Interview with Oliullah Laskar

Mr Oliullah Laskar is an advocate who practices before the Gauhati High Court. He is part of the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC), a human rights organisation based in the Barak Valley in Assam. We speak to Mr Laskar about the difference between citizenship and immigration laws, the working of the Foreigner Tribunals, the problems with the NRC, and the tribulations of a lawyer who has fought cases before the FTs.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Oliullah Laskar: Before I begin answering your questions, I would like to give you some context to the Foreigners Act, 1946 and its use as a legislation to determine citizenship. The Foreigners Act (Act) is not equipped to deal with the situation in Assam or across India, if the NRC is implemented across the country. Because the mischief that was sought to be addressed by the Foreigners Act is different from the situation at hand.

The earliest version of the extant Act was passed as an ordinance in 1942. It was amended to become the law that is presently in force —the Foreigners Act 1946.

The Statement of Object and Reasons of the Act calls it a war emergency legislation. During the World Wars, governments tended to be more stringent about their boundaries and had placed restrictions on the entry of foreigners and immigrants. So the context of the promulgation of the legislation was the World War. We have to examine the context and immediate use of the Act in order to understand its present ineffectiveness.

The Foreigners Act, 1946 was not meant to be a legislation to determine citizenship. There is a difference between citizenship and immigration laws. An immigrant is presumed to be a foreigner and on the basis of that presumption she is denied most rights that are otherwise available to a citizen. However, in a citizenship determination exercise, we are determining the rights of people who are presumed to be citizens and already being treated as such.. Therefore, there is a distinction between immigration laws and laws relating to determination of citizenship.

You will find this distinction being recognised in international law jurisprudence. Even agencies of the UN have affirmed that the burden of proof should lie on the State in citizenship determination procedures. But in procedures related to immigration, in most western countries, the burden of proof is on the alleged immigrant. This was discussed in the Sarbananda Sonowal case. But the Supreme Court failed to distinguish between the process related to identification of immigrants and that of citizenship determination exercises. The SC did not make a distinction between otherwise distinct phenomena and therefore it was ruled that the burden of proof in a citizenship determination exercise, like the NRC, should be on the person alleged to be the foreigner.

The categories of persons to whom the Act is applicable is directly related to the question of burden of proof. If we assume that any person can be tried under the Act, then we will find ourselves in an absurd situation — anyone can be accused of being a foreigner.

If anyone can be sent to the Foreigner Tribunals (FT) there will be no meaning of the voter list, casting your vote, forming the government.  If people who have elected the government are being sent to the FTs, what is the legitimacy of the government? At present, we are in this difficult situation because of our failure to distinguish between immigration laws and laws for determining citizenship.

Natasha Maheshwari: In 2019, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that in “nationality determination processes, the burden of proof should lie with the State and not with the individual”. Section 9 of the Foreigners Act, 1946 places the burden of proving citizenship on an individual. Do you think that the IMDT Act, which placed the burden of proof on the State, was more equipped to deal with the question of citizenship?

OL: Citizenship is a very important question. It is not only the question of a person’s rights but of his life as a member of civilised society. The life of his progeny also depends on his citizenship. So it is a very, very serious matter. In fact it is more significant than capital trials.

If we follow a standard of due process or abide by the rule of law rules then the procedure will be stringent. The procedure adopted should be as stringent as that of a criminal trial.

In cases where a person who already enjoys her rights as a citizen under a legal presumption, like having her name in a voter list, is alleged to be a foreigner, the burden of proof should lie on the person who questioned her citizenship status. But in cases where an alleged immigrant is asked to prove her citizenship, the burden of proof should lie on the immigrant herself.

Like the Foreigners Act, the IMDT Act also used a quasi-judicial procedure to determine citizenship. Citizenship should be determined through a trial conducted by a regular court of law, the burden of proof being on the shoulder of those who allege foreignness of the person who is otherwise legally presumed to be a citizen. The proof that is given should be beyond reasonable doubt. Quasi-judicial tribunals like FTs or IMDTs can deal with cases of people who have a legal presumption of being a foreigner like people overstaying the validity of their travel documents which are now being dealt with in criminal proceedings conducted by judicial magistrates. The tribunals, therefore, appear redundant.

