Excerpt: Framework of Socio-Economic Rights for Non-Nationals

The following post is an excerpt from the upcoming report Securing Citizenship’ on India’s legal obligations towards precarious citizens and stateless persons authored by the Centre for Public Interest Law, JGLS and Faculty of Law, Université Catholique de Lille. The Report reviews and comments on the key contemporary legal issues pertaining to citizenship and statelessness in India. Divided into three chapters – Citizenship StatusDetention and Socio-Economic Rights – the Report presents recommendations to strengthen the existing legal framework. This excerpt is the second in a three-part series of excerpts from the report. The previous excerpt on legal recognition of the status of statelessness can be found here. The next excerpt will cover ‘Rights of Child Detainees’. The entire Report will be published in the final week of November, and the schedule of events can be found here.

Socio-Economic Frameworks

B.1 International law obligations

As previously mentioned, this report acknowledges the fact that Indian citizens themselves are routinely deprived of these rights in practice. However, despite this unfortunate reality, a State has a legal and moral duty to provide access to fundamental entitlements to all individuals in its territory, regardless of their nationality. These fundamental entitlements refer to social and economic protection which includes access to healthcare, the right to housing and sanitation, the right to education and the right to work and employment, among others.

In international law, Article 25 of the UDHR covers a vast range of rights, including access to adequate water, food, clothing, housing, medical care and other social protections. This ‘minimum threshold’ for a standard of living is applicable to all persons and is certainly not conditional on citizenship. Based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination, the rights espoused in Article 25 of the UDHR provide the core grounding to the more specific articulations of socio-economic rights in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (‘ICESCR’). The vast majority of human rights are applicable to everyone, regardless of nationality or immigration status (including stateless persons) as confirmed by General Comment No. 15 and 31. Specifically, in relation to socio-economic rights, the Committee for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (‘CESCR’) in 2009 clarified the interpretation and applicability of ICESCR, stating that the Covenant rights apply to ‘everyone including non-nationals, such as refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons, migrant workers and victims of international trafficking, regardless of legal status and documentation’. This unequivocally clarifies that socio-economic rights recognised in international law are positively enforceable or applicable to all persons, including non-citizens, stateless persons and precarious citizens, regardless of their citizenship status.

Article 25 of the UDHR Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.  

The 1954 Convention is the sole treaty framework that directly prescribes standards of treatment of stateless persons to be implemented by states. While India is not yet a signatory to this pertinent treaty, many of its provisions are now either customary international law, or at the very least offer important approaches relating to the protection of stateless persons that can serve as a useful model, as stated in the UNHCR Statelessness Handbook. The 1954 Convention provides a broad framework of civil, economic, social and cultural rights that must be granted to stateless persons. The broad categories include welfare rights to rationing, housing, public education, public relief, labour legislation, social security, access to identity documentation and gainful employment (wage earning, self-employment, access to liberal professions), among others.

B.2 Lessons from protection frameworks for non-nationals

India does not have a comprehensive policy governing refugees that have fled to India or for stateless persons and their protections. The Indian government’s approach towards different precarious citizens of other nationalities and stateless persons has been varied. The Tibetan community and those refugees recognised by (and registered with) the UNHCR serve as two distinct examples. Though the legal, social and political positions of these two communities are clearly distinguishable, their access to socio-economic rights present a blueprint of the rights that could and should be made available to stateless persons. Much like stateless persons, refugees find themselves at the risk of sliding further on the slippery slope of citizenship. Therefore, it is appropriate to refer to the Indian refugee framework and approaches to inform our recommendations for stateless persons and precarious citizens. The nexus between the two frameworks can also be observed from the fact that the 1954 Convention and the 1951 Refugee Convention have a shared drafting history where the former is largely modelled on the provisions of the latter.

An important caveat, however, is that the status of the Tibetan community is not a completely transposable model to stateless individuals, as Tibetans are specifically recognised and protected by the Indian Government. Depending on when they arrived in India (after the Dalai Lama’s ‘flight into exile’ in 1959) they possess stateless identity certificates, are considered ‘temporary refugees in India’, or fall into the category of ‘Long Term Stay’.  On the other hand, the refugees who are recognised and registered by the UNHCR, such as the Afghans, Somalians and certain Burmese groups, are ‘entitled to an assessment for a Refugee Certificate; a visa if granted a certificate, though often shorter-term; and the possibility of naturalisation, but this depends on irregular and opaque criteria’. Their access to socio-economic rights, therefore, is dependent on and varies according to their specific contexts and the kind of documentation they have. The UNHCR works with a number of implementing partners, such as Don Bosco and the Development and Justice Initiative (‘DAJI’) to facilitate support and access to these rights. Don Bosco particularly focuses on assisting vulnerable refugee children. It provides them with support in the form of ‘rescue operations, short-stay homes, home reparation, institutional rehabilitation, child protection mechanisms, advocacy, education skill trainings, accompaniment and foster care’. Nonetheless, despite the variations in the terminology and categorisation of the legal status of precarious citizens in India, the refugee framework illustrates the crucial socio-economic rights that have been made available to non-citizen communities, as outlined below.

RightMeasures by Government of India/UNHCR for TibetansMeasures by Government of India for Rohingya refugees
  HealthcareAccess to facilities in settlement colonies, administered by the Central Tibetal Administration.Access to Indian hospitals but ineligible for state healthcare subsidies available to citizens.In principle, they have equal access to Primary Health Centres. However, reports persist of Rohingyas being denied treatment due to lack of Indian documentation. Prescription medicines are expensive and inaccessible.Limited coverage by Anganwadis for maternal, neonatal, and early childhood care.
Food and Nutrition Access to PDS rations.Dependent upon rations supplied by UNHCR/local NGOs.Limited access to Anganwadis in certain states for infant nutritional requirements.
  Shelter, Housing, SanitationTibetan refugee settlements, established in the 1960s on Government land and administered through officers appointed by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Lease agreements signed with the Central Tibetan Relief Committee.The majority live in clusters of shanties, with shared toilets and water facilities. Wastewater from toilets flows out into open drains; some are forced to manually collect and dispose of faeces. Access to clean drinking water remains erratic, dependent upon sympathetic local residents.
  EducationTibetan secondary and high schools.Access to higher education in Indian colleges and universities. Eligible for Government scholarships.Children under age 14 technically have access to primary schools under the RTE Act, but implementation is erratic – admissions denied due to lack of documentation.When allowed to attend local schools, they are barred from the midday meal scheme.
  EmploymentNon-interference with employment. Seasonal sweater selling, agriculture, and small enterprises are their primary sources of income.Eligible for trade licenses in nursing, teaching, chartered accountancy, medicine, and engineering as per Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy, 2014.Not eligible for government jobs.Common sources of livelihood are rag-picking, construction work, sanitation work, and various kinds of unskilled labour in the informal sector. This work is precarious and makes for a very unstable source of income.

Excerpt: Legal Recognition of Status of Statelessness in India

The following post is an excerpt from the upcoming report Securing Citizenship’ on India’s legal obligations towards precarious citizens and stateless persons authored by the Centre for Public Interest Law, JGLS and Faculty of Law, Université Catholique de Lille. The Report reviews and comments on the key contemporary legal issues pertaining to citizenship and statelessness in India. Divided into three chapters – Citizenship StatusDetention and Socio-Economic Rights – the Report presents recommendations to strengthen the existing legal framework. This excerpt is the first in a three-part series of excerpts from the report. The next two excerpts will cover ‘Rights of Child Detainees’, and ‘Socio-Economic Rights of Stateless Persons’. The entire Report will be published in the final week of November, and the schedule of events can be found here.

II. LEGAL RECOGNITION OF STATELESSNESS IN INDIA

A. Recognition of Status

Statelessness poses a moral and normative challenge to the legitimacy of the international state system. In simpler terms, since the world is comprehensively divided between nation states, then every person should be able to claim citizenship and its attendant rights somewhere. Yet, thousands of people around the world face barriers in claiming citizenship rights in any nation because of several aggravating factors.

There are several stateless groups in India who either arrived or were born in India as stateless persons, such as the Tibetans and the Rohingyas. This section pertains to these stateless persons in Indian territory whose citizenship was not deprived as a result of any action of the Indian state. They have no avenues of return to their country of nationality as a result of their statelessness i.e. their state does not accept them as nationals. Thus, they are prohibited from exercising their right to return. In this situation, they cannot be deported and continue to reside in India as subjects of a legal framework which does not formally recognise their status.

