Asking for a report over the fate of Bengali Muslim minority in Assam in 60 days, four special rapporteurs of the United Nations have jointly dashed a letter to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj on June 11.
The UN’s special rapporteurs on minority issues in their letter have also appealed the government to take all steps necessary to conduct a comprehensive review of the NRC update, ensuring that its implementation process is compliant with relevant international human rights standards.
“While awaiting your response, we would like to call on your Government to take all steps necessary to conduct a comprehensive review of the NRC update, ensuring that its implementation process is compliant with relevant international human rights standards,” the letter said.
The letter was signed by UN’s special rapporteur on minority issues Fernand de Varennes, special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance E Tendayi Achiume, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of right to freedom of opinion and expression Daid Kaye and special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Ahmed Shaheed based in UN’s Human Rights Geneva headquarter.
In their letter, the special rapporteurs said, “There is no official policy outlining the implications for those who will be excluded from the final NRC. It is reported that they will be treated as foreigners and that their citizenship rights may be revoked in the absence of a prior trial. They may subsequently be asked to prove their citizenship before so-called Foreigners’ Tribunals.”
In this context, the NRC update has generated increased anxiety and concerns among the Bengali Muslim minority in Assam, who have long been discriminated against due to their perceived status as foreigners, despite possessing the necessary documents to prove their citizenship. While it is acknowledged that the updating process is generally committed to retaining Indian citizens on the NRC, concerns have been raised that local authorities in Assam, which 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 NRC, the special rapporteurs pointed out.
It is alleged that these orders may lead to the wrongful exclusion of close to two million names from the NRC, without a prior investigation and trial. In addition, it is alleged that the orders contravene a High Court judgement of January 3, 2013 (Gauhati High Court, State of Assam vs. Moslem Mondal and Others), which stipulates that automatic referrals to Foreigners’ Tribunals are not permissible as a fair and proper investigation is required prior to the referral of a case. The orders may also contravene section 3 (1) (a) of the Citizenship Act 1955, which grants citizenship at birth to anyone born in India on/after January 26 , 1950, but prior to July 1, 1987.
“Finally, it is alleged that the potential discriminatory effects of the updated NRC should be seen in the 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,” the special rapporteurs wrote.
“While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of these allegations, we would like to express serious concern that members of the Bengali Muslim minority in Assam have experienced discrimination in access to and enjoyment of citizenship status on the basis of their ethnic and religious minority status. We are particularly concerned that this discrimination is predicted to escalate as a result of the NRC. The way this update has been conducted potentially affects a great number of Muslims and persons of Bengali descent who may be wrongfully excluded from the updated NRC because of their historical and continuing treatment as foreigners and illegal immigrants in Assam,” they said.
If these allegations are founded, the updated register poses a dire risk to thousands of Indian citizens who may wrongfully be declared as “foreigners” and consequently rendered stateless. We express further alarm and concern at allegations that Foreigners’
“Finally, we express concern at the continued practice of the Election Commission of identifying a large number of Bengali people as “doubtful or disputed voters”, effectively depriving them of the right to political participation and representation,” the UN special rapporteurs said.