Case Note: Md. Misher Ali v Union of India & Ors.

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 Sitamsini Cherukumalli.

Full case name: Md. Misher Ali @ Meser Ali v Union of India & Ors

Case No.: CA 1058-1059/2021

Brief Facts:

A reference was made by the Superintendent of Police (Border) Sivsagar district against the Petitioner in Police Enquiry No. 135/10, alleging that he is an illegal migrant who entered India after 24th March 1971 without valid documents. A notice of the subsequent Foreigners’ Tribunal proceedings was served to the Petitioner “by hanging” the same at his temporary address in the district of Sivsagar. No attempt was made by the investigating agencies or the process server to issue a notice at his permanent address in Dhubri district, Assam.

Following the service of notice at his temporary address, the Foreigners’ Tribunal, Jorhat, Assam, pronounced an ex-parte order in FT Case No. SVR/310/2010, holding that the Petitioner was indeed a foreign national on 22nd March 2018. The Petitioner has since been in custody since 15th May 2019. The Petitioner’s appeal as well as his review petition against the FT order were dismissed by the Gauhati High Court, following which he has approached the Supreme Court of India.

Issues

  1. Was the notice issued to the Petitioner in the FT Case No. SVR/310/2010 in accordance with Paragraph 3(5)(f) of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964?
  2. Is the Petitioner barred from approached the Supreme Court of India under 3A of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964, which grants a time period of 30 days for the Aggrieved to move proceedings against an ex-parte order?

Relevant Laws:

  • Paragraph 3(5)(f) of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964

If the proceedee has changed the place of residence or place of work, without intimation to the investigating agency, the process server shall affix a copy of the notice on the outer door or some other conspicuous part of the house in which the proceedee ordinarily resides or last resided or reportedly resided or personally worked for gain or carries on business, and shall return the original to the Foreigners Tribunal from which it was issued with a report endorsed thereon or annexed thereto stating that he has so affixed the copy, the circumstances under which he did so, and the name and address of the person (if any) by whom the house was identified and in whose presence the copy was affixed.

  • 3A of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964 [Renumbered to 3C from 3A by G.S.R. 409(E). dt. 30-5-2019 (w.e.f. 4-6-2019)]

3C (1) Where the Foreigners Tribunal has passed an ex parte order for non-appearance of the proceedee and he or she has sufficient cause for not appearing before the Foreigners Tribunal, it may on the application of the proceedee, if filed within thirty days of the said order, set aside its ex parte order and decide the case accordingly.


Arguments of the Petitioner

  1. The Petitioner contended that the authorities had knowledge of his permanent address, in spite of which there was no attempt made to serve a notice of the proceedings at the permanent address despite being aware that this omission goes against the principles of natural justice.

Arguments of the Respondent-State

  1. The notice was hung outside the door in pursuance of Para 3(5)(f) of the Foreigner’s (Tribunals) Order. If there is a change in the place of residence or work without intimation to the investigating agency, the process server is authorised to serve the notice at the place where an individual ordinarily resides, and in doing so, the authorities have complied with the aforementioned provision.
  2. The Petitioner is barred from approaching the Supreme Court as it contravenes 3A of the Foreigner’s Tribunals Order, which gives a period of 30 days to move proceedings against an ex-parte decree passed by the FTs.

Ruling

  1. The Authorities were aware of the Petitioner’s permanent residence. This is reflected in several documents, including the impugned order of the Foreigners Tribunal; a statement by the Appellant which was recorded by the Senior Inspector of Police in 2010; and the interrogation report before the Inspector of Police dated 22 January 2010 – all the aforementioned documents make note of the Petitioner’s permanent address being in Dhubri district, Assam.
  2. Paragraph 3(5)(f) deals with situations where a proceedee has changed his place of residence or work without intimation to the investigating agency, and this provision is not attracted when it is proved that the investigating agency had knowledge of the proceedee’s permanent address.
  3. Paragraph 3A (now Paragraph 3C), prescribing a period of thirty days for a person to move proceedings against an ex-parte order by demonstrating sufficient cause for their non-appearance is only applicable when notice has been duly served. When it has been held by the application of facts that the notice was not duly served, the thirty-day limit prescribed by Paragraph 3C cannot be attracted.
  4. The ex-parte order of the Foreigners’ Tribunal and the dismissal of the review petition by the Gauhati High Court dated 6th December 2019 are set aside. Foreigners’ Tribunal, Jorhat, Assam is ordered to restore Case No. FT/SVR/310/20

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: Rights of Child Detainees

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 last in a three-part series of excerpts from the report. The previous excerpts on legal recognition of the status of statelessness and the framework of socio-economic rights of non-nationals can be found here and here. The entire Report will be published in the final week of November, and the schedule of events can be found here.

IV. RIGHTS OF CHILD DETAINEES

All the rights and prohibitions against detention established and elaborated above apply in the case of children. However, given their special and vulnerable condition, children enjoy additional standards of protection. This section begins with an argument against detaining children on the premise that such detention violates international law pertaining to child rights. Moreover, the state can deploy less intrusive measures in dealing with children. However, given that children may be under detention at present, this section details the rights of such child detainees to be ensured by the state.

The situation of children detained in Assam is worrisome. There is a lack of clarity about the number of children that are currently in detention; however, their presence in detention centres is a confirmed fact. A recent affirmation is found in the application filed before the Supreme Court seeking the release of declared foreigners in the detention centres in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. The application mentions the increased vulnerability of the detainees, which includes elderly people and children living in crowded conditions. There were 31 children in detention centres as per available information. The conditions of these detention centres pose debilitating effects on mental health, without adequate treatment and opportunities for education and recreation. The impact of this situation on children is exponentially greater and liable to pose severe harm to their health.

  1. Detention of children should not take place in principle

As per international law and Indian statutes, detention of children should not take place. The Central Government’s submission before the Supreme Court in the ongoing case of Assam Public Works is a welcome development, stating that children of parents declared as citizens in the NRC shall not be sent to detention centres and shall not be separated from their parents. The absolute prohibition of detention also applies to ‘foundlings’ as a particularly vulnerable category of children. It is argued that children should qualify for protection under the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 (‘JJ Act’) as ‘Children in Need of Care and Protection’ (‘CNCP’). This section addresses the categories of children who are vulnerable and need protection. This section also seeks to establish safeguards that necessitate compliance when dealing with children in detention.

