Stateless Persons

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 Niharika Jain, is part of the clinic’s outcomes.

A person is considered to be stateless if they are not recognised as nationals or citizens of any country. As per the UNHCR, at present there exist over 10 million stateless persons in the world, however only 3.9 million of them are accounted for. Civil society organisations have pointed out that this number can be as high as 15 million. In India, over 1.9 million people are facing the risk of statelessness after being excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) implemented in Assam in 2019.

Statelessness is often a result of conflicting nationality laws, where one allows for nationality to be acquired at birth and the other through descent if one’s parent is also a national. It can also be a result of discrimination in nationality laws based on factors such as religion, ethnicity, gender, along with instances where the State arbitrarily deprives persons of their nationality, as in the case of Assam. Earlier the mandate of UNHCR on statelessness extended only to stateless persons who were refugees. However, it is now known that even though some stateless persons are refugees, many stateless persons never cross an international border. Statelessness affects the basic rights, including the right to nationality, that every citizen enjoys, which includes fundamental rights, civil and political rights, and economic rights.

The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness address various issues related to statelessness in the world. Article 1 of the 1954 Convention defines a ‘stateless person’ as one who is not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law. The 1961 Convention provides that a person may acquire nationality of a contracting state or not be deprived of it if they would otherwise be stateless. Part II of the Indian Constitution stipulates who is a citizen of India, but is silent on stateless persons. It is pertinent to note that India has not ratified either of the two conventions. However as per Article 51 (c) of the Constitution, the Government needs to foster respect for international law which includes treaty obligations that India is party to and customary international law. This includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 (UDHR), as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and other treaty provisions that safeguard the right against arbitrary deprivation of nationality.

The Citizenship Act of India, 1955 was initially envisaged based on jus soli practice, wherein citizenship was granted by virtue of the person’s birth on state territory. This was followed by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1986 that introduced restrictions based on jus sanguinis, wherein a person’s citizenship became dependent on citizenship of their parents. Section 3(1)(b) of the Act states that a person born on or after 1 July, 1987 but before the 2003 amendment shall be a citizen if either of their parents were citizens at the time of birth. However, this has the potential of creating a situation of statelessness where both parents are non-citizens or possess no nationality but the child is born in India.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 has the serious potential of aggravating the problem of statelessness in India as it excludes ‘illegal migrants’ and their descendents from citizenship. An ‘illegal migrant’ is defined as “a foreigner entering India without valid documents”. Section 3(1)(c) confers citizenship by birth only when at least one parent is an Indian citizen and the other is not an illegal migrant. Further, section 5 and section 6 of the Act explicitly disqualifies illegal migrants and their children from registration and naturalization respectively, and in any case as the registration of minors requires a valid foreign passport, which they do not possess due to statelessness. This poses a threat of statelessness as they are unable to acquire citizenship from any of the provisions of the Citizenship Act, despite residing in India for a long time, having family ties and attachment to India.

The identification of stateless persons within a jurisdiction is an important step in ensuring they are accounted for in legal documents and can benefit from various human rights commitments. In India, the Foreigners Act, 1946, which has been put in place to regulate the entry, presence and departure of foreigners in India, fails to distinguish between the different categories of non-citizens. The Act defines a foreigner as “a person who is not a citizen of India” and bundles both stateless persons and persons with another nationality together without differentiation. Section 8 of the Act on the determination of nationality does not account for the risk of statelessness where, after the completion of the determination procedure, a foreigner appears to have no nationality. There is no mention of ways in which the issue of statelessness can be resolved, or of the fate of such persons on identification.

The Passports Act, 1967 is the only Indian legislation that mentions the category of stateless persons and caters to their need to have a record of their identity. Section 4 of the Act provides for issuance of passport, travel document and certificate of identity. Schedule II part II of the Passport Rules, 1980 states that a Certificate of Identity can be issued for stateless persons residing in India, for foreigners whose country is either not represented in India or whose nationality is in doubt. However, the form for the certificate makes it mandatory to submit a ‘residential permit’ along with information regarding the ‘last permanent address abroad’. This is based on the assumption that the applicant is a migrant from abroad and fails to account for a person who may not have left the country. This was addressed in the case of Sheikh Abdul Aziz v. State NCT of Delhi, where the HC recognised the urgency of determining the legal status of the petitioner as he had been detained for seven years in addition to his sentence under Section 14 of the Foreigners Act. The Court directed the Government and the Passport authorities to issue a stateless certificate under Rule 4 and grant him a Long-Term Visa (LTV) after the failure of nationality determination. This enabled his right to a dignified existence upon Indian soil.

More recently, the National Register of Citizens implemented in India has left many on the verge of statelessness. The final NRC list, published on August 31st 2019, excluded about 1.9 million people, leaving them at the risk of statelessness. As per scholars, this coupled with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 is discriminatory in nature as it only allows non-Muslims, who are religiously persecuted minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, to be granted citizenship. Section 14A added by the 2003 Amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955 authorized the Government to compulsorily register every Indian citizen in a National Register of Indian Citizens and issue National Identity Cards. The purpose of this is to identify and deport illegal immigrants. The first National Register of Citizen was prepared for Assam, after the 1951 census of India, to identify illegal immigrants, but it was not maintained. This was again taken up following the SC order in 2013 whereby the Government was directed to update the NRC for Assam. As per several high-ranking government ministers, NRC is proposed to be implemented across India. There are concerns that it may result in putting more people across India at the risk of statelessness if they are unable to show documents that prove their ancestors were citizens of India.

Suggested Readings:

  1. “Securing Citizenship India’s legal obligation towards precarious citizens and stateless persons”, Centre for Public Interest Law, Jindal Global Law School, September 2020.
  2. Bikash Singh, ‘Citizenship Amendment Bill: Why Assam is protesting?’ Economic Times (17 December, 2017)
  3. India and the Challenge of statelessness: A review of the legal framework relating to nationality, National Law University, Delhi, 2012.
  4. The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, The Worlds Stateless: Deprivation of Nationality, March 2020, Microsoft Word – FINAL PART I.docx (institutesi.org).
  5. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Institutional Discrimination and Statelessness in India, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, June 1st 2020, Microsoft Word – Statelessness in India.docx (ohchr.org).