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NRC: Apple of Discord?

NRC: Apple of Discord?
May 18
16:02 2017

April Edition, Special Report, NET Bureau, Nayanjyoti Medhi

In a landmark ruling, the Gauhati High Court deemed invalid certificates issued by Panchayats proving residentship of a person as link document for updation of the National Register for Citizens (NRC) process. A probable step towards obtaining an error free and clean NRC, this judgment puts into question submissions of more than 45 lakh such documents, leaving the update process in doubt. A report.

On February 28, the Gauhati High Court in a judgment pertaining to the citizenship of a person declared that residentship certificates, issued by Gaon Panchayat Sectretaries would be deemed invalid and no longer viewed as valid link document in the NRC updation process as they do not constitute a public document.

The declaration was in context to a writ petition filed before the Gauhati High Court by Monowara Bewa seeking quashing of an order passed by the Foreigners Tribunal No.5 in Dhubri, declaring the lady to be a foreigner who had illegally entered Assam after March 23, 1971.

In the absence of any challenges or appeal to the ruling by the Assam government, the judgement and the declaration puts into question the expedient completion of the NRC updation process, as the Assam government had received more than 45 lakh similar documents. The High Court ruling also raises questions about the fate of married women, most of who provided these documents as proof and could well take the number of ‘foreigners’ to be detected, much above present projections.

Certificate shocker by Gauhati HC

In a strongly worded judgment, the court dismissed the plea by Bewa, stating that the petitioner failed to provide evidence of being a bonafide citizen of India. Examining documents produced by the petitioner, the court found that none of them were vouched by the signing authority and hence they could not be accepted, thus agreeing to the Tribunal’s previous ruling.

While the petition was dismissed, the most important point in the judgment was made under a heading titled “larger issues”. In its order, a High Court bench comprising of Justice Ujjwal Bhuyan and Rumi Phukan, terming it as a matter of considerable public interest, questioned the legality of the certificate issued by the Gaon Panchayat Secretary and counter-signed by Revenue Officer of the certifying residentship petitioner within his jurisdiction as a supporting document for inclusion in updated NRC.

Inciting national interests and dangerous consequence of the influx of large number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh into Assam, the High Court in its judgment said, “The decision to allow issuance of residentship certificate by Gaon Panchayat Secretaries countersigned by Block Development Officers in rural areas and by Circle Officers / Executive Magistrates in urban areas and subsequent issuance of such certificates are contrary to the mandate of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Is-sue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003.”

The judgment discussed at length about the residentship certificates. In another point, the court said, “The net result of the above exercise is creation of 41,94,733 new certificates by the Gaon Panchayat Secretaries in rural areas; 4,19,394 by the Circle Officers in urban areas and 62,264 by Lot Mondals in BTC and hill districts, in all a total of whopping 46,76,391 documents. We shudder to think about the time, energy and manpower requirement and money spent while scrutinizing such newly created/ additional documents, besides the ability to correctly evaluate the evidence. Though the State Coordinator has stated that these certificates would be subjected to scrutiny through field and office verification, that is wholly besides the point. Moreover, those who are entrusted to verify and scrutinize such documents are not judicially trained to analyse evidence like judicial officers or members of Foreigners Tribunal.”

The Gauhati High Court ruling on the status of residentship certificates by Gaon Panchayat Secretaries is likely to have some impact on the ongoing process of NRC updation. Syed Burhanur Rahman, advocate of the petitioner says, “As per the judgment, nowhere it is mentioned that the residentship certificates itself are invalid. Only in this case has the certificate been deemed invalid because the signing authority did not come out to prove the veracity of the document. If at all these documents were to be considered invalid, the discussion of these being public or private would not have come up.”

Process

Rahman goes on to add, “The Panchayat Act does not specify the powers of the Gaon Panchayat Secretaries, hence the validity or invalidity of the documents will require a more nuanced debate to be determined. We will be moving the Supreme Court in the near future. Perhaps there will be positive outcome then as the issue is not only related to the supposed illegal migrants but also to lakhs of ‘khilonjia’ Assamese, who have put up similar documents.”

