The plight of Jabeda Begum alias Jabeda Khatun, a resident of Guwahari village, Baksa district, Assam, reported by this newspaper on Wednesday, shines the light on the flaws in the institutions and the framework designed to address issues related to citizenship in Assam. Her claim to be an Indian citizen was rejected by a Foreigners Tribunal in May 2019, and recently, the Gauhati High Court rejected her appeal even though she presented 15 documents, including voter lists for four years, a parent’s NRC clearance, certificates from the village headman attesting to permanent residency and marriage, ration card, PAN card and bank passbook. The HC ruled that she “failed to prove her linkage with her projected parents and her projected brother” — the Assam Accord mandates that a person must establish that either she or her ancestors had been living in Assam before 1971.
This case illustrates the wider fears and concerns flagged in the context of the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). Critics of the NRC, citing Assam’s example, have argued that it could trap people in red tape and leave them at the mercy of an often bumbling bureaucracy. The NRC in Assam was an expensive failure. The register in 2019 left out nearly two million people, a large number of them non-Muslims, and was then rejected by the state government, which alleged discrepancies in it. Foreigners Tribunals, instituted in 1964, have the authority to decide whether a person is or is not a foreigner within the meaning of the Foreigners Act, 1946. These quasi-judicial bodies have ruled against the citizenship claims of over a lakh people in Assam between 1985 and August 2018. Recently, the Supreme Court held that the orders of the tribunals will prevail over NRC orders on citizenship. However, these tribunals have been found wanting. It has been pointed out that members of the tribunals are short on judicial experience, ignorant of due process, and insensitive to the context in which claims and complaints are filed.
The template for the citizenship debate has been set by Assam. The functioning of Foreigners Tribunals, the appellate authority for those left out of NRC, seems to confirm the worst fears raised about the state embarking on a nightmarishly bureaucratic process to isolate illegal immigrants. Remember how a tribunal in Kamrup declared Indian Army veteran, Mohammad Sanaullah, a foreigner and sent him to a detention centre. The Centre and Assam government need to streamline the functioning of Foreigners Tribunals before they even contemplate the NRC and other such projects in Assam or elsewhere.
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