Nearly 2 million people who could become stateless after being excluded from India’s latest registry of citizens in Assam state have four months to appeal to special tribunals, officials said.
About 33 million people applied to be listed on the National Register of Citizens (NRC), including 3.62 million who filed appeals after the final draft of the list of names was released in July 2018. Published on Saturday, the NRC listed 31.1 million people and left off 1.9 million names, according to data released by the Indian government.
“Adequate judicial process [is] available for affected persons to appeal to Foreigners’ Tribunals within 120 days from Aug. 31,” the Ministry of Home Affairs said Monday in a message posted on Twitter.
Many of those whose names were not on the list in Assam, state in northeastern India, worry that they could be expelled from the country because the Hindu nationalist central government has vowed to crack down on illegal immigration.
About 1.5 million were excluded over minor issues including misspelled names, wrong ages and misidentified parents, according to Samrat Bhawal, general secretary of the Assam Youth Students Federation.
“My name and the names of others in my family have been included in the final list, but my uncle is left out,” Bhawal told BenarNews. “Some retired employees of the Indian railway submitted papers for their pensions, but the NRC officials did not consider them, calling instead for appointment letters, which were not preserved by many.”
Since Saturday, the government said it had established 200 Foreigners Tribunals in addition to the original 100 to handle the 120-day appeals process. Those who appeal to the tribunals and fail will then be able to appeal to the High Court and the Supreme Court of India, officials said.
“People have bitter experiences with the tribunals and so we cannot be hopeful they will get justice,” Hafiz Rashid Chowdhury, a lawyer and chief adviser of Citizens’ Rights Preservation Committee (CRPC), told BenarNews.
Each tribunal could be required to handle thousands of appeals, he pointed out.
The home ministry said the Assamese government would provide legal aid to underprivileged people who had been excluded from the citizens’ registry.
“Persons left out of the NRC final list are not to be detained under any circumstance until they exhaust all remedies available under law. Such persons will continue to enjoy all rights as earlier, like any other citizen, including right to employment, education, property, etc.,” the ministry tweeted on Tuesday.
The NRC updated its list for the first time since 1951 in Assam only, a state that borders Bangladesh and whose population is about 34 percent Muslim.
The list includes the names of people who can prove they resided in the state before March 25, 1971, a day before the start of the Bangladeshi war of independence against Pakistan, and their descendants. Acceptable documentation included land deeds, permanent resident certificates, passports, bank and post office accounts and birth certificates.
The Indian government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has said it would deport undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants, a large but unknown number of whom arrived in India and settled in Assam after the 1971 war.
Still, a BJP leader in Assam state expressed frustration over the NRC.
“We are totally disappointed. With the NRC that has been published, the social, political, economic and cultural rights of the Indian citizens of Assam will not be secured in the coming days,” Ranjit Das told reporters.
BJP leaders in the state, meanwhile, announced plans to meet with Home Minister Amit Shah to demand that legislative cover be taken to protect bona fide citizens whose names were left off the NRC.
Sadhan Purakayastha, the general secretary of the Citizens’ Rights Preservation Committee in Assam, spoke out against the government action.
“Most of the people are poor. How many of them can afford to be involved in a long and complex legal battle,” Purakayastha told BenarNews.
Among those are Narottam Das of Guwahati, the state capital.
“My name was excluded despite submitting all the documents. Now I have no way but to appeal for citizenship and continue the legal battle,” he told BenarNews.
“It is impossible for them to dispose of the petitions of another 1.9 million people within 120 days,” Purakayastha said, adding, “at best 500,000 to 700,000 people can get the opportunity to appeal to the tribunals.”
In Geneva, the chief of the U.N.’s refugee agency called on India to make sure that no one ended up stateless, “including by ensuring adequate access to information, legal aid, and legal recourse in accordance with the highest standards of due process.”
“Any process that could leave large numbers of people without a nationality would be an enormous blow to global efforts to eradicate statelessness,” Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement issued Sunday.
Aakar Patel, who leads the Indian office of Amnesty International, questioned the fairness of the tribunals.
“Several reports have demonstrated how the proceedings before Foreigners’ Tribunals are arbitrary while their orders are biased and discriminatory,” he said in a statement on Saturday, adding, “the tribunals should function in line with the fair trial standards guaranteed under national and international laws.”
Chowdhury and Purakaystha expressed similar skepticism.
“It is tough for the poor people to submit adequate papers to prove their citizenship because many of them have lost their documents,” Purakaystha said.
After India published the final NRC, Bangladesh’s government tightened security along its border with Assam state.
“We are observing the situation,” Foreign Minister A.K.M. Abdul Momen told BenarNews.
“Every country keeps their borders secured. We have tightened border security,” he said, adding that New Delhi had assured Dhaka that the NRC issue would not affect Bangladesh.
Jesmin Papri in Dhaka contributed to this report.