State v. Bikram Singha, FT Case no. 129/2017

Read the order here

Date of the decision: 10.09.21

Court: Foreigners’ Tribunal-II, Karimganj, Assam

Presiding Tribunal Member: Mr. Sishir Dey 

Summary: In a decision on the determination of the citizenship of a person, the Foreigners’ Tribunal recognised the statutory right of citizenship by birth for persons born in India prior to 1.07.1987  under Section 3(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act, 1955. Further, the Tribunal ruled that it could rely on a common Application Receipt Number (ARN) and joint inclusion in the Final National Register of Citizens (NRC), published on 31.08.2019, for the purpose of establishing linkage between the Opposite Party (OP) and their parents, as the NRC is ‘final’ and thus can be used as evidence to corroborate citizenship claims. 

Facts: The Election Officer marked the status of Bikram Singha (“Opposite Party”) as a ‘doubtful’ voter. This was done after the Election Officer suspected the citizenship of the Opposite Party (OP) whose name was in the electoral roll of 1997. Electoral officers are authorized to flag people listed on voter rolls, supposedly without adequate Indian documentation, as “doubtful” voters. This process started on 10th December 1997, when the Election Commission under the advice of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government marked 3,70,000 voters as “doubtful”. A doubtful voter cannot vote because their Indian citizenship is under suspicion. As a result, D-voters are disenfranchised by the government on account of their alleged lack of proper citizenship credentials. 

The Election Officer alleged that the OP had not produced any documents to the Local Verification Officer, and referred the case to the Superintendent of Police. Subsequently, the case was referred to the Foreigners’ Tribunal, which adjudicated upon whether the OP was a foreigner or not. To prove his citizenship, the OP produced as many as twelve documents and two witnesses. It was his case that he was born on 06.01.1978 at Jamirala village. In effect, he argued that he was a citizen by birth under Section 3(1)(a) as he was born in India before 01.07.1987. In addition, he contended that his ancestors and family members had been permanent residents of Jamirala, and his father’s name was enlisted in the Voters List of 1970. His father even served the Indian Air Force for 29 years.

In response, the State contended that Section 3 was not applicable, as only Section 6A applied in Assam. In other words, since the OP had not submitted a document prior to 01.01.1966, his parents may have been ‘foreigners’ who migrated to India between 01.01.1966 and 24.03.1971. Further, the OP had relied on his name being included in the NRC to corroborate his claim of linkage with his parents who were born and ordinarily resident in Assam prior to 25.03.1971. The State expressed doubt about the same, specifically “about the finality of Assam NRC published online on 31 August 2019…Submitted that Exhibit – 6 may not be considered as a legally valid document” (paragraph 10). The OP responded that the finality or the legality of the NRC could not be doubted, as it had been published as per the direction and monitoring of the Supreme Court of India. 

Holding: The Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) (correctly) affirmed the OP’s citizenship under Section 3, noting that Section 6A deals with “persons coming to Assam from ‘Specified Territory’. Their children are not covered by the provisions of section 6A but are covered within the ambit of Section 3 of the Citizenship Act 1955. Thus Section 3 of the Citizenship Act is applicable in Assam as rest of India unless and until it’s repealed, amended or struck down, but nothing of these has happened yet” (paragraph 14). Thus, it may be presumed that the OP was born in India prior to 01-07-1987. Therefore OP is a citizen of India by birth in terms of Section 3(1)(a)

The FT noted that the OP proved his linkage with the persons he claimed to be his parents. To prove his father’s citizenship, the OP submitted his father’s Discharge Certificate Book from the Indian Air Force (Exhibit 3) that showed that the OP’s father had served the Indian Air Force for 29 years. This discharge book also contained the name of the OP, his grandfather, his mother and his siblings along with their relation to the OP’s father. The FT took note of the Discharge Certificate Book and the Pension Payment Order (Exhibit 4) in the name of the OP’s father and held that these two documents prove that the OP’s father served in the IAF. If further held that the Indian Air Force must have verified the citizenship and antecedents of the OP’s father before inducting him (paragraph 12).  The OP also submitted digital evidence of proof that he along with his parents jointly applied under the same Application Receipt Number (ARN) for inclusion in the NRC, and after several rounds of scrutiny, they had all been included in the Final NRC published on 31.08.2019. Although the name of the OP was in the final NRC, the FT noted that it could only be taken to be proof of his linkage with his parents, but not his citizenship. This is because the Standard Operating Procedures state that a D-voter is not eligible to be included in the NRC unless the FT rules that the voter is an Indian citizen. But, the name of the OP was included in the final draft of the NRC despite being identified as a ‘D’ voter and without a clearance from an FT. The FT responded to this anomaly by observing that the “NRC authority might not have been able to trace the case filed against the OP and his inclusion may be validated only by an FT order in his favor” (paragraph 12).

Lastly, the FT addressed the legal validity and finality of the Assam NRC. It was observed that the Final NRC published on 31.08.2019 was prepared as per the Citizenship Act, 1955 and the Citizenship Rules, 2003. Further, it was prepared under the order, directions and supervision of the Supreme Court. Hence, the FT ruled that “there is no doubt that this NRC Assam published in 2019 is nothing but Final NRC” (paragraph 13). The FT also affirmed the NRC’s evidentiary value by observing that the names of the parents of the OP, as persons in the list “may be taken as the conclusive proof of their Indian Citizenship” (paragraph 12). In other words, the FT ruled that the NRC is a ‘final’ document that could be taken as conclusive proof of a person’s Indian citizenship unless a reference against them is pending before an FT. In cases where a person’s name appears in the NRC when a reference against them is pending before an FT, the decision of the FT on that person’s nationality will prevail over the NRC.

Significance: This order is significant because it correctly considers the final draft of the NRC as a ‘final’ document that can be relied upon to prove Indian citizenship. Since the publication of the NRC on 31.08.2019, there has been a lack of clarity on the status of the document. The NRC process has been in a logjam since the government has not yet issued the reverification slips to file appeals by those who have been excluded from the NRC. After the publication of the NRC, the BJP harped on the ‘incorrectness’ of the document. Before the 2021 Assembly elections in Assam, the Bharatiya Janata Party in its manifesto promised the ‘correction’ of the NRC. The incumbent Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma called the NRC an “incorrect document. This is because out of the 19 lakh people excluded from this final draft, 12 lakh persons were Hindus. In May 2021, the Coordinator of Assam NRC Hitesh Dev Sarma filed a petition before the Supreme Court for the re-verification of the final draft of the NRC. 