A close reading of the Indian domestic law framework governing the status of non-citizens [the Constitution (Articles 5 – 11); the Citizenship Act, 1955 (Sections 2, 3, 6, 6A, 6B, 10); the Foreigners Act, 1946 (Sections 2, 3, 8, 9); and the Passports Act, 1967 (Section 4)] reveals that the definitional categories determining the legal status of an individual are inadequate for guaranteeing the rights of stateless persons. The use of the terms ‘illegal migrant’, ‘foreigner’, and ‘citizen’, as distinct and oppositional categories, operates on the implicit assumption that the person whose status is to be ascertained must be in possession of at least one nationality, even if that nationality is not Indian. None of these terms can be used interchangeably for a stateless person; the Acts simply do not define or acknowledge the phenomenon of statelessness.

International law on the right to nationality of every individual along with the obligation on the state to prevent and reduce statelessness commands states to naturalise all stateless persons in their territory. Hence, it is imperative that the Indian state recognise stateless persons formally and issue identity certificates to them, thereby ensuring recognition of their equal legal personhood for them to avail their rights. These certificates will ensure that their special situation would be addressed. The only pieces of legislation that recognise the status of stateless persons are the Passports Rules, 1980, framed under the Passports Act, 1967, which grant the MEA the power to issue certificates of identity. However, the duty of the state under international law, constitutional law and human rights law (as argued above) does not end with issuing certificates of identity. India must grant them nationality in accordance with international law obligations to ensure that they can enjoy their right to nationality.

As emphasised in previous sections, the lack of legal status is a direct infringement of an individual’s right to a dignified life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. In a juridical framework, a dignified existence can only be secured through recognition as an individual member of the civic community, which in turn forms the foundation for the free exercise of bodily integrity, autonomy, and self-determination. In Sheikh Abdul Aziz, the Delhi High Court recognised this urgency of determining the legal status of the petitioner. The Court excoriated the Central Government for its inaction in issuing a stateless certificate to the petitioner after nationality determination had failed, particularly after he had been confined in detention for an additional seven years, well beyond his initial sentence under Section 14 of the Foreigners Act. It understood that the issuance of a stateless certificate, under Rule 4 of the Passports Rules, 1980, and the subsequent granting of a Long-Term Visa (‘LTV’), were essential for the petitioner’s release from detention, and enabling his right to a dignified existence upon Indian soil. In National Human Rights Commission (Chakma case), the Supreme Court held that eligible stateless individuals, like the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh, have constitutional and statutory rights to be considered for Indian citizenship. Local administrative officers cannot refuse to act upon Chakma individuals’ applications under Section 5 of the Citizenship Act to the Central Government. The Court also held that the state is obliged to protect Chakmas from eviction and threats of assault even while their citizenship applications are pending. These cases indicate Indian courts’ proactive approach in reducing indeterminacy of status for individuals, assuring the terms of their membership in the civic community. 

For stateless persons in India, international law necessitates that the burden is always upon the Indian state to fairly and expeditiously determine legal status for such persons. As we have argued at length above, the state’s sovereign prerogative in citizenship matters is implicitly circumscribed by international law and human rights standards. Therefore, it is the state’s obligation to establish whether they are recognised nationals of any other country. If the state fails in establishing that, they must be naturalised i.e. granted Indian nationality.

It is also important to note that statelessness should not operate as an impediment to an eventual path to Indian citizenship. The naturalisation of stateless persons within the ambit of India’s existing citizenship laws has precedent: the Delhi High Court in Namgyal Dolkar ordered the MEA to issue an Indian passport to the petitioner who, despite holding a stateless identity certificate and being born to two Tibetan refugees, was eligible for Indian citizenship by birth under Section 3 (1)(a) of the Citizenship Act.

The significance of naturalising stateless persons residing in a State was recently followed by the ECtHR as well. In Sudita Keita, the applicant had arrived in Hungary in 2002. He was subsequently recognised as a stateless person after the local courts recognised that the burden on the applicant to prove lawful stay was contrary to Hungary’s international law obligations relating to statelessness. Furthermore, in the case at hand, the ECtHR held that the stateless applicant had been left in a vulnerable position for 15 years without access to an effective and accessible naturalisation procedure. With reference to international law on statelessness, the Court highlighted that his situation had resulted in grave difficulties in access to healthcare and employment and violated his right to private and family life.

This report further argues that the stateless persons should be automatically naturalised (i.e. grant of nationality) since any formal requirements in this regard would place an undue burden upon them. Such a process would fail to recognise the underlying discrimination and lack of access to documents. This is visible in the Sri Lankan experience with grant of nationality as elaborated in Section I.C.1 of this chapter in the full report.

Hence, it is only through naturalisation that stateless persons can access the full extent of their rights. Their exceptionally vulnerable situation and international law obligations demands that the state shall automatically recognise them as citizens.

Announcing the Release Schedule for ‘Securing Citizenship: report on India’s legal obligations towards precarious citizens and stateless persons’

This month, the Centre for Public Interest Law will release its Securing Citizenship report on India’s legal obligations towards precarious citizens and stateless persons. The Report reviews and comments on the key contemporary legal issues pertaining to citizenship and statelessness in India. Divided into three chapters – Citizenship StatusDetention and Socio-Economic Rights – the Report presents recommendations to strengthen the existing legal framework. It focuses on the deplorable conditions of precarious citizens in Assam and stateless persons in India to propose methods of prevention and reduction of statelessness itself. In providing current and immediately relevant legal tools to restore the security previously accorded to citizenship status, the Report aims to bolster advocacy efforts on statelessness in India.

To foster engagement with the report, CPIL is hosting a series of events and symposia in collaboration with Parichay – The Blog . The flagship event will be a webinar on the key themes of the report, taking place on 5th December. Below is the full schedule:

  • 18th November: Excerpts from ‘Securing Citizenship’ will be released on Parichay – The Blog. These excerpts are on the themes of legal recognition of statelessness, the rights of child detainees, and the socio-economic framework of rights for stateless persons. We invite you to reflect on these themes reflected in the excerpts before the release of the Report in its entirety.
  • Final week of November: The Report will be published on the Centre for Public Interest Law (JGU) website. Fellow academics, faculties, and students are invited to read, engage and discuss the Report. We strongly encourage responses to the Report which can be submitted to the Blog.
  • November through December: The blog will feature a series of posts by authors of the report, reflecting on contemporary legal developments relevant to the report. These posts will be accompanied by interviews with scholars with an academic background in studying statelessness in law and practice.
  • 5th December: CPIL and Parichay – The Blog will host a webinar on ‘Securing Citizenship’ with distinguished panelists to discuss the highlights of the report and their reflections on the issue of statelessness. In this flagship event, we hope to introduce the Report to a varied audience and invite anyone interested in the study of citizenship to attend. Please register at https://bit.ly/3lPXPOl to receive the link and password for the webinar.
  • January: Contributions by academics and students, including any submission of responses to the Report, will be published. The call for these contributions is open to all readers!

We look forward to your participation in the release of this report!

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.

A Fact-Sheet on Detention Centres in India

This is the second in a three-part series of guest posts by Paresh Hate. Paresh Hate is a PhD candidate at Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Their work revolves around critically engaging with the discourse of ‘Bangladeshi infiltrator’ in Indian politics by looking at immigration detention and immigration law as sites of its cultivation, deployment and legitimization. Paresh is the digital editor for Migrant Solidarity Network – India and is a founding member of Hasratein: a queer collective, LGBTQIA+ resource group and political organisation based in New Delhi, India.

As argued in the first part of this series, immigration detention is neither a recent development nor limited to Assam. It has been part of the punitive mechanism set up by immigration law, particularly Section 3(2)(e) of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and para 11(2) of The Foreigners Order, 1948, since its inception.

Recent detention centres are mandated under Amit Shah’s Model Detention Manual 2019, which was released on 9 January 2019, according to which one detention camp should exist in one the city or district where a major immigration check post is located and every member of a family should be housed in the same detention centre.

However, immigration detention has a long history in India, and such sites of detention are to be found all over the country. The immigrant foreigner population in detention centres in India is convicted under one or more of the four acts pertaining to immigration law, i.e. 1) The Foreigners Act, 1946; 2) the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939; 3) the Passport Act, 1967; and 4) the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920.

