Monday, May 14, 2012

People of Nowhere: Stateless in South Asia

Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury

Statelessness is the quality of being, in some way, without a state. In fact it means without a nationality, or at least without the protection that nationality should offer. Nationality is the legal bond between a state and an individual. It is a bond of membership that is acquired or lost according to rules set by the state. Once held, nationality or membership of a state – brings with it both rights and responsibilities for the state and for the individual. Within the realm of public international law, rules have evolved in response to the problem of statelessness. According to the International Law Commission, the definition of stateless persons contained in Article 1 (1) of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons now forms part of customary international law. The Article defines ‘stateless persons’ as those who are not recognized as nationals by any state under the operation of its law. They therefore have no nationality or citizenship and are unprotected by national legislation and left in the arc of vulnerability. The International Law Commission has observed that the definition of a stateless person contained in Article 1(1) is now part of customary international law. 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness exclusively deal with the issue of statelessness. These two legal instruments explain statelessness mainly in two ways de jure and de facto. A stateless person as defined by the 1954 convention is generally equated with the term de jure statelessness. Besides, the Convention also refers to the category of de facto stateless persons - who remain outside the country of their nationality and hence are unable, or, for valid reasons, unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country.

Statelessness most commonly affects refugees although not all refugees are stateless, and not all stateless men, women and children may be able to qualify as refugees. Refugee status entails the extra requirements that the refugee be outside his or her country of nationality (or country of habitual domicile if stateless), and is deserving of asylum based upon a well-founded fear of persecution for categorized reasons which make it unwilling or unable to avail itself of the protection of that country.

The possible consequences of statelessness are profound and touch on all aspects of life. It may not be possible for them to work legally, to purchase property or to open a bank account. Stateless people may be easy prey for exploitation as cheap labour. They are often not permitted to attend school or university, may be prohibited from getting married with a persons from other communities and may not be able to register births and deaths. Stateless people can neither vote nor access the national justice system.

Causes and Context of Statelessness in South Asia

Normally statelessness emerges from succession of states or territorial reorganizations. But it also emerges from persecution of minorities and state’s majoritarian bias, which lead the states at time to expel citizens or inhabitants. This condition reinforced by the protracted refusal of the involved states to take them back creates a condition, which may lead at times to loss of their nationality and citizenship. Also, states of South Asia being what in academic circles are called ‘kin states’ represent social and ethnic continuities across the borders and the cases selected here illustrate both these albeit overlapping sources of statelessness in contemporary South Asia. The experts have identified three salient facts while analyzing the causes of statelessness in South Asia.

• Very few contiguous South Asian states have entirely normalized relations with each other, usually on account of disputes concerning borders and cross-border movements, or histories of unwelcome intervention in each others’ affairs. The inherent and massive heterogeneity of South Asian states has frequently given rise to militant resistance – often with a secessionist agenda – to the exercise of central power and the project of national consolidation. These resistances have usually obtained support and legitimacy from the governments or societies of neighbouring states. As threats to the project of national consolidation have accumulated over the past decades – because of interstate conflict, border and territorial disputes, insurgencies, illegal migration, increasing competition for resources and unfavourable demographic drift – the resistance has intensified, and so has the tension of regional relations. It would not be incorrect to say that an atmosphere of suspicion lies over South Asia. Suspicion has driven South Asian states to progressively tighten the strings on who may claim membership goods, thus creating growing pockets of statelessness at their cultural and geographical margins. Examining the changes that have been introduced to citizenship laws of South Asian states provides a clear narrative of how this tightening of strings has proceeded: largely by restricting the acquisition of citizenship by right in favour of granting citizenship at the government’s discretion.

• The second salient aspect of South Asian statelessness is its production as a result of political turmoil. In almost every case, such turmoil has manifested post-colonial South Asia’s attempt to mould itself into culturally unique nation-states by favouring dominant national claims to cast out a minority; or, the attempt of a disgruntled minority to secede from the dominant majority to create their own uniform homeland. The two largest cleavages in independent South Asia occurred for precisely these reasons – the Partition of India in 1947 and the secession of Bangladesh in 1971. It follows, then, that these nation-building experiments created the ideal conditions for inducing statelessness.

• The third aspect of statelessness in South Asia is as a product of economic migration between states. Borders in South Asia, in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods, have been unregulated or unsuccessfully regulated, engendering traditions of seasonal migration but also permanent minority settlements. Migrant populations are of all different vintage: Nepali migrants from as early as the seventeenth century in Bhutan, Tamil labourers from the nineteenth century in Sri Lanka, and continuing flows of Bangladeshi Muslims in India. Since the advent of independent nation-states, however, majority leaders have argued for the disenfranchisement of such groups, which appear to have closer ties to the national identity of a neighbouring state than to the identity of the state of their residence. The political centres have demanded the migrants’ ‘repatriation,’ which has been refused by the neighbour state on account of resources constraints and political concerns of its own, leaving the group stateless.

In this context, one can cite example of the Rohingyas, who being deprived of their nationality by the Burmese junta are surviving in the camps in Bangladesh. While the Chakmas were encouraged by the Indian government to come and settle in India as refugees when they were displaced from the Chittagong Hill Tracts due to the building of the Kaptai Dam in 1964 but the Indian government has not yet granted them citizenship. They are neither the citizens of Bangladesh nor India, which has made them de jure stateless. Many Muslims from Bihar left India during partition as they wanted to become Pakistani citizens but they could only travel to East Pakistan. When East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971 they were denied Bangladeshi citizenship and not conferred a new Pakistani citizenship by the government of Pakistan and so they lost their nationality. In this context one can refer to the cases of the Hindu refugees from Pakistan living presently in Jammu valley and in the districts of Barmer, Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Ganganagar of Rajasthan. In case of the Lhotsampas, the Bhutanese monarchy marked them as people of Nepali origins and deprived them of their nationality. About a 100,000 of them are today living in UNHCR run refugee camps in Jhapa and their protracted refugee-hood has lead towards their statelessness.


1. Batchelor, C. A. (1998) ‘Statelessness and the Problem of Resolving Nationality Status’, International Journal of Refugee Law Vol. 10, pp156-182.
2. Karnad, R.A., Dhawan, R. and Acharya Bhairav, Protecting the Forgotten and Excluded Statelessness in South Asia, accessed on September 12, 2011.
3.Special Protocol Concerning Statelessness, The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 24, No. 3, Supplement: Official Documents (Jul., 1930), pp. 211-21.


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