This, however, is not the correct legal position. It is clear that the NRC, published on 31.08.2019, is the final document. First, after the publication of the final NRC, the Registrar of Citizenship Registration along with the State Coordinator released an official press statement on 31.08.2019 declaring that the draft of the NRC published on 31.08.2019 was the final NRC. According to Rule 3 of the Citizenship Rules, 2003, the authority to “establish and maintain”  the National Register of Citizens, Assam lies exclusively with the Registrar General of India (RGI). Second, the Ministry of External Affairs released a press statement on 31.08.2019, officially declaring the publication of the final draft of the NRC. Following is an extract from the press release:

1. Yesterday, the office of the State Coordinator, NRC Assam released a press statement on the publication of final NRC as on 31st August 2019. 

2. Since then, there have been some commentaries in sections of a foreign media about aspects of the final NRC which are incorrect. 

8. Exclusion from the NRC has no implication on the rights of an individual resident in Assam. For those who are not in the final list will not be detained and will continue to enjoy all the rights as before till they have exhausted all the remedies available under the law. It does not make the excluded person “Stateless”. It also does not make him or her “a Foreigner”, within the legal meaning of the term. They will not be deprived of any rights or entitlements which they have enjoyed before.”

Third, a bare reading of the orders of the Supreme Court in Assam Public Works v. Union of India clearly evinces that the NRC is final. This makes it clear that the NRC is the ‘final’ document. 

In Sufia Khatun v. Union of India, the Gauhati High Court addressed a contention that may seem to have raised doubts about the finality of the NRC. The Court noted that: “It was urged by the learned counsel for the petitioner that the names of the siblings and children of the petitioner have appeared in the Final NRC. In this regard, we are informed that the Final NRC has not yet been accepted and/or notified by the competent authority i.e. the Registrar General of Citizenship Register” (paragraph 14). In this paragraph, however, the Court merely discussed the contention of the state in response to the reliance of the petitioner on the NRC. It did not render its own judgment on the finality of the NRC. Thus, this decision cannot be relied upon to substantiate the argument that the NRC is not final. 

Although the FT order is well-reasoned, it is arguable whether the FT has the power to rule on those questions of law that are not sought to be answered before it. Order 2 read with Order 3(15) of the Foreigners’ Tribunal Order, 1946 states that the final order of the FT must be a concise statement of its opinion on the citizenship of the party before it. Further, in several judgments such as Golapi Begum v. UOI, the Gauhati High Court held that in their final orders, the FTs are supposed to answer only those questions that have been referred to it and not assume jurisdiction to answer other questions. A reading of the order in Bikram Singha suggests that the Karimganj FT was indeed supposed to answer the question of the finality of the NRC in order to fully appreciate the documentary evidence produced by the OP. One of the documents that the OP used to substantiate his claims was the NRC list and this was opposed by the state advocate. The state advocate argued that the NRC could not be considered as evidence as it was neither a final nor a legally valid document. Hence, the FT commented upon the finality of the NRC while considering the NRC as a piece of evidence that proved the relation between the OP and his parents.

In Bikram Singha’s case the Karimganj FT was also faced with the question of the legal admissibility of the NRC. The state advocate argued that the NRC list could not be considered a legally valid document (paragraph 10). This contention is not valid. It does not have a legal basis. In Sanowara Khatun v. UOI, the Gauhati High Court held that because the NRC was not a result of a quasi-judicial process, the OP could not contend that the names of her close family members in the NRC constitute material evidence in deciding her review application (paragraph 9). Thus, the High Court did not consider the final draft of the NRC as material evidence while deciding Sanowara’s review application. At the same time, the Court did not hold that the FTs could not take into account the NRC as material evidence when adjudicating upon citizenship. Hence, this decision cannot be relied upon to conclude that the FTs cannot consider the final NRC as material evidence. Another contention against the reliance on the NRC as evidence was raised by the state advocate in the cases of Sufia Khatun v. UOI and Golokjan Bibi v. UOI. It was contended that the NRC cannot be used as evidence as it has not been notified yet in the official gazette. This is incorrect. In accordance with Section 74 of the Indian Evidence Act, the NRC is a public document and thus the lack of notification in the official gazette does not affect its evidentiary value. 

Apart from the discussion on the finality and the legal admissibility of the NRC, the FT determined another legal issue. It correctly held that Section 3(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act, 1955 applies with equal force to determine the citizenship of the residents of Assam. This has been expressly stated in Section 6A(7), which clarifies that Section 6A does not apply to a person who acquired their citizenship before the commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1985. This means that if a person were born in India or in the state of Assam before 1.07.1987, then such a person would be a citizen by birth. Thus, such a person need not prove their linkage to their parents or grandparents. That the government is not acquainted with this legal position is alarming. 

Table of Authorities:

  1. Sona Khan v. Union Of India, WP(C)/1293/2021.
  2. Golapi Begum vs The Union Of India, WP(C)/2434/2020.
  3. Sanowara Khatun v. The Union Of India, Review. Pet. 16/2020.
  4. Sufia Khatun v. Union of India, Review.Pet. 22/2020.
  5. Orders of the Supreme Court in Assam Public Works v. Union of India, WP(C)/274/2009.

Resources:

  1. Nazimuddin Siddique, ‘Discourse of Doubt’ , Vol. 54, Issue No. 10, Economic and Political Weekly (09 March 2019 ) https://www.epw.in/journal/2019/10/perspectives/discourse-doubt.html?0=ip_login_no_cache%3Da85d78f59750a17dd6c889f84f820582 accessed on 28 September 2021.
  2. M. Mohsin Alam Bhat, ‘Twilight citizenship’, https://www.india-seminar.com/2020/729/729_m_mohsin_alam_bhat.htm accessed on 28 September 2021.
  3. Ipsita Chakravarty, ‘Doubtful or dubious: Who will count the D voters of Assam?’, Scroll (21 February 2016) https://scroll.in/article/803173/foreigners-vs-citizens-who-will-count-the-d-voters-of-assam accessed on 28 September 2021.
  4. Shuchi Purohit, ‘Foreigners Tribunals,’ Parichay- The Blog (10 July 2021) https://parichayblog.org/2021/07/10/foreigners-tribunal/ accessed on 28 September 2021.
  5. Office of the State Coordinator of National Registration (NRC), Assam, Government of Assam http://nrcassam.nic.in/index-M.html.
  6. Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, ‘Citizenship and Assam: An Explainer on the Legal Questions That Still Loom Large’, The Wire (25 November 2019) https://thewire.in/rights/citizenship-and-assam-the-legal-questions-that-still-loom-large accessed on 28 September 2021.
  7. Farah Naqvi, ‘The Citizenship Amendment Bill and NRC Will Together Destroy Our Country’, The Wire (12 December 2019) https://thewire.in/communalism/nrc-citizenship-amendment-bill-hindu-muslim accessed on 28 September 2021.
  8. ‘Assam excludes over 19 lakh names from NRC list, BJP unhappy over ‘erroneous’ count,’ The Indian Express (31 August 2019) https://indianexpress.com/article/india/assam-nrc-final-list-bjp-congress-bangladesh-illegal-migration-5954490/ accessed on 28 September 2021.
  9. Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No.1264, Lok Sabha https://www.mha.gov.in/MHA1/Par2017/pdfs/par2021-pdfs/LS-09022021/1264.pdf 
  10. Tora Agarwala, ‘BJP promises ‘corrected NRC’ in Assam manifesto, silent on CAA’, The Indian Express (24 March 2021) https://indianexpress.com/elections/assam-assembly-elections-bjp-manifesto-7240987/ accessed on 28 September 2021.
  11. ‘Assam NRC authority seeks re-verification of citizens’ list, The Hindu (13 May 2021) https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/assam-nrc-authority-seeks-re-verification-of-citizens-list/article34548812.ece accessed on 28 September 2021.

