NRC: Fact-finding team finds anomalies, bias in functioning of foreign tribunals
A fact-finding team sent to Assam by a civil society group called United Against Hate found that foreign tribunals were trying to declare as many Bengali Hindus and Muslims foreigners as possible
Omela Khatun, 40, a resident of Mangaldai of district Darrang is an example of how the Foreign Tribunals function. The Darrang Superintendent of Police filed a case against Omela Khatun in FT, alleging that she was a foreign national. She testified in front of the FT and showed relevant documents as proof of her citizenship including voter list of her parents and grandparents who have been casting their votes since 1966. Khatun was declared as Indian Citizen on the basis of the documents she presented and her oral submission.
In 2019, a complaint was made by the Police saying that Khatun entered Assam after March 25, 1971. Omela Khatun argued that she has been declared as ‘Indian Citizen’ back in 2015 and has submitted relevant documents as proof. On July 18, 2019, FT changed the decision on the basis of her lineage and declared Khatun as a ‘Foreigner’. Khatun produced her PAN card in front of the FT with her father’s name on it, along with the voter list of 1971 in which her father has cast his vote.
Khatun’s case is not an anomaly, it is the new normal in Assam. A fact-finding team sent by a civil society group called United Against Hate, checked on allegations against foreigners tribunals in Assam. They stated in their report that FTs were trying to declare "as many Bengali Hindus and Muslims foreigners as possible".
“We found lots of anomalies and a clear bias in the way the foreigners tribunals are disposing of cases,” the team said in its report, which was titled ‘Democracy under Detention: Horrors of NRC’.
National Register Of Citizenship or NRC is a by-product of Assam agitation which started in the 1970s. The agitation started with the specific aim to weed out outsiders or illegal residents from the state of Assam. The term changed gradually from outsiders or foreigners to Nepali and Bangladeshis. Later these words were transformed to just Bangladeshis, both Hindu and Muslim. The perception changed with time and now it is just Bengali speaking Assamese Muslims who are regarded as the real infiltrators.
After the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014 and also won the State election in Assam within two years, NRC became a weapon to wave the communal flag as Muslims were at the receiving end of the whole exercise. BJP’s whole declaration of changing the Citizen Act to give Hindus immigrant refugee status made the intentions of the BJP government clear.
The final NRC list was published on August 31, 2019, after intense exercise of six years in which 19,06,675 people were left out. As there is no community wise break up, it is unclear which linguistic and religious groups have been suffered the most. According to common consensus, it seems that out of 19 lakh people excluded from the NRC list, less than half are Hindus.
However, the reactions from different groups in Assam on the NRC states that the list has failed to solve the original Assam agitation but has accentuated the societal and religious fault lines among the communities in the state.
One of the major Petitioners in support of NRC, The Assam Public Works is not happy with the final NRC list also with the state BJP, AGP and the Assamese in general.
There are 11 million Muslims in Assam out of which just 1.5 million speak Assamese and the rest speak Bengali. Assamese Muslims claim Assamese as their mother tongue whereas Bengali Hindus claim Bengali as their mother tongue.
Foreigners Tribunal or popularly known as FT is a body which was specifically set up to decide who is a foreigner and who is not. The FT became notoriety after the NRC process kicked in in 2013.
The heads of FTs or members are appointed on a contractual basis for two years. Their job renewal is in the hands of the executive.
According to data tabled in the Assam assembly recently the total number of cases that went to FTs since 2005 is 461305 in which 25934 have been disposed. Out of the disposed cases 103764 were declared foreigners. In 55% of cases, that is 57384, the FT has given ex parte judgment.
This raises a question of how come the majority of the decisions in the FT have been taken in the absence of the accused.
An individual whose case is rejected by the FT has to go detention center.
As per now, there are six detention camps in different prisons in Assam where 1145 people are kept in subhuman conditions. Out of these 1145 people in the detention camps, 1005 people are declared foreigners and the rest as convicted foreigners. Because of these subhuman conditions, 25 of these have lost their lives in the camps. Surprisingly, their bodies were handed over to their families in India, if they were Bangladeshis then their mortal remains should have been sent to Bangladesh and be handed over to their families there.
“For two hundred people there are only two toilets that are unclean. It's the life of an animal inside the detention centre. I will now prefer committing suicide than going to detention centre now”, said Bassu Ali from Goalpara district, who has spent five years in a detention centre and is recently got out on bail.
The fact-finding team got hold of some of the judgements of the FTs. In many cases there is no investigation done to ascertain whether the accused has valid documents or not. In the judgement copy many pages go blank in the absence of the valid investigation. Still FTs think it fit to pass judgement and declare an individual a foreigner.
In one case the FT reversed its own judgement after declaring a person “not foreigner”. No rhyme and reason were given for this turnaround. This arbitrariness defines the functioning of the FTs.
The performance assessment of FT members by the state government and policy of terminations and extensions of FT members smacks of a political agenda of the ruling BJP. The criteria of ‘good performance’ are simply as to how many citizens FTs are declaring as foreigners. The FT members who are fewer numbers applicants as foreigners are summarily dropped from the tribunals thus giving a clear message to existing members of FTs what they are supposed to do get another extension
Imrana Begam, daughter of sitting Congress MLA Illias Ali has also been excluded from the NRC list. She married Mozammil Hoque of Kharupetia in the district court and lived in front of her Father’s house. As a female child in the family, she was excluded from the property and her Surname was also changed after marriage.
It is safe to say that married women are the biggest sufferers in this whole NRC exercise.
Prutima Banai (27), Goalpara
My case is going on in FT for last 6-7 months. I have been declared as D Voter despite having all documents with me. We are three bothers and four sisters and I am the lone D Voter in family. There is no D Voter in my in laws either – then why I am singled out. I have no idea as how why this has happened with me. In my village 12 people have been declared as D Voter of these 10 are women. I fear that any day I will be sent to detention centre.
Vinita Banai (45) Tinkonia Banaipara
I have all papers with me and yet my name is not there. My son’s name is there but mine is excluded. I am a daily wager and living in fear as to when I will be sent to jail. I have no money to fight my case.
Sipali Hajang, Pusimatia
My name hasn’t come in NRC despite having complete papers. Sipali is a daily wage labourer at detention centre. I am afraid coming here but have no option but to work for money. I don’t know they will keep me here or not.
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