Meanwhile, the judgment has got mixed response from various quarters. While the All Assam Students Union has welcomed the ruling, many including the Congress are of the view that this will create further delay and problems in the NRC update process. The Assam government has the apex court that it will not challenge the ruling, but organizations like the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hindand Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad of Assam have decided to move the Supreme Court to challenge the Gauhati High Court’s recent order rejecting residency certificates issued by panchayats as a valid document for the ongoing NRC update exercise.

The NRC updation process

Being implemented in the state of Assam, the NRC updation process is a major exercise to detect illegal immigrants in the state. The NRC, first compiled in Assam in 1951, is updated to include the names of those persons who stayed in Assam between 1951 and March 24, 1971 and their descendents. An aftermath of the Assam Movement, the publishing of an updated NRC, being delayed for decades was one of Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s major poll promises.

The NRC is being updated based on the National Register of Citizens, 1951, and electoral rolls up to the midnight of March 24, 1971. If an applicant does not have their name in NRC 1951 and electoral rolls upto 1971, they have the option of submitting over a dozen supporting documents to enroll in the updated document. These also included the residentship certificates by Gaon Panchayat Secretaries. In urban areas the same document was issued by the Executive Magistrate.

As per the NRC website, the process of verification of the submitted documents is ongoing and has already overshot its deadline by more than a year. The process will result in the publishing of a draft NRC with updated information of citizens. All those who fail to provide the documents will be referred to the Foreigners Tribunals, whereby they may be taken into custody after trail and subsequently deported.

As the ruling by the High Court seemingly throws a spanner in the updation process, with more than 45 lakhs residentship certificates deemed invalid, the Supreme Court on March 8 ruled that work on the draft NRC should not be held up on the legality of the order by the Gauhati High Court. A Division Bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, advised Assam NRC Coordinator, Prateek Hazela not to stall the work on draft NRC. It said that the updating process should not be stopped till an appeal is filed challenging the Gauhati High Court’s order.

The apex court also suggested that if need arises, the 48 lakh NRC applications be segregated and a supplementary NRC published on a later date. The SC also asked Hazela to publish the draft NRC as soon as possible, refusing him a one year extension till March 2018.

Ramnifications

Perhaps one of the most comprehensive verification exercise being conducted, the NRC updation process is a long time and emotional demand of the people of Assam. Ravaged by the illegal influx of migrants from neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh, Assam has seen major changes in its socio-cultural and economic demographics in the last few decades as a resultant.

This influx has also led to the polarizing of the Assamese society, both in terms of religion as well as language. With sweeping judgments as the one delivered by the Gauhati High Court, it is very possible that an issue which has a deep connect with the Assamese psyche, will snowball into a crisis.

The influx and its impact have also been addressed by the judgment. A part reads, “The enormity of the issue can be gauged from the candid admission of the State Coordinator, NRC himself that more than four million of such documents have been issued and submitted before the NRC authorities in support of claims to inclusion of names in updated NRC. The figure is not only alarming but also has an uncanny resemblance to the estimated number of foreigners as per statement of Union Minister of State for Home Affairs made before the Parliament and referred to by the Supreme Court, as extracted above.”

It would be wrong to surmise that all these 45 lakh documents were submitted by only illegal migrants. While it is a fact that most of the cases in courts relating to citizenship are of Muslims, it could be safely assumed that Muslims constitute about 20 per cent of those submitting residentship certificates. As per a NRC official, most of them submitting certificates given by Gaon Panchayat Secretaries were various tribal and villagers living in some of the far flung districts of the state.

The judgment also puts a sword over the fate of lakhs of married women, most belonging to the poorer sections of the society, who have migrated after marriage and now face the risk of being deterred as foreigners in transit camps. As the judgment talks of penal consequences for those failing to prove the signed documents, it would mean that even if the document is accepted at later stages, Panchayat members would not be willing to easily come forth to attest them in courts of law.

The onus now lies on the government to deal with a tricky situation. As Assam pushes towards development and the new political dispensation makes an all out effort to consolidate the Assamese identity, the rhetoric of yesterday may well result in a crisis tomorrow. This judgment could effectively put an end to allegations of rampant corruption by various government agencies in abetting foreigners to stay in Assam, it could also precipitate a humanitarian issue of massive proportions.

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