This case note is part of Parichay’s ongoing project to study, track, and publish key propositions and latest developments in citizenship law and adjudication in India. This note was prepared by Jagriti Pandey.

Jasmin Begum @Jesminara Begum v. Union of India, SLP Civil No. 1564/2020

Read the judgement here

Date of decision: 25.09.2019

Court: Gauhati High Court

Judges: Justice Manojit Bhuyan and Justice Ajit Borthakur

Summary: The Gauhati High Court upheld the order of a Foreigners Tribunal that declared the Petitioner as a foreigner. The High Court considered the evidence placed on record by the Petitioner to be insufficient for proving her citizenship, stating that there were no errors apparent on the face of record that warranted interference with the Foreigners Tribunal order.

Facts: The Foreigners’ Tribunal, in its order dated 25.01.2019, declared the Petitioner to be a foreigner, having illegally entered into India (Assam) after 25.03.1971. In accordance with Section 9 of the Foreigners Act, 1946, the Petitioner presented 11 documents as evidence before the Foreigners’ Tribunal to prove that she was not a foreigner. Section 9 of the Foreigners Act places the burden of proof upon the person to prove that they are not a foreigner. Apart from the documents, the Petitioner also presented two witnesses: Mustafa Saiful Islam, the projected uncle of the Petitioner and Abdul Latif, the projected husband of the Petitioner.  

First, the High Court found the documentary evidence to be insufficient to prove the Petitioner’s linkage to her projected parents. Although the names of the alleged parents appeared in the voter lists of 1965, 1970, 1997 and 2018 from different villages, no voter lists were produced that reflected the name of the Petitioner to show the relationship with her projected parents. The mother’s name in the voter’s lists had discrepancies, which is the reason that the court disbelieved the Petitioner’s claim that the projected mother was her mother. Further, the voter’s lists only had the names of the projected parents, and not of the Petitioner herself. Thus, the lists were considered to be inadequate to establish the Petitioner’s linkage to her parents.

Second, the HC did not accept the Jamabandi certificate on the ground that the same did not stand to be proved by the means of any related sale deed showing that the plot of land in question, which the Petitioner claimed to have inherited, had been purchased by her projected father on any date prior to the cut-off date of 25.03.1971. So, the Jamabandi document was considered to be not relevant to establish lineage to a predecessor prior to 25.03.1971. The handwritten Jamabandi was also not held to be relevant as it could not relate to the projected father or mother of the Petitioner.

Third, the HC also held that certain documents were inadmissible, namely certificates issued by the school and the village government, because the authors of the said certificates had not been examined to prove the contents thereof. 

Fourth, it held that the oral evidence of the two witnesses could not be considered as admissible evidence since, “in a proceeding under the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964 the evidentiary value of oral testimony, without support of documentary evidence, is wholly insignificant. Oral testimony alone is no proof of citizenship” (page 5). The HC dismissed the oral testimony as it could not be a proof of citizenship without the support of documentary evidence. Thus, the HC upheld the Tribunal’s order, finding that the Petitioner had failed to discharge her burden of proof under Section 9. 

The HC also did not review the Tribunal’s finding of facts since “the certiorari jurisdiction of the writ court being supervisory and not appellate jurisdiction, this Court would refrain from reviewing the findings of facts reached by the Tribunal” (page 5). In other words, it held that while issuing a writ of certiorari, courts do not review findings of facts, even if they are erroneous. 

Holding: As per the HC, there was no error apparent on the face of record to warrant interference with the FT order. According to the Court, “No case is made out that the impugned opinion/order was rendered without affording opportunity of hearing or in violation of the principles of natural justice and/or that it suffers from illegality on any ground of having been passed by placing reliance on evidence which is legally impermissible in law and/or that the Tribunal refused to admit admissible evidence and/or that the findings finds no support by any evidence at all” (page 5).

The Petitioner filed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) before the Supreme Court, challenging the order passed by the Gauhati High Court. The SC allowed the Petitioner to withdraw the SLP and file a review petition before the Gauhati High Court. It also permitted her to approach the Supreme Court, again, in case the review petition fails. 

Significance: The rejection of the oral and documentary evidence by the Gauhati HC was improper. The court failed to consider that the Petitioner had presented admissible and sufficient evidence to prove her linkage to one of her parents.   

First, the Gauhati HC failed to appreciate some of the evidence on record. The Petitioner had presented documents to establish linkage with both her parents. As per the Court, the evidence had failed to establish the Petitioner’s linkage to her mother. However, the Court overlooked the fact that some of the evidence was adequate to establish a linkage to her father. Since her father’s name was present in the voter’s lists of 1965, 1970, the Petitioner was the descendant of a person living in Assam prior to 1971. Thus, establishing linkage to her father should have been sufficient to prove her citizenship under Section 3(b) of the Citizenship Act, 1955. While the Petitioner could not establish linkage with her mother since the latter’s name had discrepancies in the voter’s lists, there were no such discrepancies in her father’s name in the lists. The father’s name in the certified voter’s lists should have been considered as evidence to establish linkage.

Second, the HC was also incorrect in finding that the Petitioner’s husband’s oral testimony was inadmissible. The Petitioner’s husband orally testified to establish the linkage between the Petitioner and her father. As per Section 50 read with Section 59 of the Indian Evidence Act, oral evidence of a person who has special means of knowledge is admissible to prove the existence of a relationship between persons. In fact, courts have held that if the oral evidence is given by a person who has special means of knowledge about the relationship, such evidence is admissible. The husband, by virtue of his marriage to the Petitioner, satisfies this requirement and his testimony was therefore admissible. Thus, the oral testimony did not need to be supported by documentary evidence and was admissible ipso facto. Even then, the HC’s stance that it was not supported by documentary evidence was wrong since the oral testimony was also backed by the voter’s lists having the father’s name. 

