A People’s Tribunal’s on the ‘Contested Citizenship in Assam’ has lambasted the Supreme Court for its handling of the NRC exercise in Assam, asserting it had ‘spawned a humanitarian crisis’.
The tribunal comprised former Supreme Court Judges Madan B. Lokur and Kurian Joseph, former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court A.P. Shah, former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Deb Mukharji, writer Githa Hariharan, activist Syeda Hameed and academics Faizan Mustafa and Monirul Hussain.
The tribunal, in its hearing held on September 7-8, focused on four questions: constitutional status of the NRC process, role of judiciary in it, the human cost of NRC and the implications of extending NRC to the whole country.
The People’s Tribunal pointed out that the Supreme Court had “erroneously equated migration with ‘external aggression’ or invasion which, in effect, dehumanised migrants and infringed their rights to personal liberty and dignity”.
It said the judiciary’s “insistence on setting deadlines” had “increased the pressure on both the process and the people involved”.
The tribunal said the SC had established ‘a constitutional requirement ‘placing the burden of proof on the individual accused as foreigner rather than on the state by invoking Art 355’.
The tribunal heard testimonies on the burden of proof being shifted to the residents to prove their citizenship.
Further, the jury noted that documents related to birth and schooling being insisted upon, which are not always easy to furnish.
Even when these documents were provided, there were instances of them being discredited over discrepancies creeping in because of “English-language spelling of Bengali names” or “in age”.
People shared their experiences of “being thrown into detention centres”, with Harsh Mander noting that the conditions in such centres in Assam were “beyond abominable”.
“It is a jail within a jail, a situation of mass mourning,” he said.
The tribunal observed that the conditions for release from detention camps are “difficult,” which “cannot be met by marginalised and vulnerable people”.
Following the people’s testimonies, Hariharan noted that the NRC process had put “already very disadvantaged people through the maze of an ill-conceived, arbitrary process – insensitive to their reality”.
The jury was also highly critical of the manner of SC’s “overseeing of the NRC process between 2013-2019” saying that it raised serious constitutional concerns.
It noted that there was “extensive use of sealed covers to determine the methods to establish legacies (family tree) under the NRC”.
Additionally, the court had undertaken what was essentially an “administrative process” – preparation of the NRC list.
“When the courts ‘take charge’ of such processes, the system of remedies is virtually taken away,” the jury noted.
The citizens’ tribunal also took note of the possibility of “executive influence” in the functioning of Foreigners Tribunals which are not independent.
“Tenure and salaries are decided by the government, keeping the members under the supervision and control of the appointing authority.”
Expressing concern that there was no sign of the humanitarian crisis that had been caused by the NRC abating, the tribunal said the process had pitted the “need of Assamese people for linguistic and cultural security” against “the human tragedy that has unfolded in the last two decades”.
It further observed: “The fear of getting excluded from the NRC, being declared as foreigner and finally being sent to detention centre, has created a situation of permanent paranoia among the vulnerable communities, especially Bengal-origin Assamese Muslim and Bengali Hindus living in the state of Assam.”
This fear, the tribunal said, had created “anxiety and pushed many people to suicide”.
Apart from focusing on the disproportionate burden placed on vulnerable groups, including women, the jury took note of violation of child rights in the NRC process.
In several cases, it said, children born to single mothers/victims of polygamy were not mentioned in the family tree, leading to exclusion from the final list.
The tribunal said while the notifications issued by the central government did not formally initiate an all-India NRC, they did lay down the groundwork for such an exercise.
The National Population Register (NPR) notification “could allow collection and maintenance of sensitive and unprotected data and, possibly, be used to target vulnerable individuals and groups.”
The NPR, it noted, “also violates the right to privacy”.
The People’s Tribunal is so far the most pronounced citizens’ effort to contest the NRC process in Assam and the Modi government’s plans to extend it to the rest of the country.
The Congress, Left parties and Trinamool Congress have already passed a resolution in the West Bengal assembly opposing the NRC exercise.