While the case of Assam detention centres clearly shows that there are plenty of Indian citizens, particularly Bengali-speaking individuals, who end up in detention centres, the state maintains these sites for unauthorized immigrants. I use the term ‘unauthorized’ for two reasons: first, to problematize ascribing legality onto humans on the move and to attempt to destigmatize the ideological connotations associated with illegality; second, to point out that many who are stuck in the detention regime possess documents of some kind but are insufficient by state’s evidentiary standards to prove their “undetainability”. In this sense, ‘unauthorized’ refers to individuals without official permission to enter a nation-state, because they are marked racially, religiously, gender-wise, class-wise, or due to the bureaucratic and administrative protocols which disallow them to be seen as legitimate candidates for permission to enter or claim citizenship.

Until early 2000s, the population that was accused and convicted in immigration matters was kept in prisons that operated as makeshift spaces for detaining “illegal immigrants” who violated the clauses of the immigration law and may have additionally committed a crime under India’s penal laws. This practice continues even today in most parts of the country.

According to the Prison Statistics India 2019 Manual of National Crime Records Bureau, as of 31st December 2019, there are total 5608 foreign prisoners in India, out of which around 2171 are convicts, 2979 are undertrials, 40 are detenues (mostly in Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi), and 418 are held as other kind of prisoners. Out of these, the highest number is that of Bangladeshis who constitute around 2513 of these prisoners. Estimates of foreigners and non-citizens omit child detainees in juvenile homes and those held at other quasi-correctional state institutions such as the Reception Centres outside the prison system. Bengali-speaking population is also the most precarious group facing penalties under immigration law and are under threat due to the National Register of Citizens.

As of now, there are different detention centres across the country which function for punitive and non-punitive purposes managed by state government correctional homes, shelter homes, Border Security Force camps, and sites of Foreigners Regional Registration Office.

Assam:

The first de facto detention centres were built in the state of Assam under High Court’s orders of 2008 for detaining declared foreigners. In July 2009, the Revenue Minister Bhumidhar Barman of Assam had informed the state assembly that two detention camps would be set up to hold illegal immigrants at Mancachar and Mahisashan. By 2010, three such detention camps had begun at Goalpara, Silchar and Kokrajhar. In the next few years, three more detention camps had started functioning at Tezpur, Jorhat and Dibrugarh.

Currently, under the Model Detention Manual 2019, the current biggest detention centre meant for illegal immigrants is being built in Goalpara district’s Matia which shall house at least 3000 inmates.

New Delhi:

In Delhi, there are three publicly known locations where immigrants are detained. Two of them are managed by the Department of Social Welfare of Government of Delhi. One of them is located at Nirmal Chaaya in West Delhi which holds immigrant women and another is at Lampur Complex in North Delhi which holds immigrant men. This population includes trafficked women, irregular economic migrants, and refugees. The third one is at Shahzada Bagh and is managed by Foreigners Regional Registration Office in West Delhi and exclusively holds Bangladeshi unauthorized immigrants.

According to the data of Global Detention Project, a Geneva-based human rights organisation, the union territory of Delhi has had five other detention centres which are not publicly known. These are 1) Human Resources Department Cell at Hauz Khas which was in use at least till 2005 housing adult unauthorized immigrant men; 2) a detention site at Daryaganj which was in use at least till 2005, housing adult unauthorized immigrant men; 3) Alipur Road detention house managed by Foreigners Regional Registration Office which was in use at least till 2008; 4) Daya Basti Ren Basera which was in use at least till 2005 housing adult unauthorized immigrant men; and 5) Old Delhi Seva Kutir which was in use at least till 2005 housing adult unauthorized immigrant men. The current status of these five sites is unknown.

Punjab:

Punjab currently houses unauthorized immigrants at Central Jail, Amritsar. These are individuals who are declared foreigners.

Rajasthan:

Rajasthan holds unauthorized immigrants on jail premises in Alwar. These are individuals who are declared foreigners.

Gujarat:

One detention centre in Gujarat is located at Bhuj. Another one which was at least in use till 2009 was located at a Special Operations Group (SOG) Office which was a criminal police station in Ahmedabad that housed both immigrant men, women and accompanied minors.

Goa:

Goa has had a detention centre since early 2019 where it houses convicted immigrants who are declared foreigners. It is located at Mapusa sub-jail in North Goa.

Tamil Nadu:

In Tamil Nadu, an intermediate camp has been made that used to earlier be a women’s prison in the city of Trichy. At present, it houses around 60 foreigners, most of whom are Sri Lankans. The site is guarded by Tamil Nadu Special Police commandos and is handled by the state revenue department. Because it is the revenue department that manages this site, the nature of the site also differs. In the case of Tamil Nadu, it means that the location is maintained to supervise offenders who are neither under the usual restrictions of probation nor fully incarcerated because all the detenues are undertrials and are allowed to meet family members. Many of these detenues also await deportation.

West Bengal:

West Bengal maintains its own correctional homes at different locations segregated on the basis of gender. There has also been a Border Security Force camp which was last documented to be in use in 2005. Earlier, the West Bengal government had also agreed to build new detention centres at New Town and Bongaon but these plans have been halted recently.

Bihar:

Bihar has a military camp, which according to the sources of Global Detention Project, that houses unauthorized immigrants. It was at least in use until 2005.

Karnataka:

Under the Model Detention Manual 2019, Karnataka has opened its first detention centre at Nelamangala Taluk, Banglore which will be administered by the state Social Welfare Department.

Maharashtra:

Under the Model Detention Manual 2019, Maharashtra was to set up its first detention centre in Nerul, Navi Mumbai which was an erstwhile women’s shelter home run by the local police station. But since the change of the state government and the clash between Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party, the plans have been put on halt.

Uttar Pradesh:

Uttar Pradesh was supposed to have its first detention centre in Ghaziabad’s Nandgram at an erstwhile SC/ST hostel whose plans were cancelled after protests. Since the state government is ruled by the same party in power in the central government, it is very likely that another location will be soon selected for starting a detention centre in the state.

Usually, when one files an RTI application with the Ministry of Home Affairs (Foreigners Division) to find out details about these detention centres in the country, the Central Public Information Officer responds that this information is not centrally maintained. In many cases of RTI application, a copy of the RTI application is transferred to the Central Public Information Officer of the Bureau of Immigration for providing any details they have. However, the Bureau of Immigration responds and has a precedent of responding that they are exempted from the Second Schedule of the RTI Act, 2005 as a body from providing information that has the importance of national security. There is hardly any legal provision available to know more about these detention centres since the central government has the power to regulate access to the places in India where internees or persons on parole are detained or restricted under Section 4(4) of the Foreigners Act, 1946. This was confirmed by a personal RTI that I had made and keeping a track of the results of other similar RTIs.

Under UNHCR guidelines, detention cannot be used arbitrarily, and any decision to detain must be based on an assessment of the individual’s particular circumstances. This is hardly followed by authorities in India and routine flouting of due process is commonplace. Secondly, according to UNHCR guideline 4.3, detention can be used to protect public order, public health, and national security. However, as is clear from Indian state’s official narrative premised on securitization, almost all unauthorized and undocumented immigration constitutes “infiltration” and the polititicians consistently have called it a threat to India’s national security which can be used to justify indefinite detention for foreigners, particularly for those coming from Bengali or Bangladeshi backgrounds.

All of this proves the absolute lack of transparency in the matter of immigration detention centres in India. While harrowing tales are common in case of American immigration system or European Union’s gated community with regards to immigrants, there is little knowledge of countries in the Global South, including India. Such lack of transparency only adds to this effect where the public due to its lack of information fails to make a significant intervention in the question of justice and due process when it pertains to immigrants.

Challenging Ex Parte Orders on the Ground of Non-Availability of Legal Aid

We have seen how Foreigners’ Tribunals have repeatedly passed  ex parte orders declaring persons to be foreigners, and how such orders can be set aside. This research note will look into the challenging of ex parte orders on the ground that legal aid was not provided to the petitioners. This is especially relevant for the NRC process, where multiple individuals belonging to impoverished and marginalized sections of society have been left out of the NRC, and would have to challenge their exclusion. To do so, one would have to rely on legal services, which might not always be within the reach of those belonging to the aforementioned sections of society. This research note delves into the issue of legal aid, and looks at the intersection of legal aid and ex parte orders by FTs. Over the years, thousands of people in Assam have been declared as ‘foreigners’ through ex parte orders. Therefore, this research note will look into the setting aside of ex parte orders on the ground that legal aid was not provided to petitioners.

1. What is legal aid?

Legal aid means the provision of free legal services to any persons, who by virtue of some marginalization or disability, are unable to access legal services to carry on legal proceedings before courts and tribunals.