Table of Authorities:

  1. Jasmin Begum @Jesminara Begum v. UOI, W.P. (C) 3084/2019

This case note is part of Parichay’s ongoing project to study, track, and publish key propositions and latest developments in citizenship law and adjudication in India. This note was prepared by Radhika Dharnia.

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:


Naturalisation

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

Naturalisation refers to the incorporation of migrants usually displaced due to economic, political, or environmental reasons, among others, or immigrants looking for better living conditions or educational and employment prospects in the state they move to. It is a process promising not only recognition of their socio-economic contributions but also improved socio-economic opportunities. Historically, the word ‘naturalisation’ is derived from Middle French ‘naturaliser’ which means “to admit (an alien) to rights of a citizen”.

Jus soli was the guiding principle of the eighteenth century feudal European citizenship until the French Revolution reintroduced the Roman jus sanguinis principle. Both proved inadequate when the two World Wars left numerous migrants, refugees, and stateless persons in foreign lands without protection under the laws of that state. Naturalisation provided an opportunity to people, who were neither born within a State nor had ancestral ties to it, to become citizens solely by virtue of their personal connection formed with the State. Such connections could be established through residence, intention to settle, or a lack of ties to other countries. However, most states hold elaborate and intrusive tests to scrutinise this connection. For instance, Denmark has prescribed housing, residence, employment, language, and lifestyle requirements.

In India, naturalisation is one of the five ways in which one may become an Indian citizen, governed by section 6 of the Citizenship Act of 1955. To be eligible for naturalisation, one must be of good character, reside in India for a period of eleven years, and speak any of the official Indian languages. Upon being granted Indian citizenship, one must renounce any prevailing citizenship, take an oath of allegiance, and reside in or serve India. Initially, one had to renounce one’s existing citizenship upon applying for naturalisation. This had the potential to render one temporarily or permanently stateless depending on the approval or rejection of the application, respectively. Hence, the change is appreciable. However, in a lower-middle income country like India, an application fee of Rs. 1500 and requirement of language proficiency create invisible barriers for poor and illiterate migrants. Contrarily, the privileged who have a symbiotic relationship with the state are overindulged. The state may waive any or all naturalisation requirements for “distinguished” persons. Proficiency in a local language can propel social and economic integration. However, in their home state, persecuted persons are often systematically denied education and employment. In the host state, they are put in isolated squalid detention camps without basic facilities as has been seen in the case of Rohingyas. Even when free to live in the community, they are compelled to settle in the peripheries, like the Afghans in Delhi. For such people, it is nearly impossible to fulfil the naturalisation requirements.

Naturalisation tests ensure not only a low number of naturalised persons but also fewer applicants out of fear of failure, which perhaps is the primary aim of the tests. Between 2011 and 2020, merely 1380 foreigners were granted Indian citizenship through naturalisation. Moreover, the Act, through the 2003 amendment, made “illegal migrants” completely ineligible for Indian citizenship through registration or naturalisation. The unwillingness of the State to incorporate migrants leaves them in a limbo. Most of them cannot be deported due to the principle of non-refoulement. They remain in India for the rest of their lives, but as non-citizens.

Section 6, however, is not applicable to the state of Assam, which is governed by section 6A of the Act. Unlike Section 6, which applies to all persons regardless of their origin, Sections 6A and 6B create special pathways to citizenship for persons migrating from Bangladesh. It ‘regularizes’ i.e. grants immediate citizenship to those who entered Assam from Bangladesh before 1966. Persons who entered between 1966 and 1971 are conferred all qualities of a citizen except the right to vote until ten years from the day of their detection as a “foreigner.” After ten years, they too are regularised. Those who were expelled but managed to re-enter illegally before 1971 or those who entered after 1971 are to be deported. This special provision created two artificial distinctions by:

  1. Granting regularisation to Bangladeshi migrants who entered Assam before 1971 but not to those who entered other bordering states,
  2. Allowing “illegal migrants” who entered India before 2003 to naturalise under Section 6 but not those who entered Assam after 1971.

Additionally, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, excludes non-Muslims who entered India from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh before 2015 from the category of “illegal migrants.” It eases their residency requirement from eleven years to five years. The ease is a welcome move. However, the country and religion based classifications are non-secular, arbitrary, and unreasonable.  Many have argued that they violate the Indian Constitution which guarantees certain fundamental rights to all persons irrespective of their citizenship status.

A state cannot be compelled to grant citizenship. However, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 includes in Article 15, “Everyone has the right to a nationality”. The UDHR has become customary international law binding on all states. Granting nationality through naturalisation is an important step in eliminating statelessness. Since India has an obligation towards reducing statelessness under customary international law and other international treaties, India must facilitate naturalisation of stateless persons. A provision obstructing “illegal migrants” from naturalisation is in tension with international law. Articles 31 and 34 of the 1951 Refugee Convention and Article 32 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons instruct easing the naturalisation process for refugees and stateless persons. Ireland has reduced residency requirements for refugees and waived naturalisation certificate fee for refugees and stateless persons.

As a good practice, one may refer to Prabhleen Kaur v. Union Of India. The only country the petitioner had any real connection to under Section 8 of the Foreigners Act, 1946 was India. Denying her Indian citizenship was held a violation of Article 15 of the UDHR. The court stated that her good character evidenced in her school and college certificates, her knowledge of the nation and her being a part of a community entitle her to be naturalised under Section 6(1) of the Act and she cannot be denied citizenship.These are the factors generally looked at while granting Indian citizenship.

With the refugee crisis and statelessness becoming global phenomena, naturalisation is becoming increasingly important as a means for non-citizens to find a safe space and a community in a strange land. Ironically, the process does exactly the opposite of what it promises, acting as a constant reminder of the ‘otherness’ that one must shed for a mere chance at approval and acceptance. India must remove the restriction on “illegal migrants” and ease the naturalisation requirements for refugees and stateless persons, irrespective of religion and country. This would only be a small step towards ensuring equity and fairness.

