Aman Wadud is a practicing lawyer in Assam, where he provides ground-level legal services and support to those who are at risk of being stripped of their citizenship status, owing to the National Register of Citizens (‘NRC’) process. He appears before the Guwahati High Court and the Foreigners Tribunals in Assam, and has also argued before the Supreme Court of India. His voice has been crucial in highlighting the ethnic and religious prejudices in the adjudication of citizenship in Assam. Apart from his litigation practice, Aman was heavily involved in the NRC process which involved travelling across Assam to spread awareness about the Court-monitored NRC. He has recently received the Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship for 2021-22, and hopes to continue to build on his work through this opportunity. In this interview, we discuss his work, citizenship adjudication in Assam, and the recent petition regarding the release of detainees in light of COVID-19.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Devashri Mishra: I hope to discuss themes and questions which derive from your previous interviews, public appearances, talks delivered in colleges, your engagement with Parichay, and your work. But before any of that, congratulations on receiving the Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship for 2021-22! Can you tell us about what inspired you to apply for the Fellowship and how you believe it aligns with your work?
Aman Wadud: Thank you so much for inviting me to do this.
Earlier this year I was in the United States, where I was invited to speak at the Harvard India Conference at the Harvard Kennedy School. I was also invited to Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School, Yale Law School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I met a lot of professors, scholars, lawyers, and I ended my trip with testifying before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Hearing on Citizenship Laws and Religious Freedom, where I was a witness. Through this trip, I realized that an advanced degree in the United States will help my cause, widen my perspective and enrich my knowledge on International Human Rights Law, and comparative constitutional law. I want to understand how citizenship is defined in different constitutional settings and the application of citizenship laws. The jus soli concept came into being in the United States through the 14th Amendment in 1868, almost 150 years ago. The law has not changed till now, and anyone born in the US is a citizen by birth. Although when our republic was founded, citizenship was granted on the basis of the principle of jus soli citizenship, this slowly got diluted into the principle of jus sanguinis. This was still further diluted in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 and now, both parents are required to be Indian citizens. Since my work is centred around citizenship law, and I work before the Foreigners Tribunals (FTs), and High Court, I think that an LL.M. with a focus on human rights and comparative constitutional law will benefit my cause. Apart from my litigation, I’m also involved in advocacy work on statelessness. Around 135,000 people have already been declared to be foreigners in Assam and have been rendered stateless, along with their family members. Considering that most of my cases are pro bono, this prestigious Fellowship will allow me to study as it covers all basic expenses and will additionally provide me a small stipend. The network that I will build through this Fellowship will help me with my work as well.
DM: Absolutely, and I think we’re all eager to see how your work carries forward after your stint in the US! We were extremely happy to hear this news here at Parichay, and we’re certain you’ve been getting similarly warm reactions from everywhere. There have been a few articles and social media reactions which indicate that you’re one of the first North-East Indians to receive this Fellowship – is this true?
AW: Actually, I’m only the second North East Indian to receive this Fellowship in international legal studies, the first was Babloo Loitongbam from Manipur who received this Fellowship in 2004, sixteen years ago! In this category of legal studies, I’m the first from Assam. In terms of the response I’ve received, I’m overwhelmed. Look, to apply for this Fellowship, you need 3 years of experience, and I’ve had 10 years of experience and I’m deeply involved with the cause of fighting citizenship cases. I must have the blessings of a lot of people that I get so much love for my work. Over the years, because of the citizenship cause becoming a movement, I have received many calls and emails, inviting me to speak at several events. That’s probably why people relate with me, and maybe even because I use my Twitter handle quite effectively in furthering my cause. We have to keep in mind that no one was speaking for the cause of citizenship, and it only became fancy to do so only when the NRC list was released, and again when the CAA protests broke out on a national level. Before that, no one spoke about it. I have been working on this since 2014, and continuously speaking about it, possibly that is why people are emotionally related to me. In Assam, I think people know me because cases of the disadvantaged are referred to me from almost every sub-division of the state, and I’ve fought all these cases. These cases have taken me to many places in Assam, and I also travel for meetings and legal awareness, and for training lawyers here. That way, I know a lot of people and a lot of people know me! I’ve been working sincerely, and working really hard, and so by the grace of God, that may be why many are able to relate with me. I’m overwhelmed by the love and wishes I’ve received over the last few days!
DM: What you said about the rise in the debate around citizenship post the NRC coming about, and more so when the CAA was passed, is a very visible development, even in academic circles in law schools. The conversation around citizenship caught on significantly at the national level only recently, and it seems to be on an exponential rise. How do you think this development is seen by those living this reality everyday?
