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An applicant submitting application form for NRC at an NSK in Guwahati
An applicant submitting application form for NRC at an NSK in Guwahati|Representational image
OPINION

Foreigners’ Tribunals and Assam Detention Centres

Will it be possible for the present Tribunals to bear the possible pressure following the release of NRC? 

Jayanta K Goswami

Jayanta K Goswami

The honouable Supreme Court of India has already directed the authorities in National Register of Citizens (NRC) to publish the much-awaited citizens’ register by July 31, 2019. The apex court of the country has already issued directive that NRC staff in Assam deployed in election duty be return back immediately for working specifically on the register to make it published by the stipulated time.

But what will happen to those people whose names will not be included in the final NRC. Obviously, after the publication of the NRC, the persons, whose names will not appear in it, will have the right to appeal before the Tribunals. The million dollar question raises here-- Will it be possible for the present Tribunals to bear the possible pressure following the release of the NRC?

The Government of Assam has rightly decided to increase the number of Foreigners’ Tribunals under the provisions of the Foreigners Act to 1,000 in a phased manner to expedite the cases relating to suspected foreign nationals.

However, realizing the importance of the situation, the Government of Assam has rightly decided to increase the number of Foreigners’ Tribunals under the provisions of the Foreigners Act to 1,000 in a phased manner to expedite the cases relating to suspected foreign nationals.

Undoubtedly, the state government announcement will be appreciated by many. But how long they will take to complete the process relating to the setting up the new Tribunals? Right now, there are only one hundred Foreigners’ Tribunals are functioning in the state and around two lakh cases are pending before the Tribunals. It is also broadly alleged that majority of these Tribunals lack proper infrastructure. Shortage of members, staff and lack of proper infrastructure etc are some of the common features of the existing Tribunals working in Assam. Probably because of this, the Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam have failed miserably to fulfill the expectation of the masses.

At a time when the state government has failed to take care of the existing hundred Tribunals in Assam, how will it work to run 1,000 Tribunals and that too within a short period of time? Forget about others, how will they manage the manpower? Chief Justice Ranjan Kumar Gogoi asked the same question to the Government of Assam in the Supreme Court. Responding to this, representative from the Government of Assam clarified that the Presiding Officers of these Tribunals have to be judicial officers, when the Chief Justice inquired where they proposed to find 1,000 Presiding Officers, the secretary said that they have written to the Gauhati High Court in this behalf. “Where will the High Court get 1,000 presiding officers by August? Because once a person is not included in the NRC, he will apply. Have you given it a thought? Writing to the High Court is not enough...”, remarked Chief Justice Gogoi. As the chief secretary began to say that they shall have a meeting next week, the Chief Justice repeated with incredulity, “Meeting?!”, before proceeding to reflect, “These judges will be tenured appointments. Which advocate or retired judge will come to work for three years? Work out these issues! That is governance!” The chief secretary averred that they are considering whether retired government officers who have undertaken some quasi-judicial work could be considered to man these Tribunals, and Rs 50 crore-proposal for an integrated IT forum for digitization of NRC cases and deportation requests has also been forwarded to the Home Ministry. At this juncture, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta requested the court to defer the hearing to after April 23 once the elections in the state of Assam have been concluded, suggesting that the apex court’s observations could have a crucial impact.

The Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court of India
File image

Only because of the lack of proper functioning of these Tribunals, a huge amount of cases are still pending in these Tribunals.

Realizing the fact, probably, the state government has decided that it would not be possible for them to create 900 more Tribunals at one go and that is why, the plan is to increase the number in a phased manner. In the first phase, 200 new tribunals are planned to be established. Still, creating 200 Tribunals at a time won’t be so easy for the state government. However, the state government should gear up to tackle the situation which may arise in Foreigners’ Tribunals following the release of the NRC by July 31, 2019.

Meanwhile, much has been said in the Supreme Court about the foreigners lodged in the detention camps across the state. The state government has decided to file a fresh affidavit in the Supreme Court on its plan to deal with the suspected foreigners lodged in the detention centres.

The Apex Court recently strongly criticized the state government for its affidavit, in which it proposed to release the foreigners who spent more than five years in the detention centres after obtaining their biometrics and a bond. At present, around 900 persons, who were declared as foreigners by the Tribunals, are lodged in the detention centres.

At present, there are six detention camps in Assam – housed within the districtjails in Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Tezpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Silchar – and arehome to some 1,000-odd ‘declared foreigners’. Overall, the FTs in Assam have declared 85,000 people as ‘foreigners’ so far.
Relatives of D voters line up to meet their relatives at the detention camp in Kokrajhar, Assam
Relatives of D voters line up to meet their relatives at the detention camp in Kokrajhar, Assam
EastMojo File Image

The government of Assam has got the green signal from the Centre to build a new detention facility for holding people who were unable to prove their citizenship at the Foreigners Tribunals (FTs) in the state. At present, there are six detention camps in Assam – housed within the district jails in Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Tezpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Silchar – and are home to some 1,000-odd ‘declared foreigners’. Overall, the FTs in Assam have declared 85,000 people as ‘foreigners’ so far.

However, the ground condition in the existing detention camps in Assam is really bad. It’s been alleged that inmates are passing uncertain life in inhuman conditions. It is also broadly alleged that many inmates are languishing in such camps despite having their all “required documents”.

Apart from other legal and official issues, it is also alleged that a large section of genuine Indian citizens are languishing in these centres. It is believed that the clerical mistakes on the part of NRC operators, lack of proper education among the people and poverty etc., are some of the issues for which a section of genuine Indian citizens, irrespective of their religion, are allegedly passing sleepless nights in these centres. Incidentally, natural calamities like flood and erosion of Brahmaputra river have also add to the woes of the D-voters.

At a time when the state government is contemplating to file another affidavit in the Supreme Court regarding the D-Voters issue, it should be responsibility of all concerned to think about the issue seriously and take adequate steps so that no genuine India citizens should be harassed in the name of D-Voters.

(The author is an assistant editor at EastMojo. Views expressed are his own)