Suggested readings:

  1. Katherine Tonkiss, ‘What’s So Bad about Citizenship Testing?’ (E-International Relations, 28 November 2014) https://www.e-ir.info/2014/11/28/whats-so-bad-about-citizenship-testing/ accessed 24 November.
  1. Oded Löwenheim & Orit Gazit, ‘Power and Examination: A Critique of Citizenship Tests’ (2009) 40(2) Security Dialogue.
  1. Albert Kraler, Migration and Citizenship: Legal Status, Rights and Political Participation (Amsterdam University Press 2006) ch 2.
  1. Pritam Baruah, ‘Not Just Equality, the CAA Betrays Constitutional Values of Dignity, Integrity’ The Wire (27 December 2019) https://thewire.in/rights/caa-constitution-equality accessed 24 November 2020.
  1. Vatsal Raj, ‘Statelessness in India – Seeking Solutions in International Law’ (Cambridge International Law Journal, 11 February 2020) http://cilj.co.uk/2020/02/11/statelessness-in-india-seeking-solutions-in-international-law/#:~:text=Migration%20is%20a%20phenomenon%20of%20human%20civilisation.&text=The%20solution%20lies%20in%20the,dictate%20the%20laws%20of%20citizenship accessed 24 November 2020.
  1. Asha Bangar, ‘Statelessness in India’ (2017) Statelessness Working Paper Series No. 2017/02 https://files.institutesi.org/WP2017_02.pdf accessed 24 November 2020.
  1. Oxford Handbook of Citizenship (Oxford University Press 2017) ch 16.
  1. Graziella Bertocchi and Chiara Strozzi, ‘The Evolution of Citizenship: Economic and Institutional Determinants’ (2006) IZA Discussion Paper No. 2510 http://ftp.iza.org/dp2510.pdf accessed 24 November 2020.
  1. Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Procedure For Applying Online For Indian Citizenship’ https://indiancitizenshiponline.nic.in/Ic_GeneralInstruction.pdf accessed 24 November 2020.

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).

The Indian Judiciary and Its Record on Statelessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt: Legal Recognition of Status of Statelessness in India

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

II. LEGAL RECOGNITION OF STATELESSNESS IN INDIA

A. Recognition of Status

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Oliullah Laskar

Mr Oliullah Laskar is an advocate who practices before the Gauhati High Court. He is part of the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC), a human rights organisation based in the Barak Valley in Assam. We speak to Mr Laskar about the difference between citizenship and immigration laws, the working of the Foreigner Tribunals, the problems with the NRC, and the tribulations of a lawyer who has fought cases before the FTs.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Oliullah Laskar: Before I begin answering your questions, I would like to give you some context to the Foreigners Act, 1946 and its use as a legislation to determine citizenship. The Foreigners Act (Act) is not equipped to deal with the situation in Assam or across India, if the NRC is implemented across the country. Because the mischief that was sought to be addressed by the Foreigners Act is different from the situation at hand.

The earliest version of the extant Act was passed as an ordinance in 1942. It was amended to become the law that is presently in force —the Foreigners Act 1946.

The Statement of Object and Reasons of the Act calls it a war emergency legislation. During the World Wars, governments tended to be more stringent about their boundaries and had placed restrictions on the entry of foreigners and immigrants. So the context of the promulgation of the legislation was the World War. We have to examine the context and immediate use of the Act in order to understand its present ineffectiveness.

The Foreigners Act, 1946 was not meant to be a legislation to determine citizenship. There is a difference between citizenship and immigration laws. An immigrant is presumed to be a foreigner and on the basis of that presumption she is denied most rights that are otherwise available to a citizen. However, in a citizenship determination exercise, we are determining the rights of people who are presumed to be citizens and already being treated as such.. Therefore, there is a distinction between immigration laws and laws relating to determination of citizenship.

You will find this distinction being recognised in international law jurisprudence. Even agencies of the UN have affirmed that the burden of proof should lie on the State in citizenship determination procedures. But in procedures related to immigration, in most western countries, the burden of proof is on the alleged immigrant. This was discussed in the Sarbananda Sonowal case. But the Supreme Court failed to distinguish between the process related to identification of immigrants and that of citizenship determination exercises. The SC did not make a distinction between otherwise distinct phenomena and therefore it was ruled that the burden of proof in a citizenship determination exercise, like the NRC, should be on the person alleged to be the foreigner.

The categories of persons to whom the Act is applicable is directly related to the question of burden of proof. If we assume that any person can be tried under the Act, then we will find ourselves in an absurd situation — anyone can be accused of being a foreigner.

If anyone can be sent to the Foreigner Tribunals (FT) there will be no meaning of the voter list, casting your vote, forming the government.  If people who have elected the government are being sent to the FTs, what is the legitimacy of the government? At present, we are in this difficult situation because of our failure to distinguish between immigration laws and laws for determining citizenship.

Natasha Maheshwari: In 2019, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that in “nationality determination processes, the burden of proof should lie with the State and not with the individual”. Section 9 of the Foreigners Act, 1946 places the burden of proving citizenship on an individual. Do you think that the IMDT Act, which placed the burden of proof on the State, was more equipped to deal with the question of citizenship?

OL: Citizenship is a very important question. It is not only the question of a person’s rights but of his life as a member of civilised society. The life of his progeny also depends on his citizenship. So it is a very, very serious matter. In fact it is more significant than capital trials.

If we follow a standard of due process or abide by the rule of law rules then the procedure will be stringent. The procedure adopted should be as stringent as that of a criminal trial.

In cases where a person who already enjoys her rights as a citizen under a legal presumption, like having her name in a voter list, is alleged to be a foreigner, the burden of proof should lie on the person who questioned her citizenship status. But in cases where an alleged immigrant is asked to prove her citizenship, the burden of proof should lie on the immigrant herself.

Like the Foreigners Act, the IMDT Act also used a quasi-judicial procedure to determine citizenship. Citizenship should be determined through a trial conducted by a regular court of law, the burden of proof being on the shoulder of those who allege foreignness of the person who is otherwise legally presumed to be a citizen. The proof that is given should be beyond reasonable doubt. Quasi-judicial tribunals like FTs or IMDTs can deal with cases of people who have a legal presumption of being a foreigner like people overstaying the validity of their travel documents which are now being dealt with in criminal proceedings conducted by judicial magistrates. The tribunals, therefore, appear redundant.

NM:  In your opinion, what are some of the problems with the NRC?

OL: There are criticisms from both sides  i.e. advocates for the NRC and those who are against it. The advocates of the NRC say that many people who should not be in the NRC have been included in the list.

Though the NRC intended to detect illegal immigrants, the process was not limited to them. Every citizen of India living in Assam had to file an application giving proof of their citizenship. The burden of proof was on them.

How is the government examining the capacity to vote of the very people who elected them? This is the main problem with the NRC. The other problem is that Clause 3(3) of the Act states that certain persons can register as original inhabitants (OI) if the registering authority is satisfied that they are OIs. But there is no definition of the term OI or procedure for determining who they are. In practice, this clause is applied on the basis of linguistic and ethnic identity.

