January 29, 2022

Good morning. Every Saturday, we write about one specific right that you possess as a citizen in our country. In today’s edition of “Know Your Rights”, however, we look at the rights of stateless persons (those who are not citizens of any country).


Rights of Stateless Persons

When John Lennon said “Imagine there’s no countries” in his eponymous song-turned-anthem, Imagine, we’re pretty sure most national bodies chose to bypass his proposition. As it turns out, living without a nationality is extremely difficult and clearly, nobody’s first choice. Other than the physical displacement, an individual’s rights are usually connected to their national identity. So, living without one makes you more vulnerable to human rights violations with practically no way of seeking justice. This is what a stateless person has to overcome.

So, who is a stateless person? According to Article 1 of the 1954 Hague Convention, a stateless person is anyone who is not considered a national by any country or State as per their laws. Any person that cannot provide any proof of a link or bond between them and a State is effectively termed “stateless”.

The most widely recognised example of stateless individuals are refugees or asylum-seekers who have, either due to discriminatory laws or state succession, lost their status as a citizen. But these things are never as simple as they seem. Most people experiencing statelessness have never stepped a foot outside their country of origin.

In August 2019, around 19 lakh people in Assam were essentially rendered stateless after the state released their final National Register of Citizens (NRC). The goal of which is to sieve out ‘real’ Indian citizens from undocumented immigrants by checking for proof of an individual’s or their ancestors’ Indian citizenship. 

Now, whether or not it was successful in doing so is a debate for a whole other day. The point to remember in this entire ordeal is that India, to this day, does not have a working refugee policy. In fact, even in the international sphere, our representatives tend to turn a blind eye to the emerging refugee crisis. We are yet to sign both of the UN’s premier statelessness prevention documents – the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Okay, so where does the rights part come in? Well, what we might lack in policymaking, our courts try to make up for through their judgements. On several occasions, the Indian Judiciary has taken cognizance of the vulnerability associated with a stateless title and ruled in favour of the individual. Their reasoning? Always in line with international law.

Internationally speaking, thanks to the United Nations, stateless individuals can bank on some human rights no matter where they end up. As long as the person in question abides by the laws of the country they are currently in, they are entitled to, more or less, the same rights given to a foreigner in it. For example, the right to housing, education, association, the freedom of religion, move freely within the territory, free access to courts, etc.

While the UN focuses on ending statelessness as a whole by 2024, our judiciary seems to have really resonated with the notion of rights for stateless children. Articles 1 and 2 of the 1961 Convention especially deal with this:

  • Article 1 talks about how countries should grant nationality to all children born in their state, either automatically or by application.
  • Article 2 talks about how nations must grant nationality to any child found stateless within their territory.

In the Jan Balan case (2009), the Gujarat High Court liberally interpreted the Citizenship Act, 1955, so that children born to Indian surrogates don’t become stateless in Germany. The court learnt that Germany did not recognise surrogacy. Thus, the children born through Indian surrogates would effectively be rendered stateless if Indian citizenship was not accorded to them. To the courts, this simply could not stand.

In some situations, mostly regarding children, the states proactively grant a few rights to stateless individuals and refugees on humanitarian grounds. For example, in Mizoram, officials have been told to arrange for the admission of children of refugees from Myanmar to schools in the state. This is to ensure that the children aged between 6 to 14 don’t lose out on their education due to a coup in their own country.

The courts, on several occasions, have pointed out that the State must ensure that nobody within its territory is considered stateless. So if a person or group of people don’t have proper documentation, state officials must do everything in their power to provide them with the same. 

During the Chakma case (1996), the Supreme Court used the same Citizenship Act to make sure that the Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh receive their documentation. According to the court, the Chakmas have the statutory right to be considered Indian citizens. Any administrative official stalling their application would be actively violating the law.

Still, these instances are simply exceptions to the rule that statelessness is largely overlooked in India. Even after the implementation of NRC in Assam, the only way for the now stateless people to regain their citizenship is to file an appeal to the Foreigners’ Tribunal. Then, they would have to take their case to the High Courts and finally, the Supreme Court.

If they still can’t prove their citizenship, they will be arrested and sent to one of the detention centres built for such stateless people. Assam currently has six centres. The window might let some light leak in but unfortunately, it still remains closed.