A.1 Principle of ‘Best Interests of the Child’

Detention of children for the purpose of deportation is a flagrant and unjustified breach of the fundamental principle of best interests of the child protected by Article 3 of the CRC. India is a party to the convention and has incorporated the principle in Chapter II of the JJ Act. As stated by the CRC Committee, the best interests principle is satisfied by the strong prohibition of detention of children since such deprivations of liberty have an extraordinarily adverse impact on the child’s well-being and development. This prohibition particularly must be enforced if the child is detained on the sole basis of their or her parent’s migration status.

While the lack of data is deplorable with regard to the age of the children currently detained in Assam, it is extremely likely that all categories of children and more specifically the most vulnerable ones, such as unaccompanied and young children, are in detention. In light of these elements, India is obligated to cease its current practice of detaining children in detention centres. All the children currently in detention must be immediately released as per international law and Indian law on the issue.

A.2 Detained children as ‘Children in Need of Care and Protection’ under the JJ Act

The Juvenile Justice (Care And Protection Of Children) Act, 2015   1 (4) Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force, the provisions of this Act shall apply to all matters concerning children in need of care and protection and children in conflict with law, including — (i) apprehension, detention, prosecution, penalty or imprisonment, rehabilitation and social re-integration of children in conflict with law; (ii) procedures and decisions or orders relating to rehabilitation, adoption, re-integration, and restoration of children in need of care and protection.   2 (14) “child in need of care and protection” means a child — (i) who is found without any home or settled place of abode and without any ostensible means of subsistence; or (vii) who is missing or run away child, or whose parents cannot be found after making reasonable inquiry in such manner as may be prescribed;  

The Object of the Act includes the making of comprehensive provisions for all children in consonance with the standards prescribed in the CRC. Therefore, the JJ Act can be used to operationalise India’s international obligations to address the vulnerabilities of both stateless children and children at risk of statelessness.

The scope of the term CNCP encompasses the broad categories of children who are at the risk of detention and its consequent negative impact. Section 2(14)(i) of the JJ Act refers to a child who is found without any home or settled place of abode and without any ostensible means of subsistence. This can cover children whose parents are in detention, who are stateless or are suspected of being foreign nationals. Such children would qualify for protection under the JJ Act. Further, Section 2(14)(vii) extends the scope of CNCP to foundlings i.e. children ‘whose parents cannot be found after making reasonable inquiry in such manner as may be prescribed’. [A foundling is a child of unknown parentage found abandoned within the territory of a state.] This argument is further corroborated by the view taken by Justice Lokur on the scope of the definition of CNCP, stating that the term must be given a broad interpretation. This means stateless children as well as children at the risk of statelessness qualify for protection under the JJ Act.

A.3 Conclusion and recommendations

The CRC and the JJ Act extend a large set of protections to these vulnerable children. The state must conform with best interests of children as mentioned in the JJ Act, keeping in line with international law. Detention of children for removal shall never take place, irrespective of the citizenship status of their parents.

  • Release all children in detention in Assam as well as stateless children in detention in India as per international law and Indian law. NGOs shall be allowed unimpeded access to detention centres in Assam to ensure that no children remain in detention.
  • Children at the risk of statelessness and currently in detention should be presented before the district Child Welfare Committee for drawing up protection plans on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind the best interests of the child.
  • Develop alternatives to detention for stateless children and their families. Non-custodial, community-based alternatives shall be prioritised.
  • Rights of children in detention

As argued above, despite the prohibition of arbitrary detention of children, there is evidence indicating that children remain in detention in Assam due to their precarious citizenship. This section responds to rights of children in detention until they are released as per international law and Indian law on the issue.

RightIndian contextEuropean contextRecommendations
Right to family unity (if parents are also being detained)Children below 6 years of age are kept alongside their mothers in the detention centre. There is no clarity on circumstances of children over 6 years of age.Families in detention must be provided with separate accommodation to ensure their privacy.   Best practice: In Belgium, children accompanied by their parents are, in principle, not detained but transferred to return houses or to an open reception centre which are adequate, child-friendly alternatives to detention.Conduct an assessment on the compliance of the detention measure with the best interest of the child as per the family unity principle. Develop more alternatives to detention for stateless children to avoid the disruption of family unity, such as reception centres.
Right to education at an off-site facilityThe Supreme Court hasheld that India is obligated to provide free and compulsory education to all children between 6 and 14 years. The court has clarified the vast scope of Article 21A of the Constitution, referring to India’s participation in the drafting of the UDHR as well as the ratification of the CRC.   Issue: lack of data regarding any educational opportunity for children in detention in Assam.EU member states must provide minors, whose removal has been postponed, with access to a basic education system, depending on the length of their stay.   Best practice: Czech Republic allows migrant children to attend schools at the local elementary school outside the detention facilities. The ECtHR also requires the classes to be free as a bar against discrimination on the immigration and nationality status.Children must have access to an education system where they are taught by qualified teachers through programmes integrated in India’s education system, regardless of the length of their stay in detention facilities.They must benefit from free classes to avoid any discrimination.Education should be provided outside of detention facilities in line with the best interests of the child.
Right to recreation and playArticle 31, CRC + Best Interests of the Child. Issue: lack of data concerning children’s access to leisure activities in detention in Assam.This right is protected in Europe but suffers from poor and uneven implementation in the region. Best practice: In Lithuania, children may participate in recreational activities in one of the country’s detention centres.Ensure recreational activities in which children facing statelessness can meet local children and young people through NGOs or social workers.Sensitise the public with information on the significance of this right for children.Guarantee access without discrimination on the child’s legal status.
Right to medical treatmentThere is an obligation to provide access to health care services to all children. The state must ensure satisfactory health conditions and health-related education. Issue: lack of information on the health conditions of children.Necessary healthcare must be provided, at least with regards to emergency care and to essential treatment of illness and serious mental disorders. First challenge: the consent of unaccompanied children to medical treatment (rigorous assessment of the age and maturity of the child by Finland, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Spain). Second challenge: lack of paediatricians and mental health specialists Best practice: In Poland, children benefit from regular visits from paediatricians in the centre. In Portugal, children may benefit from psychological services to help them deal with anxiety, stress, depression, etc. and can also be referred to the hospital or psychiatric services if necessary.Ensure that the consultations are conducted in a child-friendly manner and are respectful of the child’s right to confidentiality.Organise regular visits by medical professionals from outside the facilities.Provide children information about available mental health services. Conduct medical screenings of newly arrived stateless children identifying potential issues, both physical and mental, that need care.Ensure a rigorous assessment of the child’s free and deliberate consent to medical treatment.