Another problem is the virtual exclusion of certain types of oral and documentary evidence from the NRC process. As per Section 3 of the Citizenship Act, 1955, people who are born in India before 1987 are citizens by birth.

However, in the NRC application form, there was no provision to claim citizenship by birth by producing a birth certificate. Several countries have restricted the right to claim citizenship, but the basic democratic principle is that a person born in a country has a right to claim citizenship.

However, there is another distinction —  if it is applied to immigrants whose country of origin is known and admitted then it is a different question. If a couple has immigrated from another country with their child and are now living in India with valid travel documents then maybe the country of origin can grant citizenship to their child. But if neither India nor the country of origin recognises the citizenship of the child, then the child will be rendered stateless.

With respect to the right of a person to stay in a country, the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of Hoti v. Croatia,  has ruled that a person who has lived in a country for a very long time cannot be thrown out. 

While India hasn’t ratified the two international conventions on statelessness, Article 21 can be read in a manner such that a person cannot be rendered stateless, because without citizenship one will not have any dignity. Statelessness is the absence of rights. Hannah Arendt has called it civil death. Therefore, Article 21 will prevent a person from being made stateless.

NM: The objective of the National Register of Citizens in Assam was to identify illegal migrants, a long-standing demand of the Assam movement, which found expression in Clause 5 of the Assam Accord and Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955.  Do you think that the NRC has been successful in fulfilling this objective?

OL: I don’t know whether the NRC has failed in its objective but the rhetoric of illegal immigrants is questionable. There are no authoritative findings which prove that there are a large number of immigrants in Assam. The Supreme Court has relied on Governor S.K. Sinha’s report. However, what is the authority of a Governor to make such a report? He is a Governor not the Government.

He did it in his personal capacity and not as the head of the State of Assam. As a Governor does he have this authority? What was the methodology by which he arrived at these numbers?

The works based on census reports does not reveal a significant amount of illegal immigration from our neighbouring countries. There may be illegal immigration but not as much as has been made out to be by the S.K. Sinha report.

An independent enquiry on the question of illegal immigrants should be made and if the committee concludes that there are a large number of illegal migrants they should be deported to their country. But which country do you deport them to? If it is Bangladesh then you cannot do so unless the Bangladeshi government accepts them as their citizens.

In its judgment in Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, the Supreme Court directed the Indian government to speak with their Bangladeshi counterpart to discuss deportation. However, this was not implemented. The acceptance of the Bangladesh government may depend on the process that India uses to detect illegal immigrants. If the process is agreed upon by both countries then if someone is found to be a Bangladeshi immigrant, the government will take them back.

There are many instances of people extending their travel visas and continuing their stay. Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Access requires the government to inform consular authorities about an arrest. If the Bangladesh authorities find that a person who has been arrested for overstaying their visa is a Bangladeshi citizen then they will take them back. The Kulbhushan Jadhav case, which was fought before the ICJ, dealt with the issue of giving consular access to a foreign national. And if consular access is not given, civil society organisations intervene and contact the government of the country from which the person originates.

In the paragraphs above, I am referring to cases in which immigrants are involved. But the NRC is not directly related to such immigrants; the NRC is a process to deprive people who have been living in Assam for generations together of their rights as a citizen.

Even the Prime Minister of India has assured Bangladesh that the NRC is an internal matter. This means there is no question of deportation — the NRC is simply an exercise to make people stateless.

Amnesty International India’s report titled Designed to Exclude shows that the FT members are pressured to declare people as foreigners. There is a process of assessment of the performance of the FT members.  Declaring more people as foreigners is considered an assessment of excellence. Comparatively, the members who declare less people as foreigners are considered to have performed poorly.

Most of the FT members are on contract and they are under tremendous pressure to declare as many people as foreigners as possible. Apart from this, the Gauhati High Court (HC) has generated a sort of jurisprudence on the foreigner tribunals. There are mainly two rules made by the HC (there is no legislative basis for them):

1. In proceedings before the FT oral evidence has no significance.

2. If a document bears an unauthorised impression of a national emblem then it is not admissible.

For establishing linkage, often, women produce a certificate issued by the elected local government (Panchayat president). Panchayat presidents function under Assam’s Panchayat Act. Under the Prevention of Misuse of National Emblem Act 2005, and the Rules made in 2007 there is a schedule enumerating the authorities who can use the national emblem. Panchayat presidents are not allowed to use the national emblem. But they continue to do so.

So when the certificate is produced by the Panchayat president saying that he knows of this person and that they are the son/daughter of so and so whose name appears in the 1971 voter list, this certificate of proof of relationship is not admitted. This is because it uses the national emblem. However, no Panchayat president is ever prosecuted for wrongful usage.

In India the only thing which is considered to determine admissibility of evidence is relevance. If it is relevant it is admissible (the latest judgment on the matter is the verdict of the 3 judge bench in the Rafale review case). If a document is obtained through  criminal or illegal means it is still admissible if it is relevant. But the HC ignores this rule when it comes to trials under the Foreigners Act, 1946

So the first rule excludes oral evidence and the second rule excludes the documents that are available to many people.

These rules make it easier for the FTs to declare people as foreigners.

In most cases people fail to establish relationships with their parents. Section 50 of the Evidence Act, which lays down the evidence that can be used to prove a relationship, is also ignored.

In some cases oral evidence is recorded but not discussed in the decision by the FT or HC. According to the HC oral evidence has no significance before the FT. By excluding oral evidence, the HC has also disregarded the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of  Lal Babu Hussein v. Electoral Registration Officer. While the judgment does not directly deal with the admissibility of oral evidence, it assumes the admissibility of all types of evidence before the court in citizenship matters. 

NM: Recently, at a lecture at the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), you said that the NRC process is exclusionary and discriminatory towards women in general and women from marginalised communities in particular. Can you elaborate?

OL: In 2016, I was sitting in a courtroom in the Gauhati HC. The bench was dealing with challenges filed against FT orders. The Presiding Judge, who is now the CJI of Sikkim HC, Justice A.K. Goswami asked why most of the challenges to FT orders were filed by women.

It is simple — more women are declared as foreigners by the FT which is why more women come to the High Court. It was a general observation made by the Court so the lawyer arguing did not answer Justice Goswami. But the question remains.

Most people who are declared as foreigners belong to the poorest section of the society. These people are uneducated and don’t have a board exam certificate or a birth certificate which can be used to prove relationship with their parents which in turn proves their citizenship. Additionally, the registration of marriage, particularly in the Muslim community, was not compulsory. It was made compulsory by an SC judgment pronounced much later.  However, even after it was made compulsory, a marriage that is not registered is still valid. As a result, many women do not have marriage certificates. Lastly, though the law gives women the right to inherit property, in practice this does not happen in most cases. As a result, often, women are unable to produce documentary proof to establish a relationship, particularly with their fathers.

