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Dual citizenship vs. statelessness in India

As we speak, two contrary trends can simultaneously be witnessed in India. While expectations for the future are high in the country, given the prediction that we are only at the beginning of the “Asian century”, the country appears torn between the wish to strengthen the ties with its successful expatriate community, on the one hand, and excluding undesirable long-term resident citizens, on the other.

In previously discussing the Indian diaspora, in fact the largest in the world, FCI has explained that India is opposed to dual citizenship but has nonetheless introduced the status of Overseas Citizen of India, which is a form of quasi-citizenship. However, the international success of “Global Indians” has led to the introduction of a bill in the Indian parliament this summer to amend the Constitution to allow dual citizenship. As explained by Shashi Tharoor, the MP who introduced the bill, providing the option of dual citizenship would remove some of the obstacles faced by the diaspora, as FCI demonstrated when discussing the situation of Indian expats in the Netherlands. According to Shashi Tharoor,

many Indians who migrate to other countries in the search of job opportunities, and those who take citizenship of such countries to seek equality in benefits and in their treatment in their place of residence, must not be seen as people who lack allegiance to the Republic of India. In the era of globalization, more people from India will search for opportunities abroad. By automatically terminating their Indian citizenship when they seek citizenship of countries of residence, the law effectively cuts them off from their roots and make them feel like they do not have a real stake in their country of origin.

This call for dual citizenship contrasts sharply with another development in India, namely the massive citizenship deprivation in the north-eastern multi-ethnic state of Assam. FCI has previously sketched the background of this policy (see here and here), in particular by explaining the role of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which is one of Prime Minister Modi’s main priorities in his fight against “illegal immigration, terrorists and infiltrators”. It is now reported by the BBC that “families in [Assam] have been required to provide documentation to show their lineage, with those who cannot prove their citizenship deemed illegal foreigners … Residents excluded from the list can appeal to the specially formed courts called Foreigners Tribunals, as well as the high court and Supreme Court … If people lose their appeals in higher courts, they could be detained indefinitely”. More concretely, as explained by the Guardian, “about 33 million people in Assam have been forced to prove they are citizens by demonstrating they have roots in the state dating to before March 1971”, which marks the beginning of the Bangladesh liberation war.

The legal process is explained in more detailed by Priya Pillai, who notes that it is for the individual to prove his or her citizenship, which is seriously complicated due to lack of adequate documentation for many Indians. The Indian Supreme Court, in turn, has been accused of taking the side of the executive in this matter by blessing the NRC procedure.

A joined statement by 125 civil society organisations condemns “the biggest mass-enfranchisement of the 21st century” and calls for the protection of everyone’s right to a nationality. The statement also mentions the number of people effected: “On 31 August 2019 … the final version of the Assam National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published. 31,121,004 residents of Assam were included in the NRC and therefore recognised as citizens, whereas 1,906,657 residents – approximately 6% of the population of Assam - were excluded, pushing them to the brink of statelessness”. The reporting project The Final Count, which looked at how the register was drawn up and who was left out, observes that “people declared foreigners by the tribunals are interned in detention centres that share space with district prisons” and that “there is no legal provision that exempts children left out of the NRC from standing trial in tribunals”.

While it is unclear how the process will evolve over the coming weeks and months, the current Hindu nationalist-led government has already promised to roll out a similar plan nationwide.

Author: Olivier Vonk

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