Empowering Assam in 2020 An honour and a privilege for CJP

23, Dec 2020 | CJP Team

The year 2020 has been challenging for people across the world due to the Coronavirus pandemic. But for those in Assam, it was particularly excruciating in light of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, the Covid-19 related lockdown, the floods and the ongoing crisis related to the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Amidst all this CJP’s Assam team has soldiered on to defend the rights of some of the most marginalized people in the state. Here’s a look at CJP’s work in Assam during 2020. Our team leader and mentor, Zamser Ali and intrepid bands of Volunteer Motivators and Community Volunteers at the state and district levels that include Nanda Ghosh, Zesmin Sultana, Papiya Das, Joinal Abedin, Rashminara Begum, Pranay Talukdar among so many others have stretched themselves to their limits, physical and emotional to alleviate the citizenship-driven crisis in the state.

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 and then the higher courts. We are also helping secure the release of detention camp inmates as per the amended Supreme Court order on their conditional release passed in April 2020. 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.

CJP has also engaged with the state authorities to ensure that quality level legal aid reaches people through the taluka and District Level Statutory Legal Authorities (DLSAs). This was a direct outcome of our three day Legal and Para Legal training workshop in Guwahati in 2019. All extensive legal documents to assist paralegals and lawyers have been made available on our website and may be viewed here.

CJP against Hunger

We are acutely aware that hunger is the greatest human rights crisis. Throughout our work with impoverished and marginalized populaces, we have discovered that all other concerns become secondary when one’s survival is at stake due to possibility of starvation.

During CJP’s citizenship related work in Assam, our teams had visited many impoverished families in remote parts of the state. Thus, when the lockdown began, we knew that these people would become especially vulnerable. CJP’s Assam team swung into action and delivered foodgrains and essentials to these people even as the Covid-19 pandemic raged on. Many of them were people who had been recently released from detention camps with our help, and were trying to rebuild their lives after coming home. Our campaign saw volunteers to go far-flung villages in Chirang, Darang, Kokrajhar and Morigaon.

A video showcasing our relief efforts may be viewed here:

 

As scarcity and starvation had cast a pall of gloom over the holy month of Ramzan, CJP decided to at least ensure that no one was hungry or miserable on Eid. In an attempt to bring about some relief and possibly even joy during Eid, the CJP Team distributed 5 kgs rice, 500 gm pulses, 500 ml mustard oil, 1 kg potatoes, 1 kg onions, 250 gms garlic, a bar of soap and 100 ml of coconut oil each to 200 families in Morigaon district. This includes families of the four people who were recently released from detention camps. We also gave new clothes to all members of each family. CJP in association with Bijni Prayas-Oikyatan also distributed over 900 food packets in 53 villages on the occasion of Eid. For two days, the CJP vehicle covered a distance of over 250 kilometers!

Support during floods

Cyclone Amphan wreaked havoc in Eastern India between May 16 and 21, Assam witnessed torrential rain that left many areas inundated under several feet of water. Rivers overflowed and flooding caused widespread damage to lives, livelihoods and property of people who had very limited resources to begin with. It takes a long time for flood water to subside in the low-lying riverine region, as a result of which losses kept mounting even weeks after the heavy showers first hit.

Our teams visited Bolbola Khagarabari under Agia police station, in Goalpara district where people not only lost their homes, but also livestock such as hens, buffalos, cows, goats, ducks, etc. that drowned in the floods. In the village of Lakhipur Kusha Pakhri under Lakhipur police station, of Goalpara district, our teams discovered that due to inundation, the standing paddy crop has been destroyed.

On June 27, our team discovered further suffering on account of a fresh bout of heavy rainfall in Barpeta. Additionally, the release of water from Bhutan’s Kurishu River Dam has also caused the Beki river to overflow. As a result, floodwaters inundated many parts of Assam’s Barpeta district overnight. CJP teams visited the affected families of Shutirpathar, Kharballi and Shawnpur in Barpeta district to take stock and offer support.

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CJP was acutely aware of another grave concern given how floods also threaten the most precious commodity in Assam… identity documents. On June 29, due to floods in Kirakara, Dhalpur village under Chipajhar police station of Darang district, the villagers contacted the CJP team and left in our care the NRC document file of 14 families. Gradually many more flood-affected families entrusted CJP with their documents.

