State v. Bikram Singha, FT Case no. 129/2017

Read the order here

Date of the decision: 10.09.21

Court: Foreigners’ Tribunal-II, Karimganj, Assam

Presiding Tribunal Member: Mr. Sishir Dey 

Summary: In a decision on the determination of the citizenship of a person, the Foreigners’ Tribunal recognised the statutory right of citizenship by birth for persons born in India prior to 1.07.1987  under Section 3(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act, 1955. Further, the Tribunal ruled that it could rely on a common Application Receipt Number (ARN) and joint inclusion in the Final National Register of Citizens (NRC), published on 31.08.2019, for the purpose of establishing linkage between the Opposite Party (OP) and their parents, as the NRC is ‘final’ and thus can be used as evidence to corroborate citizenship claims. 

Facts: The Election Officer marked the status of Bikram Singha (“Opposite Party”) as a ‘doubtful’ voter. This was done after the Election Officer suspected the citizenship of the Opposite Party (OP) whose name was in the electoral roll of 1997. Electoral officers are authorized to flag people listed on voter rolls, supposedly without adequate Indian documentation, as “doubtful” voters. This process started on 10th December 1997, when the Election Commission under the advice of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government marked 3,70,000 voters as “doubtful”. A doubtful voter cannot vote because their Indian citizenship is under suspicion. As a result, D-voters are disenfranchised by the government on account of their alleged lack of proper citizenship credentials. 

The Election Officer alleged that the OP had not produced any documents to the Local Verification Officer, and referred the case to the Superintendent of Police. Subsequently, the case was referred to the Foreigners’ Tribunal, which adjudicated upon whether the OP was a foreigner or not. To prove his citizenship, the OP produced as many as twelve documents and two witnesses. It was his case that he was born on 06.01.1978 at Jamirala village. In effect, he argued that he was a citizen by birth under Section 3(1)(a) as he was born in India before 01.07.1987. In addition, he contended that his ancestors and family members had been permanent residents of Jamirala, and his father’s name was enlisted in the Voters List of 1970. His father even served the Indian Air Force for 29 years.

In response, the State contended that Section 3 was not applicable, as only Section 6A applied in Assam. In other words, since the OP had not submitted a document prior to 01.01.1966, his parents may have been ‘foreigners’ who migrated to India between 01.01.1966 and 24.03.1971. Further, the OP had relied on his name being included in the NRC to corroborate his claim of linkage with his parents who were born and ordinarily resident in Assam prior to 25.03.1971. The State expressed doubt about the same, specifically “about the finality of Assam NRC published online on 31 August 2019…Submitted that Exhibit – 6 may not be considered as a legally valid document” (paragraph 10). The OP responded that the finality or the legality of the NRC could not be doubted, as it had been published as per the direction and monitoring of the Supreme Court of India. 

Holding: The Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) (correctly) affirmed the OP’s citizenship under Section 3, noting that Section 6A deals with “persons coming to Assam from ‘Specified Territory’. Their children are not covered by the provisions of section 6A but are covered within the ambit of Section 3 of the Citizenship Act 1955. Thus Section 3 of the Citizenship Act is applicable in Assam as rest of India unless and until it’s repealed, amended or struck down, but nothing of these has happened yet” (paragraph 14). Thus, it may be presumed that the OP was born in India prior to 01-07-1987. Therefore OP is a citizen of India by birth in terms of Section 3(1)(a)

The FT noted that the OP proved his linkage with the persons he claimed to be his parents. To prove his father’s citizenship, the OP submitted his father’s Discharge Certificate Book from the Indian Air Force (Exhibit 3) that showed that the OP’s father had served the Indian Air Force for 29 years. This discharge book also contained the name of the OP, his grandfather, his mother and his siblings along with their relation to the OP’s father. The FT took note of the Discharge Certificate Book and the Pension Payment Order (Exhibit 4) in the name of the OP’s father and held that these two documents prove that the OP’s father served in the IAF. If further held that the Indian Air Force must have verified the citizenship and antecedents of the OP’s father before inducting him (paragraph 12).  The OP also submitted digital evidence of proof that he along with his parents jointly applied under the same Application Receipt Number (ARN) for inclusion in the NRC, and after several rounds of scrutiny, they had all been included in the Final NRC published on 31.08.2019. Although the name of the OP was in the final NRC, the FT noted that it could only be taken to be proof of his linkage with his parents, but not his citizenship. This is because the Standard Operating Procedures state that a D-voter is not eligible to be included in the NRC unless the FT rules that the voter is an Indian citizen. But, the name of the OP was included in the final draft of the NRC despite being identified as a ‘D’ voter and without a clearance from an FT. The FT responded to this anomaly by observing that the “NRC authority might not have been able to trace the case filed against the OP and his inclusion may be validated only by an FT order in his favor” (paragraph 12).