Excerpt: Framework of Socio-Economic Rights for Non-Nationals

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 second in a three-part series of excerpts from the report. The previous excerpt on legal recognition of the status of statelessness can be found here. The next excerpt will cover ‘Rights of Child Detainees’. The entire Report will be published in the final week of November, and the schedule of events can be found here.

Socio-Economic Frameworks

B.1 International law obligations

As previously mentioned, this report acknowledges the fact that Indian citizens themselves are routinely deprived of these rights in practice. However, despite this unfortunate reality, a State has a legal and moral duty to provide access to fundamental entitlements to all individuals in its territory, regardless of their nationality. These fundamental entitlements refer to social and economic protection which includes access to healthcare, the right to housing and sanitation, the right to education and the right to work and employment, among others.

In international law, Article 25 of the UDHR covers a vast range of rights, including access to adequate water, food, clothing, housing, medical care and other social protections. This ‘minimum threshold’ for a standard of living is applicable to all persons and is certainly not conditional on citizenship. Based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination, the rights espoused in Article 25 of the UDHR provide the core grounding to the more specific articulations of socio-economic rights in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (‘ICESCR’). The vast majority of human rights are applicable to everyone, regardless of nationality or immigration status (including stateless persons) as confirmed by General Comment No. 15 and 31. Specifically, in relation to socio-economic rights, the Committee for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (‘CESCR’) in 2009 clarified the interpretation and applicability of ICESCR, stating that the Covenant rights apply to ‘everyone including non-nationals, such as refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons, migrant workers and victims of international trafficking, regardless of legal status and documentation’. This unequivocally clarifies that socio-economic rights recognised in international law are positively enforceable or applicable to all persons, including non-citizens, stateless persons and precarious citizens, regardless of their citizenship status.

Article 25 of the UDHR Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.  

The 1954 Convention is the sole treaty framework that directly prescribes standards of treatment of stateless persons to be implemented by states. While India is not yet a signatory to this pertinent treaty, many of its provisions are now either customary international law, or at the very least offer important approaches relating to the protection of stateless persons that can serve as a useful model, as stated in the UNHCR Statelessness Handbook. The 1954 Convention provides a broad framework of civil, economic, social and cultural rights that must be granted to stateless persons. The broad categories include welfare rights to rationing, housing, public education, public relief, labour legislation, social security, access to identity documentation and gainful employment (wage earning, self-employment, access to liberal professions), among others.

B.2 Lessons from protection frameworks for non-nationals

India does not have a comprehensive policy governing refugees that have fled to India or for stateless persons and their protections. The Indian government’s approach towards different precarious citizens of other nationalities and stateless persons has been varied. The Tibetan community and those refugees recognised by (and registered with) the UNHCR serve as two distinct examples. Though the legal, social and political positions of these two communities are clearly distinguishable, their access to socio-economic rights present a blueprint of the rights that could and should be made available to stateless persons. Much like stateless persons, refugees find themselves at the risk of sliding further on the slippery slope of citizenship. Therefore, it is appropriate to refer to the Indian refugee framework and approaches to inform our recommendations for stateless persons and precarious citizens. The nexus between the two frameworks can also be observed from the fact that the 1954 Convention and the 1951 Refugee Convention have a shared drafting history where the former is largely modelled on the provisions of the latter.

An important caveat, however, is that the status of the Tibetan community is not a completely transposable model to stateless individuals, as Tibetans are specifically recognised and protected by the Indian Government. Depending on when they arrived in India (after the Dalai Lama’s ‘flight into exile’ in 1959) they possess stateless identity certificates, are considered ‘temporary refugees in India’, or fall into the category of ‘Long Term Stay’.  On the other hand, the refugees who are recognised and registered by the UNHCR, such as the Afghans, Somalians and certain Burmese groups, are ‘entitled to an assessment for a Refugee Certificate; a visa if granted a certificate, though often shorter-term; and the possibility of naturalisation, but this depends on irregular and opaque criteria’. Their access to socio-economic rights, therefore, is dependent on and varies according to their specific contexts and the kind of documentation they have. The UNHCR works with a number of implementing partners, such as Don Bosco and the Development and Justice Initiative (‘DAJI’) to facilitate support and access to these rights. Don Bosco particularly focuses on assisting vulnerable refugee children. It provides them with support in the form of ‘rescue operations, short-stay homes, home reparation, institutional rehabilitation, child protection mechanisms, advocacy, education skill trainings, accompaniment and foster care’. Nonetheless, despite the variations in the terminology and categorisation of the legal status of precarious citizens in India, the refugee framework illustrates the crucial socio-economic rights that have been made available to non-citizen communities, as outlined below.

RightMeasures by Government of India/UNHCR for TibetansMeasures by Government of India for Rohingya refugees
  HealthcareAccess to facilities in settlement colonies, administered by the Central Tibetal Administration.Access to Indian hospitals but ineligible for state healthcare subsidies available to citizens.In principle, they have equal access to Primary Health Centres. However, reports persist of Rohingyas being denied treatment due to lack of Indian documentation. Prescription medicines are expensive and inaccessible.Limited coverage by Anganwadis for maternal, neonatal, and early childhood care.
Food and Nutrition Access to PDS rations.Dependent upon rations supplied by UNHCR/local NGOs.Limited access to Anganwadis in certain states for infant nutritional requirements.
  Shelter, Housing, SanitationTibetan refugee settlements, established in the 1960s on Government land and administered through officers appointed by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Lease agreements signed with the Central Tibetan Relief Committee.The majority live in clusters of shanties, with shared toilets and water facilities. Wastewater from toilets flows out into open drains; some are forced to manually collect and dispose of faeces. Access to clean drinking water remains erratic, dependent upon sympathetic local residents.
  EducationTibetan secondary and high schools.Access to higher education in Indian colleges and universities. Eligible for Government scholarships.Children under age 14 technically have access to primary schools under the RTE Act, but implementation is erratic – admissions denied due to lack of documentation.When allowed to attend local schools, they are barred from the midday meal scheme.
  EmploymentNon-interference with employment. Seasonal sweater selling, agriculture, and small enterprises are their primary sources of income.Eligible for trade licenses in nursing, teaching, chartered accountancy, medicine, and engineering as per Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy, 2014.Not eligible for government jobs.Common sources of livelihood are rag-picking, construction work, sanitation work, and various kinds of unskilled labour in the informal sector. This work is precarious and makes for a very unstable source of income.