AW: In law schools, people have started taking interest in this. I’ve spoken to professors who admit that they used to skip the citizenship provisions while teaching constitutional law, and would skip to other chapters. Most of them did this because it seemed unimportant at the time. But now, it has become a practical, and important aspect of constitutional law, even in teaching, and it is no longer something we can take for granted. Perhaps they thought it could never be questioned but finally, we know that there can be a process where everyone may have to prove their citizenship. And that is probably why the interest has increased. I wish people had taken cognizance of what is happening in Assam, which has been happening for a long time. If you go to Economic and Political Weekly you will find articles on Assam, otherwise hardly there was any writing, however, several scholars such as Anupama Roy, who are authorities in the field, have written a lot on the subject. But it has remained a relatively minor field in academics, and before the NRC or CAA debates, a citizenship issue was not considered fancy enough to discuss.
It is regrettable that people did not give adequate attention to the citizenship crisis in Assam, possibly many lives could have been saved if they had. As you know, detention centers in Assam started in 2009, around 10 years ago, where people were being detained indefinitely. Finally, in 2018, Mr. Harsh Mander filed a petition before the Supreme Court, which reduced the period of detention to three years and it brought an end to indefinite detention. Thirty people have died in the last three years. If enough interest had been given to these issues by professors, academics, and students, possibly it would have made a huge difference to this number. But, I’m happy people are finally paying attention.
DM: To go back a little to your mention of your trip to the US earlier this year – particularly your witness testimony during the Hearings at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. You spoke about how marginalised groups are adversely affected by the citizenship determination process, especially because many of them do not have documents. Can you tell us a little more about why marginalised groups struggle to provide documentary evidence of their citizenship?
AW: The nature of proving citizenship is such that it is entirely dependent on documentation. Because there is a prolonged problem of citizenship in Assam, the Bengali Muslim community, especially, has always been very careful about documentation.
Firstly, the primary document is the Voter List, but since most people accused of being ‘illegal migrants’ are illiterate, there are often anomalies in the names in the Voter List. There are inconsistencies in titles especially for Muslims, the father could have the title Ali, while the son’s title is Ahmad, but this is not a concern for Muslims. But for Hindus, the title remains constant, except for women whose title changes upon marriage. So the Voter List has anomalies with age and name.
Secondly, there is a huge problem of erosion in Assam. Every year, around 800 hectares of mainland is eroded by the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers. People become homeless and shift from one place to another, and they have to record their name to the village they move to. So, there is a different Voter List for their original home, and a different one in the village they have shifted to. For example, if the person’s name is Amjad Ali, the Tribunal may say that the Amjad Ali names on both Voter Lists are different and some other Amjad Ali has been picked up, especially if there is a difference in name and age which happens often owing to typographical or clerical errors. This causes a lot of problems for people who migrate, as the Tribunal is given more reason to doubt the veracity of the evidence.
It is not only erosion, but because these are poor people, they do migrate for their livelihood, although this group constitutes a lesser number of people and those affected by river erosion are much more.
Thirdly, women are another vulnerable group in this context. Women get married early in Assam since the minimum age is 18 years now (earlier it was 21 years). They vote only after marriage because of being married at around the age of 18 itself, and they do so in their matrimonial home and not in their parental home. This is true for almost every woman who is accused of being an ‘illegal migrant’ in my experience, I have hardly come across any woman whose name is recorded with her parents on the Voter List. Thus, a woman’s name is usually recorded with the husband in the Voter List. This is how women lose the most important document to prove their citizenship, as the voter list is a public document which is not required to be proved by the issuing authority. So, a brother who comes to depose as a defense witness, can prove his citizenship as defense witness because of being able to prove a relationship with their father, but the sister is not able to do so, whose citizenship is being questioned as she does not have documents to prove it. This is the most important problem here in documentation for proving citizenship. Apart from Voter List, a woman can rely on Gaon Panchayat certificates, school certificates, nikah namahs – which are all private documents. There are also jamabandi certificates which can be relied upon but those are rare since these are poor people, who do not generally part with their land, and especially not to give to their daughters or sisters. This is a big problem in every society, that women do not receive land. If they do, land documents are reliable documents , but need to be proved by the issuing authority. The bottom line is that if their names are not on the Voter List with parents, it is difficult to prove citizenship before the Tribunals. If a seasoned lawyer is approached with a woman’s case, they will immediately say it’s a bad case, or refuse to take the case. This is bad, and of course they should not do this, but they also think that this will be a difficult case so they refuse because of the absence of documentary evidence. They could rely on the deposition of relatives, under Section 50 of the Evidence Act, but in practice , this does not happen because oral evidence is hardly relied upon by the Tribunal. Even if the father himself comes to testify, the Tribunal says that oral evidence is not enough to prove citizenship. Now, with NRC, children’s documentation is also weak as a result, and I fear that they may become yet another vulnerable group in citizenship cases.
DM: So when those accused of being ‘illegal migrants’ are ‘declared foreigners’, they are taken to detention centres, which you mentioned earlier. You recently approached the Supreme Court (‘SC’) in a plea to release persons ‘declared foreigners’, under the Foreigners’ Act, 1946, from the detention centres in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are your thoughts on the role of the SC in releasing people stuck in detention centres throughout the COVID-19 lockdown? Was the Supreme Court’s decision and the administrative response as you and your team expected when you filed before the Court?
