The woman declared stateless in India, UK and Uganda

·5 min read
Ila Popat with her husband Jatin Popat
Ila Popat was born in Uganda in 1955 and came to India as a 10-year-old on her mother's passport

Ila Popat has been living in India for more than five decades.

She got married here, had children, obtained an Indian driving licence and even a voter identity card.

But she still can't travel abroad as an Indian because she doesn't have a passport, effectively making her stateless.

She has now approached the Bombay High Court to direct Indian officials to issue her a passport.

Mrs Popat, 66, was born in Uganda in 1955 and came to India by ship as a 10 year old on her mother's passport.

She has since lived in the country and has made it her home, with several documents to prove her "Indian-ness" as she calls it.

She is in this unique situation because her decades-long attempt to acquire a passport has seen her labelled "stateless" by three different countries.

"Each time, they would get stuck at the question of my citizenship," she says.

Mrs Popat's father was born and raised in Porbandar, a port city in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

In 1952, he left to work in Uganda and a few years later acquired a British passport.

Mrs Popat was born in Kamuli town of the east African country in 1955, seven years before the country's independence from British rule.

In 1966, she left for India with her mother and her younger brother as Uganda went through a period of intense political turmoil which would lead to the suspension of its constitution and a state of emergency.

"I came to India as a minor, with my name registered on my mother's passport. Her passport stated she was a British Protected Person," Mrs Popat says. This was a class of nationality given by the UK government.

Her lawyer Aditya Chitale explains how she entered India without a passport at the time.

"Presumably the rules then said that a child could enter the country on their parent's passport, or she would never have been allowed entry," he says.

In India, Mrs Popat's family first lived in Porbandar but moved to Mumbai in 1972. This is where Mrs Popat got married in 1977 and raised her family.

In 1997, Mrs Popat applied for Indian citizenship, having fulfilled the conditions under India's 1955 Citizenship Act which included marriage to a citizen and residency of seven years. But her application was not "viewed favourably" and rejected.

Passport scene at an office counter
Mrs Popat's application for an Indian passport was rejected thrice

She then approached the British High Commission in Mumbai since both her parents had held British passports. Her mother still had family in the UK.

The High Commission, however, said she was not eligible to apply for a British passport since neither her father nor her paternal grandfather were "born, registered or naturalised" in the country or its colonies after 1962.

It also said Mrs Popat was likely to be a Ugandan citizen "but if the Ugandan authorities refuse passport facilities you would appear to be a stateless person."

This would be the first of a number of occasions she would hear herself labelled this way.

In the following decades, she applied for an Indian passport twice, getting rejected by authorities each time.

"I would ask if I could at least get a travel passport to visit my grandfather in the UK, but I couldn't get one," she says.

Her younger brother, who lives in Vadodara, had a British passport like their parents.

How did she slip through the cracks and her parents didn't get her a British passport?

"We lived in a joint family. We didn't know much and went by what the elders said. There was no question of asking to find out more, so we didn't know what mistakes had been made," she says.

It was only when her third application was rejected in 2015, Indian authorities told her that she should first register as a citizen of the country.

Mr Chitale agrees. "She should've applied for citizenship first without which she can't get a passport," he says.

Mrs Popat says she was not guided properly.

"We didn't know much, and no-one told us what to do. We would just go in and out of various government offices trying to find a way. Everywhere, people would just call me 'stateless' and treat my case as hopeless."

In 2018, her daughter wrote to the Ugandan High Commission in Delhi for citizenship or passport on the basis of which Mrs Popat could apply for an Indian one. The consulate confirmed that she was born in the country but said she had "never been a Ugandan".

Ugandan Asian refugees arriving at Stansted Airport in Essex in 1972
Thousands of Ugandan Asians came to Britain after their expulsion by Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, in 1972

She was once again asked to apply for citizenship in India "as a stateless person".

In 2019, Mrs Popat finally applied for Indian citizenship, but her application was rejected. The official's order said she had been living in the country without a proper visa or passport and, hence, did not fulfil the conditions under the 1955 Citizenship Act.

This left her depressed, Mrs Popat says, in her 2022 petition to the Bombay High Court. "But my husband is Indian, my children and grandchildren are Indian. I have every other government document including an Aadhaar (a unique ID issued to all Indian residents), and yet none of it seemed to be enough," she told the BBC.

Many Indians left Uganda in 1972 after the country's dictator, Idi Amin, asked all Asians to leave. But most found citizenship in the UK, Canada or India.

The Bombay High Court is due to take up Mrs Popat's case in August. She says she's already missed the weddings of two of her nephews in UK. "I'll miss another nephew's wedding in Dubai which is weeks before the court date," she says.

All she hopes for now is to be called a citizen of the country of her heritage and where she has lived most of her adult life.