Experiencing the Anticipation of Statelessness – A South Asian Perspective of Mass Exclusion from Citizenship

by Anubhav Dutt Tiwari

August 2020

In this blog entry, Anubhav Dutt Tiwari calls for attention to be paid to the ways in which statelessness is in fact experienced before it is formally realised and before its consequences start taking shape. In this way, he argues for a critical interrogation of the violence of legal and bureaucratic processes that underlie mass statelessness and precede the ultimate loss of citizenship.

Much existing statelessness research has, rightly, focused on the consequences arising out of individuals and communities being stripped of their citizenship status; far less attention has been placed on the actual environment, culture, processes and experiences that lead up to becoming formally stateless. In this post, I wish to draw attention to such an experiential inquiry and insist that there are merits to include a critical ‘bottom-up’ research outlook during legal and administrative processes, which eventually lead to mass exclusion from citizenship status (and hence statelessness). In doing so, focus must be on the actual experiences of the communities that are affected adversely as a result of wider scepticism towards their citizenship status, specifically before the effects of formal loss of citizenship start to appear.

Statelessness in South Asia     
South Asia has been a nefarious site for creating stateless communities en masse, whether they be the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Biharis in Bangladesh, the Lhotshampas or the Rohingyas. More recently, the situation in Assam, India, where 1.9 million people have been excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), is another precursor of a potential addition to the list of stateless communities emerging from the region. None of the countries in the region are parties to the international Conventions on statelessness, but that aside, they have all followed a peculiarly similar manner of disenfranchising communities from citizenship status. Using legal, administrative, and judicial instruments to validate historically contested claims of belonging, countries in the region have attempted to ‘solve’ their demographical issues through delinking certain communities from formal legal citizenship with little regard for their rights and agency. All this has not meant that states have found ‘solutions’ to these challenging questions of multi-cultural belonging; rather, it has led to a prolonged recurring struggle to make sense of respective national citizenships amidst widespread despair for the (potentially) stateless communities themselves.

A serious question thus relates to the reasons for such continuing (re)emergence of intangible citizenship boundaries and how best to understand the region’s difficulties in this respect. Further, beyond the colonial legacy and fluid migratory intermingling between communities, which has subsequently been affected by abrupt new physical borders and the ensuing creation of new citizens, what might be the best perspective to evaluate instances of statelessness that chronically appear in South Asia? A clear answer must be the perspective of communities at the receiving end, especially since the South Asian instances highlight that law, in its many forms, can in fact act as an accomplice to - rather than an emancipator from - statelessness.

The ‘experience’ of statelessness during the exclusion processes
An emphasis on the effects of statelessness from the perspective of the affected communities is not a new phenomenon. However, the point I wish to make here is that it is also important to focus on people’s experiences during the ‘top-down’ processes that eventually lead to situations of statelessness. This essentially highlights the evolution of a specific statelessness issue from the eyes of the people who are involuntarily made to go through it even before formally being adjudged de jure ‘stateless’. Asking in what ways did the people feel excluded from citizenship status (and from their own nation) may provide a rich outlet to evaluate not just the violence of the legal and bureaucratic processes that underlie mass statelessness, but also the ways in which statelessness is in fact experienced, resisted and negotiated, even before it is realised and before its consequences start taking shape.

Therefore, there is a case for researchers to move beyond critiquing government (in)actions, through changes to citizenship laws and policies, which have the propensity to lead to statelessness, and focus on the communities on the ground who may be affected in a myriad of manners. Uncovering the social, economic, and cultural ramifications needs to start from the point of initiation of the statelessness situations, which is often hidden in the ‘top-down’ subjection of laws and policies. More importantly, it needs to incessantly focus on the experiences of the people themselves to unravel the actual meaning and implications of statelessness.

In a similar vein, in a recent study I worked on, we tried to pinpoint the exclusion and marginalisation effected by the bureaucratic process of NRC in Assam, to reveal that the NRC was ‘structurally, materially and physically affecting almost all communities, particularly the poor and women’. As a respondent in Assam stated during our fieldwork (July 2018) -

"Throughout our lives we have been made to go through several examinations to prove that we are Indians. The feeling is quite debilitating and affects us in many adverse ways. We had hoped that NRC would be our final exam in this regard, however, it seems that that won’t be the case and we will have to live with this hanging question of whether formally we will ever be considered as Indians or not."

More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

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