For over five years, he was the face of Assam’s historic National Register of Citizens (NRC) — an exercise rife with controversy, and statistics of astounding proportions: 3.29 crore applicants, 6.6 crore documents and more than 50,000 employees.
But months after its completion on August 31, 2019, Prateek Hajela, a 1995-batch IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre, remains the target of those unhappy with the NRC, including the Assam government.
Since the publication of the final list, which excluded 19 lakh people, five FIRs have been filed against Hajela, accusing him of allegedly tampering with NRC data and misappropriating funds. Three of the FIRs have been filed by Assam Public Works (APW), the main petitioner of the NRC updation process. It claims that it will file a total of 22 FIRs against the official.
The 50-year-old Hajela, who was relieved of his responsibility as NRC State Coordinator by the Supreme Court last November and moved to Madhya Pradesh, was unavailable for comment. But sources close to the NRC office in Assam said whatever is happening with Hajela amounts to “a witch-hunt”. “There is absolutely no reason to be harassing him like this now,” the sources said.
On February 7, Hajela was booked by the Assam CID on an FIR lodged by APW for allegedly tampering with data for the final list. On February 12, Hajela’s name surfaced again, this time with regard to the disappearance of data on the official NRC website.
“The data had disappeared because Hajela failed to renew the contract with Wipro,” alleged current NRC coordinator, Hitesh Dev Sarma. Sarma’s office has also lodged an FIR against a former employee, a 32-year-old woman, who is known to have worked with Hajela through his tenure from 2014 to 2019, for “not sharing the password of two official email IDs”.
The latest FIR against Hajela follows three filed last September: by APW, by Goriya Moriya Yuva Chatra Parishad and by an individual in Dibrugarh, respectively. The government then released a statement alleging that Hajela was working under the direction of “certain forces” to “publish a faulty NRC with names of illegal foreigners in it”.
Last November, APW filed another FIR, with the CBI, alleging corruption and misappropriation of money from funds allotted by the Centre for the NRC. “The next 19 FIRs will be phased out and lodged in the coming months,” said APW’s president Aabhijeet Sharma. “If we lodge them all at once, people will forget after a while. We will give them one by one. Moreover, we are still in the process of gathering evidence to make our case stronger,” he said.
In 2015, Hajela, who holds a BTech in Electronics from IIT, and his team introduced a key intervention to the NRC exercise: a mechanism of digitising records so that applicants could trace their legacy on an electronic database and generate a unique code to avoid replication due to similar names or surnames of ancestors.
But as multiple extensions were granted by the Supreme Court — January 31, 2016 was the first deadline for the final NRC — and his team grew manifold, Hajela became answerable to not just the apex court, but as it turned out, even the public at large.
In October 2018, a Durga Puja pandal in the Bengali-majority district of Cachar, where Hajela was first posted in 1996, represented him as the “demon” slayed by the goddess.
The following year, Hajela got on the wrong side of the government. In July 2019, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by the ruling BJP for re-verification of NRC names in border districts on Hajela’s word that 27 per cent verification was already done.
This irked the government to such an extent that it went against the Court and released the district-wise exclusion data of the draft NRC to question the accuracy of the process. Describing the exercise as “flawed”, it claimed that the inclusion rate is higher in Bangladesh-border districts, and lower in districts with a predominant indigenous population.
In August 2019, BJP MLA from Hojai, Shiladitya Dev, mocked Hajela in 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.”
The APW and the BJP share common ground on the NRC but both have denied any links to each other. Registered as a society in 2000 by a group of Guwahati-based businessmen, APW chief Sharma said they have worked on a range of issues — for “socio-economic development” and “against ULFA and innocent killings”. Over the last decade, he said, the group has been fighting one main issue: the Bangladeshi.
The APW is convinced that there are “80 lakh” Bangladeshis in Assam, and has demanded 100 per cent re-verification of the NRC. “Earlier, people alleged that we were Congress agents. Later, they said we work with RAW. Now they say we are BJP-RSS agents. We are doing our duty towards the country,” said Sharma.
BJP president Ranjit Dass said the APW “has nothing to do” with the party. “We have had no discussion or any contact with them,” he said.
And yet, it is believed that their constant hounding led Hajela to approach the Supreme Court, seeking a transfer. In October, in former CJI Ranjan Gogoi’s last order with regard to NRC, Hajela was transferred to Madhya Pradesh, where he took charge as Commissioner Health (Principal Secretary) in Bhopal.
While the court did not give any reason for the order, sources close to Hajela said he was compelled to seek this transfer because of security threats.
But then, in December, an “interim audit report” was leaked with observations of an inspection report related to a partial audit of the NRC exercise from 2014 to 2017 by the Accountant General (Audit) pointing to alleged “financial irregularities and impropriety”.
At the time, sources close to the NRC process had said “each objection raised in the inspection was countered” by Hajela’s office. They had also said that “someone is trying to short-circuit” the due procedure for an AG audit “by leaking this report”.
APW’s Sharma said: “We have knocked on every door regarding the misappropriation of funds and inclusion of names illegally, but the result is zero. Instead of listening to us, they transferred Hajela. Only God knows and the Court knows why they did that.”
According to state BJP chief Dass, Hajela did not want to “face the consequences after misusing state funds” and “used tricks” to convince the Supreme Court that he needs to be transferred. “We have been demanding strict action against him. He has intentionally put Bangladeshi names into the list and excluded genuine Indian names,” alleged Dass.
In November 2019, on the last day of his NRC stint, Hajela told The Indian Express: “I am confident of the work that has been done during my tenure. It was a Constitutional duty which I have performed.” Sources close to the NRC exercise said they now fear that “even the Court is not doing anything to protect him”.
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