Following the National Register of Citizens (NRC) authority declaring on June 26 that an additional over one lakh names of people had been excluded from the NRC draft list, the Mumbai-based human rights organization, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), which is currently working in Assam, took a delegation of senior lawyers and journalists to assess ground realities and devise a strategy to “help genuine Indian citizens”, especially from poorer sections, to navigate through the tortuous claims process before Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT).
The delegation comprised senior High Court advocate Mihir Desai, senior Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover, senior journalist Kalpana Sharma and CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad. It liaised with several prominent intellectuals, lawyers and civil society members from Assam, including 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.
A CJP note:
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 two years and eight 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.
|A CJP meeting on NCR in a village in Kamrup district of Assam|
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.”
|A CJP consultation in Chirang district|
CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad summarises it all saying, “We believe that in the haste to meet targets set by the executive the NRC centres 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.”