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Don’t Delete Muslims: Response to Assam’s National Registration of Citizenship

To: Mr. Prateek Hajela, IAS
State Coordinator, NRC, Assam

Dear Mr. Hajela,

Hundreds of thousands of Avaaz members from across the world, including in India, are extremely concerned that the government of Assam is not putting in place the proper precautions to prevent discrimination of minority groups, especially Bengali Muslims, as you update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the coming days.

The evidence is mounting that millions of Bengali Muslims in Assam could be deemed "foreigners" by the NRC process, and could be rendered stateless and potentially detained indefinitely. This flies in the face of international human rights standards, and India’s own democratic values.

You have already received a letter of concern from four UN Special Rapporteurs about the prospect of mass statelessness, and troubling reports continue to come out from respected news outlets such as The Guardian, the Economist, Al Jazeera, the Times of India, and many, many others. In addition, concerns have come from India’s own National Human Rights Commission, which sent a monitor to your foreign detention centres in Assam in January 2018.

Of the utmost concern is the prospect that those not on the final list will be rendered stateless and subject to indefinite detention under horrific conditions.

In January, just three days after the publication of the first draft of the NRC, which left off 13 million people, Assam’s Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said: "[t]he people who are declared foreigners will be barred from all constitutional rights, including fundamental and electoral." The Assam government’s own white paper has also explicitly stated that a person who is not accepted for deportation by the Bangladesh border guards will be rendered ‘stateless.’ Given how complicated deportation is and the lack of any public statements of agreement between India and Bangladesh, this is a very real prospect.

If the NRC removes millions of people from its citizenship registry, does the state plan to incarcerate all of them forever? Why is the government building a new prison camp just for "foreigners"? And will their political and property rights be stripped away immediately? The government’s lack of policy, and indeed dire warnings such as the statement by the Chief Minister, are for good reason causing panic amongst vulnerable sections of society. There are even reports of suicides out of fear and desperate in preparation for this citizenship review process.

The challenges before the Supreme Court as well as concerns raised by the UN and several news reports, paint a significantly concerning picture about a process with massive discrimination.

In the midst of the NRC process, the Indian government has introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016, giving a path to citizenship for several religious minorities, including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. However, it appears the bill excludes Muslims, even persecuted sects like the Shias and the Ahmediyas. In other words, if the bill is passed, every Bengali person except Bengali Muslims will no longer risk being thrown in prison or deported but could instead be offered Indian citizenship.

You have indicated that anyone not on the NRC list will be able to contest or appeal their exclusion, even after the final list is released. It is troubling how simple you makes this sound when evidence on the ground points to an extremely difficult, time consuming and expensive process that seems to be stacked against those who do not appear on the list. And the report submitted to the National Human Rights Commission about Assam’s foreigner detention centers reported that there was no existing right to counsel provided to those who have already been deemed "foreign."

You claim that the entire NRC process is being carried out under "close supervision" of the highest court of the land, the Honourable Supreme Court of India. But we note that there are at least 3 challenges to the constitutionality of the way the NRC exercise is being carried out. These are yet to be heard or adjudicated on by the court. Until such time, there remains a cloud over the NRC’s conduct here as the court has not yet heard from vulnerable groups about how the exercise is being undertaken.

We understand that on 23 July, the cabinet subcommittee on NRC will meet to decide what legal status should be assigned to people who are left out of the 30 July citizens list. It is extraordinary that such decisions are being made so late while so many lives hang in the balance. Nevertheless, this is the government’s chance, your chance, to ensure a safe and humane process for all. Any plan that strips citizenship from, imprisons, or forcibly displaces millions of vulnerable people who have lived in Assam state cannot be accepted. The world is watching.

We are calling on you to ensure that the final NRC update is done in a way that complies with international human rights and basic decency, including ensuring that:
  1. The rights of due process are honored, specifically that no one is detained or deported without the right to counsel and a fair trial that meets international standards.
  2. Nobody in Assam is rendered stateless.
  3. A naturalization process exists for all people, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 that offers a path to citizenship for non-Muslims, should extend to all, without discriminating on the basis of religion.
Over the last few days, you have called on journalists to exercise caution and avoid spreading fear during this sensitive time. We could not agree more. But a systematic deletion of millions of people from the protections of the country they have called home for years, sometimes generations, is the source of this fear. It is the source of widespread international concern and potentially the source of a violent, even genocidal, future for your state.

Not many of us have the chance to determine the fate of millions, but you do. I implore you to create a clear plan that abides by international norms and ensures that no person finds themselves stateless, imprisoned or without the basic protections afforded to all Indians.

With respect,

Emma Ruby-Sachs
Deputy Director, Avaaz