjudicatory process in Assam. To understand these processes better, the authors have analysed 818 orders passed by Foreigners Tribunal No. 4 in Hajo between 16 June 2017 and 30 December 2019 (obtained through RTI) and 787 orders and judgments of the Gauhati High Court delivered between 2010 and 2019, resulting from writ petitions filed against orders of the Foreigners Tribunals. In this article, the authors explore the process of adjudication of citizenship in Assam, in terms of fairness, procedural aspects, and time taken through an analysis of these orders.

Analysis of Foreigners Tribunal orders

98 per cent of the suspected foreigners brought before Hajo Foreigners Tribunal No. 4 during this period were Muslim. This is not reflective of the population of Hajo, which has a 44 per cent Muslim population, and neither are these numbers explained by the demographic composition of Bangladesh. The 1951 census showed that in East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh), non-Muslims comprised 23.20 per cent of the population. This proportion became 19.57 per cent in 1961, 14.60 per cent in 1974, 13.40 per cent in 1981, 11.70 per cent in 1991 and 10.40 per cent in 2001. The abnormally high proportion of Muslims (as compared to their population in Hajo or even Bangladesh) brought before the tribunal during this period indicates that they are being targeted.

The orders also reflect a serious non-application of the judicial mind. A majority of orders followed a set of templates with only the names of persons, the police station involved, and the dates relating to the case being changed. The descriptions of investigations by the police are like movie scripts riddled with obvious plot holes. In 733 cases, the police claim to have met the suspected foreigners. During these alleged visits, the police asked these suspected foreigners to produce documentary proof of their citizenship, and 570 of them allegedly told the police that they had no documents to prove that they are Indian citizens. The orders do not mention what kind of documentary proof the police asked for.  It is a little difficult to believe that when it comes to a matter as serious as citizenship, 570 people could not produce even a scrap of paper furthering their claim. This leads us to wonder whether the police’s accounts of these visits is credible. In 218 of these cases, the police also concluded which district in Bangladesh (mostly from Maimansingh) the suspected foreigners were from, despite the complete absence of any documentary proof of citizenship. Apart from these alleged meetings with the suspected foreigners, the orders do not describe any police investigation.

Although the police claimed they were able to meet suspected foreigners before submitting their enquiry report, in at least 98 per cent of such cases, they were unable to locate them subsequently to serve a notice to appear before the Foreigners Tribunal. The reason often cited in the orders is that the police could not find the person at their place of residence and local residents and the gaon burahs did not know of their whereabouts when the police enquired with them. We spoke to an advocate practicing at the Gauhati High Court (who has also appeared before the Foreigner Tribunals) who revealed that in some cases, the gaon burahs have also appeared as witnesses for the suspected foreigners and confirmed that the police did not question them and that the person does live in their village. The process adopted by Foreigners Tribunals does not allow the police to be cross-examined by suspected foreigners’ advocates. The lack of a procedure to cross-examine the police leaves no scope to challenge the police’s submissions regarding their alleged meetings with the suspected foreigners and their subsequent inability to find the same people.

The inability to find these suspected foreigners to serve the Foreigners Tribunal’s notice on them works out conveniently for the police and the tribunal. Unlike regular criminal trials where an accused is presumed not guilty and the state has to prove that they committed a crime, the burden of proof as per Section 9 of the Foreigners Act, 1946 is on the person accused of being a foreigner. This reversed burden means that if a person fails to appear before the Foreigners Tribunal, the Tribunal can pass an order declaring them foreigners without hearing the suspected foreigner. We found that 96 per cent of the orders we analysed were given ex-parte. In all these orders, the police produced no evidence to indicate that the suspected foreigners were not Indian. Yet, they were declared Bangladeshi because of the reversal of the burden of proof.

Only in 31 cases were the suspected foreigners allowed to refute the allegations made against them. All these 31 orders were passed by the tribunal member Giti Kakati Das. The progression of her career as a member of the Foreigners Tribunal gives an idea of the effect of declaring a low number of individuals to be foreigners. She was appointed as a member of this Foreigners Tribunal by an order of the Commissioner and Secretary, Home and Political Department dated 29 July 2015 on a contractual basis for one year. After one year, her services were extended for another year, till July 2017. Through a notification dated 20 June 2017, she was denied an extension along with several other members because she had not declared enough people as foreigners. She was reinstated only after she and the others challenged the termination of their services before the Gauhati High Court.

