Citizenship gives an individual the right to have other rights and a process like drafting of the Nation Register of Citizens (Assam NRC) must follow a strict procedure, a Jury of a People’s Tribunal observed on Sunday.
Following an intense two-day hearing of depositions by experts and testimonies of those affected in Assam, a Jury comprising retired judges, legal experts, activists, writers, and professors chalked out the issues plaguing the NRC exercise and the grim situation that it has led to. In its interim report, the Jury opined,
“In the context of Assam – as well as in the context of the entire country – citizenship, as the right to have rights, is one of the most basic, fundamental human rights in modern societies. Deprivation of citizenship must follow the most rigorous procedure available and the overriding concerns must be fairness and efficiency.”
The Jury comprised retired judges of the Supreme Court, Justice Madan Lokur and Justice Kurian Joseph, Former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice AP Shah, Professor Faizan Mustafa, Human Rights Activist Syeda Hamid, Ambassador Deb Mukherjee, Writer Githa Hariharan, and Professor Monirul Hussain.
The Jury Report
The Jury found that the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Sarbananda Sonowal, as well as the exercise of overseeing and monitoring the process of NRC from 2013 till now, raise very pertinent constitutional questions.
While overseeing the process of NRC, the Supreme Court took on an administrative task and in situations like this, the system of remedies is virtually taken away, the Jury opined. Important questions as to the functioning and independence of the Foreigners Tribunals, which will decide on the appeals filed by those dropped from the NRC, have also been raised in the report.
The judiciary’s role in the process has increased the hardships, rather than easing the process given that strict deadlines were set leading to elevated pressure on the authorities. The focus of the courts on deportation and detention rather than on release of detainees is also pointed out by the Jury in its report.
“Judicial orders have set difficult conditions for release from detention camps – conditions that cannot be met by marginalised and vulnerable people.
Despite the scale of the exercise, the judiciary’s insistence on setting deadlines has increased the pressure on both the process and the people involved.”
In the context of Foreigners Tribunal and their functioning, Justice Madan Lokur said that these tribunals were “functioning in an arbitrary manner.” There ought to have been uniformity and a standard procedure to be followed by these Tribunals, which has, however, been absent from the process. He further added that the trend of exercising the option of detaining a person as the first choice as opposed to the jurisprudence of liberty followed in India is very disturbing. He further stated,
“Not enough thought was given to the human cost implication of this process.”
Justice (retd) Kurian Joseph touched upon the aspect of fundamental rights under Articles 14 and 21 being available to non-citizens also in the context of those persons who were left out of the NRC and had to prove their citizenship. Quoting the first line of the Indian pledge, Justice Joseph said,
“All Indians are my brother and sisters… but unfortunately lakhs of people in Assam are not in a position to feel this human dignity and this constitutional dignity.”
The NRC process in Assam, over the years, has caused a humanitarian crisis leading to suicides, anxiety, feeling of cultural and ethnic inferiority and this disenfranchisement process has placed the marginalized and minority groups in great jeopardy and placed a disproportionate burden on vulnerable groups such as women and children. This grim situation has been taken note of by the Jury after hearing devastating testimonies of the people from Assam who endured great suffering.
A host of issues emanating from the NRC and the question of citizenship were raised during the two-day hearing of the Tribunal. This included issues of land, culture, and migration to the evolution of citizenship in India.
Problems in the drafting of NRC and the functioning of Foreigners Tribunal and the constitutional processes, as well as legal remedies and role of Judiciary, also formed a large chunk of the discussion. Setting up of Detention Centres and the process of detaining persons arbitrarily was also discussed in detail.
The speakers included advocates Prashant Bhushan, Vrinda Grover, Mihir Desai, Gautam Bhatia, Aman Wadud, Mustafa Khaddam Hussain, Nizam Pasha along with activists Teesta Setalvad, Harsh Mader, Ravi Nair, Mohsin Alam Bhat, Mrinal Sharma, Sajjad Hassan, Zameer Ali, Abdul Kalam Azad. Professor Neera Chandhoke and Senior Journalist Sanjoy Hazarika also made depositions.
Read the Jury Report.