In the case of men, some of them study up to matriculation and have board certificates. Those who do not have board certificates have land documents on which they mutate their name in the place of parents. They can use this document to show their relationship with their father. Men also put their father’s name on the voter list.

Women are frequently married before the age of 18 (even after the Child Marriage Act was enacted in 2006). So a young woman who marries before attaining majority  cannot enrol herself in the voter’s list of her paternal home; thereby proving that she is daughter of her father. So she enrols her name after she attains majority. Since she is already married, she uses her husband’s name in the voter list and not her father’s. So, the voter list does not help her to prove her relationship with her father.

There are several other reasons why women are excluded from the NRC, most of them deeply rooted in patriarchy. I have also heard of cases where a woman, who has left her husband’s house because of a domestic dispute, gets a notice at her matrimonial home. Because of the domestic dispute, the husband does not communicate the receipt of the notice. As a result, an ex parte order is passed against her. 

The reasons I have mentioned are not exhaustive. If fieldwork is conducted there are many other reasons that will come up. For example, if a family receives a notice from an FT in the name of a woman then too much importance will not be given to it. This is because a woman is not thought of as a very important member of the family. Even if the family appoints a lawyer, they will look for a cheap lawyer and won’t make too much of an effort to collect the documents that are required.

NM: Persons excluded from the NRC were supposed to receive rejection orders by March. Thereafter, the appeals process would begin. Now, because of COVID-19 and the catastrophic floods, the rejection process has been paused. How do you expect the appeals process to proceed? And how has the pandemic affected the lives of the people whose citizenship is in limbo?

OL: I am not sure. I saw a statement attributed to the new state coordinator of the NRC or an official from his office saying that they were in the process of preparing the rejection orders. However, due to technical problems in the database of the information preservation system, the data needed to be re-entered. This process of re-entry of data will take a few months.

But this pandemic has devastated the lives of people;  people have lost their jobs and there is scarcity of means to attain a livelihood. So even if the appeals process starts after the pandemic ends, it will be very difficult for these people because they will still be struggling to sustain themselves.

NM: As someone associated with the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee, what do you think is the role of broader civil society in resolving the question of citizenship and migration in Assam?

OL: A few years back I tried to speak with people who were working with human rights groups to make a position on this issue. If by civil society, you mean the human rights community, I think these people should come together and take a clear position on these issues.

The other part of the civil society, that is, bar associations, employees associations, the leadership of whom are members of the dominant communities, are not bothered about what is happening to the people excluded from the NRC.

 Even the people who profess to work from a human rights perspective are divided on the issue on ethnic lines. But some groups — for example, some women’s right organisations have taken a stand on one or two issues. However, even they haven’t taken a collective position and dealt with the NRC issue as a whole.  If an initiative is taken to get these human rights organisations to work together it will be much better. 

NM: Several FT lawyers have spoken of harassment and stigmatisation that they face due to the nature of their work. To add to that, a 2017 performance appraisal report of the members of the Foreigner Tribunals evinced that members who had declared a greater number of foreigners were more likely to be retained of their services in contrast to those who had declared fewer foreigners.

As an FT lawyer who has contended with threats and is arguing before a tribunal that is potentially prejudiced, what has been your experience? What motivates you to continue taking up citizenship law matters?

OL: I don’t appear before the FT very often because my practice is primarily before the HC. So personally, I haven’t faced one which is remotely uncomfortable. But I have heard about this from other lawyers. The newspapers had also reported a case of a scuffle within the courtroom.

But there were two cases that I recently dealt with — an interlocutory application was filed in both the cases but the application was not taken on record. So the lawyer in the case contacted me. I advised him to approach the local bar association. A delegation of the bar association spoke to the tribunal member but the application was still not taken on record.  Our request was only for the member to take it on record, if he felt that it was not sustainable the tribunal could reject it by passing an order. Then, I filed a writ petition before the HC, which directed the tribunal to accept the application

This shows that some of the tribunals are hostile towards the lawyers and they don’t even follow the minimum rule of procedures.

Natasha Maheshwari is a 5th year student at Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai. She is a core team member at Parichay.

A Fact-Sheet on Detention Centres in India

This is the second in a three-part series of guest posts by Paresh Hate. Paresh Hate is a PhD candidate at Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Their work revolves around critically engaging with the discourse of ‘Bangladeshi infiltrator’ in Indian politics by looking at immigration detention and immigration law as sites of its cultivation, deployment and legitimization. Paresh is the digital editor for Migrant Solidarity Network – India and is a founding member of Hasratein: a queer collective, LGBTQIA+ resource group and political organisation based in New Delhi, India.

As argued in the first part of this series, immigration detention is neither a recent development nor limited to Assam. It has been part of the punitive mechanism set up by immigration law, particularly Section 3(2)(e) of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and para 11(2) of The Foreigners Order, 1948, since its inception.

Recent detention centres are mandated under Amit Shah’s Model Detention Manual 2019, which was released on 9 January 2019, according to which one detention camp should exist in one the city or district where a major immigration check post is located and every member of a family should be housed in the same detention centre.

However, immigration detention has a long history in India, and such sites of detention are to be found all over the country. The immigrant foreigner population in detention centres in India is convicted under one or more of the four acts pertaining to immigration law, i.e. 1) The Foreigners Act, 1946; 2) the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939; 3) the Passport Act, 1967; and 4) the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920.

While the case of Assam detention centres clearly shows that there are plenty of Indian citizens, particularly Bengali-speaking individuals, who end up in detention centres, the state maintains these sites for unauthorized immigrants. I use the term ‘unauthorized’ for two reasons: first, to problematize ascribing legality onto humans on the move and to attempt to destigmatize the ideological connotations associated with illegality; second, to point out that many who are stuck in the detention regime possess documents of some kind but are insufficient by state’s evidentiary standards to prove their “undetainability”. In this sense, ‘unauthorized’ refers to individuals without official permission to enter a nation-state, because they are marked racially, religiously, gender-wise, class-wise, or due to the bureaucratic and administrative protocols which disallow them to be seen as legitimate candidates for permission to enter or claim citizenship.

Until early 2000s, the population that was accused and convicted in immigration matters was kept in prisons that operated as makeshift spaces for detaining “illegal immigrants” who violated the clauses of the immigration law and may have additionally committed a crime under India’s penal laws. This practice continues even today in most parts of the country.

