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Assam NRC: 15 Lakh People, Less Than 300 ‘Judges’ To Decide Their Fate

Are Assam’s Foreigners' Tribunals prepared to handle the flood of appeals post the publication of the National Register of Citizens (NRC)?
In this Aug. 28, 2019, photo, people wait at the Foreigner's Tribunal office in Barpeta, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. India plans to publish a citizenship list in the northeastern state of Assam on Saturday, Aug. 31, that advocates hope will help rectify decades of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Critics of the list worry it will leave millions of people stateless, leading to detention or deportation. Some cases have even led to suicide. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Aug. 28, 2019, photo, people wait at the Foreigner's Tribunal office in Barpeta, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. India plans to publish a citizenship list in the northeastern state of Assam on Saturday, Aug. 31, that advocates hope will help rectify decades of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Critics of the list worry it will leave millions of people stateless, leading to detention or deportation. Some cases have even led to suicide. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

NEW DELHI — The Assam government has repeatedly assured that exclusion from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is not necessarily the end of the road for the 19 lakh people who have been left out and that they will get another chance by appealing at the Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT) set up across Assam.

However, the numbers post publication of the NRC don’t seem to quite add up. Of the 19 lakh people who have not figured in the NRC, nearly 3-4 lakh people already had cases pending against them in the tribunals, making them ineligible for the NRC until they are resolved.

The remaining 15 lakh will have to move to tribunals to appeal against their exclusion and prove their citizenship.

HOW MANY FOREIGNERS TRIBUNALS ARE THERE?

According to senior lawyer Zakir Hussein, at present 100 tribunals exist across Assam. Of them, 21 were not functional as ‘judges’ had not been appointed for them.

The Supreme Court had approved the setting up of 200 more tribunals and in mid-August this year, another 221 people were shortlisted from nearly 3000 applicants to become tribunal members. The vacancies in the existing tribunals will be filled up from the new recruitments, making the total number of tribunals to exist in Assam 300.

The Centre had claimed that they will help Assam set up 1000 tribunals, however, no timeline has been set for it.

HOW MANY ‘JUDGES’ COMPRISE A TRIBUNAL?

ONE.

Each foreigner tribunal has one ‘judge’, or ‘member’ as they are officially called apart from clerks and some support staff.

That would mean, if all the 300 tribunals present in Assam were to hear appeals of the 15 lakh people excluded from the NRC, each member would have to hear at least 5,000 appeals on an average. However, that number will not be the same as cases will be allotted to tribunals based on the district an excluded person is a resident of.

Hussein pointed out that even if all the 300 tribunals worked to their utmost capacity, the number was grossly ‘insufficient’. Add to that the nearly 4 lakh cases which are already pending in the existing 100 tribunals and the number is daunting to say the least.

Lawyer Aman Wadud pointed out that the existing tribunals are already burdened with a staggering number of cases and often take long to dispose them, the new appeals will be a sizable burden on them.

Hussein further added that it is still not clear if all the 300 tribunals will all hear appeals from people excluded from the NRC. “Of the 100 existing ones, some have been empowered to hear appeals of those left out of the NRC. For example, if there are 5 tribunals in a district, one has been made an appellate tribunal and empowered to hear cases of NRC exclusions. The others, I presume, will go on with the existing foreigner tribunal cases they are dealing with,” Hussein said.

Wadud pointed out that looking at the staggering number of people left out, if the authorities were to set up more tribunals, the process would take at least two-three months.

For example, Hussein added, though the NRC has been published and the government asked people to appeal to FTs, the 200 new ones are not functional yet. It is not clear when they will become functional considering the infrastructure and support staff has not been figured out for them. Only the members have been selected in a procedure that was concluded only this month.

HOW LONG DO TRIBUNALS TAKE TO DECIDE CITIZENSHIP CASES?

Wadud said the timeline varies from two months to a year to even longer. “It depends on the FT member hearing the case. In some tribunals, the members give multiple dates in a short period of time and the case is decided in two months. In other instances, I have seen cases go on for one-and-a-half year, two years or even longer,” he said.

The time taken to resolve the case and the expenses incurred while filing an appeal, Hussein explained, will depend on the reason given by the Assam government to the NRC applicant for rejecting his/her application. “The deputy commissioner (district magistrate) will be issuing notices to all the 15 lakh applicants whose did not make it to the NRC citing a reason why their application was rejected. On the basis of the reason, a case has to be built and an appeal has to be made at the concerned tribunal,” Hussein told HuffPost India.

WHO CAN BE A TRIBUNAL ‘JUDGE’?

A notice issued by Guwahati High Court in June this year, inviting applications to be members of Foreigner Tribunals specified that an applicant could be any of the following:
— Retired judicial officers of Assam judicial service
— Retired civil servants not below the rank of secretary or additional secretary, having judicial experience
— Advocates who are not below 35 years of age and has at least 7 years of experience.

The notice says that the applicants should have a good grasp of Assam’s official language and ‘historical background giving rise to foreigner’s issues’.

A notification issued earlier this year by the Central home ministry specified that tribunal members can regulate their own procedures to dispose cases if they wished to giving rising to speculations about bias and arbitrary judgments.

In 2017, four of 19 FT members whose terms were not extended by the Assam government on accusations of unsatisfactory performance challenged the decision in the Guwahati HC. One of the lawyers, who had not challenged the decision, told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity that they received communication from the government’s home department that they were inadequacies in their performance.

While he refused to elaborate further, case files show that the lawyer for one of the petitioners challenging the government’s evaluation of their performance had argued that they were unfairly penalised for not declaring enough people foreigners. “It is argued by him that in the discharge of functions as a Member of FT, the petitioners have to follow a judicial approach and the number and percentage of foreigners declared, which were also taken into consideration, cannot be a relevant consideration,” a copy of the judgment said.

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact indiasupport@huffpost.com.