UN questions ‘statelessness and disenfranchisement’ of ‘minority groups’ in Assam

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Special Rapporteur’s report to UNGA highlights plight of Bengali Muslims

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The UN Special Rapporteur has once again raised the issue of possible statelessness of millions of people in Assam in wake of the exclusion of their names from the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This is part of a report titled Contemporary forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance that was presented before the UN General Assembly.

The 22 page report condemns “nationalist populism that advances exclusionary or repressive practices” and addresses “ascendant nationalist populist ideologies and strategies that pose a sobering threat to racial equality by fueling discrimination.”

Over 4 million people have been left out of the NRC final draft! Most of them belong to socio-economically backward communities and live in rural areas. Many of them are women and children!

On the subject of the exclusion of minorities from the NRC in Assam, the report says,

Nationalist populist parties in other places have implemented administrative and other rules leading to the exclusion of minority groups from official citizen registries on the basis of claims that they are irregular migrants, notwithstanding evidence showing that they are entitled to citizenship. This in turn has led to statelessness, disenfranchisement and increased vulnerability to discrimination, including the denial of basic rights and access to public services such as health and education.

In May 2018, the Special Rapporteur addressed a letter to the Government of India concerning the updating of the National Register of Citizens, a process governed by local authorities in the state of Assam. The letter drew attention to the heightened concerns of the Bengali Muslim minority, who have historically been portrayed as foreigners despite having lived in India for generations, even preceding the colonial era. Since 1997, the Election Commission of India has arbitrarily identified a large number of Bengali people as so – called “doubtful or disputed voters”, resulting in their further disenfranchisement and the loss of entitlements to social protection as Indian citizens.

While many have affirmed that the updating process is generally committed to retaining Indian citizens on the National Register of Citizens, concerned parties fear that local authorities in Assam, who are deemed to be particularly hostile towards Muslims and people of Bengali descent, may manipulate the verification system in an attempt to exclude many genuine Indian citizens from the updated Register.”

The entire report may be read here.

This is the second time the UN has taken cognizance of the humanitarian crisis in Assam. In May 2018, in a letter to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, four UN Special Rapporteurs had said,

It is alleged that the Tribunals have been declaring large numbers of Bengali Muslims in Assam as foreigners, resulting in statelessness and risk of detention. Finally, it is alleged that the potential discriminatory effects of the updated NRC should be seen in light of the history of discrimination and violence faced by Muslims of Bengali origin due to their status as ethnic, religious and linguistic minority and their perceived foreignness. Although the Bengali origin Muslims in Assam descend from peasant workers brought from the former Bengal and East Bengal starting in the 19th century under colonial rule, they have long been portrayed as irregular migrants. As a result of this rhetoric, Bengali Muslims have historically been the target of various human rights violations, including forced displacement, arbitrary expulsions and killings.”

In light of this, it is clear that the NRC issue is under the UN scanner and that given the international scrutiny it will not be easy for divisive forces to function with impunity much longer.

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(The story was first published in CJP and is available at https://cjp.org.in/un-questions-statelessness-and-disenfranchisement-of-minority-groups-in-assam/, this is only a reproduction.)

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