Interview with Swati Bidhan Baruah

Swati Bidhan Baruah is a vocal advocate for the plight of the transgender community in Assam. Not only was Ms. Baruah Gauhati University’s first transgender law student, but she also went on to become Assam’s first transgender judge. Ms. Baruah has fought and won several cases for the recognition of trans rights. Her organization, the All Assam Transgender Association, has been consistently working towards the realisation of the rights of the transgender community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Natasha Maheshwari: Ms. Baruah, you filed a plea before the Supreme Court against the exclusion of 2000 persons belonging to the transgender community from the National Register of Citizens (‘NRC’). What motivated you to file the case? What was the Supreme Court’s response? Were they sympathetic to the problems of the community?

Swati Bidhan Baruah: Many transgender persons are abandoned or disowned by their families. When they leave their homes in search of a community, they stay with us. Neither do they have any connection with their parental homes nor any documentation that can help them establish linkage with their parents or guardians.  In such a situation, will they be termed as foreigners? Are they not citizens of India? 

Additionally, the first step of the NRC process i.e. the NRC form, allowed persons to choose from three gender categories — male, female, and other. By including the ‘other’ category, trans persons were given the right to identify themselves. However, when the first draft of the NRC was published, many trans persons found themselves to be excluded from the list. That is when I spoke to Mr Prateek Hajela, the then NRC Coordinator. Mr Hajela assured me that the government will implement the necessary evolving principles required to ensure the inclusion of members of the transgender community. This would be done through a claims and objections procedure. 

But the claims and objections procedure forced trans persons to identify as either ‘male’ and ‘female’, i.e. the ‘other’ category was not included. Now, let’s assume that I chose to identify my gender as ‘other’ while filling the NRC form and later, did not find myself included in the first draft of the NRC. While filing a claim or an objection, the ‘other’ category was not mentioned, thereby forcing me to identify as either male or female. So on one hand, the NRC process purports to allow trans persons to participate in it while simultaneously disallowing us from identifying ourselves. This process is violative of the 2014 NALSA judgment which gave trans persons the right to self identify in addition to leading to discrepancies in data thereby leading to problems in proving citizenship. 

When I spoke to Prateek Hajela about this he did not provide us with a satisfactory response. This is why we found it imperative to file an intervention application before the Supreme Court. 

[The NRC] is also violative of the rights of orphaned children. How are they supposed to identify themselves as citizens? In order to be included in the NRC, you have to show the authorities your family tree and establish linkage parents. That becomes impossible.

In the court, the ex-CJI told us that we have missed the bus, the Court could not restart the procedure [to ensure our inclusion].  My submission is that if we have missed the bus, aren’t trains and flights available? Why do they not want to accommodate us? However, the Supreme Court did not dismiss our petition. They kept it standing and issued notice to the State Government. The matter is still pending. 

NM: What is the experience of the transgender community in Assam during the NRC? Were the NRC Seva Kendras (‘NSKs’) receptive to the trans community’s complaints? Did they help members of the community to look for their legacy data?  What has been the community’s experience in producing legacy and linkage documents necessary for inclusion in the NRC been?

SBB: The officers at the NRC Seva Kendras were extremely insensitive. Most members of the trans community do not have any documents to prove their citizenship; the government has not taken any initiative to recognise them. As a result they find themselves excluded from the NRC process. 

The officers did not allow us to enter the Seva Kendra. Often, quarrels took between trans persons and officials. But this has not been highlighted by the media. I believe that the media plays a very important role in sensitising members of the society and officers of the government. It is very important that the NALSA judgment is implemented so that our rights are realised and recognised. 

The NRC process requires you to enclose documents to show your father’s presence in the country before the year 1971. Thereafter, you have to produce your birth or school certificates to establish a relationship with your father. This entire process is violative [of trans rights] and doesn’t have any evolving principles. 

