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Declared foreigner after missing tribunal hearings, Assam woman ‘regains’ citizenship thanks to HC

On September 19, 2017, Foreigners Tribunal 6 declared Sefali Rani Das, a 23-year-old woman from Mohankhal village of Sonai in Cachar district, a foreigner ex parte (without her being present).

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: January 25, 2022 6:57:23 am
Gauhati HCRuling the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution mandate that educational institutions run by state funds should not impart religious teachings, the Gauhati High Court on Friday upheld a 2020 Assam law converting all state-run madrasas into “regular schools”. (Representational image)

After declaring a woman a foreigner in 2017, a foreigners’ tribunal in Assam’s Silchar district last week passed an order declaring her a “citizen of India” following the Gauhati High Court’s intervention.

On September 19, 2017, Foreigners Tribunal 6 declared Sefali Rani Das, a 23-year-old woman from Mohankhal village of Sonai in Cachar district, a foreigner ex parte (without her being present).

When Das petitioned the high court, it set aside the order in July 2021 and gave her another opportunity to prove she was an Indian citizen before the Silchar tribunal. Last Tuesday the tribunal heard the case again and declared that Das was a citizen on the basis of “cogent, reliable and admissible evidence” submitted by her. “She has clearly been able to establish the presence of her grandfather on Indian soil, relatable to the period prior to 25.03.1971 with valid linkage documents of a father as well as herself in accordance with law,” Dharmananda Deb, a member (judge) of the tribunal, wrote in his opinion. March 25, 1971 is the cut-off date to prove citizenship in Assam.

In July 2021, Das had submitted before Gauhati HC that there had been no “wilful negligence” on her part during the proceedings. She said she had not received “proper legal advice” from her then counsel, nor was she “well-versed with the legal provisions”, and thus, had missed her hearing dates.

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Not first high court intervention

This is not the first time HC intervened to give another chance to those declared foreigners by Foreigners' Tribunal. In September and November 2021, the court had passed similar judgements overturning ex-parte opinions by FT, underlining the importance of citizenship as a right in today’s world, and emphasising how it should be decided on the “basis of merit”.

As per the FT’s observations, Das had failed to appear before the Tribunal on fives dates February and September 2017, and was declared foreigner, ex-parte.

Das’s present lawyer, Mahitosh Das, told the Indian Express that her previous lawyer had not informed her about the proceedings. “We assume there was some sort of communication gap between them… She comes from a very poor family and is the wife of a teacher who is now out of a job. They do not understand most of this. That is why there was so much confusion,” he said.

In its judgment, a high court bench of Justices N Kotiswar Singh and Soumitra Saikia allowed Das one more opportunity to prove her case, stating that citizenship was a “very important right of a person”, which “should ordinarily be decided on merit rather than by way of default as has happened in the present case”.

This is not the first time that the high court has intervened to give another chance to those declared foreigners by tribunals. In September and November last year, the court similarly overturned the tribunals’ ex parte opinions, underlining how citizenship should be decided on the “basis of merit”.

Mahitosh said the FT this time accepted Das’s documents — which linked her to her father and grandfather, who are pre-1971 residents of Assam.

Das claims her grandfather, Dulrabram Das, had entered India following religious persecution in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1950. While he initially lived in Choto Dudhpatil under Silchar Police Station, he later moved to Mohankal, when he acquired land and property.

She submitted Dulrabram’s land documents, dated to 1952, as well as his record on the Voters’ List of 1965. She also provided copies of her father, Lakshi Das’s, voters’ list record from 1993, which mentioned him as Dulrabram’s son.

To link herself with her parents, Das submitted her Board of Secondary Education documents as well as birth certificate, which mentions Lakshi’s name. Her elder brother, Ranjit Das, also submitted oral evidence.

During the earlier tribunal hearing, the state argued her link to her parents could not be established because even if Das had submitted the documents, she did not declare them in a written statement. However, this time the tribunal cited a previous Gauhati High Court order (Haider Ali vs Union of India 2021), to say non-disclosure of documents in a written statement “cannot be a ground for disbelieving a document”.

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