2. Legal Aid under the Indian Constitution

Article 39A of the Indian Constitution, a Directive Principle of State Policy (‘DPSP’), requires the state to:

…secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of equal opportunity, and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid, by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities.

Article 39A has been read along with Article 21 of the Indian Constitution to hold that the right to legal aid is a necessary part of a just, fair, and reasonable procedure under Article 21 of the Constitution. (Hussainara Khatoon v Home Secretary, State of Bihar (1980 (1) SCC 98), and Khatri and Others v State of Bihar and Others (AIR 1981 SC 928)).

2.1 Important Cases

A. In Hussainara Khatoon v State of Bihar (AIR 1979 SC 1360), the right to free legal services was held to be a part of every accused person’s fundamental right under Article 21 and Article 39A. A procedure which does not make available legal services to an accused person, who is too poor to afford a lawyer and who would, therefore, have to go through the trial without legal assistance, cannot possibly be regarded as reasonable, fair, and just. It was held that:

Article 39A emphasizes that free legal service is an inalienable element of ‘reasonable, fair and just’ procedure for without it a person suffering from economic or other disabilities would be deprived of the opportunity for securing justice. The right to free legal service is therefore, clearly an essential ingredient of ‘reasonable, fair and just’ procedure for a person accused of an offence and it must be held implicit in the guarantee of Article 21. This is a constitutional right of every accused person who is unable to engage a lawyer and secure legal services, on account of reasons such as poverty, indigence or incommunicado situation and the State is under a mandate to provide a lawyer to an accused person if the circumstances of the case and the needs of justice so require, provided of course the accused person does not object to the provision of such lawyer.

B. In Madhav Hayawadanrao Hoskot v State of Maharashtra (1978 AIR 1548),the Supreme Court, speaking through J Krishna Iyer, held that the right to legal representation would apply to all cases, from the lowest to the highest court, where deprivation of life and personal liberty is in substantial peril.

 C. In Khatri and Others v State of Bihar and Others (AIR 1981 SC 928), the Supreme Court held that, “the State is under a constitutional obligation to provide free legal services to an indigent accused not only at the stage of trial but also at the stage when he is first produced before the magistrate as also when he is remanded from time to time.”Further, the Supreme Court held that the judicial officer has the obligation of informing the person that she is entitled to legal aid. It also held that: 

…it would make a mockery of legal aid if it were to be left to a poor ignorant and illiterate accused to ask for free legal services… The magistrate or the sessions judge before whom the accused appears must be held to be under an obligation to inform the accused that if he is unable to engage the services of a lawyer on account of poverty or indigence, he is entitled to obtain free legal services at the cost of the State.

D. In Superintendent of Legal Affairs v Home Secretary, State of Bihar (1979 AIR 1369), the Supreme Court held that it is always the duty of the court to see and inform the accused that she has a right to legal service, even if she does not ask for the same.

E. In Sukh Das v Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh ((1986) 2 SCC 401), the Supreme Court held that the absence of legal awareness must be taken into consideration and that the onus is on the state to pro-actively inform the person facing deprivation of liberty that she has a right to free legal aid. It was observed:

It is this absence of legal awareness which is responsible for the deception, exploitation and deprivation of rights and benefits from which the poor suffer in this land. Their legal needs always stand to become crisis-oriented because their ignorance prevents them from anticipating legal troubles and approaching a lawyer for consultation and advice in time and their poverty magnifies the impact of the legal troubles and difficulties when they come. Moreover, because of their ignorance and illiteracy, they cannot become self-reliant: they cannot even help themselves…. The result is that poverty becomes with them a condition of total helplessness. This miserable condition in which the poor find themselves can be alleviated to some extent by creating legal awareness amongst the poor… It would in these circumstances make a mockery of legal aid if it were to be left to a poor, ignorant and illiterate accused to ask for free legal services. Legal aid would become merely a paper promise and it would fail of its purpose.

F. In Gopalanachari v State of Kerala (AIR 1981 SC 674), it was held that it is well established that the state is under a constitutional mandate under Article 21 and Article 39A to provide a lawyer to an accused person if the circumstances of the case and needs of justice so requires, provided of course that the accused person does not object to the provision of such a lawyer.

G. In State of Maharashtra v Manubhai Pragaji Vashi and Ors (1995 SCC (5) 730), the Supreme Court held that the combined effect of Article 21 and Article 39A of the Constitution of India mandates that the state shall provide free legal aid by suitable legislation or schemes, or in any other way,to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities. It was further held that the duty cast on the state to provide free legal representation under Article 21, read with Article 39A, cannot be whittled down in any manner, either by pleading paucity of funds or otherwise.

H. In Mohd. Hussain @ Julfikar Ali v NCT of Delhi ((2012) 9 SCC 408),and Ajmal Kasab v State of Maharashtra ((2012) 9 SCC 1), the Supreme Court applied the right of free legal aid to foreign nationals.

3. Claiming a right to legal aid before the Foreigner’s Tribunals

3.1. Legal entitlement under the Legal Services Authority Act, 1878

A notification dated 28 December 2018, bearing No. LGL 165/2018/7, issued by the Legislative Department, Government of Assam, stipulated that only a person with an annual income below three lakhs would be eligible for legal aid under Section 12(h) of the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987. Therefore, the FT members must inform any person who appears before the tribunal about their entitlement under this notification to receive free legal aid, prior to the initiation of any proceedings.

3.2. Failure to provide free legal aid renders the proceedings unjust, unfair, and unreasonable

The provision of legal aid is mandatory for any proceeding that has an impact on the life or personal liberty of any person, to qualify as a fair, just, and reasonable procedure, under Article 21. Therefore, proceedings before the FTs are equally bound by this obligation.

Proceedings before the FTs have been held to be sui generis,being neither civil suits nor criminal trials [Shariful Islam v Union of India, (2019) 8 Gau LR 322]. The FT is empowered to exercise the powers of a civil court under the Civil Procedure Code, 1908, as well as the powers of a Judicial Magistrate First Class under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, in accordance with Paragraph 4 of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964. Hence, it cannot be said that proceedings before the FTs are purely civil proceedings, where principles applicable to criminal justice are inapplicable altogether. The observations made in the cases which recognized the fundamental right to free legal aid must necessarily be extended to the process of citizenship determination. This is because, the finding that a person is not an Indian citizen results in restrictions upon a person’s right to life and personal liberty, given that such persons are to be detained or deported [See Paragraph 3(13) of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964]. Further, even in rendering a quasi-judicial order, such as those rendered by the FTs, there must be compliance with principles of natural justice and fair trial under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Additionally, those who are declared as foreigners under the reference procedure do not have access to an appellate mechanism. Instead, they may only approach the High Court in exercise of writ jurisdiction under Article 226, which has a limited scope of review. Thus effectively, there is no appeal from findings of facts from the FT. In this scenario, the failure of the state to extend free legal aid to persons at the FT stage would further violate the standards of fair trial under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

In Shariful Islam v Union of India ((2019) 8 Gau LR 322), a Division Bench of the Gauhati High Court observed that access to justice was a fundamental right of the persons against whom reference was made to the FTs.

3.3. Failure to provide free legal aid results in a denial of a ‘reasonable opportunity’

Paragraph 3(1) of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964, requires that, “reasonable opportunity of making a representation and producing evidence in support of his case”, must be given to any person in proceedings before the FT. In Kanachur Islamic Education Trust v Union of India ((2017) 15 SCC 702), the Supreme Court had defined reasonable opportunity as being “synonymous to ‘fair hearing’, it is no longer res integra and is an important ingredient of the audi alteram partem rule and embraces almost every facet of fair procedure.”The failure to provide free legal aid and to inform the opposite party that she is entitled to free legal aid would result in the denial of fair hearing and thus, a denial of ‘reasonable opportunity’ required under Paragraph 3(1) of the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964.

3.4. Proceedings are vitiated in the absence of availability of free legal aid

The Supreme Court and various High Courts have repeatedly set aside criminal proceedings where legal aid was not pro-actively provided to the accused facing deprivation of her liberty. In Suk Das v Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh ((1986) 2 SCC 401),the trial was held to be vitiated on account of a fatal constitutional infirmity (failure to provide free legal aid), and the conviction and sentence were set aside. Similarly, in Rajoo @ Ramakant v State of MP ((2012) 8 SCC 553), the Supreme Court set aside the High Court judgment upholding the conviction and remanded the case for re-hearing by the High Court after providing the accused an opportunity of obtaining free legal representation.

