The crisis of citizenship rejection letters
In the entire country, Assam is the only State having National Register of Citizens compiled, wherein more than 19 lakhs that were left out of the...
In the entire country, Assam is the only State having National Register of Citizens compiled, wherein more than 19 lakhs that were left out of the final register should get rejection letters. This process has taken five years at the cost of Rs 1,220 crore. As a consequence of this, rejection slips must be issued, which did not begin. The reasons cited are Covid-19, floods and the officers being very busy with elections.
Issuance of rejection slip is a problem and not a solution. A person who received rejection slip has to fight against such rejection claiming that they continue to be the citizens of India but wrongfully rejected. According to the Centre's standard operating procedures, a rejected person would have 120 days from the date of receiving the rejection slip to approach a Foreigners' Tribunal (FT) for judging their citizenship status.
Union orders to issue
Even as the Assembly elections are underway, the Union Government is insisting on issuance of rejection letters to those people who are excluded from the NRC. A letter came from the office of the Registrar General of India (RGI) under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA to Assam Home Secretary S R Bhuyan on March 23 stating that the supplementary list of exclusions and inclusions were published on August 31, 2019 on the directions of the Supreme Court. In spite of the objections of the State Government and stiff opposition the Union decided to issue rejection slips. In this letter, the joint director asked the Assam government to assess the software used for managing the register and discontinue the ones not required. The letter said the State government's requirement of Rs 3.22 crore per month for the upkeep of records appeared to be "too high" and also asked to discontinue the additional staff.
Compilation of NRC in Assam was criticised for its defects. The BJP government in Assam also did not agree with the way the NRC exercise was conducted in Assam. It demanded reverification of 30 per cent of names which are included in the NRC in the territory bordering Bangladesh and 10 per cent in other areas of the state.
Here is an example. Ali with his three brothers were listed among rejected persons. They have been trying to salvage any document they might have missed while applying for inclusion in the NRC. One Ms Begum has been absconding as her petition was dismissed. That's what she can do, and she has to had herself for a lifetime to live in India. Ali and thousands like him lose hope if the NRC authorities prepare to issue rejection slips and they have nothing to show that they are citizens.
During the updating exercise, the NRC authority had listed 14 documents as admissible. These included the NRC of 1951, which Ms. Begum had submitted (of her parents), electoral rolls up to the midnight of March 24, 1971, land and revenue records, citizenship certificate and refugee registration certificate. An additional list of admissible documents includes ration card and certificate from circle officer of Gram Panchayat secretary in case of married women. "What can we show beyond those we have already shown? What will stop them from finding fault with the fresh documents we submit?" said petty trader Jamaluddin. All 26 members of his family were excluded because his father's name had minor alphabetical changes in different "admissible" documents possibly due to clerical errors.
It is difficult to prove the fact of their time of coming to India. Kamal Chakraborty, the leader of the Unconditional Citizenship Demand Committee based in southern Assam's Silchar, a Bengali-dominated town says: "Many NRC-rrejected Bengali Hindus have been living in Assam before 1971. The CAA is no guarantee for their inclusion, as they will first have to declare themselves as refugees who entered Assam between 1971 and 2014, which they are not". He further said: "It will be a long legal battle for them, perhaps never-ending, that will kill them and their descendants financially and psychologically."
Problems at Foreigners Tribunal
The problem may not be resolved at Foreigner's tribunal. All Assam Minority Students' Union president Rejaul Karim Sarkar told the media that "excluded will have to go the FTs, which will be like jumping from the frying pan to the fire".
The Amnesty International had cited in September 2019, an Assam government's assessment report that said members are retained or fired depending upon how many people they mark as foreigners. The Supreme Court has directed the process to continue, which does not mean SC has done the actual ground processing. But the BJP has put the onus on the Supreme Court. While the Ministry always tags their letter with "NRC prepared as per directions of NRC". Can they say that the defects in listing have the approval of Supreme Court?
"No organisation in Assam is happy with the NRC list and a petition is pending in the apex court for re-verification of at least 10% of the names in districts where demographic changes have been drastic. We are waiting for the Supreme Court's guidance," the party's spokesperson Rupam Goswami said. "How can you accept this NRC that has included the names of illegal Bangladeshis? We have petitioned for 100% re-verification of names, but with the involvement of corrupt officials and the government's negligence, it seems no one wants a solution," said APW president Aabhijeet Sharma.
The Centre says rejected people have legal remedies. "The Centre has clarified that the rejected people remain Indian citizens until their cases are settled. They cannot be deprived of their voting and other rights although there are reports of a few people being denied passports," said Aman Wadud, an advocate who has fought for people declared foreigners by the FTs.
Validity of Assam NRC
Is this NRC valid? Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhury, chairman of the Bar Council of Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, said the NRC had no legal validity until the Registrar General of India issued a gazette notification confirming the list. "Because the NRC has not taken any legal shape, they cannot issue rejection order and no person can file an appeal. In its present form, the NRC is basically a Rs1,600 crore waste paper that drove many to suicide, made thousands of poor people poorer and be in perpetual fear of being ejected from their homes," he said.
The political analysts doubted that there is a political design in keeping the issue of "illegal migrants" burning for "yet another election". The Congress party criticised the BJP for delaying the process after the complete list left out many non-Muslims.
Assam's BJP govt wants 100 % re-verification
An official said laws existed to "detect, detain and deport illegal immigrants", and the power to identify and deport the foreign nationals staying illegally had been delegated to the States. In November 2019, the State's Finance Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, said Assam had asked the Centre to reject the updated final NRC in the State. According to human rights activist Harsh Mander, the NRC exercise, if conducted across the country, would be catastrophic for the social fabric and future of India as a secular, democratic republic.
On February 19, 2020, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) Coordinator Hitesh Dev Sarma wrote to the Deputy Commissioner (DC) and District Registrar of Citizen Registration of all the districts on the issue of an erroneous updating exercise and asked them to provide details of "ineligible persons" in the final list of citizens published on August 31, 2019 within 24 hours.
The Hindu claimed that it has the copy of the letter and reported that the indigenous groups believe many illegal immigrants have made it to the NRC in the three Bengali-dominated southern Assam districts – Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj. The ineligible persons were specified as DV (doubtful voters), DF (declared foreigners), PFT (cases pending in Foreigners' Tribunal), DVD (descendants of DV), DFD and PFTD.
NGO Assam Public Works (APW) petitioned the Supreme Court for a total reverification of the NRC. After hearing the 2009 petition of APW the Supreme Court monitored the exercise of updating the NRC of 1951. The same NGO is now claiming that 80 lakh illegal immigrants were included in the updated list.
When the whole list is doubted by the State Government led by BJP, NGOs, and several others, it is not proper for the Centre to go forward with issuance of rejection letters to 19 lakh plus people in Assam, that could cause havoc in the State.
(The writer is Professor of Law,Bennett University and former Central Information Commissioner)