As state coordinator of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), he is the head of an unprecedented, gigantic bureaucratic exercise with no equivalent in the world. Under his watch, around 33 million residents of Assam, supported by at least 66 million documents have attempted to prove that they or their ancestors have been in India before March 24, 1971, in a technology-driven verification procedure he devised.
And on Saturday, 50-year-old Prateek Hajela, a 1995-batch IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre, will announce to the world Assam’s final NRC, bringing to an end six years of his work on the project, which will list Indians residing in Assam and render millions who face exclusion to the risk o being stateless.
Last year, the Supreme Court, which is monitoring the process, censured him for talking about the NRC to the media. “In any endeavour where the intentions are pure and so also are the ways and means,” wrote Hajela on Facebook on June 30, “every obstruction is an opportunity – an opportunity to reflect, accept, identify one’s weakness and remove it, or an opportunity to identify one’s strength and use or display it to overcome the obstruction, or an opportunity to think beyond the ordinary and get over the obstruction.”
Born in Bhopal, Hajela is from a renowned family in the city. His father served in the Madhya Pradesh government and his brother is a doctor. His uncle, P D Hajela, was a former Vice Chancellor of the Allahabad University in UP and Sagar University in MP.
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Hajela went to the Campion School in Bhopal and graduated as an electronics engineer from IIT-Delhi He is married and has an eight-year-old daughter, Arzoo, whose pictures and videos adorn the proud father’s Facebook wall.
In July 1996, Hajela first came to Assam as an Assistant Commissioner in Silchar in Assam’s Bengali-majority district of Cachar — the same place where during Durga Puja in October last year, an NGO put up a huge banner in the town portraying Hajela as the demon that the goddess slays. A poem in the banner jibed that Hajela increases people’s worries with “one stroke of his pen”.
In September 2013, Hajela was appointed Commissioner and Secretary of the Home and Political department of Assam by the then Congress government and also took over as State Coordinator for the NRC updation process as the nodal officer for the Registrar General of India (RGI).
“We recommended him because he had sound knowledge of the subject. He was a very efficient bureaucrat at that point and there was no adverse remark about him,” former Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told The Indian Express. He is quick to add, “But Hajela is not the ‘boss’ of the process – the RGI is. And it is being carried out under the monitoring of the SC. Officers may come and go.”
For about six months after his appointment, Hajela worked to chalk out a basic foundation of the NRC process alone and by August 2014, hired his core team of 10-12 people, said sources.
In July 2015, Hajela and team moved to a multi-storeyed building in Bhangagarh in the heart of Guwahati where the NRC secretariat functions. With the NRC set to be published Saturday, security has increased and his colleagues say he works around 12 hours a day, from 10 am to 10 pm.
As the process progressed, Hajela is credited with single-handedly devising the technical concepts that guide the NRC updation – where a person’s ancestry could be mapped via digital datasets, which draws from decades-old documents, and the planned the modus operandi for consequent rounds of physical verifications. On the personal side, Hajela keeps his latest Apple devices close – any query to him on the NRC process often leads to him fetching soft copies of documents or SC orders on an iPad.
Hajela has applied for the NRC too, and in the first draft published midnight December 31, 2017, his and his daughter’s names hadn’t been included. Father and daughter – like lakhs of people in the state – appeared for a hearing in Guwahati in May 2018 much in media glare. Their names were included in the final draft.
On the morning of July 30, 2018, Hajela along with RGI Sailesh addressed a jam-packed press conference at the NRC office in Guwahati to release the final draft of the register that excluded over 40 lakh applicants.
Following that, the SC – a bench of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justice R F Nariman – severely reprimanded him and RGI Sailesh for talking to the press and threatened to put them behind bars.
In September, Hajela drew criticism from the BJP and multiple civil society groups, when he suggested to the SC that five documents out of the 15 List A documents of the NRC process – 1951 NRC, voters’ lists up to March 24, 1971, citizenship certificate, refugee registration certificate and ration cards issued prior to March 24 1971 – be rendered ineligible in the ‘claims and objections’ round, the step next in line after the final draft.
In his report dated October 4, Hajela told the apex court why he thought the five documents should be excluded and raised serious concerns about forgery, digital manipulation by software like Photoshop, and misuse by alleged non-citizens to try to get their names into the NRC.
But the SC later allowed the five documents.
A week after Hajela’s Facebook post on obstacles, the Assam government and the Centre petitioned the SC for re-verification of a sample of names included in the draft NRC – 20% in border districts and 10% elsewhere – but this was dismissed by the apex court after Hajela said that re-verification of 27% names was already done.
Since then, the state government and the state unit of the BJP have lashed out at every possible opportunity against Hajela. In a statement on July 24, the state BJP said Hajela was working under the direction of “certain forces” to “publish a faulty NRC with names of illegal foreigners in it”.
On August 1, when the state government released the exclusion data of the draft NRC to question the accuracy of the process and criticised Hajela, BJP MLA from Hojai Shiladitya Dev mocked the bureaucrat on the floor of the Assembly saying, “The entire process is left in the hands and mercy of one person who is the state coordinator of the NRC. Nobody is to be heard on it. The Home Ministry in Centre, the Chief Minister of the state – nobody. Only whatever Mr Hajela will provide is the only truth.”
Hajela, a person close to him said, remains undaunted by political criticism. “He says he has sworn allegiance to the Constitution of India and not to any political party. Like the SC said, he believes, the goal is to get the NRC out on time irrespective of what others think.”
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