In Arjun Karmakar v State of Assam ((1986) 2 Gau LR 287),a Division Bench of the Gauhati High Court held that the appointment of a fresh lawyer on the date of trial was mere fulfilment of formality and no legal aid was actually provided. The High Court set aside the conviction and sentence, and directed a retrial in the case, while observing:

There is a marked tendency to take very lightly the procedure for providing legal aid to the poor. The poor are mute. They have no media, no means to express their pangs and agonies and therefore, with impunity they are provided with assistance but perhaps “no legal assistance by competent lawyer.” If it is the constitutional right of the poor to be provided with legal assistance, the assistance must be genuine, real and the best lawyers should be engaged, otherwise it might be said in the future that their constitutional rights were trampled by the judiciary. We say “caveat actor”. Let not posterity say that the poor were provided lip service or we shed crocodile tears in the name of legal aid.

The Gauhati High Court has also set aside proceedings under special legislations for the failure to provide legal aid. In Anurag Saxena v Ct S Damodaran, where the accused, a constable, was charged under section 10(n) of the Central Reserve Police Force Act, 1949, and sentenced to six months of rigorous imprisonment, the Gauhati High Court observed that:

Since the constitutional right of the accused has been deprived, it is necessary that free legal assistance should be provided to make the trial reasonable, fair and just. I am, therefore, of the view that in the instant case the accused is entitled to get legal assistance, if necessary, at State expense during the trial. Since no such assistance was given during his trial by the Magistrate-cum-Assistant Commandant, the denial of the same would render the trial non est in the eye of law as it was not reasonable, fair and just, and was hit by Art. 21. On this ground also, the judgment and Order of the learned trial Court cannot stand. However, I want to make it clear that each and every trial cannot be held bad for want of legal service and the Court may-judge and consider the case from all angles before arriving at any decision.

Therefore, in the absence of free legal aid, the High Court should set aside the ex parte order and remand the case to the FT for a re-hearing.

4. Plea for setting aside an ex parte order on the ground of absence of proper legal representation – Index of cases

4.1. Relevant Statutes/Rules/Orders

Paragraph 3C of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964, provides for filing an application before the FT for setting aside an ex parte order within a period of thirty (30) days from the date of the said FT Opinion. The relevant extract is as follows:

“3C. Procedure for setting aside ex parte order.–

(1) Where the Foreigners Tribunal has passed an ex-parte order for non-appearance of the proceedee and he or she has sufficient cause for not appearing before the Foreigners Tribunal, it may on the application of the proceedee, if filed within thirty days of the said order, set aside its ex parte order and decide the case accordingly.

(2) The Proceedee may file an application to the Foreigner Tribunal within thirty days to review the decision of the Foreigners Tribunal claiming that he is not a foreigner and the Foreigners Tribunals may review its decision within thirty days of the receipt of such application and decide the case on merits.

(3) Subject to the provisions of this Order, the Foreigners Tribunal shall have the powers to regulate its own procedure for disposal of the cases expeditiously in a time bound manner.”

4.2. Special/Exceptional Circumstances

The Tribunal can entertain an application for setting aside an ex parte opinion if it is satisfied as to the existence of special/exceptional circumstances for the non-appearance of the person. See the ratio in State of Assam v Moslem Mandal((2013) 3 GLR 402). It was stated in Para 91:

The Tribunals constituted under the Foreigners Act read with the 1964 Order have to regulate their own procedure and they have also the quasi-judicial function to discharge and hence in a given case the Tribunal has the jurisdiction to entertain and pass the necessary order on an application to set aside an ex-parte opinion, provided it is proved to the satisfaction of the Tribunal that the proceedee was not served with the notice in the reference proceeding or that he was prevented by sufficient cause from appearing in the proceeding, reason for which was beyond his control. Such application, however, should not be entertained in a routine manner. The Tribunal can entertain such application provided the proceedee could demonstrate the existence of special/exceptional circumstances to entertain the same by way of pleadings in the application filed for setting aside the ex-parte opinion, otherwise the very purpose of enacting the 1946 Act and the 1964 Order would be frustrated. The Tribunal, therefore, would have the jurisdiction to reject such an application at the threshold, if no ground is made out.

4.3. Table of Cases

S NoCase NameCitationOutcomeReasoning
  1.  Huran Nessa v Union of India  MANU/GH/0792/2018  Allowed  The proceedee was not aware that she was required to register herself with the FRRO in the stipulated time as her husband/father had passed away before conveying such important information. This constituted an exceptional circumstance.
  2.  Samad Ali v Union of India  2012 (5) GLT 162, MANU/GH/0614/2012  Allowed  The proceedee being an illiterate and poor man submitted the requisite documents to the clerk, who assured him that they will be admitted. He was of the bona fide beliefthat there was no need for him to attend the proceedings after that. The ex parte order was set aside.
  3.  Narayan Das v State of Assam  MANU/GH/1139/2017  Dismissed  The proceedee being wholly dependent on his lawyer and that being the reason for his non-attendance was not considered a special circumstance.
  4.  Anowara Begum v State of Assam and Ors.  2017 (3) GLT 104, MANU/GH/0350/2017  Dismissed  The appellant was an illiterate person and suffered from acute poverty. After submission of the written statement, she was told by her lawyer that she would be informed as and when her presence was required. Along with the written statement, the lawyer did not enclose the relevant documents handed over to him by the appellant. The written statement also did not disclose the case of the appellant and no steps were taken by the lawyer to produce her witnesses. But these contentions were held to be contradictory and untenable. It was held that FT proceedings are not to be taken so lightly.  
  5.  Jakir Hussain v Union of India  2016 (5) GLT 319, MANU/GH/0612/2016  Dismissed  Being misled by people due to illiteracy and ignorance as grounds for non-appearance were rejected.  
  6.  Asmul Khatun v The Union of India and Ors.  MANU/GH/0794/2016  Dismissed  The petitioner was an illiterate lady and was not well-versed with court procedures. Due to wrong advice given by people, she did not attend the proceedings. This reason was not accepted.  
  7.  Idrish Ali (Md.) and Ors. v Union of India and Ors  2016(3) GLT 886, MANU/GH/0360/2016  Dismissed  The petitioners being illiterate and ignorant about the court procedure relied upon the engaged counsel, and as he did not provide proper guidance to the petitioners about the procedure of the case, they could not appear, and the case was decided ex-parte. The High Court held that it was not the case of the petitioners that they approached their engaged counsel after filing of the case and he suppressed the result of the case etc. Such a casual approach by the petitioners cannot be held as an exceptional circumstance which prevented them from appearing before the Tribunal.

Aper Ali or Afer Ali: The Foreigners Tribunal and ‘Inconsistencies’

This is a guest post by Douglas McDonald-Norman. Douglas McDonald-Norman is a barrister in Sydney, Australia. He predominantly practices in migration and administrative law. He also writes for Law and Other Things.

In their report Designed to Exclude, Amnesty International have recorded the experiences of a man named Abu Bakkar Siddiqui. In 2016, he appeared before a Foreigners Tribunal in Jorhat, Assam.

In his deposition, Abu Bakkar said that his grandfather’s name was Aper Ali Sheikh. To prove that his ancestors had been in India before 1971, Abu Bakkar submitted 1966 and 1970 voter lists – in which the name of his grandfather was written as ‘Afer Ali Sheikh’.

The Tribunal found that Abu Bakkar could not prove that his grandfather Aper Ali Sheikh had ever existed. It rejected his explanation that Aper Ali Sheikh and Afer Ali Sheikh were the same person, saying that this explanation had been made ‘too late in the day’. His attempt to seek review in the Gauhati High Court was dismissed.

This is absurd. But it is not an isolated or uncommon incident. As Amnesty International have reported, in many cases Foreigners Tribunals have rejected applicants’ claims to be who they say they are, or have rejected their accounts of their lives and the lives of their families, based on minor or easily explicable inconsistencies – spelling, dates, typographical errors.

These practices have international parallels. Around the world, courts and tribunals engaged in ‘refugee status determination’ (that is, the process of working out if asylum seekers are entitled to protection as refugees) have frequently relied on ‘inconsistencies’ of these kinds to find that asylum seekers are not telling the truth about who they are or why they claim to fear harm if returned to their countries of origin. Some of these inconsistencies may be explained by fear, shame or inevitable loss of detailed recollection over time (or because of trauma). Other inconsistencies (particularly in documents) may be explained by the context from which an asylum seeker has fled; bureaucracies in their country of origin may have flawed record-keeping practices, or the asylum seeker may not be able to access any corroborative documents because those documents are held by precisely the people they fear will persecute them.

