The U.N.’s top refugee official urged India to ensure no one is left stateless by the exclusion of nearly 2 million people from a citizenship list in Assam state.
“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 U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement issued Sunday in Geneva.
He urged India to ensure no one ends up stateless, “including by ensuring adequate access to information, legal aid, and legal recourse in accordance with the highest standards of due process.”
About 31.1 million people were included on the list Assam’s government released Saturday, omitting 1.9 million. The list — known as the National Register of Citizens, or NRC — is unique to Assam state, bordering Bangladesh.
The government has said it compiled the list to detect and deport undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh but has also clarified that those left off the final citizenship list won’t be declared foreigners.
It’s unclear what happens next. Those left off the list can appeal to unique tribunals, but if they lose, they could be sent to detention centers being set up by the government.
India excluded 1.9 million from citizenship dividing families who have submitted the same documents to prove they are living in India before Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.
Nearly 2 million people have been left off a list of citizens released Saturday in India’s northeastern state of Assam, after a mammoth years-long exercise to remove so-called illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Officials checked documents submitted by roughly 33 million people for a draft released last year of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, which left out more than 4 million residents of the state, many of them Hindu.
But 31.1 million people now make up the final list, with 1.9 million excluded, said Prateek Hajela, the coordinator of the state’s register.
“Any person who is not satisfied with the outcome of the claims and objections can file an appeal before the foreigners’ tribunals,” Hajela said in a statement, adding that everyone had received an adequate hearing.
Critics accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist party BJP of stoking sentiment against illegal immigrants and misusing the register to target even legal Muslim citizens.
His close aide, Home Minister Amit Shah, has previously vowed to weed out illegal immigrants, calling them “termites”.
He also said previously that Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists do not have to worry about NRC. However, after a large number of Hindus were excluded from the list the ruling party members have been criticizing the NRC.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also rules the state, has had to change tack in recent months.
“Names of many Indian citizens who migrated from Bangladesh as refugees before 1971 have not been included in the NRC,” Assam’s Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said in a Twitter post, adding that some illegal migrants had been wrongfully added.
Another BJP lawmaker, Shiladitya Deb, said he did not expect the list to be fair. “It will not have the names of many Bengali Hindus,” he said.
Those excluded have 120 days to prove their citizenship at hundreds of regional quasi-judicial bodies known as foreigners’ tribunals. If ruled to be illegal immigrants there, they can appeal to higher courts.
This decision came after the government decided to update the NRC which was formed after the 1951 Census. The current administration under Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to update the list in 2015 and people had to prove their lineage that they came to India before March 24, 1971, the day Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan.
During Bangladesh’s freedom struggle, many Bengali Muslims and Hindus alike migrated to India.
People who could not prove their existence in India before that have been excluded even though they have Indian passports or served in the army.
For example, Mohammad Sanaullah who served in the Indian army for 30 years found himself excluded from the list.
Many families found that half of them made to the list. Mijanur Rahman, a 47-year-old farmer, his son, and two daughters were named as citizens while his wife and other three daughters were excluded.
“Everyone in my family is on the list but not me,” said Munwara Khatun, accompanied by two grandchildren and her husband, Sahar Ali, at a registration center in Assam’s central district of Nagaon. “How can that be?”
Her 65-year-old spouse, a farmer, said the draft list had also omitted her, prompting them to provide authorities with documents ranging from land records to her voter identification and the Aadhaar identification number of Indian residents.
Some of the two dozen people at the center said officials had asked them to go to court to get included on the register.
“They are saying go to court,” said car mechanic Ritesh Sutradhar, 45, who had been left out, along with his wife. “But who will pay for all that?”
Two sisters Shefali Baidya and Mukul Bose submitted the same document belonging to her father. But Mukul was excluded from the list while Shefali was included.
State officials say they do not know the eventual fate of those finally adjudged foreigners. Bangladesh has not committed to accepting them.
More than 1,000 people are being held in Assam’s six detention centers for illegal immigrants and the state wants to set up more centers.
Human rights activists have criticized conditions at the centers, and lawyers and activists point to problems with the functioning of the foreigners’ tribunals.