According to the Prison Statistics India 2019 Manual of National Crime Records Bureau, as of 31st December 2019, there are total 5608 foreign prisoners in India, out of which around 2171 are convicts, 2979 are undertrials, 40 are detenues (mostly in Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi), and 418 are held as other kind of prisoners. Out of these, the highest number is that of Bangladeshis who constitute around 2513 of these prisoners. Estimates of foreigners and non-citizens omit child detainees in juvenile homes and those held at other quasi-correctional state institutions such as the Reception Centres outside the prison system. Bengali-speaking population is also the most precarious group facing penalties under immigration law and are under threat due to the National Register of Citizens.

As of now, there are different detention centres across the country which function for punitive and non-punitive purposes managed by state government correctional homes, shelter homes, Border Security Force camps, and sites of Foreigners Regional Registration Office.

Assam:

The first de facto detention centres were built in the state of Assam under High Court’s orders of 2008 for detaining declared foreigners. In July 2009, the Revenue Minister Bhumidhar Barman of Assam had informed the state assembly that two detention camps would be set up to hold illegal immigrants at Mancachar and Mahisashan. By 2010, three such detention camps had begun at Goalpara, Silchar and Kokrajhar. In the next few years, three more detention camps had started functioning at Tezpur, Jorhat and Dibrugarh.

Currently, under the Model Detention Manual 2019, the current biggest detention centre meant for illegal immigrants is being built in Goalpara district’s Matia which shall house at least 3000 inmates.

New Delhi:

In Delhi, there are three publicly known locations where immigrants are detained. Two of them are managed by the Department of Social Welfare of Government of Delhi. One of them is located at Nirmal Chaaya in West Delhi which holds immigrant women and another is at Lampur Complex in North Delhi which holds immigrant men. This population includes trafficked women, irregular economic migrants, and refugees. The third one is at Shahzada Bagh and is managed by Foreigners Regional Registration Office in West Delhi and exclusively holds Bangladeshi unauthorized immigrants.

According to the data of Global Detention Project, a Geneva-based human rights organisation, the union territory of Delhi has had five other detention centres which are not publicly known. These are 1) Human Resources Department Cell at Hauz Khas which was in use at least till 2005 housing adult unauthorized immigrant men; 2) a detention site at Daryaganj which was in use at least till 2005, housing adult unauthorized immigrant men; 3) Alipur Road detention house managed by Foreigners Regional Registration Office which was in use at least till 2008; 4) Daya Basti Ren Basera which was in use at least till 2005 housing adult unauthorized immigrant men; and 5) Old Delhi Seva Kutir which was in use at least till 2005 housing adult unauthorized immigrant men. The current status of these five sites is unknown.

Punjab:

Punjab currently houses unauthorized immigrants at Central Jail, Amritsar. These are individuals who are declared foreigners.

Rajasthan:

Rajasthan holds unauthorized immigrants on jail premises in Alwar. These are individuals who are declared foreigners.

Gujarat:

One detention centre in Gujarat is located at Bhuj. Another one which was at least in use till 2009 was located at a Special Operations Group (SOG) Office which was a criminal police station in Ahmedabad that housed both immigrant men, women and accompanied minors.

Goa:

Goa has had a detention centre since early 2019 where it houses convicted immigrants who are declared foreigners. It is located at Mapusa sub-jail in North Goa.

Tamil Nadu:

In Tamil Nadu, an intermediate camp has been made that used to earlier be a women’s prison in the city of Trichy. At present, it houses around 60 foreigners, most of whom are Sri Lankans. The site is guarded by Tamil Nadu Special Police commandos and is handled by the state revenue department. Because it is the revenue department that manages this site, the nature of the site also differs. In the case of Tamil Nadu, it means that the location is maintained to supervise offenders who are neither under the usual restrictions of probation nor fully incarcerated because all the detenues are undertrials and are allowed to meet family members. Many of these detenues also await deportation.

West Bengal:

West Bengal maintains its own correctional homes at different locations segregated on the basis of gender. There has also been a Border Security Force camp which was last documented to be in use in 2005. Earlier, the West Bengal government had also agreed to build new detention centres at New Town and Bongaon but these plans have been halted recently.

Bihar:

Bihar has a military camp, which according to the sources of Global Detention Project, that houses unauthorized immigrants. It was at least in use until 2005.

Karnataka:

Under the Model Detention Manual 2019, Karnataka has opened its first detention centre at Nelamangala Taluk, Banglore which will be administered by the state Social Welfare Department.

Maharashtra:

Under the Model Detention Manual 2019, Maharashtra was to set up its first detention centre in Nerul, Navi Mumbai which was an erstwhile women’s shelter home run by the local police station. But since the change of the state government and the clash between Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party, the plans have been put on halt.

Uttar Pradesh:

Uttar Pradesh was supposed to have its first detention centre in Ghaziabad’s Nandgram at an erstwhile SC/ST hostel whose plans were cancelled after protests. Since the state government is ruled by the same party in power in the central government, it is very likely that another location will be soon selected for starting a detention centre in the state.

Usually, when one files an RTI application with the Ministry of Home Affairs (Foreigners Division) to find out details about these detention centres in the country, the Central Public Information Officer responds that this information is not centrally maintained. In many cases of RTI application, a copy of the RTI application is transferred to the Central Public Information Officer of the Bureau of Immigration for providing any details they have. However, the Bureau of Immigration responds and has a precedent of responding that they are exempted from the Second Schedule of the RTI Act, 2005 as a body from providing information that has the importance of national security. There is hardly any legal provision available to know more about these detention centres since the central government has the power to regulate access to the places in India where internees or persons on parole are detained or restricted under Section 4(4) of the Foreigners Act, 1946. This was confirmed by a personal RTI that I had made and keeping a track of the results of other similar RTIs.

Under UNHCR guidelines, detention cannot be used arbitrarily, and any decision to detain must be based on an assessment of the individual’s particular circumstances. This is hardly followed by authorities in India and routine flouting of due process is commonplace. Secondly, according to UNHCR guideline 4.3, detention can be used to protect public order, public health, and national security. However, as is clear from Indian state’s official narrative premised on securitization, almost all unauthorized and undocumented immigration constitutes “infiltration” and the polititicians consistently have called it a threat to India’s national security which can be used to justify indefinite detention for foreigners, particularly for those coming from Bengali or Bangladeshi backgrounds.

All of this proves the absolute lack of transparency in the matter of immigration detention centres in India. While harrowing tales are common in case of American immigration system or European Union’s gated community with regards to immigrants, there is little knowledge of countries in the Global South, including India. Such lack of transparency only adds to this effect where the public due to its lack of information fails to make a significant intervention in the question of justice and due process when it pertains to immigrants.