People’s Tribunal on NRC Opens to Tales of Trials and Tribulations

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People’s Tribunal hearing those excluded from the NRC’s final list

Abdul Bari Masoud | Caravan Daily

NEW DELHI – “Mere Khandan ke 33 main se sirf teen members key naam NRC kee final list main aaye hain, mere grandfather 1921 main paida huaye, unka naam 1951 kee NRC main hain, hamare pass sab documents hain magar…” (Of the 33 members of my family, only three (3) could make it to the final list of National Register of Citizenship (NRC) despites producing all the documents including legacy data, my grandfather’s 1921’s birth certificate, his name in 1951 NRC, voter list of consecutive elections and others papers.)

This is was testified by one, Shajahan Ali Ahmed from Baksa district (Assam), at the People’s Tribunal on Contested Citizenship in Assam – Constitutional Processes and the Human Cost’, which began on Saturday here at the Indian Society of International Law Auditorium in front of the Supreme Court of India.

35-year-old Shajahan Ali’s name was also missing from the list. Ali’s district is situated at the Bhutan border. Deposing before a jury consisting of legal experts including retired judges Justice Madan B Lokur, Justice AP Shah, Prof Faizan Mustafa, Ms Syeda Hamid, Ms Gita Hariharan, and ambassador Deb Mukherjee, he said, “our family presented family tree data, and grandfather’s all documents from birth (1921) to his death but only three members were included in the final draft of NRC.”

Shajahan Ali, who came into limelight because of his “Miyah poetry”, said an All Assam Student Union (AASU) member who lived more than 70 km away from his village raised objection to our citizenship. Ali, who as an activist is engaged in helping poor get their names registered with the NRC, also revealed that he and other poetry club members got threat on phone but the police did not take any action against the caller despite registering an FIR.

In his testimony, Shakil Ahmed (Kalgachia, Barpeta District), said, “My father‘s name is in the 1951 NRC. I even have land ownership document of 1939. But some AASU members questioned our citizenship even though they don’t know us. We are genuine citizens of India, the Khilonjia (Assamese word for local population) and hence want an end to our harassment at the hands of the AASU, he added.

Echoing similar refrain, Masooma Begum, a young woman activist from Lakhimpur who lives in Gauhati, said her name is missing from the final list while her entire family is included in the list. In her testimony, she told the jury that her father and grandfather are government servants as also other family members. Yet her name was not included in the final list.

The reason for her omission, as she herself claims, could be that she failed to depose before NRC officials at Lakhimpur, 400 km away from Gauhati, as she received a call from the NRC authorities for her deposition just two days before the publication of the final list.

She told the jury that many women failed to enroll themselves with the NRC as they were illiterate; especially the Char (islands) people.

Another omission is Mizanur Rehman Shaikh (Howripet, Kokrajhar district). He recounted an experience familiar to most of the victims of official apathy in other parts of the states. Many victims of NRC apathy, activists, lawyers and community leaders involved in NRC process testified before a people’s tribunal held for two days to discuss issues related to citizenship.

Speaking on the subject, noted rights and social activist, Harsh Mander, said the contestations about citizenship in Assam is unlikely to end with the publication of final NRC list. At least 28 people, who had lost hope of proving their citizenship, have committed suicides.

He said, “The estimates of illegal immigrations are grossly exaggerated. Most of the Bengali origin people living in Assam are the descendents of those who came in here legally when this was one country.”

He cited the relatively low final tally in support of his contention. This is the tally of illegal immigrants despite a highly flawed process entirely loaded against the so-called foreigners. It seems to vindicate their (the Bengali people’s) stand. Mander made a passionate appeal that we should contemplate on the human cost of this futile exercise and put an end to people’s anxieties.

It is important to conduct such a people’s tribunal humanely, in the wake of exclusion of over 19 lakh people from the final NRC list, because the people worst affected “… are overwhelmingly from minority ethnic, religious and linguistic groups – Muslims and Hindus of Bengali descent and Nepali-speaking – with high percentages of women, children and daily wagers, all among the most marginalised and excluded communities,” said Mander.

Shedding light on the Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs), an activist and lawyer, Aman Wadud, said they were creation of executive order which is a clear violation of the constitution.

Wadud, who practices in Gauhati High Court, said the decisions of the FTs were deeply inconsistent, most having been passed ex-parte. Manned mostly by lawyers with 10 years of experience, rather than judges, he said a recent investigation into working of the FTs provided a grim window into the working of such bodies.

“In the tribunals studied nearly nine out of 10 cases were against Muslims. Almost 90 per cent of those Muslims were declared illegal immigrants as compared to 40% Hindus tried. Every person faced the tribunals was from Bengali-speaking ethnic group,” Wadud added.

Jamsheed Ali, a Gauhati based activist, was of the opinion that “illegal immigrants or Bangladeshi infiltrators are a psychological problem that exists in the minds of a few sick minds” in Assam.

The issue of immigration was first raised in 1979 with the allegation that 5 million Bangladeshis entered in Assam illegally. The figure rose steadily from 5 million to 6, 7, 8 and 12 million, but the final list of the NRC debunked this myth. Giving the break-up data of 19 lakh people who were excluded from the final document publish on August 31, 2019, he said out of this, 3.50 lakh are Hindi speaking people who did not apply after their names were not included in the first list and one lakh are Gurkhas while the rest are Bengali-speaking people most of whom are Char people (living around rivers) who lost their documents because of frequent displacement due to floods.

Saajad Hassan blamed arbitrary producers and systematic discrimination in the updating process the NRC for the outcome.

Gautam Bhatia, an Oxford Law research scholar, highlighted the multiple procedural irregularities that have characterised the Supreme Court monitored NRC: The use of sealed covers, consequential decisions being taken in closed-door hearings and the bench’s disturbing disregard for due process rights. In this context, he referred to a judgment of the Supreme Court where it had struck down the IMDT Act in 2005. Quoting the American Supreme Court’s late 19th century judgment of Chinese migration, the apex court had then said, “The “migration is tantamount to external aggression”.

Supporting his views, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan criticised the way the Supreme Court dealt with the issue. Referring to the use of sealed cover method on the NRC and Rafale deal issues, Bhushan said, “The whole judicial sealed method is a shame and disgrace for the judiciary.”

Noted activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad said the “discriminatory and arbitrary” manner in which the updating process was carried out has caused despair among many and has, to-date, resulted in over 50 suicides. She said still 1.77 lakh people’s fate is limbo.

Mrinal Sharma from Amnesty International, Gauhati High Court advocate Mustafa Khaddam Hussain, Assamese writer Mitra Phuken and others also put forth their views before the jury. However, differing from the views of the speakers, senior journalist Sanjoy Hazarika, who is from Assam, said it is an emotive issue in Assam as Assamese people fear threat to their culture and language from the Bengali-speaking people.

The tribunal has been co-organised by the civil society groups and human rights organisations including Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms, Aman Biradari, Common Cause, National Dalit Movement for Justice, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, National Alliance of People’s Movements, Satark Nagrik Sangathan, Citizens for Justice and Peace, Delhi Solidarity Group, Swaraj Abhiyaan, Citizens Against Hate and Human Rights Law Network.

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