Amnesty has accused Indian authorities and courts of lack of oversight on the functioning of Foreigners Tribunals’ courts that have been accused of creating “havoc” in the northeastern state of Assam, where nearly two million people were excluded from a citizenship list in August.
“For the last 15 years, Foreigners’ Tribunals have wreaked havoc in Assam by arbitrarily denying people their citizenship. They have not been held accountable by the courts, the Government of India and the Government of Assam,” Amnesty International India said on Wednesday in a report titled Designed to Exclude.
The report alleges that the Foreigners’ Tribunals, quasi-judicial courts that decide the citizenship of people, are “riddled with bias” and work in “arbitrary ways”.
“Holding governments accountable for the human rights abuses they commit has always been difficult. However, in this case, it is the judiciary that has aided the government institutions and Foreigners’ Tribunals in committing abuses with impunity,” said Aakar Patel, Head of Amnesty International India, in a statement.
On August 31, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – a Supreme Court-monitored bureaucratic citizenship exercise – excluded 1.9 million people from its final citizenship list in Assam.
Activists have criticised the NRC for anomalies and procedural flaws, with many cases where genuine Indian citizens, including former government officials, were excluded.
Those excluded from the NRC list have been given 120 days to appeal in the Foreigners’ Tribunals. They can file cases in the High Court and the Supreme Court for redress.
‘Riddled with bias’
An analysis of the affidavit filed by the Government of Assam in the Gauhati High Court, according to Amnesty International India, shows that on an average, a Foreigners’ Tribunals member who declared people were foreigners in fewer than 10 percent of their disposed cases, stood the risk of being axed.
“The tribunals are riddled with bias and they have declared Indian citizens to be foreigners for minor spelling mistakes in their names, their inability to provide detailed documents or recall minute ancestral details dating back 50 years or more,” the report said.
The report alleges that one Samina Bibi was declared a foreigner by the Foreigners’ Tribunal and one of the reasons given by the tribunal was that she could not remember the constituency where her grandfather cast his vote in 1966.
Abu Bakkar Siddiqui was declared a foreigner because his grandfather’s name was spelt Aper Ali in one document and Afer Ali in another, the report said.
“People appearing before the Foreigners’ Tribunals are not afforded the fair trial protections and human rights guarantees that flow from Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, applicable to both citizens and foreigners,” the report said.
Moreover, the eligibility criteria for tribunal members has been gradually lowered over the years and the members do not have fixed tenures and are recruited on a contractual basis.
The report said that the courts were “complicit” in “peddling a narrative” not based on facts.
“By labelling migration as a security threat and continuing to do so, the courts have created a system which is designed to exclude and wreck the lives of many in Assam,” said Amnesty’s Patel.
Amnesty has urged India to establish an appellate body in processes used to deprive people of their citizenship and ensure that a person is not deprived of their citizenship due to a lack of documentation.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, Nalin Kohli, declined to comment, saying, “I don’t have any knowledge of the report.”
GVL Narasimha Rao, another BJP spokesperson, defended the fairness of India’s courts.
“India’s Supreme Court and High Courts enjoy [a] spotless image for their integrity, image and fairness,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Some vested groups which are seen as foreign agents are driven by dubious agenda. We don’t think it is worth our while to comment on their reports.”
Last week, the Hindu nationalist government led by the BJP said it would implement NRC nationally to identify undocumented immigrants.
Assam will have to through the process again, raising questions over the fate of NRC list that was prepared after a decades-long bureaucratic exercise.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, has described NRC in Assam as a “tool to target religious minorities, and, in particular, render Indian Muslims stateless”.
In July this year, the BJP government asked all states and union territories to set up at least one detention centre for undocumented immigrants.
“If the Foreigners’ Tribunals replicate their functioning across the country, then we will probably witness one of the largest processes of arbitrarily deprivation of nationality in the world,” said Patel.
Bilal Kuchay contributed to this report from New Delhi