In Foreigners Tribunals, as in refugee status determination, we see decisions being made based upon dubious, harsh or even absurd reasoning, particularly in relation to inconsistencies or errors in applicants’ narratives or documents. How can we use legal frameworks, advocacy and review to challenge these practices?

People stripped of nationality by Foreigners Tribunals can seek review in the Gauhati High Court or the Supreme Court of India. But this review is on limited terms. As the Gauhati High Court explained in State of Assam v Moslem Mondal, a petitioner seeking writs of certiorari to quash a decision of the Foreigners Tribunal must establish that the Tribunal’s decision is affected by jurisdictional error.

The High Court’s judgment in Moslem Mondal takes the concept of ‘jurisdictional error’ further than that in some other common law nations. Justice B. P. Katakey noted that jurisdictional error may arise where reasons for a given exercise of power are ‘inconsistent, unintelligible or inadequate’, in addition to the standard, more orthodox grounds of jurisdictional error – ‘application of a wrong legal test to the facts found, taking irrelevant consideration into account and failing to take relevant consideration into account, and wrongful admission or exclusion of evidence as well as arriving at a conclusion without any supporting evidence’. But the relevant test in the Gauhati High Court is still a question of legal error – mere unfairness or harshness do not suffice, and it is not enough that the Court could (or even would) have made a different decision if it were sitting in the place of the original decision-maker.

How, then, can we challenge the use of trivial or absurd inconsistencies within this framework of jurisdictional error?

In Australia, judicial review of migration decisions is only available where the purported decision is affected by jurisdictional error (that is, that it is beyond the power of the agency which purportedly made the decision). Jurisdictional error may arise on equivalent or similar grounds to those identified by Justice Katakey – for example, failure to consider relevant considerations, findings based on no evidence or misapplication of a relevant legal test. Equivalent to India’s basis for review of ‘inconsistent, unintelligible or inadequate’ reasoning, decisions in Australia may be challenged because they rely on unreasonable, illogical or irrational findings – but this is a high threshold to clear. It requires more than merely establishing that a different finding could have been made; it must be established that the finding, or the exercise of power, is one which no reasonable decision-maker could have made.

But in Australia, we can see examples by which arbitrary or harsh decision-making practices can be restrained through the creative use of traditional grounds of judicial review. Where, for example, a decision-maker relies on ‘unwarranted assumptions… as to matters relevant to the formation of a view on the credibility of a corroborative witness, the decision-maker may constructively fail to consider relevant considerations arising from the material before it (There are parallels, in this regard, with reasoning in Moslem Mondal itself – in which Justice Katakey found that in one of the decisions challenged ‘[t]he learned Tribunal did not appreciate the evidence on record in its proper perspective, thereby refusing to take into consideration the relevant piece of evidence’). Similar reliance on ‘unwarranted assumptions’ may mean that the decision is illogical or irrational, or that a decision-maker has made findings with no basis in the evidence before it.

The ‘unwarranted assumptions’ argument is not a new basis for judicial review or jurisdictional error. It is merely a different way of understanding and applying traditional grounds – failure to have regard to relevant considerations, making findings on the basis of no evidence, and ‘unreasonableness’.

Advocates and activists working to reform the Foreigners Tribunal can similarly reshape traditional grounds of judicial review to restrain abuses of the Tribunals’ fact-finding function, even with the limited tools left available to them by Moslem Mondal. When a Tribunal relies upon an absurd or exceptionally minor inconsistency (like a typographical error on a document), even the traditional grounds of judicial review may permit the Court to question whether there is a logical or probative basis for any adverse finding made as a result, or to question whether an ‘unfounded assumption’ that the document would invariably have been accurate as transcribed prevented the Tribunal from properly having regard to the evidence before it. When a Tribunal relies on a difference between general and specific accounts of the same thing, the Court may question whether the Tribunal’s misunderstanding or mischaracterisation of the evidence has led to a constructive failure to consider that evidence, or a failure to consider necessary questions arising from that evidence. These may seem like frail instruments to reform broader abusive or unjust practices by the Foreigners Tribunals, and may seem entirely inadequate to address the fundamental injustice at the heart of that system. But, over time, these grounds of review can be used to set clear limits on how the Tribunals function and how they make decisions. These limits to the fact-finding powers of the Tribunals can protect vulnerable individuals from abusive and arbitrary exercises of power.

Challenging Ex Parte Orders – Special Circumstances

Ex parte orders are delivered without the presence of the accused in the Court/Tribunal. Ex parte orders are extremely significant in the context of Foreigners’ Tribunal (‘FT’) proceedings in Assam. It has been reported that since 1985, nearly 64,000 people in Assam have been declared as ‘foreigners’ through ex parte orders. They often become aware of the ex parte orders against them only when they are apprehended by the border police to be sent to detention centres. However, the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964, provides for a mechanism to set aside an ex parte order. Additionally, Tribunals can also accept applications to set aside ex parte orders in case they are of the opinion that certain special/exceptional circumstances led to the applicant being unaware of the proceedings. This research note studies the mechanism for setting aside an ex parte order and mentions the relevant cases where ex parte orders were set aside due to special/exceptional circumstances.  

I. Relevant Statutes/Rules/Orders

Paragraph 3C of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964 provides for filing of an application before the FT for setting aside an ex parte order within a period of 30 days from the date of the said FT Opinion. Rule 3C of the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964, is as follows:

“3C. Procedure for setting aside ex parte order.–

(1) Where the Foreigners Tribunal has passed an ex-parte order for non-appearance of the proceedee and he or she has sufficient cause for not appearing before the Foreigners Tribunal, it may on the application of the proceedee, if filed within thirty days of the said order, set aside its ex parte order and decide the case accordingly.

(2) The proceedee may file an application to the Foreigners Tribunal within thirty days to review the decision of the Foreigners Tribunal claiming that he is not a foreigner and the Foreigners Tribunals may review its decision within thirty days of the receipt of such application and decide the case on merits.

(3) Subject to the provisions of this Order, the Foreigners Tribunal shall have the powers to regulate its own procedure for disposal of the cases expeditiously in a time bound manner.”

II. Special/Exceptional Circumstances

The Tribunal can entertain an application for setting aside an ex parte opinion if it is satisfied as to the existence of special/exceptional circumstances for the non-appearance of a person. State of Assam v. Moslem Mandal [(2013)3 GLR 402 at para 91 [Full Bench]] dealt with such special/exceptional circumstances:

“The Tribunals constituted under the Foreigners Act read with the 1964 Order have to regulate their own procedure and they have also the quasi-judicial function to discharge and hence in a given case the Tribunal has jurisdiction to entertain and pass necessary orders on an application to set aside an ex-parte opinion, provided it is proved to the satisfaction of the Tribunal that the proceedee was not served with the notice in the reference proceeding or that he was prevented by sufficient cause from appearing in the proceeding, reason for which was beyond his control. Such application, however, should not be entertained in a routine manner. The Tribunal can entertain such application provided the proceedee could demonstrate the existence of the special/exception circumstances to entertain the same by way of pleadings in the application filed for setting aside the ex-parte opinion, otherwise the very purpose of enacting the 1946 Act and the 1964 Order would be frustrated. The Tribunal, therefore, would have the jurisdiction to reject such application at the threshold, if no ground is made out.”

III. Cases Dealing With Special/Exceptional Circumstances

S NoCase NameCitationOutcomeReasoning
1.Taher Ali v. Union of IndiaWP(C) 5608/2019AllowedMissing a single hearing cannot be grounds for an ex parte order.
2.Habibur Rahman v. Union of IndiaWP(C) 8564/2019AllowedWife’s death constitutes exceptional circumstance to set aside an ex parte order.
3.Samsul    Hoque    v. Union of IndiaAIR 2018 Gau 157 MANU/GH/ 0778/2018AllowedRiots in Mizoram (which was the appellant’s place of work) prevented him from attending court proceedings.
4.Huran    Nessa    v. Union of IndiaMANU/GH/0 792/2018AllowedThe proceedee was not aware that she was required to register herself with the FRRO within the stipulated time, as her husband/father had passed away before conveying this important information to her. This constituted an exceptional circumstance.
5.Bahej Ali v. Union of India2018(2) GLT 837 MANU/GH/ 1032/2017AllowedDue to the long pendency of reference (23 years), and the wife of the proceedee having passed away, the ex parte order was set aside.
6.Samad Ali v. Union of India2012(5) GLT 162 MANU/GH/ 0614/2012AllowedThe proceedee being an illiterate and poor man, submitted the requisite documents to the clerk who assured him that they would be admitted. He was of the bona fide belief that there was no need for him to attend the proceedings after that. The ex parte order was set aside.

