New Delhi: Three UN special rapporteurs on minority issues and freedom of religion or belief have written a letter to the Indian government as “a follow-up to the previous letter” they sent in June expressing concern over updating of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam.
India, on its part, hasn’t replied to the earlier letter yet. The rapporteurs said they “may publicly express” their concerns “in the near future” on the issue as they have “sufficiently reliable” information “to indicate a matter warranting immediate attention.”
The latest letter by the three rapporteurs – written on December 13 jointly with the vice-chair of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention –particularly expressed concern over the “role of Foreigners’ Tribunals and detention practices”.
The letter said: “It appears that after 2016, less stringent standards were imposed regarding the appointment of members of these Foreigners’ Tribunals, leading to an exponential rise in the number of persons declared as foreigners. Those ‘declared foreigners’ by the Tribunals have no voting rights. Moreover, a large number of Bengali people have also been designated by these Tribunals as “doubtful or disputed voters”, effectively depriving them of the right to political participation and representation, and resulting in their “on hold” status in the draft NRC list.”
The letter seemed to indirectly allege that anomalies in the appointment of the members of the Tribunals were likely from the time the BJP-led government took control of the state’s administration in May 2016. The letter sought information from the India government on steps taken to ensure “adequate training of members of Foreigners’ Tribunals, police and NRC authorities on relevant human rights norms and standards.”
Also, expressing concern that there “is no time limit” regarding the detention of ‘foreigners’ in the six centres set up within the state’s jail premises, the UN rapporteurs pointed out that “there is no system by which the detention of those designated as foreigners is reviewed.”
Although the special rapporteurs said that they “do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of these allegations”, they expressed a “serious concern” that “the way in which the NRC update has been conducted potentially affects a great number of Muslims and persons of Bengali descent, as well as other minorities, who may be wrongfully excluded from the updated NRC because of their historical and continuing treatment as foreigners and illegal immigrants in Assam.” It sought details from India government on the safeguards taken to ensure that the members of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities are not discriminated against in the framework of NRC update and determination of their citizenship status.
The special rapporteurs – Ahmed Shaheed (freedom of religion or belief), Fernand de Varennes (minority issues) and E. Tendayi Achiume (racism) – along with Elina Steinerte, the vice-chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, also felt that the December 31 deadline isn’t an adequate enough period for the filing of claims and objections to the final draft NRC. “It appears that many of those perhaps unduly excluded from the list did not (wouldn’t) have a fair and adequate opportunity to challenge their exclusion.”
The last letter was also addressed by Daid Kaye, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of right to freedom of opinion and expression, besides the three others who have written the latest one.
The current letter also emphasised on the international body’s concern over the uncertainty around the status of those excluded from the final NRC. The rapporteurs mentioned the apprehensions of those excluded, “including fears of losing citizenship, statelessness, as well as fears of indefinite detention, or even deportation.”
“In a region with very poor record-keeping, the current status of the verification process has the potential to create a massive category of people who are on Indian territory but cannot prove citizenship of either India or Bangladesh, thereby risking becoming stateless,” the letter said. It also felt that the NRC update exercise “is stoking ethnic tensions in a region that has already experienced a tumultuous history of identity-based tensions and suffered from strained inter-communal relationship, including multiple outbreaks of serious violence.”
The rapporteurs said any response from the India government would be made public “within 48 hours” in the UN’s communications reporting website. “They will also subsequently be made available in the usual report to be presented to the Human Rights Council.”