NM:  In your opinion, what are some of the problems with the NRC?

OL: There are criticisms from both sides  i.e. advocates for the NRC and those who are against it. The advocates of the NRC say that many people who should not be in the NRC have been included in the list.

Though the NRC intended to detect illegal immigrants, the process was not limited to them. Every citizen of India living in Assam had to file an application giving proof of their citizenship. The burden of proof was on them.

How is the government examining the capacity to vote of the very people who elected them? This is the main problem with the NRC. The other problem is that Clause 3(3) of the Act states that certain persons can register as original inhabitants (OI) if the registering authority is satisfied that they are OIs. But there is no definition of the term OI or procedure for determining who they are. In practice, this clause is applied on the basis of linguistic and ethnic identity.

Another problem is the virtual exclusion of certain types of oral and documentary evidence from the NRC process. As per Section 3 of the Citizenship Act, 1955, people who are born in India before 1987 are citizens by birth.

However, in the NRC application form, there was no provision to claim citizenship by birth by producing a birth certificate. Several countries have restricted the right to claim citizenship, but the basic democratic principle is that a person born in a country has a right to claim citizenship.

However, there is another distinction —  if it is applied to immigrants whose country of origin is known and admitted then it is a different question. If a couple has immigrated from another country with their child and are now living in India with valid travel documents then maybe the country of origin can grant citizenship to their child. But if neither India nor the country of origin recognises the citizenship of the child, then the child will be rendered stateless.

With respect to the right of a person to stay in a country, the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of Hoti v. Croatia,  has ruled that a person who has lived in a country for a very long time cannot be thrown out. 

While India hasn’t ratified the two international conventions on statelessness, Article 21 can be read in a manner such that a person cannot be rendered stateless, because without citizenship one will not have any dignity. Statelessness is the absence of rights. Hannah Arendt has called it civil death. Therefore, Article 21 will prevent a person from being made stateless.

NM: The objective of the National Register of Citizens in Assam was to identify illegal migrants, a long-standing demand of the Assam movement, which found expression in Clause 5 of the Assam Accord and Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955.  Do you think that the NRC has been successful in fulfilling this objective?

OL: I don’t know whether the NRC has failed in its objective but the rhetoric of illegal immigrants is questionable. There are no authoritative findings which prove that there are a large number of immigrants in Assam. The Supreme Court has relied on Governor S.K. Sinha’s report. However, what is the authority of a Governor to make such a report? He is a Governor not the Government.

He did it in his personal capacity and not as the head of the State of Assam. As a Governor does he have this authority? What was the methodology by which he arrived at these numbers?

The works based on census reports does not reveal a significant amount of illegal immigration from our neighbouring countries. There may be illegal immigration but not as much as has been made out to be by the S.K. Sinha report.

An independent enquiry on the question of illegal immigrants should be made and if the committee concludes that there are a large number of illegal migrants they should be deported to their country. But which country do you deport them to? If it is Bangladesh then you cannot do so unless the Bangladeshi government accepts them as their citizens.

In its judgment in Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, the Supreme Court directed the Indian government to speak with their Bangladeshi counterpart to discuss deportation. However, this was not implemented. The acceptance of the Bangladesh government may depend on the process that India uses to detect illegal immigrants. If the process is agreed upon by both countries then if someone is found to be a Bangladeshi immigrant, the government will take them back.

There are many instances of people extending their travel visas and continuing their stay. Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Access requires the government to inform consular authorities about an arrest. If the Bangladesh authorities find that a person who has been arrested for overstaying their visa is a Bangladeshi citizen then they will take them back. The Kulbhushan Jadhav case, which was fought before the ICJ, dealt with the issue of giving consular access to a foreign national. And if consular access is not given, civil society organisations intervene and contact the government of the country from which the person originates.