This research note was edited by Sreedevi Nair.

The Rise of the Indian Detention Regime

This is the first in a three-part series of guest posts by Paresh Hate. Paresh Hate is a PhD candidate at Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Their work revolves around critically engaging with the discourse of ‘Bangladeshi infiltrator’ in Indian politics by looking at immigration detention and immigration law as sites of its cultivation, deployment and legitimization. Paresh is the digital editor for Migrant Solidarity Network – India and is a founding member of Hasratein: a queer collective, LGBTQIA+ resource group and political organisation based in New Delhi, India.

After the news of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam was published in 2019 and the proposal for an all-India National Register of Citizens by the Home Minister of India was announced, detention centres had finally become a part of the resistant imaginary of civil society groups and activist circles. Until then, this sensitization and recognition was limited to groups in Assam fighting for the civil liberties of people languishing in the detention centres for prolonged periods and some organisations in other metropolitan areas trying to produce data on it. With the passing of Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and the promise of NRC, there were widespread protests across India that foregrounded the demand that detention centres must go.

While the ruling party and the opposition have continued their debates about the who and when of detention centres, much misinformation has been spread. There is now substantial information in the public domain with regard to the six detention centres in Assam. This is because of the report on the National Human Rights Commission Mission to Assam’s Detention Centres, carried out by Harsh Mander and others, which was subsequently also submitted as a petition in the Supreme Court to ameliorate the conditions of detention centres there. However, neither is immigration detention exclusive to the current fascist government employing it in some extra-judicial realm, nor are the detention centres only operational in Assam. Detention, as a strategy to govern unauthorized migrants, goes to the heart of our immigration law system and has been in place for decades.

Notwithstanding the fact that the first de facto detention centres were built in the state of Assam under High Court’s orders of 2008 for detaining declared foreigners, many confinement centres for immigrants preceded this time period. Some or the other form of such confinement centres for unauthorized migrants has been in place since at least mid-2000s and have been employed for both punitive and non-punitive purposes.

In countries of the Global South such as India, the criminalisation of irregular migration as a measure, like its other politico-legal institutions, is undoubtedly and obviously enmeshed in a history of colonialism and power that goes beyond a simplistic framing of rule of law. There are two distinct points about the trajectory of immigration control that demonstrate its relation with modern colonial history. The first is that the techniques of law that India currently employs have been cultivated during British colonialism in India itself. This is true for three of the four major acts that constitute immigration law in India. These are the Passport (Entry into India) Act (1920), the Registration of Foreigners Act (1939), and the Foreigners Act (1946). All three of them have been argued as “acts of Empire” whose original function was to regulate the migration of colonised subjects across the various colonies and Dominions and thereby restrict their ability to migrate into privileged geographies of the colonising powers.

The second point about regulation of migration is tied to post-World War 2 period and subsequent globalization, where cultures of penalty such as immigration detention travelled like other things across the world. What is now clear is that the inception of detention took place primarily during the late 19th century in the United States. Contemporary scholars are today certain that the creation of modern immigration detention begins with the normalization of regulated borders in America and the United Kingdom. Prior to this, the routine method to deal with foreigners were preventive exclusions through often racist laws that disallowed people from certain racialized communities and nations to enter the country. In cases where such foreigners were found to be residing in the nation without adequate documents, they would be expelled through measures such as deportation or push-back. The establishment of the border as a site of political control grew alongside both centralization and monopolization of power over mobility. In the late 19th century, immigrant detention was used for the first time as a legal exception treated as a temporary administrative check-point until the final decision regarding the fate of the immigrant foreigner was made. Over time, with the growing number of immigrants in the United States, detention started acting as an administrative strategy deployed for longer periods, often against racialized migrants until it became a common response during World War 1 to treat foreigners fleeing their country and foreigner soldiers. This later conflation was much more prevalent in the United Kingdom where anti-alien sentiment demanded substantive politico-legal moves to create some system to permanently control foreigners. Until then, immigration detention used was neither seen as penal nor as any form of imprisonment. Since World War 2, however, immigration detention across most countries has become a legislative policy and a permanent bureaucratic enterprise.

This period where immigration control and defining citizenship became of paramount importance was the period in which many erstwhile colonies were transitioning into sovereign nation-states. Both in Asian and African countries, but also in erstwhile colonizing metropoles which were becoming proper nation-states now, the question of the self and the other of the political community was essential and urgent. Yet, the political logic that was inherent to many of these decolonizing movements prioritized autochthony, which is to say that the original inhabitants of the land who were the natives of that region had the right to self-determine its own political future. This kind of political context necessitated, as it still does, differentiating between a foreigner and a citizen.

In Global South countries such as India, because of the political and economic conditions, this has meant the focus is on the informal movement of low-wage migrants across spatially contiguous states and within the region which is particularly vigilant–due to the suspicion generated by the history of partition–of Muslims from the neighbouring countries (particularly erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh), who are treated as “infiltrators” as far as popular psyche, dominant nationalist political ideologies, and state institutions are concerned.

One year before the independence, laws were put in place to decide the conditions under which a movement is legitimate. After the independence, the connotations of British rule were dropped while keeping the entire law as it is. With the Foreigners Act, 1946 enacted, there were provisions for punitive measures to employ in case of transgressors to this law and this penalty included detention also. The politico-legal powers of the state that legitimized detention centres are authorized under the Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Foreigners Order, 1948. Section 3(2)(e) of the Foreigners Act, 1946 states that the foreigner:

“[S]hall comply with such conditions as may be prescribed or specified— (i) requiring him to reside in a particular place; (ii) imposing any restrictions on his movements;”

In addition to this, para 11(2) of The Foreigners Order, 1948 allows the civil authority to impose restrictions on the foreigners’ movement.

While until the early 21st century, detention centres have meant makeshift spaces which are otherwise typical prisons, there has been a rise of many sites since early 2000s which are used as functional detention centres, managed by Border Security Force stations, shelter homes looked after by state governments, Foreigners Regional Registration Office sites, etc. What the criminalisation of irregular migration and use of detention as a punitive strategy since the inception of immigration law shows is that nowhere in the last hundred years at least have the detention centres been used simply as temporary administrative check-points, but instead have been an integral part of the criminal immigration (or crimmigration) system. Here, detention centres are spaces that thwart mobility and control the perceived “excessive mobility” of the unauthorized migrants by responding with total confinement and putting a stop to their movement itself.

Today as well, migrants who have been detained for immigration-related transgressions face severe legal adversities and their troubles have only increased after the NRC has been announced. With the regime in power attempting to build more detention centres qua detention centres across the country for “illegal infiltrators”, and with a relative absence of proper repatriation treaties with  neighbouring countries, the Indian immigration system is perhaps most likely to deal with migrant foreigners, among others, with detention as one of the preferred modes of penalty. While detention centres began in India as instruments peripheral to immigration control, they have now, under the current regime, transformed into a bureaucratic enterprise that is central to the state apparatus’ program of governance over Bengali-speaking, Muslim and migrant populations, and will give rise to a new detention regime that will be initiated now with the project of NRC.

“I’m too hungry to think of the Pandemic”: An Interview with Iftikar Hussain Siddique from Assam

Iftikar Hussain Siddique is a paralegal in Assam doing his part in ameliorating the conditions of those whose names are excluded from the NRC. This interview seeks to unearth the on-ground realities of Assam as it withstands floods, a pandemic and an identity crisis begotten by the NRC process. Mr. Siddique recounts his encounters and stories highlighting the condition of Assam at the juncture of this confluence of issues. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Aarushi Mittal: Thank you for agreeing to speak to us. Can you tell us a little bit about your work, and how you came to be working as a paralegal?

Iftikar Hussain Siddique: My work includes helping those who are excluded from the NRC List. My aim is to help those from our community who fall within the weaker section of the society. In my initial years, I tried to ensure a healthy and hygienic environment for children. It was around this time that I started helping D-voters in getting their case through along with advocates. Essentially, I assist people in filling up the forms that need to be submitted. Since a sizable proportion of the population is uneducated, they need some sort of help in filling these forms and understanding what they entail. 

