OPINION: India's move to strip millions of citizenship will benefit no one

by Amal de Chickera and Laura van Waas | Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion
Monday, 9 September 2019 08:01 GMT

A woman waits to check her name on the draft list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), as she sits outside an NRC centre in Rupohi village, Nagaon district, northeastern state of Assam, India August 31, 2019. REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Leaders who back mass-disenfranchisement will see no gains but will embolden racist and xenophobic agendas

Amal de Chickera and Laura van Waas are co-directors at the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion.

Could you produce your grandparents’ birth certificates? Or proof of where they lived 48 years ago? This is what residents of Assam, India had to do, to prove they are citizens and not “infiltrators” or “illegal immigrants”. Unsurprisingly, amidst poor public record-keeping and high poverty and illiteracy rates, many were unable to provide documentation establishing that they or their ancestors were resident in 1971. On 31 August 2019, 1.9 million people were excluded from the Final National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Consequently, 6% of Assam’s population are on the brink of statelessness. Their fate lies in the hands of unskilled and often biased “Foreigners Tribunals”, with the threat of detention and attempted deportation looming large.

If the Netherlands undertook a similar exercise, this level of exclusion would equate to all residents of Amsterdam – and then some. If India proceeds, as threatened, to extend the exercise nation-wide, a 6% “fail rate” would jeopardise the futures of 80 million people. And exclusion is not a question of random bad luck – the bureaucratic formula and its arbitrary implementation targets ethno-religious minorities, undocumented women, the disabled and other marginalised groups.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Tendayi Achiume, has observed: “ethno-nationalism is not new.” “Dangerous normalization and mainstreaming of racist and xenophobic discourse in public discourse” has previously been the prelude to “legal and policy frameworks that systematically exclude specific racial, ethnic or national minorities from citizenship status, even where these minorities have been territorially resident for multiple generations”, she said.

What starts as a flashpoint, is likely to devolve into protracted exclusion, which can escalate into persecution and even genocide, as with the Rohingya tragedy.

All communities that endure intergenerational statelessness today can trace the origin of their disenfranchisement to a specific moment, in which the nationality they took for granted was stripped off them or had to be proved in a “bureaucratic” process that clouded much darker intentions. In 2013, Dominican people of Haitian descent were stripped of their citizenship by a Constitutional Court ruling - an act described as “civil genocide”. In the 1990s, the successor states of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia failed to include minorities when new borders were drawn around them and the Lhotshampas of Bhutan were cast out under the “one nation, one people” policy. In the 1980s, Black Mauritanians were denationalised and expelled by an Arab-dominated government, Myanmar passed its now infamous 1982 Citizenship Act and Saddam Hussein stripped the Faili Kurds of nationality. Not to mention those populations that trace their statelessness back further. 

The rhetoric that first justifies exclusion can be summed up in one word: “othering”. Over time, the effects of statelessness – denial of rights and social, economic and political participation – serve only to entrench sentiments that “they” are not like “us”, and “they” are not from “here”. So, instead of progressing back towards inclusion as communities continue to live side-by-side, a ripple of statelessness spreads out over time. Children are born within a state but as “other”.

Never has a state benefited from mass-disenfranchisement, which does not generate economic progress, development or peace. Leaders who play this game only embolden racist and xenophobic agendas and the extremists, whose appetite to inflict harm on the "other" can be insatiable. The Rohingya know this only too well. In Assam, some of the strongest protests came from those dissatisfied that too few had been excluded.

But backlash has come from all quarters. One particularly poignant voice is that of civil-society groups working for the right to a nationality and to address statelessness around the world. Mindful that such a bureaucratic erasure can lead to generations of fall-out, as well as the immediate toll on human dignity and potential, 125 civil society organisations issued a joint statement condemning “the biggest mass-disenfranchisement of the 21st Century”. A sister petition is also open for individual signatures.

Even as we fret over the future of those left off the Assam citizens register, we should take some courage in this powerful expression of global citizenship, by those with and without nationality in countries from Sierra Leone to Poland to Canada, in solidarity with those whose national citizenship is under such threat.