In the paragraphs above, I am referring to cases in which immigrants are involved. But the NRC is not directly related to such immigrants; the NRC is a process to deprive people who have been living in Assam for generations together of their rights as a citizen.

Even the Prime Minister of India has assured Bangladesh that the NRC is an internal matter. This means there is no question of deportation — the NRC is simply an exercise to make people stateless.

Amnesty International India’s report titled Designed to Exclude shows that the FT members are pressured to declare people as foreigners. There is a process of assessment of the performance of the FT members.  Declaring more people as foreigners is considered an assessment of excellence. Comparatively, the members who declare less people as foreigners are considered to have performed poorly.

Most of the FT members are on contract and they are under tremendous pressure to declare as many people as foreigners as possible. Apart from this, the Gauhati High Court (HC) has generated a sort of jurisprudence on the foreigner tribunals. There are mainly two rules made by the HC (there is no legislative basis for them):

1. In proceedings before the FT oral evidence has no significance.

2. If a document bears an unauthorised impression of a national emblem then it is not admissible.

For establishing linkage, often, women produce a certificate issued by the elected local government (Panchayat president). Panchayat presidents function under Assam’s Panchayat Act. Under the Prevention of Misuse of National Emblem Act 2005, and the Rules made in 2007 there is a schedule enumerating the authorities who can use the national emblem. Panchayat presidents are not allowed to use the national emblem. But they continue to do so.

So when the certificate is produced by the Panchayat president saying that he knows of this person and that they are the son/daughter of so and so whose name appears in the 1971 voter list, this certificate of proof of relationship is not admitted. This is because it uses the national emblem. However, no Panchayat president is ever prosecuted for wrongful usage.

In India the only thing which is considered to determine admissibility of evidence is relevance. If it is relevant it is admissible (the latest judgment on the matter is the verdict of the 3 judge bench in the Rafale review case). If a document is obtained through  criminal or illegal means it is still admissible if it is relevant. But the HC ignores this rule when it comes to trials under the Foreigners Act, 1946

So the first rule excludes oral evidence and the second rule excludes the documents that are available to many people.

These rules make it easier for the FTs to declare people as foreigners.

In most cases people fail to establish relationships with their parents. Section 50 of the Evidence Act, which lays down the evidence that can be used to prove a relationship, is also ignored.

In some cases oral evidence is recorded but not discussed in the decision by the FT or HC. According to the HC oral evidence has no significance before the FT. By excluding oral evidence, the HC has also disregarded the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of  Lal Babu Hussein v. Electoral Registration Officer. While the judgment does not directly deal with the admissibility of oral evidence, it assumes the admissibility of all types of evidence before the court in citizenship matters. 

NM: Recently, at a lecture at the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), you said that the NRC process is exclusionary and discriminatory towards women in general and women from marginalised communities in particular. Can you elaborate?

OL: In 2016, I was sitting in a courtroom in the Gauhati HC. The bench was dealing with challenges filed against FT orders. The Presiding Judge, who is now the CJI of Sikkim HC, Justice A.K. Goswami asked why most of the challenges to FT orders were filed by women.

It is simple — more women are declared as foreigners by the FT which is why more women come to the High Court. It was a general observation made by the Court so the lawyer arguing did not answer Justice Goswami. But the question remains.

Most people who are declared as foreigners belong to the poorest section of the society. These people are uneducated and don’t have a board exam certificate or a birth certificate which can be used to prove relationship with their parents which in turn proves their citizenship. Additionally, the registration of marriage, particularly in the Muslim community, was not compulsory. It was made compulsory by an SC judgment pronounced much later.  However, even after it was made compulsory, a marriage that is not registered is still valid. As a result, many women do not have marriage certificates. Lastly, though the law gives women the right to inherit property, in practice this does not happen in most cases. As a result, often, women are unable to produce documentary proof to establish a relationship, particularly with their fathers.

In the case of men, some of them study up to matriculation and have board certificates. Those who do not have board certificates have land documents on which they mutate their name in the place of parents. They can use this document to show their relationship with their father. Men also put their father’s name on the voter list.