Most trans people do not have documentation that will enable them to prove citizenship. Let me give you an example: let us assume, before transitioning, you were a boy, your name was Rahul. Now, you have transitioned to a girl and your name is Reshma. How do you prove that Rahul is Reshma? The state government is responsible for ensuring that trans persons possess documentation to show that Rahul and Reshma are one and the same person. A few trans persons left home at an older age and still recognise their parents or know of their whereabouts. When they visited their parental homes, their parents refused to give them the required documents. So, in such cases, how do you expect them to produce documents that will enable them to prove citizenship and be enlisted in the NRC?

In 2018, the Ministry of Home Affairs published a report publishing its plans for a nationwide NRC. If the Government of India is planning to extend the NRC process to the entire country it will be a gross violation of the rights of the trans community and orphaned children. 

NM: What were the efforts made by civil society organisations to ensure the inclusion of transgender persons in the NRC? Was the government receptive to these efforts?

SBB: No efforts were made, they did not do anything to help us. Seeing the discrepancies in the NRC process, my organisation, the All Assam Transgender Association, filed an intervention application before the Supreme Court pleading for a trans friendly NRC. 

NM: How can the government make sure that transgender persons are included within the NRC, i.e., what would a trans-inclusive NRC look like?

SBB: I believe that the government should keep the trans community in mind before initiating any process (and I am not referring to the NRC alone). They should recognise us as a part of society, we should not be alienated and marginalised. Keeping in mind the Supreme Court’s judgment in the NALSA case, the government should evolve a process that is trans friendly. Necessary principles need to be framed specifically for the trans community. If a trans person does not have documents then self-identification should suffice and be accepted as a valid document. If NRC Seva Kendras can exist for men and women, why can’t transgender persons have one?

NM: In 2018, the United Nations raised concerns of the purposeful exclusion of minority groups from the NRC by the local authorities. Do you agree with this concern?

SBB: Yes, I do. The NRC should not violate anyone’s interest. And I am not referring to trans persons only. For example, take yourself, you are born and educated in India. You are religious to the motherland. If someone comes and initiates a process that might declare you as a foreigner, how will that make you feel? It is very problematic!

Instead of implementing an NRC, I believe that the government should define the border.  This will prevent trespassing. There should also be an Inner Line Permit in the state along with a law to protect the interest of domiciles. So, there are other ways to protect the rights of the indigenous communities. The NRC is an extremely regressive alternative.

NM: Foreigners’ Tribunals (‘FTs’) are vested with extraordinary power due to the highly restricted criterion for judicial review. They are also allowed to evolve their own rules of procedure. As Assam’s first transgender judge, what is your opinion on the competence of the Foreigners’ Tribunals, which are quasi-judicial bodies, and its members to decide a person’s citizenship?

SBB: They may be vested with extraordinary powers but their orders are often challenged before the High Court and Supreme Court. They are also quashed, if need be. So there is nothing to worry about. A discrepancy, if any, seems to have arisen in ensuring the appointment of FT member judges. After the NRC process was completed. the government was supposed to set up more Tribunals to ensure justice to the persons excluded from the NRC. However, despite the selection of 200 member judges, their appointment has not been disbursed. And yes, there is executive interference and bureaucratic resistance in the functioning of the FTs.Of course, it is a matter of concern. But, in respect of matters concerning transgender persons, if we find any discrepancies in the FT orders, we will challenge them in addition to questioning the credibility of the FT member. 

NM: What, in your opinion, has been the role of the Gauhati High Court in upholding due process in cases before Foreigners’ Tribunals?

SBB: Several Muslims were excluded from the NRC solely because of their name. Suppose a man’s surname is Ali, but his father’s surname was Hussain and his mother’s surname was Begum. Now this man has given birth to 4 children. So one child uses Ali as his surname, another writes Hussain, and the third writes Begum. Their surnames do not match with each other and as a result they were declared as foreigners. The Gauhati High Court intervened in cases like these and rectified the judgment of the FTs. Of course, the court is the ultimate remedy. We must have some faith in the judiciary. There are good judges with a strong conscience who have expanded the area of jurisprudence and rectified the mistakes of the FTs. 

Natasha Maheshwari is a fifth-year law student at Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai.

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