02, Mar 2021 | CJP Team
Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a human rights organisation that has been on the ground in Assam helping our fellow Indian citizens through various processes related to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), has now moved Guwahati High Court (previously Gauhati) demanding proper legal aid for those left out of the NRC.
The final NRC published on August 31, 2019 left out over 19 lakh people that include Bengali Hindus, Muslims, Gorkhas, as well as several people from indigenous tribes and communities. Nearly two-thirds of those excluded are women; many of them unlettered grandmas and housewives from rural areas! Now, all of them will have to defend their citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT) that have been set up in all districts across the state. But given how an overwhelming majority of the excluded people hail from economically backward households, they would require free legal aid.
CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad explains, “CJP’s primary focus is to ensure legal, Constitutional and fundamental rights of all Indians, particularly those from the most marginalised sections, are defended. Advanced human rights jurisprudence, developed by India’s constitutional courts recognises the right to quality, substantive legal aid as an extension of Article 21, right to life and Article 14, right to equality before the law.”
Setalvad further says, “This meticulously and thoroughly researched legal initiative by CJP, is a step forward towards alleviating the massive humanitarian crisis that has made life a living trauma for the people of Assam.”
Senior advocate Mihir Desai appeared for CJP during the online proceedings assisted by Advocate Mrinmoy Dutta. The court has issued notice. Next date of hearing is April 5, 2021.
Brief background of CJP’s petition
CJP’s petition seeks clarification on a press communication issued by MHA on August 20, 2019 which stated that legal assistance would be provided to those excluded from NRC, those who are in need of such legal aid. In early 2020, CJP petitioned the High Court on the issue with three families of those excluded. Senior counsel Mihir Desai assisted by Advocate Mrinmoy Dutta appeared in the matter. The petition was withdrawn after the Hon’ble High Court opined that this was a fit case for a public interest litigation.
From April 2020 to November 2020, the organisation was involved in detailed correspondence and representations to both the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and the Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA).
As CJP is actively involved in ground-work it never came across any concerted efforts in furtherance of the 2019 communication issued by MHA, and thus submitted a representation before Secretary of Home Department in Assam for framing scheme and modalities for providing effective legal aid to the NRC left outs. CJP also asked the Home Department about what steps had been taken by the government so it can, through its widespread ground-work, create awareness among the people in need.
The Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA) finally responded in November 2020 stating that it has enough machinery to deal with any action taken by the government with regards to NRC. The ASLSA letter also revealed that only two Taluk Level Legal Services Authorities are functioning, while there are 78 taluks in the state. The letter also states that once rejection slips are handed out, legal camps can then be organised.
It was in response to this last communication that CJP, has in fact, gone one step further and conducted an independent survey in 10 districts of Assam to assess the preparedness of District Legal Services Authorities (DSLA).
CJP’s DSLA survey
CJP conducted a survey of District Legal Services Authority (DSLA) offices in the following 10 districts of Assam to gauge the situation on the ground:
We found that together, these 10 districts have 273 active advocates devoted/appointed especially for legal aid, and 333 Para Legal Volunteers (PLVs). However, the educational qualifications required to become a PLV varied significantly for different districts.
But even worse is the fact that in none of the 10 districts surveyed, has any training on the Citizenship, immigration, NRC, Foreigners Act, etc. been provided so far. Also, apart from the Dhubri District, where 7 Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) cases were handled by the counsel of the DLSA in 2019, and 3 cases were handled in 2020, in other districts, no FT cases appear to have been handled by the counsel of any of the other DLSAs.
CJP’s petition before the Gauhati High Court highlights Article 39(A) which envisages the operation of a legal system which promotes justice on the basis of equal opportunity which should not be denied to any citizen by reason of economic or any other disabilities. Our petition also mentions that under Article 21, right to legal aid is an essential part of the reasonable, fair and just procedure necessary to be followed before any deprivation of life and liberty. Article 21 applies to not just citizens, but foreigners as well, and since the Article protects life and liberty, the same is incomplete without right to legal aid.
The petition emphasises that those excluded cannot be deemed non-citizens till the remedies available before them are exhausted, and unless the marginalised among them are not provided adequate legal aid, they would suffer irreparable loss and injury.