Women are frequently married before the age of 18 (even after the Child Marriage Act was enacted in 2006). So a young woman who marries before attaining majority  cannot enrol herself in the voter’s list of her paternal home; thereby proving that she is daughter of her father. So she enrols her name after she attains majority. Since she is already married, she uses her husband’s name in the voter list and not her father’s. So, the voter list does not help her to prove her relationship with her father.

There are several other reasons why women are excluded from the NRC, most of them deeply rooted in patriarchy. I have also heard of cases where a woman, who has left her husband’s house because of a domestic dispute, gets a notice at her matrimonial home. Because of the domestic dispute, the husband does not communicate the receipt of the notice. As a result, an ex parte order is passed against her. 

The reasons I have mentioned are not exhaustive. If fieldwork is conducted there are many other reasons that will come up. For example, if a family receives a notice from an FT in the name of a woman then too much importance will not be given to it. This is because a woman is not thought of as a very important member of the family. Even if the family appoints a lawyer, they will look for a cheap lawyer and won’t make too much of an effort to collect the documents that are required.

NM: Persons excluded from the NRC were supposed to receive rejection orders by March. Thereafter, the appeals process would begin. Now, because of COVID-19 and the catastrophic floods, the rejection process has been paused. How do you expect the appeals process to proceed? And how has the pandemic affected the lives of the people whose citizenship is in limbo?

OL: I am not sure. I saw a statement attributed to the new state coordinator of the NRC or an official from his office saying that they were in the process of preparing the rejection orders. However, due to technical problems in the database of the information preservation system, the data needed to be re-entered. This process of re-entry of data will take a few months.

But this pandemic has devastated the lives of people;  people have lost their jobs and there is scarcity of means to attain a livelihood. So even if the appeals process starts after the pandemic ends, it will be very difficult for these people because they will still be struggling to sustain themselves.

NM: As someone associated with the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee, what do you think is the role of broader civil society in resolving the question of citizenship and migration in Assam?

OL: A few years back I tried to speak with people who were working with human rights groups to make a position on this issue. If by civil society, you mean the human rights community, I think these people should come together and take a clear position on these issues.

The other part of the civil society, that is, bar associations, employees associations, the leadership of whom are members of the dominant communities, are not bothered about what is happening to the people excluded from the NRC.

 Even the people who profess to work from a human rights perspective are divided on the issue on ethnic lines. But some groups — for example, some women’s right organisations have taken a stand on one or two issues. However, even they haven’t taken a collective position and dealt with the NRC issue as a whole.  If an initiative is taken to get these human rights organisations to work together it will be much better. 

NM: Several FT lawyers have spoken of harassment and stigmatisation that they face due to the nature of their work. To add to that, a 2017 performance appraisal report of the members of the Foreigner Tribunals evinced that members who had declared a greater number of foreigners were more likely to be retained of their services in contrast to those who had declared fewer foreigners.

As an FT lawyer who has contended with threats and is arguing before a tribunal that is potentially prejudiced, what has been your experience? What motivates you to continue taking up citizenship law matters?

OL: I don’t appear before the FT very often because my practice is primarily before the HC. So personally, I haven’t faced one which is remotely uncomfortable. But I have heard about this from other lawyers. The newspapers had also reported a case of a scuffle within the courtroom.

But there were two cases that I recently dealt with — an interlocutory application was filed in both the cases but the application was not taken on record. So the lawyer in the case contacted me. I advised him to approach the local bar association. A delegation of the bar association spoke to the tribunal member but the application was still not taken on record.  Our request was only for the member to take it on record, if he felt that it was not sustainable the tribunal could reject it by passing an order. Then, I filed a writ petition before the HC, which directed the tribunal to accept the application

This shows that some of the tribunals are hostile towards the lawyers and they don’t even follow the minimum rule of procedures.

Natasha Maheshwari is a 5th year student at Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai. She is a core team member at Parichay.

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