Lastly, the FT addressed the legal validity and finality of the Assam NRC. It was observed that the Final NRC published on 31.08.2019 was prepared as per the Citizenship Act, 1955 and the Citizenship Rules, 2003. Further, it was prepared under the order, directions and supervision of the Supreme Court. Hence, the FT ruled that “there is no doubt that this NRC Assam published in 2019 is nothing but Final NRC” (paragraph 13). The FT also affirmed the NRC’s evidentiary value by observing that the names of the parents of the OP, as persons in the list “may be taken as the conclusive proof of their Indian Citizenship” (paragraph 12). In other words, the FT ruled that the NRC is a ‘final’ document that could be taken as conclusive proof of a person’s Indian citizenship unless a reference against them is pending before an FT. In cases where a person’s name appears in the NRC when a reference against them is pending before an FT, the decision of the FT on that person’s nationality will prevail over the NRC.

Significance: This order is significant because it correctly considers the final draft of the NRC as a ‘final’ document that can be relied upon to prove Indian citizenship. Since the publication of the NRC on 31.08.2019, there has been a lack of clarity on the status of the document. The NRC process has been in a logjam since the government has not yet issued the reverification slips to file appeals by those who have been excluded from the NRC. After the publication of the NRC, the BJP harped on the ‘incorrectness’ of the document. Before the 2021 Assembly elections in Assam, the Bharatiya Janata Party in its manifesto promised the ‘correction’ of the NRC. The incumbent Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma called the NRC an “incorrect document. This is because out of the 19 lakh people excluded from this final draft, 12 lakh persons were Hindus. In May 2021, the Coordinator of Assam NRC Hitesh Dev Sarma filed a petition before the Supreme Court for the re-verification of the final draft of the NRC. 

This, however, is not the correct legal position. It is clear that the NRC, published on 31.08.2019, is the final document. First, after the publication of the final NRC, the Registrar of Citizenship Registration along with the State Coordinator released an official press statement on 31.08.2019 declaring that the draft of the NRC published on 31.08.2019 was the final NRC. According to Rule 3 of the Citizenship Rules, 2003, the authority to “establish and maintain”  the National Register of Citizens, Assam lies exclusively with the Registrar General of India (RGI). Second, the Ministry of External Affairs released a press statement on 31.08.2019, officially declaring the publication of the final draft of the NRC. Following is an extract from the press release:

1. Yesterday, the office of the State Coordinator, NRC Assam released a press statement on the publication of final NRC as on 31st August 2019. 

2. Since then, there have been some commentaries in sections of a foreign media about aspects of the final NRC which are incorrect. 

8. Exclusion from the NRC has no implication on the rights of an individual resident in Assam. For those who are not in the final list will not be detained and will continue to enjoy all the rights as before till they have exhausted all the remedies available under the law. It does not make the excluded person “Stateless”. It also does not make him or her “a Foreigner”, within the legal meaning of the term. They will not be deprived of any rights or entitlements which they have enjoyed before.”

Third, a bare reading of the orders of the Supreme Court in Assam Public Works v. Union of India clearly evinces that the NRC is final. This makes it clear that the NRC is the ‘final’ document. 

In Sufia Khatun v. Union of India, the Gauhati High Court addressed a contention that may seem to have raised doubts about the finality of the NRC. The Court noted that: “It was urged by the learned counsel for the petitioner that the names of the siblings and children of the petitioner have appeared in the Final NRC. In this regard, we are informed that the Final NRC has not yet been accepted and/or notified by the competent authority i.e. the Registrar General of Citizenship Register” (paragraph 14). In this paragraph, however, the Court merely discussed the contention of the state in response to the reliance of the petitioner on the NRC. It did not render its own judgment on the finality of the NRC. Thus, this decision cannot be relied upon to substantiate the argument that the NRC is not final. 

Although the FT order is well-reasoned, it is arguable whether the FT has the power to rule on those questions of law that are not sought to be answered before it. Order 2 read with Order 3(15) of the Foreigners’ Tribunal Order, 1946 states that the final order of the FT must be a concise statement of its opinion on the citizenship of the party before it. Further, in several judgments such as Golapi Begum v. UOI, the Gauhati High Court held that in their final orders, the FTs are supposed to answer only those questions that have been referred to it and not assume jurisdiction to answer other questions. A reading of the order in Bikram Singha suggests that the Karimganj FT was indeed supposed to answer the question of the finality of the NRC in order to fully appreciate the documentary evidence produced by the OP. One of the documents that the OP used to substantiate his claims was the NRC list and this was opposed by the state advocate. The state advocate argued that the NRC could not be considered as evidence as it was neither a final nor a legally valid document. Hence, the FT commented upon the finality of the NRC while considering the NRC as a piece of evidence that proved the relation between the OP and his parents.

