Citizens for Assam: A Quest for Hope and Justice
July 5, 2019
On June 26, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) authority released an additional list of over one lakh names of people excluded from the NRC. The following day CJP took a delegation of senior lawyers and journalists to Assam to assess ground realities as well as devise a strategy to help genuine Indian citizens, especially those from marginalised and low income backgrounds navigate the tortuous claims process as well as proceedings before Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT).
The delegation comprised senior High Court advocate Mihir Desai, senior Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover, senior journalist Kalpana Sharma as well as senior journalist and CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad. The team also liaised with several prominent intellectuals, lawyers and civil society members from Assam. These include retired professor of Gauhati University Abdul Mannan, advocates Mrinmoy Dutta and Shaizuddin Ahmed and human rights activists Motiur Rehman, Abdur Rehman Sikdar and Abdul Batin Khandurkar.
The contingent travelled to three of the worst affected districts, namely Morigaon, Nagaon and Chirang and met several people affected by either the NRC or FTs. In village after village we met scared and confused people, clutching their precious documents packed in plastic bags to protect them from the rain, despair in their eyes, telling us about their plight often breaking into tears!
In Bijni in Chirang district, we met Biswanath Das, a rickshaw driver whose 70 year old mother Parboti has been languishing in the Kokrajhar Detention Camp for over 2 years and 8 months. While Parbati is eligible for release in four months as per a new Supreme Court order that allows for people to be released if they have spent three years behind bars, Das fears his mother might not live that long given her deteriorating health. She was declared foreigner as she could not prove her linkage to her father, a common problem faced by married women from low income and socially backward communities.
We met many more such women in Hanchara in Morigaon. Some are housewives, some work as daily wage workers and domestic helps, some are aged, many widowed… all of them vulnerable. These women rarely have birth certificates as most are not born in hospitals. They are illiterate and therefore don’t have school leaving certificates. They are married off at an early age and their names are only entered into the voters list in the village where their husband’s family lives. The Panchayat Secretary or Gaon Burah’s certificate though valid is considered a week document and therefore requires another strong document to back it up.
We also discovered many people were confused about the new list of additional exclusions. We met a young man who was crest fallen because his name had not appeared in the list and it was only after we explained that it was a list of people who were excluded from the NRC, that he understood how fortunate he was to not be included in the June 26 Additional Exclusions list.
Our delegation brainstormed about how best to help genuine Indian citizens in Assam so that the original spirit of the Assam Accord can be upheld. We arrived at the following conclusions:
- There is a need for greater transparency in the functioning of Foreigners’ Tribunals
- Media should be allowed to cover FT cases
- A support person should be allowed to be present with and assist procedees at FT trials
- To do away with terms like “projected father”, “projected brother” etc. there should be a provision for DNA test should the procedee give their free consent
- The provisions of the Evidence Act be upheld even if the burden of proof lies with the procedee
- The administration takes note of the element of privilege involved in possessing official documents and recognises how it is extremely difficult for low income and illiterate people to have them
CJP has now decided to put together a team of paralegals to assist people who will be excluded from the final NRC that is expected to be published by July 31, 2019 as well as people appearing for FT hearings. We aim to help maximum number of people with legal aid in some of the worst affected districts.
Speaking about the visit, Advocate Mihir Desai said, “We met different people in Morigaon, Nagaon and Chirang and all of them had only one thing to say – that they have been residents of their areas for several decades and yet the grounds on which they are declared ‘foreigner’ and the process involved, appear to be unfair. We have also heard allegations of Foreigners’ Tribunal members being inexperienced and also often working under pressure to declare maximum number of people as foreigners. This affects the impartiality and credibility of FTs.”
Advocate Vrinda Grover said, “During our visit we discovered that people from marginalised and low income families have been left out of the NRC because they don’t possess proper documents and resources. Very often the understanding of the law and processes is very limited. We have also discovered that women are the worst affected.”
CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad summarises it all saying, “We believe that in the haste to meet targets set by the executive the NRC Kendras and the foreigners tribunals have been running roughshod over fair guidelines and set procedure causing huge human distress bordering on panic for extremely marginalised people and communities. It is imperative that palliative directions of the honourable Supreme Court be strictly enforced. We hope that the judiciary and the executive, both realise and respond to the magnitude of the ongoing and looming crisis in Assam.”
CJP Assam state coordinator Zamser Ali says, “It was an important visit and it has given people hope in Assam. We have been working tirelessly for over one year and are now re-calibrating our strategy to help maximum number of people. We now request all democratic and humanitarian people and organisations to join us in our quest for hope and justice.”
First published in CJP.
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