Since these are uneducated people, they don’t know where their thumb impression needs to be put or if one needs to be put at all. They tend to ask around for help from shop owners. They don’t know anything which is written in the form. This is where my role begins. Further, I also help them in checking if their name is on the list. My friends and I assist them in formulating their claims to citizenship. We were guided by lawyer Aman Wadud in this regard. This is how we tried to help people on the grassroot level. We prepare them for hearings by explaining what all needed to be said and what documents had to be submitted. 

Sometimes the biometric machines do not function, so we collected data on which places need a functioning biometric machine to ensure that procedure was not stopped. It is important to submit certain documents, while others are often ruled to be redundant. For instance, many people had submitted their Panchayat documents which were not accepted by the courts as valid proof of citizenship. So, we tried to help them collate a different set of documents which could be submitted. 

AM: It has been one year since the final list of the NRC was released. Rejection slips stating the reasons for exclusion were supposed to have been issued to excluded persons, allowing them to file appeals. However, no rejection slip has been issued so far. What has been the impact of this delay on people?

IHS: A very funny yet very astounding impact of this has been with respect to marriages. People now ask whether the name of the prospective bride or groom is on the NRC and whether there has been any adjudication to that effect. There is no other standard. People who have returned from detention camps, their children are in most detriment. This is a major trouble. Halima Khatoon’s daughter is being rejected simply because her mother was declared a foreigner. This is reasoned by claiming there are chances of a legal appeal, and that they would have to pay for these cases by selling lands. 

On our part, we tried to help 2000+ families by providing them ration. It is absolutely imperative at this point in time when floods have wiped out fields and the pandemic has taken away work that such provisions be undertaken. People don’t have ration cards or any other means to procure a day’s meal. Many people in the detention camps do not have ration cards. While the government provided Rs.1000 to families, that is barely adequate. Jabeda Khatoon, who had submitted almost 15 documents and was still declared foreigner, had her entire house destroyed as a result of a cyclone. Aman sir tried to help out by contributing some money to fix her house. She was extremely sick and yet she couldn’t go to a hospital because of her status as a foreigner. We tried to get in touch with a few organizations to help her. With a family with no source of income, the cyclone, pandemic, and NRC impacted her greatly. 

In this one river island, there was almost 5 feet of water. The people would survive on barely any meals.  There had been waterlogging for almost 2 months. We were able to help on the first day of Eid. This was a situation which existed across the spectrum. There was once a huge population among 52 households built of concrete, the floods barely spared a few. These people definitely get impacted. The delay creates trouble in that sense. 

AM: Assam has faced the twin blows of COVID-19 and floods.You personally have been involved in a lot of relief work in lower Assam. In your observations, how has this situation impacted persons left out of the NRC? Has there been any government aid? 

IHS: The first lockdown was of 21 days. Those who left their houses were beaten up. Further, there was no sale of food grains. Social distancing is a luxury, one which no one can afford. People can’t leave homes, and even if they do, they don’t have a market for their grains since people aren’t leaving homes. Before COVID, hunger was enough of a concern. The pandemic was not a concern for poor people, hunger was. People would say that they were too hungry to think of COVID. 

Another issue is the weakened health conditions of those in the detention camps. This is exacerbated with the onset of the pandemic.  One by the name of Rajkumar was a daily wager and was travelling to work, he was not aware of the imposition of the lockdown. The police ended up beating him up badly for flouting the lockdown rules. Daily wagers are severely impacted. 

The government is only concerned with testing for people who are COVID-19 positive. The political parties come door to door to spread their agenda. They advertise schemes. The Health Minister himself does not wear a mask. The BJP representatives are flouting the norms of social distancing left and right. In furtherance of the elections which were slated to happen, too many meetings are held and there is no social distancing or use of masks. 

Guwahati has some restrictions, but these are being flouted by political parties. People don’t trust the hospitals. They just buy medicines and stay home. I believe that Modi and Trump both would simply use the pandemic as an excuse for inefficient functioning. So, they are causing COVID to worsen to bolster their excuses. People have tried to reduce their expenditure on subsidiary items like clothing or going out. The poor Muslim people have been targeted specifically and deemed to be the cause of the spread. They are making a disease communal. While the doctors are cooperative, the media has portrayed a communal image. 

The masks are not provided, the government should be distributing masks. The hospitals are not good, doctors are not treating patients properly. Those who are positive are caught and after two days they are released. No containment zone is being made. The people who are positive are not being treated adequately. Hygiene again is a luxury – when a person cannot afford food, how are they to buy sanitizers. The government spends so much money on ancillary things like prizes to state toppers – this is not the time to make such promises. You need these funds to fight COVID. The NGOs must be employed in this regard too. People don’t have soaps to take a bath, hand washing is not possible. The pandemic is for the rich to worry about. 

AM: We know that persons declared foreigners by the Foreigners Tribunals are being detained in detention camps. What are the conditions within these camps? There is a stand-alone detention camp coming up in Goalpara–what is the status of that camp? How have local communities near the construction site reacted to the presence of the detention centre?

IHS: Jails had quite a few cases since they have people coming from outside. If one person is positive then all would be positive: jails were sealed and people testing positive were removed. The Supreme Court ordered that those who had been in the camps for over 2 years be released. As a result of the same, less than 50% people were released. 

However, now those who leave the camps, they will have to go to the police stations. This has caused a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Police stations. Those with COVID-19 still have to travel once a week. One person, who had to walk to a police station for almost 2 hours, had COVID. I asked him to inform the officers as him going to the station would not be safe for the police station in any way. The police asked him to come next week. There is no proper system in place. These people should not be asked to traverse to these stations at a time like this for a few months. Public transport is not functioning, police stations are far off and women cannot cycle to these stations. People need to walk for hours on end and be exposed to the risk of contracting a deadly disease. There is a need for intervention to that effect. 

As for Foreigners Tribunals, they are not currently functioning. The Buksa District Tribunal, however, has sent multiple notices. People do not have money, and these notices are released. Now they need to pay lawyers for this. People cannot fight these cases. They say that they’d rather have poison than exist like this. I cannot sleep listening to these stories. I do not know how I would tackle these situations. One person goes through multiple trials and tribulations with reference to their identity as an Indian. I’ve stopped asking people because it disheartens me so much. 

The detention camp in Goalpara had stopped construction initially and now it has begun again recently. Those who are excluded are really suffering. People keep asking me questions on how to ensure citizenship. They wake me up at 5 AM asking me how to go about this. I tell them that once the process begins again, I will help. The process of scanning documents has recently begun, they have started curating speaking orders. However, official documents still remain inaccessible.  

It’s great for government teachers, the lockdown, they can work at home. The poor people however are in too much pain. This one person had no money whatsoever and we gave him some money. We tried to give some food to people — however so many people came that we had to call the police to calm the crowd. People require food. If you give food to one person, multiple people come for it. Parents ask for food for their children. This one time, I gave one packet of biscuit to this one child and he ran off. It made me cry. His mother kept weeping outside my house. She was a widow. She couldn’t reconcile with the reality that had befallen her. 

AM: Have the FTs been functioning during the pandemic? If yes, do you think adequate measures are being taken to make sure that people are able to receive a fair trial?. Are cases dismissed hurriedly given that there was a pandemic or is the pandemic being used as an excuse to deny due process?

IHS: The advocates have lost a lot of money as a result of this lockdown. They used to earn a lot of money in these proceedings. What will happen is that they will now increase their charges for the case. This would further deprive people of the justice that they deserve. People will receive lesser money for their assets due to the lockdown. There might be people who are witness to some cases. If they are casualties to the pandemic, someone loses their chance at citizenship. People might not be able to come. People are not able to procure documents. It takes about 15 days to get documents, this is effectively delayed. People need to apply for certified copies. If these offices do not have officers however, they cannot procure such certified documents. The District Collector’s offices cannot be approached by outside people. How are they to fight cases?

The 6th citizen concept has become the talk of the town recently as a result of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. People will be deprived of political rights, rights to buy land, or get jobs. In 1950, many places were really backward, they were not consulted in the first consensus. They remain unnamed. This would be highly unfair. It is a really bad situation. The 200 members appointed for the FT aren’t doing anything, they are just being paid taxpayers’ money. The staff that has been appointed to operate computers and all are not being paid salaries since March. They need to cover costs on their own. The system is not at all effective or people friendly. The reverification is also being discussed. People are being harassed. It’s a politically motivated system of harassment. Nobody knows how the government plans to tackle this. It eludes everyone, it’s only politics.

Aarushi Mittal is a 3rd year law student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences. She is a research volunteer with Parichay.