In addition to concerns of fairness, the suspected foreigners also had to go through long drawn proceedings. Given that most of the cases we analysed were decided ex-parte, we expected that these proceedings would have at least progressed swiftly. With a lack of information on the exact filing date of cases before the Foreigners Tribunals, we attempted to understand how long cases took to be disposed of by approximating the filing date as the median date of the year in which the police were asked to investigate the suspected foreigner. This Foreigners Tribunal took on average an astounding 3,637 days, i.e., nearly ten years, to dispose of a case. Of course, with the focus on Foreigners Tribunals in recent years, it is interesting to note that 92 per cent of the cases analysed were disposed of in the years 2018 and 2019 alone. It is also interesting to note that in 82 per cent of the cases, the report of service of notice being forwarded or notice being served in a substituted manner was done in the years 2018 and 2019, although the cases dated as far back as 1999. The cases seem to have been kept in cold storage for several years, then taken out, dusted, and disposed of with undue haste in 2018 and 2019. Further, even though cases were pending for such a long time, the Foreigners Tribunals decided these cases post-haste once the police reported that they could not find the suspected foreigner to serve the tribunal’s notice. In such circumstances (where the individual could not be found) the matter could be decided ex-parte. On average, the tribunal took 39 days from the date of receipt of this report to give ex-parte orders.   

97% of these orders direct that the proceedees be deported. Very few of these, if any, will be actually deported since deportation requires Bangladesh’s consent. According to data placed before the Lok Sabha as of 10 December 2019, only four Bangladeshis have been deported pursuant to their declaration as ‘foreigner’ by Foreigners Tribunals in Assam. If deportation is not possible, persons declared to be foreigners are supposed to be sent to detention centers within prisons in Assam, pending deportation.

Analysis of High Court judgments

41% of cases in the High Court judgments and orders pertained to orders passed by Foreigners Tribunals in the districts of Morigaon, Barpeta, and Goalpara. Although none of these districts share a border with Bangladesh, Barpeta has the largest number of Foreigners Tribunals. 35% of the High Court decisions we analysed involved ex-parte orders passed by Foreigners Tribunals.

All the persons whose cases reached the High Court in the set we analysed, had some form of documentation, ranging from electoral rolls, land records, and panchayat certificates. 61% of them had electoral rolls and 39% had permanent residential certificates/ certificates from the panchayat. In 66% of these cases, the Foreigners Tribunals found the documentation unsatisfactory, and in 38% of them, documentation was rejected because spellings did not match. In 71% of the cases, the secondary evidence was deemed not to be admissible. Secondary evidence is usually a copy of the document and not the original. Such evidence gets rejected because either these were not certified copies or the person who created the document (e.g., panchayat member, school principal, etc.) could not certify its contents.  One in two people were declared foreigners because the authorities that issued the documents produced before the tribunals failed to appear before the Foreigners Tribunals to testify that the documents produced are genuine and authentic to their knowledge.

Along with issues of procedural fairness, the issue of judicial delay was apparent in this round of analysis as well. The High Court took 477 days (1.3 years) on average to decide these cases and the average number of days between hearings was 116 days.. For these numbers to be put in context, they were compared with similar figures for other cases before the Gauhati High Court. As per data available in the DAKSH database for other cases, the average number of days between hearings was 31 days, and the overall time taken to dispose cases was 277 days (0.7 years). The cases filed against the orders of Foreigners Tribunals seem to be taking considerably longer than other cases before the Gauhati High Court, even though these did not involve complex questions of law.   

We found an increase in the number of writ petitions filed before the Gauhati High Court in 2016, with the number of cases being close to double that of the previous year. The Government of Assam set up 64 Foreigners Tribunals in 2014, in addition to the then existing 36 Foreigners Tribunals. The spike in High Court cases may be because of the increase in the number of cases before the newly established Foreigners Tribunals.

The question of citizenship in Assam is nestled in a confusing tangle of documents, bureaucracy, and legal procedures which Foreigners Tribunals and the Gauhati High Court are tasked with resolving. Haidar Ali’s case aptly illustrates this. Ali was declared a foreigner on specious grounds even though he produced eleven documents supporting his claim of being an Indian citizen. This citizenship question is not merely a legal issue. It is also deeply embedded in the political history of Assam. Despite the end of the anti-foreigner agitation in 1985, the anxieties around the issue of migration from Bangladesh remain and have been exacerbated by the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process. Thus, given the political and popular pressure to find and deport foreigners, it is not surprising that the process followed by the Foreigners Tribunals so far has been arbitrary, biased, and unfair. These tribunals High Court needs to be mindful of the lived experiences of identity documentation to avoid an overly legalistic approach in the interests of justice. This issue acquires additional significance in the current context with 19 lakh people excluded from NRC whose cases will get referred to Foreigners Tribunals. Business as usual cannot go on. The process of adjudication of the claims of the persons excluded from the NRC needs to be shorn of the politics that has characterized the process so far and be molded into a fairer and less arbitrary process.