As the Supreme Court-mandated coordinator for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, Prateek Hajela has been involved in the task since September 2013 — from creating a “legacy data” system to holding verification hearings in the run-up to the publication of the final draft. He spoke to Karishma Mehrotra and Ravish Tiwari. Excerpts from the interview:
What do you have to say about the 40 lakh people who have been left out of the draft NRC?
It is a legal process… being monitored by the Supreme Court, so my language will also have to be legal when I talk of this particular process. The 40 lakh people have not been able to prove their eligibility during the verification process that we have carried out so far. So it is a draft figure. They will have a chance to re-apply, which is technically called a claim. So that is the status of these 40 lakh.
Can we say that these 40 lakh people are ghuspethiye (infiltrators)?
No, we can’t say all these 40 lakh are ghuspethiye. I am working under the citizen(ship) Act, citizenship rules. These people will get another chance to prove their credentials. Then we’ll come out with a final NRC. The process will be over then. Even after that, whether a person is an illegal migrant or not is something that can be decided only by judicial scrutiny, and that is through a certain set of codes which has been established in Assam, which is called the foreigners’ tribunal.
Can we say that all the 2.89 crore people included in the draft NRC are legal?
They have been able to establish their credentials during verification, but again, somebody might object to any entry which he or she thinks is not correct. So therefore, it’s premature to reach any conclusion about those who are in the 40 lakh, or those who are not.
It’s a mammoth exercise involving 3.29 crore people. As the administrator, do you think there could be errors?
Yes, there could be errors. It’s a manual process. Human beings are carrying out such a large number of operations, and the law itself recognises that there might be errors. There might be wrong exclusions. There might be wrong inclusions. Therefore, both the process of claims and objections… both are there. Because it is such a huge exercise, whatever we do, we have to come out with one round and engage with the people after that. Only then can we say we have been able to take it to the level of accuracy which the law expects.
Some members of a family have been included in the draft, while others have been left out. How do you explain this?
All these 3.29 crore people have to establish their citizenship individually. The family does matter, but it’s not a family-based citizenship. There are a large number of cases where the husband may be a pre-’71 resident, but the wife may not be. Conversely, it is possible that the wife may be a pre-’71 resident, but the husband has come after ’71. Individual censuses are there. We don’t release them because of privacy, but when such instances get reported in the media… One thing is that in all these cases, all the applicants have to prove their eligibility individually. Therefore, it is possible that even in the same family, some people have been able to establish their credentials while others have not been able to do so.
What is the way out for them?
The way out is that whosoever is a genuine Indian citizen will be included… Earlier, we looked at a very large number — 3.29 crore. Now, if we assume all the 40 lakh will file their claims, we have a much smaller number… So we can give more focussed attention to these people, and, at that point of time, we can look at all other considerations. We have already done a family tree for people who are deriving linkage from the same person. If there is somebody who is not able to prove, there should be acceptable reason for that. It is also theoretically possible that people are drawing descendance from the same person, but they are actually not… There are also instances where one doesn’t know whether the relationship is true or not, but the document that has been given to prove it is a false document. The issuing authority has said they have never issued that document.
Can you say what percentage of this 40 lakh could be potentially suspect?
No, any speculation in a legal process is absolutely uncalled for. It would not be appropriate on my part to make speculative estimates. The question is more about the sensitivity involved in these 40 lakh, or the remaining 2.9 crore people. The sensitivities involved are high and we have to ensure that the public are able to freely participate in the entire process. They should not get misled by any misinformation campaign, and, so far, we have been able to maintain communication with the public. When we started the process, we made it open to the public in 2015. Since then, we have been carrying out elaborate campaigns to educate the people about the manner in which they can fully participate in the process. For example, filling up the application form. No facilitators can be given. For the rest of India, household enumeration is done. In the case of Assam, that is not allowed. It has been application-based.
Citizenship in Assam is on a completely different footing as compared to all other states. (Section) 6A (of Citizenship Act,1955), that cutoff is again only applicable to Assam. A typical feature is that the public will have to fill the forms themselves. So, we develop mechanisms on how to teach the public. We created a fictitious family… a family of five-six people — a Mr Chandra Sharma with his son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter and mother. How will they apply? How many documents will they get… What will they write in the application form? We created this fictitious family and carried out elaborate television campaigns. We carried out campaigns in the field, where the public interacted with our officials and we taught them how to fill up the application form. In subsequent phases, we engaged with them about how to participate fully in the verification process. Now, when the people will want to file their claims and objections, we will be educating them again. We will go to them in the field again, distribute leaflets, show them how to fill the objection form.
The point I am trying to make is that the public is at the heart of this. Because this is an exercise that touches the lives and souls of each and every individual in the state. They should be armed with the right information, and I should not allow any misinformation to reach them. That’s why I say it’s a sensitive process, and we have to ensure that the communication lines are established in such a manner that no other entity is able to mislead them.
You’ve been in this position since 2013. Have you faced political pressure?
I am working under the direct monitoring of the honorable Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has said that I will have to report any intervention, by any authority. I am carrying out a constitutional duty, under the Supreme Court’s orders. I look at it that way.
Has there been any instance when you had to inform the Supreme Court that you were facing political pressure?
All my communication with the Supreme Court is in a manner… Whatever becomes public is what the Supreme Court decides to say in public. So, I am not authorised to reveal any information on whether I have communicated with it, what I have communicated etc.
You are beating around the bush. Can you say that you have got calls from political leaders?
I’ll continue to beat around the bush. I’m actually not beating around the bush. I’ll directly say that I am not answering this question.
What is the way forward?
We’ve gone through a very intensive verification exercise for the last three years. Now, we will engage the public again. The SOPs (standard operating procedures) are being developed by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Yesterday, the matter came up before the Supreme Court and it will be placed before the Supreme Court. And it will give orders on that, so we will implement that. The cornerstone will be fair procedure, because that is the term which was used by the Supreme Court yesterday. That there has to be a fair procedure for all these people.
What about the anxiety among the people?
Come to my state and you will see that the anxiety is far less than what is being projected outside… There are some people who might be having apprehensions, but, by and large, the public has faith in the process that has been created. They themselves have participated in this process. They themselves have got hold of those documents. They have seen their friends, relatives collecting these documents. I have 52,000 government officials working. They are also part of the public. They have not been imported from outside. All these officials have been there. There has been no shuffling etc, whoever was there in 2015 and thereafter at the time of posting, they have carried on. It’s an exercise which has been carried out in as impartial and objective manner as possible.