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 Swati Bidhan Baruah

Swati Bidhan Baruah is a vocal advocate for the plight of the transgender community in Assam. Not only was Ms. Baruah Gauhati University’s first transgender law student, but she also went on to become Assam’s first transgender judge. Ms. Baruah has fought and won several cases for the recognition of trans rights. Her organization, the All Assam Transgender Association, has been consistently working towards the realisation of the rights of the transgender community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Natasha Maheshwari: Ms. Baruah, you filed a plea before the Supreme Court against the exclusion of 2000 persons belonging to the transgender community from the National Register of Citizens (‘NRC’). What motivated you to file the case? What was the Supreme Court’s response? Were they sympathetic to the problems of the community?

Swati Bidhan Baruah: Many transgender persons are abandoned or disowned by their families. When they leave their homes in search of a community, they stay with us. Neither do they have any connection with their parental homes nor any documentation that can help them establish linkage with their parents or guardians.  In such a situation, will they be termed as foreigners? Are they not citizens of India? 

Additionally, the first step of the NRC process i.e. the NRC form, allowed persons to choose from three gender categories — male, female, and other. By including the ‘other’ category, trans persons were given the right to identify themselves. However, when the first draft of the NRC was published, many trans persons found themselves to be excluded from the list. That is when I spoke to Mr Prateek Hajela, the then NRC Coordinator. Mr Hajela assured me that the government will implement the necessary evolving principles required to ensure the inclusion of members of the transgender community. This would be done through a claims and objections procedure. 

But the claims and objections procedure forced trans persons to identify as either ‘male’ and ‘female’, i.e. the ‘other’ category was not included. Now, let’s assume that I chose to identify my gender as ‘other’ while filling the NRC form and later, did not find myself included in the first draft of the NRC. While filing a claim or an objection, the ‘other’ category was not mentioned, thereby forcing me to identify as either male or female. So on one hand, the NRC process purports to allow trans persons to participate in it while simultaneously disallowing us from identifying ourselves. This process is violative of the 2014 NALSA judgment which gave trans persons the right to self identify in addition to leading to discrepancies in data thereby leading to problems in proving citizenship. 

When I spoke to Prateek Hajela about this he did not provide us with a satisfactory response. This is why we found it imperative to file an intervention application before the Supreme Court. 

[The NRC] is also violative of the rights of orphaned children. How are they supposed to identify themselves as citizens? In order to be included in the NRC, you have to show the authorities your family tree and establish linkage parents. That becomes impossible.

In the court, the ex-CJI told us that we have missed the bus, the Court could not restart the procedure [to ensure our inclusion].  My submission is that if we have missed the bus, aren’t trains and flights available? Why do they not want to accommodate us? However, the Supreme Court did not dismiss our petition. They kept it standing and issued notice to the State Government. The matter is still pending. 

NM: What is the experience of the transgender community in Assam during the NRC? Were the NRC Seva Kendras (‘NSKs’) receptive to the trans community’s complaints? Did they help members of the community to look for their legacy data?  What has been the community’s experience in producing legacy and linkage documents necessary for inclusion in the NRC been?

SBB: The officers at the NRC Seva Kendras were extremely insensitive. Most members of the trans community do not have any documents to prove their citizenship; the government has not taken any initiative to recognise them. As a result they find themselves excluded from the NRC process. 

The officers did not allow us to enter the Seva Kendra. Often, quarrels took between trans persons and officials. But this has not been highlighted by the media. I believe that the media plays a very important role in sensitising members of the society and officers of the government. It is very important that the NALSA judgment is implemented so that our rights are realised and recognised. 

The NRC process requires you to enclose documents to show your father’s presence in the country before the year 1971. Thereafter, you have to produce your birth or school certificates to establish a relationship with your father. This entire process is violative [of trans rights] and doesn’t have any evolving principles. 

Most trans people do not have documentation that will enable them to prove citizenship. Let me give you an example: let us assume, before transitioning, you were a boy, your name was Rahul. Now, you have transitioned to a girl and your name is Reshma. How do you prove that Rahul is Reshma? The state government is responsible for ensuring that trans persons possess documentation to show that Rahul and Reshma are one and the same person. A few trans persons left home at an older age and still recognise their parents or know of their whereabouts. When they visited their parental homes, their parents refused to give them the required documents. So, in such cases, how do you expect them to produce documents that will enable them to prove citizenship and be enlisted in the NRC?

In 2018, the Ministry of Home Affairs published a report publishing its plans for a nationwide NRC. If the Government of India is planning to extend the NRC process to the entire country it will be a gross violation of the rights of the trans community and orphaned children. 

NM: What were the efforts made by civil society organisations to ensure the inclusion of transgender persons in the NRC? Was the government receptive to these efforts?

SBB: No efforts were made, they did not do anything to help us. Seeing the discrepancies in the NRC process, my organisation, the All Assam Transgender Association, filed an intervention application before the Supreme Court pleading for a trans friendly NRC. 

NM: How can the government make sure that transgender persons are included within the NRC, i.e., what would a trans-inclusive NRC look like?

SBB: I believe that the government should keep the trans community in mind before initiating any process (and I am not referring to the NRC alone). They should recognise us as a part of society, we should not be alienated and marginalised. Keeping in mind the Supreme Court’s judgment in the NALSA case, the government should evolve a process that is trans friendly. Necessary principles need to be framed specifically for the trans community. If a trans person does not have documents then self-identification should suffice and be accepted as a valid document. If NRC Seva Kendras can exist for men and women, why can’t transgender persons have one?

NM: In 2018, the United Nations raised concerns of the purposeful exclusion of minority groups from the NRC by the local authorities. Do you agree with this concern?

SBB: Yes, I do. The NRC should not violate anyone’s interest. And I am not referring to trans persons only. For example, take yourself, you are born and educated in India. You are religious to the motherland. If someone comes and initiates a process that might declare you as a foreigner, how will that make you feel? It is very problematic!

Instead of implementing an NRC, I believe that the government should define the border.  This will prevent trespassing. There should also be an Inner Line Permit in the state along with a law to protect the interest of domiciles. So, there are other ways to protect the rights of the indigenous communities. The NRC is an extremely regressive alternative.