CJP teams also reached out to Dhalpur village in Darrang district, where in yet another example of institutional apathy for human suffering, five people from the flood-hit village were sent notices to appear before a Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) in Mangaldoi to defend their Indian citizenship. But what is even more shocking is how breaking from protocol, the notices were not actually served to the people in question, but sent via Whatsapp to the Gram Panchayat President!

Our team found that the quality of the image on Whatsapp was blurred, so we had to go to the police station to get copies of the actual notices. Our team had to take a boat to visit the village and we saw vacant houses, abandoned livestock and even grown trees partially submerged under water. We found that the region was submerged under 7-8 feet of water forcing people to vacate their homes in search of dry, safe places. Village after village have been virtually washed away. Standing crop has been destroyed!

Release from Detention Camps

Amidst all this we did not deviate even once from our original goal of helping as many eligible people get released from Assam’s infamous detention camps.

In May 2019, the Supreme Court directed that those who have spent more than three years in captivity be set free on bail subject to certain conditions. These are as follows:

(a) Execution of bond with two sureties of Rs.1,00,000/- (Rupees one lakh only) each of Indian citizens;

(b) He or she specifies verifiable address of stay after release;

(c) Biometric of his/her iris (if possible) and all ten fingerprints and photos shall be captured and stored in a secured database before release from the detention centres. He or she shall report once every week to the Police Station specified by the Foreigners Tribunal;

(d) He or she shall notify any change of his or her address to the specified Police Station on the same day, and

(e) A quarterly report to be submitted by the Superintendent of Police (Border) to the Foreigners Tribunal regarding appearance of such released declared foreigner to concerned Police Station and in case of violation of condition, the DFN will be apprehended and produced before Foreigners Tribunal.

In wake of the outbreak of Covid-19 a need was felt to decongest prisons and detention centers. In light of this, in April 2020, the Supreme Court modified its own previous judgment and reduced the time served requirement to two years and surety amount to just Rs 5,000/-. A suo motu case order by the Guwahati High Court just after the Supreme Court Judgement finalised the total framework for release of the detenu.

CJP had started the process of helping detainees get released after the first SC order itself and our efforts only intensified in wake of the second and a substantial decrease in the surety amount meant it would not be as much of a financially daunting task. The followed the following steps to help 33 people walk out of detention camps:

  • Identify eligible detainees
  • Find correct address
  • Find bailors
  • Get documents verified
  • Prepare affidavits and petitions for release
  • Submit all documents and applications at the office of the Superintendent of Police
  • Get released inmate out of detention camp
  • Post-release formalities

Read more about the painstaking process and the challenges CJP faced here.

 

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Justice for D Voters

D Voter refers to “doubtful voters” in the state of Assam. Since 1997, following the state-wide outcry on “bogus” voters in electoral lists, the Election Commission of India (ECI) began this practice of de-listing voters. Often, junior rank officers of the ECI carry out this task, that ends up often targeting genuine Indian Citizens. As of 2019, there are 1,13,000 ‘D Voters’ in Assam.

How does this work? The Election Commission puts the letter “D” before their names in electoral rolls and they are required to defend their citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals. If they fail to prove that they are Indian, they are adjudicated as ‘declared foreigner’ by the FT.

On November 26, 2018, at an all-party meeting hosted by the speaker of the Assam Assembly, it was decided to examine and verify documents of D-Voters in all constituencies of the state. The letter “D” was to be removed from before the names of people found to be Indian after the process. For this the Assam government was to compile a list of eligible people and send it to the Chief Secretary, who would in turn share it with the Home Secretary to scrutinize documents and recommend to the Election Commission to remove the letter “D” from before names of people on the electoral roll. However, this process is yet to begin in the state.

But CJP decided to carry out a verification drive of its own. 10 constituencies were identified as a part of the pilot project by CJP:

  1. Bijni (Chirang district)
  2. Sidli (Chirang district)
  3. North Obhayapuri (Bongaigaon district)
  4. Chipajhar (Darrang district)
  5. Goalpara East (Goalpara district)
  6. Goalpara West (Goalpara district)
  7. Baghbor (Barpeta district)
  8. Junia (Barpeta district)
  9. Jagirot (Morigaon district)
  10. Dhing (Morigaon district)

For the last three months, CJP volunteers have been collecting and verifying documents of D Voters in these constituency. After completion of our project, we hope to compile a list of eligible people and their documentary evidence, and submit it to the Assistant Electoral Registration Officer. During this process, CJP also discovered that many people who had successfully defended their citizenship before FTs, are still showing “D” on the electoral roll, as the letter “D” has not been removed by the EC yet.

