Taking strong exception to the Centre’s submission that work on the National Register of Citizens in Assam will have to be suspended for a while in view of redeployment of central forces for the Lok Sabha elections, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi Tuesday said the “Home Ministry does not want NRC work to go on” and the “entire effort from Home Ministry, it seems to me, is to destroy the process”.
The Supreme Court, which is monitoring the work on updating the NRC, said it cannot extend the July 31 deadline already fixed for publication of the final NRC. Attorney General K K Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing Assam, told the bench of CJI Gogoi and Justice R F Nariman that the NRC exercise may have to be suspended from the last date for withdrawal of nominations till two weeks after the date of polling because security forces have to be redeployed.
They also said that the political atmosphere is likely to be highly surcharged in view of the polls and may not be conducive for hearing NRC cases. The bench was told that 167 companies of central armed forces deployed in Assam for NRC work will have to be withdrawn for redeployment in other parts of the country for the elections. This prompted the CJI’s remarks about the Home Ministry. Observing that “there were 1001 ways to get it done” if the government so wished, he asked, “Do you want us to summon the Home Secretary?… government is not cooperating.”
Venugopal said 2,500 companies of security forces were deployed during the last Lok Sabha elections and there was need for 2,700 companies this time. This would require withdrawal of the 167 companies from Assam, he said. The CJI then asked him about the total number of companies of central forces in the country. “About 3,000,” replied a Joint Secretary in the Home Ministry who was present in the court room.
The CJI observed that if there were 3,000 companies, then it was enough to deploy 2,700 for the polls even after retaining the 167 companies in Assam. The official then pointed out that the 3,000 figure included companies stationed on the borders. At this, the CJI said: “Is it too much to expect that NRC work and elections should go on peacefully and orderly and simultaneously? We are not in a position to extend the deadline… Both exercises are important for the country… Therefore, the two have to be harmonised,” he said. “We are placing a real issue before your lordships,” Venugopal said, adding he would put it on an affidavit if required.
The bench, in its order, said “we have considered the submission… by the learned Attorney General and learned Solicitor General. At this stage, we are not inclined to pass any orders on the said request”. The bench, which also perused a report of Assam NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela, directed the Election Commission “that adequate number of State Government officials (number indicated by the State Coordinator as 3,457) which would consist of officers in different ranks as stated in the report, be kept free for NRC work”.
“The availability of the said officers for NRC work would still leave out over 2,000 persons currently engaged in NRC work for being engaged in the election work at the relevant point of time,” the bench said. It asked the Election Commission “to examine the case of exemption of officers, in the rank of District Magistrates, Additional District Magistrates, etc. as mentioned in… the report of the State Coordinator, from transfers which are likely to be made in view of the elections. The Election Commission of India will consider the aforesaid matter keeping in mind that this Court which has consistently monitored the NRC work is of the view that least interference should come in such works so that final NRC is made and published on the stipulated date i.e. 31st July, 2019”. The court will hear the matter next in the first week of March.
Later, in a statement, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the government is committed to complete the NRC process within the stipulated time and ensure that neither any Indian national’s name is excluded nor any foreigner’s name included in the final NRC.
Singh said the Home Ministry has made available necessary funds and resources to the state government so that the NRC work is completed in a time-bound and impartial manner. He said central armed forces in required numbers have been deployed in Assam over the last one-and-half years to maintain law and order in view of the enormity of the NRC exercise.