NM: Foreigners’ Tribunals (‘FTs’) are vested with extraordinary power due to the highly restricted criterion for judicial review. They are also allowed to evolve their own rules of procedure. As Assam’s first transgender judge, what is your opinion on the competence of the Foreigners’ Tribunals, which are quasi-judicial bodies, and its members to decide a person’s citizenship?

SBB: They may be vested with extraordinary powers but their orders are often challenged before the High Court and Supreme Court. They are also quashed, if need be. So there is nothing to worry about. A discrepancy, if any, seems to have arisen in ensuring the appointment of FT member judges. After the NRC process was completed. the government was supposed to set up more Tribunals to ensure justice to the persons excluded from the NRC. However, despite the selection of 200 member judges, their appointment has not been disbursed. And yes, there is executive interference and bureaucratic resistance in the functioning of the FTs.Of course, it is a matter of concern. But, in respect of matters concerning transgender persons, if we find any discrepancies in the FT orders, we will challenge them in addition to questioning the credibility of the FT member. 

NM: What, in your opinion, has been the role of the Gauhati High Court in upholding due process in cases before Foreigners’ Tribunals?

SBB: Several Muslims were excluded from the NRC solely because of their name. Suppose a man’s surname is Ali, but his father’s surname was Hussain and his mother’s surname was Begum. Now this man has given birth to 4 children. So one child uses Ali as his surname, another writes Hussain, and the third writes Begum. Their surnames do not match with each other and as a result they were declared as foreigners. The Gauhati High Court intervened in cases like these and rectified the judgment of the FTs. Of course, the court is the ultimate remedy. We must have some faith in the judiciary. There are good judges with a strong conscience who have expanded the area of jurisprudence and rectified the mistakes of the FTs. 

Natasha Maheshwari is a fifth-year law student at Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai.

Interview with Aman Wadud

Aman Wadud is a practicing lawyer in Assam, where he provides ground-level legal services and support to those who are at risk of being stripped of their citizenship status, owing to the National Register of Citizens (‘NRC’) process. He appears before the Guwahati High Court and the Foreigners Tribunals in Assam, and has also argued before the Supreme Court of India. His voice has been crucial in highlighting the ethnic and religious prejudices in the adjudication of citizenship in Assam. Apart from his litigation practice, Aman was heavily involved in the NRC process which involved travelling across Assam to spread awareness about the Court-monitored NRC. He has recently received the Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship for 2021-22, and hopes to continue to build on his work through this opportunity. In this interview, we discuss his work, citizenship adjudication in Assam, and the recent petition regarding the release of detainees in light of COVID-19.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Devashri Mishra: I hope to discuss themes and questions which derive from your previous interviews, public appearances, talks delivered in colleges, your engagement with Parichay, and your work. But before any of that, congratulations on receiving the Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship for 2021-22! Can you tell us about what inspired you to apply for the Fellowship and how you believe it aligns with your work? 

Aman Wadud: Thank you so much for inviting me to do this. 

Earlier this year I was in the United States, where I was invited to speak at the Harvard India Conference at the Harvard Kennedy School. I was also invited to Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School, Yale Law School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I met a lot of professors, scholars, lawyers, and I ended my trip with testifying before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Hearing on Citizenship Laws and Religious Freedom, where I was a witness. Through this trip, I realized that an advanced degree in the United States will help my cause, widen my perspective and enrich my knowledge on International Human Rights Law, and comparative constitutional law. I want to understand how citizenship is defined in different constitutional settings and the application of citizenship laws. The jus soli concept came into being in the United States through the 14th Amendment in 1868, almost 150 years ago. The law has not changed till now, and anyone born in the US is a citizen by birth. Although when our republic was founded, citizenship was granted on the basis of the principle of jus soli citizenship, this slowly got diluted into the principle of jus sanguinis. This was still further diluted in the  Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 and now, both parents are required to be Indian citizens. Since my work is centred around citizenship law, and I work before the Foreigners Tribunals (FTs), and High Court, I think that an LL.M. with a focus on human rights and comparative constitutional law will benefit my cause. Apart from my litigation, I’m also involved in advocacy work on statelessness. Around 135,000 people have already been declared to be foreigners in Assam and have been rendered stateless, along with their family members. Considering that most of my cases are pro bono, this prestigious Fellowship will allow me to study as it covers all basic expenses and will additionally provide me a small stipend. The network that I will build through this Fellowship will help me with my work as well. 

DM: Absolutely, and I think we’re all eager to see how your work carries forward after your stint in the US! We were extremely happy to hear this news here at Parichay, and we’re certain you’ve been getting similarly warm reactions from everywhere. There have been a few articles and social media reactions which indicate that you’re one of the first North-East Indians to receive this Fellowship – is this true? 

AW: Actually, I’m only the second North East Indian to receive this Fellowship in international legal studies, the first was Babloo Loitongbam from Manipur who received this Fellowship in 2004, sixteen years ago! In this category of legal studies, I’m the first from Assam. In terms of the response I’ve received, I’m overwhelmed. Look, to apply for this Fellowship, you need 3 years of experience, and I’ve had 10 years of experience and I’m deeply involved with the cause of fighting citizenship cases. I must have the blessings of a lot of people that I get so much love for my work. Over the years, because of the citizenship cause becoming a movement, I have received many calls and emails, inviting me to speak at several events. That’s probably why people relate with me, and maybe even because I use my Twitter handle quite effectively in furthering my cause. We have to keep in mind that no one was speaking for the cause of citizenship, and it only became fancy to do so only when the NRC list was released, and again when the CAA protests broke out on a national level. Before that, no one spoke about it. I have been working on this since 2014, and continuously speaking about it, possibly that is why people are emotionally related to me. In Assam, I think people know me because cases of the disadvantaged are referred to me from almost every sub-division of the state, and I’ve fought all these cases. These cases have taken me to many places in Assam, and I also travel for meetings and legal awareness, and for training lawyers here. That way, I know a lot of people and a lot of people know me! I’ve been working sincerely, and working really hard, and so by the grace of God, that may be why many are able to relate with me. I’m overwhelmed by the love and wishes I’ve received over the last few days!

DM: What you said about the rise in the debate around citizenship post the NRC coming about, and more so when the CAA was passed, is a very visible development, even in academic circles in law schools. The conversation around citizenship caught on significantly at the national level only recently, and it seems to be on an exponential rise. How do you think this development is seen by those living this reality everyday?