Legal aid for all

After the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published on August 31, 2020, people who were excluded from it, were to be given their reason for exclusion, following which they were given 120 days to apply to defend their citizenship before a Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT). The entire process was delayed and people are yet to receive copies of speaking orders that give the reason for exclusion. But the bigger question was, where would all these people find qualified legal assistance to present their case before the FT?

In anticipation of these mass exclusions, from August 21 to 23, 2019, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) had 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. Before and after that, since 2017, the vibrant CJP’s Team Assam has been conducting smaller and larger district level trainings in various parts of the state.

At this August 2019 legal training, CJP came up with a unique method of disseminating legal wherewithal. Now, all over Assam there is a demand that the resources that we so creatively and widely disseminated, be made available on our website. We distributed digital copies of over 2,000 pages worth of legal resources such as orders, judgments (of various courts), notifications, and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) related to the Claims and Objections Process of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as well as various processes and procedures related to defending citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals.

Our aim has been to equip a vast and qualified citizenry, lawyers, volunteers, paralegals and all citizens with the wherewithal to navigate and negotiate the complex ‘citizenship imbroglio’. Apart from the 1.9 million (19,00,000) and their siblings and families excluded from the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), there are at least another 1,17,000 persons today ‘Declared Foreigners’ and another 1,13,000 declared ‘D Voters’ by the Election Commission. The affected population is so large that without the widespread involvement of community and district volunteers, trained with the legal wherewithal, there is no way that the spectre of statelessness can be fought.

One immediate outcome of this training was on the legal strategy front. The CJP Legal team worked hard to build a strong case for intrepid legal aid to be made available through the state’s Legal Statutory Authority. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution that grants every Indian the right to equality before the law also encompasses within it the Right to Legal Aid. A petition was filed along with three Victim / Survivors of the exclusion on January 22, 2020 (WP(C) No 1556/20. The matter came up for hearing first on March 2, 2020 and thereafter on March 13, 2020. Senior counsel Mihir Desai appeared for CJP. At this hearing in the Guwahati High Court, the merits of the case were found to be far-reaching and hence CJP was requested to re-file as a Public Interest Litigation (PIL).

The process for filing a PIL in the Guwahati HC is elaborate and hence CJP began detailed correspondence with the Assam Government, Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA) and National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) outlining the magnitude of the crisis that required the state to step in.

In response to these communications, first in July 2020, thereafter in September 2020, CJP received responses to its communications from NALSA. The last response was finally from the ASLSA in November 2020. In this last communication some claims have been made out about legal aid at the taluk and district level which our team is now verifying before we re-approach the Guwahati HC in a PIL.

CJP’s DSLA Survey

CJP’s Assam team is now verifying the claims made by the ASLSA in its communication with a ground-level survey of about ten districts. For the past month, CJP has been conducting a survey to understand the lacunae in the DLSA apparatus in different districts of Assam. The idea of the survey is to test the Assam government’s claims about the spread and expanse of the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA). So far, the ongoing pilot survey covers the districts of Chirang, Darrang, Kokrajhar, Goalpara and Barpeta. CJP has discovered that the DLSA is woefully short-staffed to undertake such a mammoth legal-aid exercise. We expect that the Survey Report will give documentary back-up evidence to convince the High Court that much more needs to be done.

CJP’s work in Assam addresses a mammoth humanitarian crisis. This crisis reflects state apathy of a mammoth scale. Under these circumstances, CJP’s Team Assam soldiers on, against all odds, braving physical stress and mental trauma, to provide the kind of helping hand that only we are capable of. Since 2017 when we began this work, our expertise had grown even as our conviction to stay the course has deepened. More, much more needs to be done, however. The injustices are far too many, the terrain widespread and challenging. We need more hands, more lawyers, more Volunteers. To make that happen, we need you.

Donate Now! Help a fellow Indian in Assam.

Related:

How CJP volunteer motivators are defying all odds in Assam

Shocking! Flood-affected people sent ‘foreigner’ notice in Assam

CJP entrusted with documents during Assam floods

How CJP helped 32 people walk out of Assam’s Detention Camps

 

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