In Bikram Singha’s case the Karimganj FT was also faced with the question of the legal admissibility of the NRC. The state advocate argued that the NRC list could not be considered a legally valid document (paragraph 10). This contention is not valid. It does not have a legal basis. In Sanowara Khatun v. UOI, the Gauhati High Court held that because the NRC was not a result of a quasi-judicial process, the OP could not contend that the names of her close family members in the NRC constitute material evidence in deciding her review application (paragraph 9). Thus, the High Court did not consider the final draft of the NRC as material evidence while deciding Sanowara’s review application. At the same time, the Court did not hold that the FTs could not take into account the NRC as material evidence when adjudicating upon citizenship. Hence, this decision cannot be relied upon to conclude that the FTs cannot consider the final NRC as material evidence. Another contention against the reliance on the NRC as evidence was raised by the state advocate in the cases of Sufia Khatun v. UOI and Golokjan Bibi v. UOI. It was contended that the NRC cannot be used as evidence as it has not been notified yet in the official gazette. This is incorrect. In accordance with Section 74 of the Indian Evidence Act, the NRC is a public document and thus the lack of notification in the official gazette does not affect its evidentiary value. 

Apart from the discussion on the finality and the legal admissibility of the NRC, the FT determined another legal issue. It correctly held that Section 3(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act, 1955 applies with equal force to determine the citizenship of the residents of Assam. This has been expressly stated in Section 6A(7), which clarifies that Section 6A does not apply to a person who acquired their citizenship before the commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1985. This means that if a person were born in India or in the state of Assam before 1.07.1987, then such a person would be a citizen by birth. Thus, such a person need not prove their linkage to their parents or grandparents. That the government is not acquainted with this legal position is alarming. 

Table of Authorities:

  1. Sona Khan v. Union Of India, WP(C)/1293/2021.
  2. Golapi Begum vs The Union Of India, WP(C)/2434/2020.
  3. Sanowara Khatun v. The Union Of India, Review. Pet. 16/2020.
  4. Sufia Khatun v. Union of India, Review.Pet. 22/2020.
  5. Orders of the Supreme Court in Assam Public Works v. Union of India, WP(C)/274/2009.

Resources:

  1. Nazimuddin Siddique, ‘Discourse of Doubt’ , Vol. 54, Issue No. 10, Economic and Political Weekly (09 March 2019 ) https://www.epw.in/journal/2019/10/perspectives/discourse-doubt.html?0=ip_login_no_cache%3Da85d78f59750a17dd6c889f84f820582 accessed on 28 September 2021.
  2. M. Mohsin Alam Bhat, ‘Twilight citizenship’, https://www.india-seminar.com/2020/729/729_m_mohsin_alam_bhat.htm accessed on 28 September 2021.
  3. Ipsita Chakravarty, ‘Doubtful or dubious: Who will count the D voters of Assam?’, Scroll (21 February 2016) https://scroll.in/article/803173/foreigners-vs-citizens-who-will-count-the-d-voters-of-assam accessed on 28 September 2021.
  4. Shuchi Purohit, ‘Foreigners Tribunals,’ Parichay- The Blog (10 July 2021) https://parichayblog.org/2021/07/10/foreigners-tribunal/ accessed on 28 September 2021.
  5. Office of the State Coordinator of National Registration (NRC), Assam, Government of Assam http://nrcassam.nic.in/index-M.html.
  6. Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, ‘Citizenship and Assam: An Explainer on the Legal Questions That Still Loom Large’, The Wire (25 November 2019) https://thewire.in/rights/citizenship-and-assam-the-legal-questions-that-still-loom-large accessed on 28 September 2021.
  7. Farah Naqvi, ‘The Citizenship Amendment Bill and NRC Will Together Destroy Our Country’, The Wire (12 December 2019) https://thewire.in/communalism/nrc-citizenship-amendment-bill-hindu-muslim accessed on 28 September 2021.
  8. ‘Assam excludes over 19 lakh names from NRC list, BJP unhappy over ‘erroneous’ count,’ The Indian Express (31 August 2019) https://indianexpress.com/article/india/assam-nrc-final-list-bjp-congress-bangladesh-illegal-migration-5954490/ accessed on 28 September 2021.
  9. Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No.1264, Lok Sabha https://www.mha.gov.in/MHA1/Par2017/pdfs/par2021-pdfs/LS-09022021/1264.pdf 
  10. Tora Agarwala, ‘BJP promises ‘corrected NRC’ in Assam manifesto, silent on CAA’, The Indian Express (24 March 2021) https://indianexpress.com/elections/assam-assembly-elections-bjp-manifesto-7240987/ accessed on 28 September 2021.
  11. ‘Assam NRC authority seeks re-verification of citizens’ list, The Hindu (13 May 2021) https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/assam-nrc-authority-seeks-re-verification-of-citizens-list/article34548812.ece accessed on 28 September 2021.

This case note is part of Parichay’s ongoing project to study, track, and publish key propositions and latest developments in citizenship law and adjudication in India. This note was prepared by Jagriti Pandey.

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