AW: In law schools, people have started taking interest in this. I’ve spoken to professors who admit that they used to skip the citizenship provisions while teaching constitutional law, and would skip to other chapters. Most of them did this because it seemed unimportant at the time. But now, it has become a practical, and important aspect of constitutional law, even in teaching, and it is no longer something we can take for granted. Perhaps they thought it could never be questioned but finally, we know that there can be a process where everyone may have to prove their citizenship. And that is probably why the interest has increased. I wish people had taken cognizance of what is happening in Assam, which has been happening for a long time. If you go to Economic and Political Weekly you will find articles on Assam, otherwise hardly there was any writing, however, several scholars such as Anupama Roy, who are authorities in the field, have written a lot on the subject. But it has remained a relatively minor field in academics, and before the NRC or CAA debates, a citizenship issue was not considered fancy enough to discuss. 

It is regrettable that people did not give adequate attention to the citizenship crisis in Assam, possibly many lives could have been saved if they had. As you know, detention centers in Assam started in 2009, around 10 years ago, where people were being detained indefinitely. Finally, in 2018, Mr. Harsh Mander filed a petition before the Supreme Court, which reduced the period of detention to three years and it brought an end to indefinite detention. Thirty people have died in the last three years. If enough interest had been given to these issues by professors, academics, and students, possibly it would have made a huge difference to this number. But, I’m happy people are finally paying attention.

DM: To go back a little to your mention of your trip to the US earlier this year – particularly your witness testimony during the Hearings at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. You spoke about how marginalised groups are adversely affected by the citizenship determination process, especially because many of them do not have documents. Can you tell us a little more about why marginalised groups struggle to provide documentary evidence of their citizenship?

AW: The nature of proving citizenship is such that it is entirely dependent on documentation. Because there is a prolonged problem of citizenship in Assam, the Bengali Muslim community, especially, has always been very careful about documentation. 

Firstly, the primary document is the Voter List, but since most people accused of being ‘illegal migrants’ are illiterate, there are often anomalies in the names in the Voter List. There are inconsistencies in titles especially for Muslims, the father could have the title Ali, while the son’s title is Ahmad, but this is not a concern for Muslims. But for Hindus, the title remains constant, except for women whose title changes upon marriage. So the Voter List has anomalies with age and name. 

Secondly, there is a huge problem of erosion in Assam. Every year, around 800 hectares of mainland is eroded by the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers. People become homeless and shift from one place to another, and they have to record their name to the village they move to. So, there is a different Voter List for their original home, and a different one in the village they have shifted to. For example, if the person’s name is Amjad Ali, the Tribunal may say that the Amjad Ali names on both Voter Lists are different and some other Amjad Ali has been picked up, especially if there is a difference in name and age which happens often owing to typographical or clerical errors. This causes a lot of problems for people who migrate, as the Tribunal is given more reason to doubt the veracity of the evidence. 

It is not only erosion, but because these are poor people, they do migrate for their livelihood, although this group constitutes a lesser number of people and those affected by river erosion are much more.

Thirdly, women are another vulnerable group in this context. Women get married early in Assam since the minimum age is 18 years now (earlier it was 21 years). They vote only after marriage because of being married at around the age of 18 itself, and they do so in their matrimonial home and not in their parental home. This is true for almost every woman who is accused of being an ‘illegal migrant’ in my experience, I have hardly come across any woman whose name is recorded with her parents on the Voter List. Thus, a woman’s name is usually recorded with the husband in the Voter List. This is how women lose the most important document to prove their citizenship, as the voter list is a public document which is not required to be proved by the issuing authority. So, a brother who comes to depose as a defense witness, can prove his citizenship as defense witness because of being able to prove a relationship with their father, but the sister is not able to do so, whose citizenship  is being questioned as she does not have documents to prove it. This is the most important problem here in documentation for proving citizenship. Apart from Voter List, a woman can rely on Gaon Panchayat certificates, school certificates, nikah namahs – which are all private documents. There are also jamabandi certificates which can be relied upon but those are rare since these are poor people, who do not generally part with their land, and especially not to give to their daughters or sisters. This is a big problem in every society, that women do not receive land. If they do, land documents are reliable documents , but need to be proved by the issuing authority. The bottom line is that if their names are not on the Voter List with parents, it is difficult to prove citizenship before the Tribunals. If a seasoned lawyer is approached with a woman’s case, they will immediately say it’s a bad case, or refuse to take the case. This is bad, and of course they should not do this, but they also think that this will be a difficult case so they refuse because of the absence of documentary evidence. They could rely on the deposition of relatives, under Section 50 of the Evidence Act, but in practice , this does not happen because oral evidence is hardly relied upon by the Tribunal. Even if the father himself comes to testify, the Tribunal says that oral evidence is not enough to prove citizenship. Now, with NRC, children’s documentation is also weak as a result, and I fear that they may become yet another vulnerable group in citizenship cases.

DM: So when those accused of being ‘illegal migrants’ are ‘declared foreigners’, they are taken to detention centres, which you mentioned earlier. You recently approached the Supreme Court (‘SC’) in a plea to release persons ‘declared foreigners’, under the Foreigners’ Act, 1946, from the detention centres in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are your thoughts on the role of the SC in releasing people stuck in detention centres throughout the COVID-19 lockdown? Was the Supreme Court’s decision and the administrative response as you and your team expected when you filed before the Court?

