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‘Exiled’ Naga activist fights for rights

- Human rights worker from Manipur moves court for Indian citizenship
Luithui with his wife

New Delhi, March 14: A human rights activist from Manipur, now a Canadian citizen under “compelling circumstances”, has sought “restoration” of his Indian citizenship.

Luingam Luithui, who was branded a pro-NSCN (Isak-Muivah) human rights activist in the 1990s and lived in Canada as a refugee for over a decade before becoming a citizen, and his wife Peingamla have approached Delhi High Court for “restoration” of their Indian citizenship. Their premise is that they had remained “stateless” for 10 years before taking up Canadian citizenship. They said they attempted to return home more than once but had to live in “virtual exile” in Canada.

The court issued notices to the ministry of home affairs, ministry of external affairs and the Indian high commission at Ottawa, Canada, on March 10 in response to the writ petition filed by the couple.

In the four weeks that the court has given to the ministries to respond, the Centre will need to not only argue whether citizenship can be granted to the activist and justify its stand on citizenship rules but may also face questions on why it did not grant a visa to Luithui despite a “look-out circular” in his name being withdrawn in 2011.

Sources in the Union home ministry claimed that Luithui had fled to Thailand to be with NSCN general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah and had joined forces with the rebel group, a charge the petitioners stoutly deny. Luithui is the founding member of the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), which is known for its fight for repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. “We may tell the court that we can ask him to apply for citizenship and let him observe the mandatory wait of seven years and respect the Indian Constitution, before getting citizenship,” a home ministry official said. “There is no case against him nor are we considering him a criminal,” the source said. What is unsaid is that even after a seven-year wait, it will be the Centre’s prerogative to grant the couple Indian citizenship.

Luithui’s family finds the Centre’s argument unreasonable. A relative of Luithui said Peingamla had lost her passport in Bangkok in 1994 and had applied for a fresh one but did not get one despite a high court order in September 1995 that she could be given documents to travel “on emergency basis” from Bangkok to New Delhi.

Later, Luithui found out that as he was fighting a court battle in September 1995, the government had “impounded” his passport without his knowledge. This was revealed to him only when he approached the Indian high commission in Canada next year to add pages to his passport.

“When he approached the high commission, he was told that his passport had been impounded following a government circular, the contents of which have still not been revealed to him,” the relative told The Telegraph.

Luithui’s family members said that in 2011 it was decided by none other than then home minister P. Chidambaram that the “look-out circular” issued against Luithui in 1996 would be withdrawn. Accordingly, a “deletion circular” was issued in early 2011. An RTI application filed by the petitioners has revealed that then home secretary G.K. Pillai noted that Luithui was “not a member of any group but only an activist”.

But even in October 2011, his fresh visa application was turned down. In 2012, the couple applied for a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card but the government’s answer was: “No services are rendered to refugees and asylum seekers”. Home ministry sources asserted that India does not grant PIO status to asylum seekers and refugees who have fled India.

Luithui’s relative said even if that was true, the activist’s case was more complex as he was forced to live as a refugee. “They did not live as refugees willingly,” the relative said, and questioned that even if Luithui was an activist, why did the government not grant visa or passport to his wife.

“This tragic violation of their fundamental rights is a direct result of unconstitutional acts and omissions, of abuse of process and of fraud and deception perpetrated by the government of India, making it impossible for them to return to India and forcing them to take Canadian citizenship after almost a decade of statelessness abroad,” the NPMHR said in a statement while welcoming the high court’s step.

The case is a classic example of how developments of the 1990s in the Northeast, particularly in Nagaland and Manipur, continue to have a bearing on activists and rebels. Luithui’s case refers to events before the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) signed a ceasefire with the Centre in 1997 but it continues to impact him and his family even today.