31, Aug 2019 | CJP Team
Even before the partial draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released in Assam, CJP has had its eye on the brewing humanitarian crisis in the state. Here’s a look at our initiatives since then.
In December 2017, the first partial draft of the NRC was published. This partial draft excluded over one crore people, suggesting that the numbers of those excluded far exceeded any reasonable estimates. In March 2018, CJP published a detailed report by senior human rights defender, Vipin Tripathi. After this we started studying closely the brewing citizenship crisis in the state, in a bid to ascertain the nature and scope of exclusion as well as the circumstances that led to it.
We also started developing a network on the ground to monitor related issues such as the plight of D-Voters (DV) and Declared Foreigners (DF), people who were forced to defend their citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT) and those who were incarcerated in Detention Camps.
Now that the final NRC has been published, and 19,06,657 people have been excluded from the final list, CJP’s campaign has become even more focused. Our objective now, is to help these excluded people defend their citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals. For this we have already started conducting a series of workshops to train paralegals to assist people at FTs. We will also be publishing a multi-media training manual containing simplified aspects of legal procedure, evidentiary rules, and judicial precedents that will ensure the appeals filed against the NRC exclusions in the FTs are comprehensive and sound, both in fact and in law. This will assist our paralegals, lawyers and the wider community in Assam to negotiate this tortuous process. For this we need your continued support. Please donate now to help us help Assam.
In June 2018, we sent a fact-finding team to Assam to bring you stories of affected people. We met Saken Ali who was forced to spend five years in a detention camp because of a minor discrepancy in how his name was spelt in two different documents. We met Rashminara Begum who was dragged away to a detention camp even though she was three months pregnant, just because of a minor discrepancy in her date of birth. We met Anima De whose son Subhrata, a tea seller, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in the Goalpara detention camp. We discovered an environment of anxiety, helplessness and hopelessness. Even the family of the first Deputy Speaker of Assam’s Legislative Assembly was not spared… they were dubbed ‘foreigners’!
As the date for publication of the final draft came closer, the tension was palpable. On July 30, 2018, the final draft of the NRC was released and over 40 lakh people were left out, sending shockwaves through the state! We discovered that 55 per cent of those excluded were women, many Bengali Hindus; one lakh people from the Gorkha community and a vast number are working class Muslims.
In a bid to prevent the spread of panic, CJP decided to step in with a multi-pronged approach that included a toll-free helpline, a network of community volunteers, a string of district volunteer motivators and, of course, legal aid to navigate claims hearings and foreigners’ tribunal proceedings.
CJP’s toll-free helpline
We started a toll-free helpline in four languages; Assamese, Bengali, Hindi and English, to counsel people and alleviate their fears by giving them correct information. The phone virtually rang off the hook and on one occasion we received over 5000 calls in one day!
District Volunteer Motivators
A string of district volunteer motivators drew on a larger section of those wanting to help the hapless and unlettered, as we realized that every village and almost every family in the state was affected. No ethnic, religious or linguistic minority was unaffected by the crisis that had hit the state. At all points we worked closely with already existing community rights group with a mission to bridge and deepen alliances. Based on an understanding of the Indian Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), such alliances have been both immediate and meaningful, and as we face even greater challenges, necessary for future courses of action.
The next step was to help people through the tortuous process of filing claim forms to have their names included in the final NRC. CJP mobilised a team of volunteers to help people across 19 of the worst affected districts. Our volunteers went door to door counselling people and helping them collect the correct documents to file their claim applications. They also held awareness camps to educate people about the correct facts, so that they don’t fall prey to rumours and misinformation.
When the claims and objections process started, we helped people fill up and file their claim forms with the correct set of documents to improve their chances of being included in the final NRC. Take a look at some pictures from our on ground campaign here:
Going above and beyond the call of duty
Our committed team of DVMs and community volunteers achieved extraordinary milestones. In November 2018, 10,000 Claim forms filled in just 40 hours in Baghmari, a remote region of Biswanath district. We also kept an eye out for mischief by chauvinistic forces and unearthed a huge conspiracy in Kokrajhar, where a local group was forcing people to file objection applications against the inclusion of names of others whose names had been included in the draft NRC. Our work did not stop even during the election season. Our volunteers also helped families during objections hearings. When an indigenous Muslim family was attacked outside a hearing center, we not only stepped in to ensure that the injured were provided medical attention, but also intervened with the authorities to ensure the family’s safety.
At every stage of this work, the guidance of senior and seasoned members of Assamese civil society helped CJP’s Assam State Coordinator Zamser Ali’s work assume greater relevance and depth. With our inclusive approach committed to battling forces of chauvinism of all hues, CJP’s presence has prevented the outbreak of serious divisions and conflict on the ground, while this tortuous process of poor and unlettered persons negotiating a bureaucracy that was often distant and callous, unfolded.
CJP, has through a clutch of extremely committed lawyers mapped its future interventions in Assam. Apart from regular counseling of those distraught and helpless, our focus will also be on specifically initiating practical steps to ensure quality legal aid in our focus districts of the state. Initially, this campaign will unfold in Barpeta, Bongaigaon, Cachar, Chirang, Darrang, Goalpara, Kamrup, Morigaon, Nagaon and Sonitpur. A detailed, easy to read, multi-media manual is being prepared by a team of experts which will be published and widely distributed. The focus will be on legal aid to file appeals in the Foreigners Tribunals set up in the state.
Citizens for Assam: CJP takes delegation of lawyers and journalists to the state
In July 2019, shortly after publication of the additional exclusion list, CJP took a delegation to Assam comprising senior lawyers and journalist 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).