AW: The SC in regard to detention and citizenship matters, is not as sympathetic as it should be. We filed our petition because the Court had already taken up a suo moto case with regard to decongesting the prisons in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We felt that since detention centres are located in prisons, detainees should be released on the same basis as prisoners being released to decongest prisons. So we filed this petition praying that all detainees should be released unconditionally, without the earlier conditions imposed by the Court, i.e, completion of three years in detention, and requirement to submit two sureties of INR 1 Lakh each upon release, and appearance before police station every week. Since these are very harsh conditions, we argued that being a ‘declared foreigner’ should not attract such penal consequences. Persons are purportedly detained for the purpose of deportation only, but since March 13, 2013, which is when the formal deportation procedure began, only four ‘declared foreigners’ have been deported as per the Assamese Government’s affidavit before the Supreme Court. So if they cannot be deported, why detain them? Thus we prayed that these conditions be done away with, and that everyone be released in wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court was pleased to reduce the detention period from three to two years, and reduce the financial bond to be furnished to INR 5000. This is a welcome Order, and 350 people have already been released. People like Minara Begum, who was detained in 2010, could not be released earlier because of the onerous requirements of the financial bond to be furnished by sureties in the 2019 Order which reduced the detention period to three years. When the requirements were reduced this year, a lot of people came forward with INR 5000 and detainees could be released. When Minara Begum was detained in 2010, her daughter was only 15 days old, she grew up in the detention centre with her. Their release and numerous others’ release was secured because of the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s order in our petition. But, I very humbly disagree with the Order in the sense that I think it is unreasonable to even detain people for two years if there is no scope for deportation which is the stated purpose of detention. Persons released after three or two years, with the surety, still have to appear before the police station. Everyone can be asked to meet this condition of appearing before the police station. Surety can be taken to meet this requirement, and instead, the surety requiring these huge financial bonds can be dispensed with, and I am certain many will come forward to give surety as well. As I said, in the last three years, 30 people have died in the detention centres which anyway have pathetic conditions. Detainees are forced to live there without having committed any crime, which takes a huge toll and they are under huge mental trauma. I agree that it is a favourable decision and I bow down to the decision of the Hon’ble Supreme Court, but I had hoped the entire system of detention would be dispensed with. I would have been happy if each and everyone had been released. 

DM: In a recent interview, you spoke about the pressure on bureaucratic and judicial officials to manufacture foreigners where none exist. This raises a larger question of how the determination of citizenship should ideally take place. What are some of the best practices/legal principles that we should incorporate into our system, and are there jurisdictions which we can look to for guidance?

AW: Firstly, I wonder if there is even a citizenship determination process in other countries which is comparable to the way it is determined in India. I’ve researched a lot, but there is no process that can match the way it is done here. 

Secondly, the basic problem is that while all tribunals in India are set up under a legislation, Foreigners Tribunals are set up under an Executive Order. The foundation itself is wrong. In the 1964 Order too, there is a requirement for members to have judicial experience which has slowly been relaxed, and altogether dispensed with. Initially, lawyers with 10 years of experience were appointed, then in 2019 lawyers with 7 years of experience were appointed. I’ve come across several recent appointees who only enrolled as lawyers 7 year ago and many of them have not even been practicing lawyers. Many appointed to the Tribunal do not have adequate experience to deal with the most important right in the Constitution – citizenship rights. 

Citizenship is the most important constitutional right, and as it is often called, and it indeed is, the ‘right to have rights’. If you take away citizenship, you don’t have any rights. Although the Constitution of India states that Article 14 and 21 are applicable to everyone, in practicality this is not true. For eg — ‘declared foreigners’,  do not have any rights despite this constitutional guarantee. They are stripped of all possible rights to live a normal life. If you look at the composition of the Tribunals, it is easy to understand the problem, many members do not even know how to write an opinion, they are not familiar with fair trial procedures, principles of natural justice or the basic principles of the Evidence Act. Although the Hon’ble Gauhati High Court selects them, they are the appointees of the Home Department of the Government of Assam. In 2017, there were remarks in the performance appraisal reviews of these members, which said their performance was unsatisfactory only because they could not declare more people as foreigners. If members declare more people as Indian, then their performance is considered unsatisfactory. All Tribunal members are on a contractual basis of two years, and those selected in 2019 are on a contract of 1 year. Thus, maintaining a job through renewal by the Government requires that the rate of declared foreigners be high, because the Government is engaged in vendetta politics and they are hell bent to prove more people as foreigners. The report by Arunabh Saikia on Scroll where Tribunal members refer to citizenship as ‘wickets’ and how many ‘wickets’ each has taken — that’s how casually they look at it, and that’s how many members decide cases as well. 

Recently, in the Dhubri district of Assam, they replaced all the Muslim government pleaders with non-Muslim government pleaders. There should at least be some pretense of following due process, or of being fair, but the Government is brazen. There should be some representation, especially in Dhubri district where Muslims are the single-largest majority but they have all been replaced. It is clear that the government wants this process to work in a way that does not meet the standard of a fair trial. I can say this with full responsibility and conviction, that this process does not meet the fair trial standard. The investigative process makes a mockery of the guarantees in the Constitution because a fair investigation is part of the right to a fair trial. When I speak of the investigative process, I become speechless because there is no investigation to speak of, and anyone can be picked up randomly and be accused of being an ‘illegal migrant’. For example, my client Mohammad Sanaullah, who is an ex-army veteran who served the country for 30 years, who was in Manipur in a counter-insurgency operation, Hifazat, when the forged ‘confessional statement’ of  him of being an ‘illegal migrant’ was signed. Hifazat means security, and when he was securing his country, he was accused of being an illegal migrant by the Assam Border Police. I shudder at the thought. This is why I really wish that the academics, scholars, and law schools, who have taken so much interest in the citizenship issue now, had done so earlier. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and because people did not speak up when injustice was happening in Assam, it is haunting us all over the country. Every person who believes in the rule of law, and the theory of justice, must speak out against the gross injustice happening in Assam. This is not what the founders of India envisaged, and our Constitution says that all are equal before the law, and that the rule of law is supreme. These kangaroo courts should not exist because they do not follow due process. As a responsible citizen, I feel very sorry that no one did enough to raise their voices. 

DM: It is of note though that while the rest of the country, and the world, did not pay attention to the issue in Assam keenly, you and other lawyers have continued this fight at the FTs there. As a young lawyer, what has been your experience working in the FTs? Within the community of lawyers, how has your experience with the Bar Association, and others litigating before the FTs panned out? Did you have a mentor to guide you in this process?