This visit focused on serious issues affecting the Foreigners Tribunals as they function at the moment:
- 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 followed 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
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 Parbati 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 feared 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 were 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.
CJP moves Supreme Court
In August 2019, CJP, determined to make sure that no genuine Indian citizen suffers, moved Supreme Court asking for it to take a closer look at the idea of citizenship, the definition of illegal immigrant and also the wider concerns about decedents of people whose citizenship is under the scanner. The petition drew special attention towards Sections 3 (Citizenship by Birth) and 6 (Citizenship by Naturalisation) which includes Section 6 (A) (that deals with Special provisions as to citizenship of persons covered by the Assam Accord) of the Citizenship Act, 1955. The petition also drew attention to Rule 4A of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, stating that it “is in conflict with the Act and thus should not be enforced while implementing the Act vis a vis Assam.”
The entire petition may be read here:
Empowering Assam: CJP’s Paralegal Training Workshop in Assam
From August 21 to 23, 2019, we conducted a three-day workshop in Guwahati where legal scholars and practicing lawyers helped equip local, district level lawyers and paralegal volunteers with in-depth skills and training to navigate the complex issue of citizenship after the publication of the list.
The workshop was top-lined by several legal luminaries including Ashish Dasgupta (legal scholar and senior advocate), HRA Choudhury (author, legal scholar and senior advocate, Gauhati High Court), Bijan Chandra Das (former Advocate General, Tripura), Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya (former Advocate General, Tripura), Mihir Desai (senior advocate, Mumbai High Court), Abdur Rahman Sikdar (senior advocate Gauhati High Court) and Mrinmoy Dutta (advocate, Gauhati High Court). Eminent academicians such as Prof. Abdul Mannan (Gauhati University) and Amal Kanti Raha (former HOD of Bengali in Pandu College) also graced the workshop. Renowned economist Ananta Kalita (former Chairman, Board of Directors, State Bank of India), civil society member Hareshwar Barman (former member AASU, founding member Sanmilita Janogosthiya Sangram Samitee) and social activist Abdul Batin Khandakar also shared valuable insights. Many other legal eagles such as advocates Inam Uddin, Mul Hoque, Azizur Rehman and Mustafa Khaddam Hussain also conducted sessions for the paralegals.
Nearly one hundred legal practitioners, including paralegals from mixed and varied backgrounds participated in the multi-dimensional interactions and training. The participants came from across the state of Assam, many even from far-flung areas like Barpeta, Baksha, Chirang, Dhemaji, Sonitpur and Bongaigaon! From discussing threadbare, Supreme Court and High Court decisions on the crucial issues of citizenship, to navigating the complicated procedural hurdles likely to follow the publication of the NRC final list on August 31, the detailed sessions were animated with discussions and questions.
Despair, Death & Detention Camps
The Detention camps of Assam set up under the Foreigner’s Rule 1964 for Assam have caused a further sense of despair among people given the bleak conditions within. CJP, with its close involvement in Assam has produced this film, Behind Shadows, Tales of Injustice from Assam’s Detention Camps.
CJP compiles list of citizenship related deaths
We compiled a list of citizenship and NRC related deaths in Assam. As of July 18, 2019, nearly 60 people have lost their lives and their deaths are connected to citizenship related issues. While some have allegedly committed suicide due to frustration, anxiety and helplessness related to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), some allegedly took their own lives fearing incarceration in detention camps. There are also some people who died under rather mysterious circumstances in detention camps.
As the date of the publication of the final NRC list drew close, amidst the gloom and uncertainty in the run up to the publication of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, there is a ray of hope for some. At least 10, possibly 13 people including one woman, have been released from detention camps as per the provisions of a Supreme Court order passed earlier this year.
CJP’s intrepid journalistic work continues to track official statistics closely on the issue. In a shocking revelation before the Assam state assembly, the state government has admitted that 25 people have died while incarcerated in the state’s six detention camps. These include Subrata De, Jobbar Ali and Amrit Das, three men whose heartbreaking stories we had brought you earlier. Interestingly, both De and Ali died under mysterious circumstances and both their families suspect foul play. Yet the cause of death as per the government submission is “due to illness”.
We accessed the list of people who have died and have discovered that Goalpara detention camp has proved to be the deadliest and leads the list with ten dead inmates. The Tezpur facility follows closely with nine dead inmates. Meanwhile, three people died in at the Silchar detention camp in Cachar district, two people including one woman died in the Kokrajhar detention camp, and one person died in the Jorhat detention camp. The dead include 14 Muslims, 10 Hindus and one member of the Tea Tribes.
As of now, Assam has six detention camps. These operate out of makeshift facilities in prison compounds located in Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Silchar, Jorhat, Tezpur and Dhibrugarh. There are also reports that new facilities have been planned in other parts of the state.
Assam in Parliament
In a shocking revelation before the Lok Sabha, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) admitted that over sixty thousand people have been declared foreigners ex parte i.e without them ever appearing before a Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT). The MHA was responding to six questions raised by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor. The responses were made by G Kishan Reddy, Minister of State in the MHA. In its submission the MHA admitted, “63959 (sixty three thousand nine hundred fifty nine) persons have been declared foreigners through ex-parte proceedings by Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam from 1985 to 28th February, 2019.”
According to the MHA, there are six detention centers currently operational in Assam. As of June 25, 2019 a total of 1133 people were being held in these facilities. Out of these 769 had been held for over a year and 335 had been held for over three years. The MHA also stated that free legal aid was being provided to detenues by the District Legal Service Authority.