AW: With regard to upholding the Indian Constitution, and inspiring me to become a human rights lawyer, I had two mentors. Firstly, Mr. Prashant Bhushan with whom I interned in the SC in my fifth year, in January 2010. In 2014, I met Mr. Harsh Mander as well. Both of them mentored me in that sense. But my inspiration to litigate in the field of citizenship specifically is owed to the fact that I’ve been accused of being a Bangladeshi myself, by my batchmate in secondary school. While studying law, I initially wanted to appear for UPSC, but I realized I would lose my voice. I wanted to speak out about what was happening. I realized I needed to tell the stories of how people of Indian soil are accused of being illegal migrants in their own motherland. They are abused and massacred in the name of being illegal migrants. Although we elect MPs and MLAs, they don’t speak about these issues. Our leaders and representatives should speak, because they have social and physical security, unlike me. I’m faced with threats to my life and my career but I continue to speak because I cannot compromise on what I believe. That’s why I gave up my dream of writing the UPSC exam, because I want to speak the truth and tell my stories. The day I stop speaking the truth, I will not be able to live with dignity. And it’s not just about my dignity, but the right of the persecuted and marginalized and voiceless people  to live with dignity, that is what keeps me going. It is a right that predates the Constitution. It is an inherent right, the Constitution and the Hon’ble Supreme Court through various judgements only confirmed the right to live with dignity. Any person born in any country, whether Stateless or legal or illegal, possesses rights to live with dignity (The word ‘illegal migrant’ itself is wrong, but it is the language of the Citizenship Act, which is why I’m using this term.)

Several lawyers have fought these cases, but it was just a case for most of them, and not a cause. In 2014, I started fighting these cases and I realized that most of the people who approached me were rickshaw pullers or thela walas who could not pay my fees. I realized that I belong to a privileged background, so I was not after money but the core of it was that I empathize with them. Empathy, not sympathy, because I saw myself in their position, because I know I could be one of them. When I was in secondary school, a friend called me ‘Bangladeshi’ so if instead of him, it had been the Border Police, they would have referred my case to Tribunal and I would be standing in the FT defending my citizenship. I saw myself in their place and I started doing this pro bono. In 2016, someone from my nani’s (maternal grandmother) place who knew that I practiced in the Supreme Court approached me. Moinal Molla had been detained for two and a half years by then, because of an ex parte order declaring him to be a foreigner. Both of his parents were declared Indians by the same FT. His writ petition and review petition were dismissed by the High Court and they had no money to go to the Supreme Court. 

We had a small group of friends then, and I told them that this was a good opportunity to help someone and simultaneously get the word out about detention centres in Assam, and the arbitrary process of FTs by which one can be declared foreigner ex parte. In 2014, the issue was an elephant in the room in Assam which no one wanted to talk about, and outside Assam, no one knew. It was, and still is, a taboo to appear for the defense in these cases at the FTs or HC, they think they will get branded in a certain way, sadly. One of my friends told me that she will give her zakat money, and another friend also came forward. Eventually, we landed up in the SC, and we briefed Mr. Raju Ramachandran about the case. The case got remanded to the FT in Barpeta, Assam, where I appeared 11 times and fought his case fully pro bono. He was declared an Indian and released after 2 years, 11 months and 29 days of detention. This story got out when notice was issued for the SLP by the SC, and eventually when he was released, it made big news! There have been subsequent cases of Mihir Biswas, Kismat Ali, Ashraf Ali, Mohd. Azmal Haque, and Sanaullah, which I fought and tried to publicise to bring the focus the issue deserves. At least people are talking about it, even jurists like Faizan Mustafa are writing about the FTs being kangaroo courts, and rightly so. Constitutional experts and jurists are speaking about this now, and I wish it had happened sooner. The blame also does lie on the civil society in Assam, which could not tell the world what is happening, and we had to start it. 

DM: There is often this narrative around the NRC, that there is political consensus on the need for this exercise, but its implementation has alienated people. Is it true that this consensus exists and if yes, could it have been done in a way that could have been fair and independent? 

AW: There was no such consensus about NRC from all groups of people – why should everyone’s citizenship be scrutinized? But then the SC ordered that the 1951 NRC should be updated in Assam, and since it was the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s order, we took it very positively. We thought that if at all there should be scrutiny, a Court-monitored process would be better than merely an Executive process. We wanted closure – how long will one group of people accuse another group of being illegal migrants? We thought that this issue must end; every election is fought only on this issue. In 2016, BJP fought and won the election only on this migrant issue. Hence, the Bengali Hindus and the Muslims took part in the process very actively. Plenty of lawyers, civil rights activists, and organisations travelled all across Assam to create legal awareness about how to fill up the form. I was also one of the privileged people who got to travel all over Assam, particularly the minority dominated areas, and I told the people I met, in each and every meeting, that this is a Court-monitored process so they should have faith in the Supreme Court of India. I assured them it would be a free and fair NRC, but the process turned out to be very harsh. There were several rounds of scrutiny, but people thought that “This is the last time going through this process, after this, do not accuse and abuse us as foreigners, let there be closure!” 

The Supreme Court quoted Shri Prakash Jaiswal’s statement before the Parliament about ‘5 millions illegal migrants’. Although, Shri Prakash Jaiswal himself withdrew that comment, this withdrawal was not recorded and the SC recorded only his first statement. After the process, only 1.9 million people were excluded. We found that many relatives, including my own cousins, were excluded from the NRC, which is how these numbers reached 1.9 million. But, in an Economic Times report, NRC authorities say that apparently names included in the NRC were deleted later on. In June, the NRC authorities issued another order for rectifying the Order which excluded people. What can be more outrageous than this? After excluding people from citizenship in an Order, they turned around to say that there are anomalies in that Order! Citizenship is not a petty thing. After the NRC list was out, when 1.9 million were excluded, the supporters of NRC began speaking against it. 

Today, we say – notify the NRC, and confirm it. There were 3.29 million people who applied for it, and 1.9 million have been excluded, so the others should receive the national identity card. That is the requirement under the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003. More than one year later, nothing has happened. Within a week, excluded people were supposed to receive rejection orders so that they could appear before the FT. The Guwahati HC selected 200 people to be appointed to the FTs in 2019 as I mentioned earlier, who are taking salaries of around INR 85,000 without doing any work, through taxpayers’ money. There is no issuance of notice because the very people who advocated the NRC found that their propaganda did not match the reality because allegedly there is ‘less exclusion’ so they do not accept this NRC. Now, the Home Minister says there will be another NRC in Assam, and the BJP government in Assam also says that they will scrap the NRC to hold another round of NRC, recently they stated they want re-verification. INR 1600 Crores were spent only by the Government in this exercise, which involved 55,000 Government employees, and these costs do not even include the costs incurred by the common people travelling across the State. People went through a lot of harassment during the process, and some even committed suicide for fear of losing their citizenship. How can you ask people again to produce documents in the name of re-verification? This would be a betrayal of the faith which people reposed in the Supreme Court when the Court ordered that the government update the NRC.

Devashri Mishra is a fifth-year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. She is a member of the Parichay Blog Team.