AW: The SC in regard to detention and citizenship matters, is not as sympathetic as it should be. We filed our petition because the Court had already taken up a suo moto case with regard to decongesting the prisons in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We felt that since detention centres are located in prisons, detainees should be released on the same basis as prisoners being released to decongest prisons. So we filed this petition praying that all detainees should be released unconditionally, without the earlier conditions imposed by the Court, i.e, completion of three years in detention, and requirement to submit two sureties of INR 1 Lakh each upon release, and appearance before police station every week. Since these are very harsh conditions, we argued that being a ‘declared foreigner’ should not attract such penal consequences. Persons are purportedly detained for the purpose of deportation only, but since March 13, 2013, which is when the formal deportation procedure began, only four ‘declared foreigners’ have been deported as per the Assamese Government’s affidavit before the Supreme Court. So if they cannot be deported, why detain them? Thus we prayed that these conditions be done away with, and that everyone be released in wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court was pleased to reduce the detention period from three to two years, and reduce the financial bond to be furnished to INR 5000. This is a welcome Order, and 350 people have already been released. People like Minara Begum, who was detained in 2010, could not be released earlier because of the onerous requirements of the financial bond to be furnished by sureties in the 2019 Order which reduced the detention period to three years. When the requirements were reduced this year, a lot of people came forward with INR 5000 and detainees could be released. When Minara Begum was detained in 2010, her daughter was only 15 days old, she grew up in the detention centre with her. Their release and numerous others’ release was secured because of the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s order in our petition. But, I very humbly disagree with the Order in the sense that I think it is unreasonable to even detain people for two years if there is no scope for deportation which is the stated purpose of detention. Persons released after three or two years, with the surety, still have to appear before the police station. Everyone can be asked to meet this condition of appearing before the police station. Surety can be taken to meet this requirement, and instead, the surety requiring these huge financial bonds can be dispensed with, and I am certain many will come forward to give surety as well. As I said, in the last three years, 30 people have died in the detention centres which anyway have pathetic conditions. Detainees are forced to live there without having committed any crime, which takes a huge toll and they are under huge mental trauma. I agree that it is a favourable decision and I bow down to the decision of the Hon’ble Supreme Court, but I had hoped the entire system of detention would be dispensed with. I would have been happy if each and everyone had been released.
DM: In a recent interview, you spoke about the pressure on bureaucratic and judicial officials to manufacture foreigners where none exist. This raises a larger question of how the determination of citizenship should ideally take place. What are some of the best practices/legal principles that we should incorporate into our system, and are there jurisdictions which we can look to for guidance?
AW: Firstly, I wonder if there is even a citizenship determination process in other countries which is comparable to the way it is determined in India. I’ve researched a lot, but there is no process that can match the way it is done here.
Secondly, the basic problem is that while all tribunals in India are set up under a legislation, Foreigners Tribunals are set up under an Executive Order. The foundation itself is wrong. In the 1964 Order too, there is a requirement for members to have judicial experience which has slowly been relaxed, and altogether dispensed with. Initially, lawyers with 10 years of experience were appointed, then in 2019 lawyers with 7 years of experience were appointed. I’ve come across several recent appointees who only enrolled as lawyers 7 year ago and many of them have not even been practicing lawyers. Many appointed to the Tribunal do not have adequate experience to deal with the most important right in the Constitution – citizenship rights.
Citizenship is the most important constitutional right, and as it is often called, and it indeed is, the ‘right to have rights’. If you take away citizenship, you don’t have any rights. Although the Constitution of India states that Article 14 and 21 are applicable to everyone, in practicality this is not true. For eg — ‘declared foreigners’, do not have any rights despite this constitutional guarantee. They are stripped of all possible rights to live a normal life. If you look at the composition of the Tribunals, it is easy to understand the problem, many members do not even know how to write an opinion, they are not familiar with fair trial procedures, principles of natural justice or the basic principles of the Evidence Act. Although the Hon’ble Gauhati High Court selects them, they are the appointees of the Home Department of the Government of Assam. In 2017, there were remarks in the performance appraisal reviews of these members, which said their performance was unsatisfactory only because they could not declare more people as foreigners. If members declare more people as Indian, then their performance is considered unsatisfactory. All Tribunal members are on a contractual basis of two years, and those selected in 2019 are on a contract of 1 year. Thus, maintaining a job through renewal by the Government requires that the rate of declared foreigners be high, because the Government is engaged in vendetta politics and they are hell bent to prove more people as foreigners. The report by Arunabh Saikia on Scroll where Tribunal members refer to citizenship as ‘wickets’ and how many ‘wickets’ each has taken — that’s how casually they look at it, and that’s how many members decide cases as well.
Recently, in the Dhubri district of Assam, they replaced all the Muslim government pleaders with non-Muslim government pleaders. There should at least be some pretense of following due process, or of being fair, but the Government is brazen. There should be some representation, especially in Dhubri district where Muslims are the single-largest majority but they have all been replaced. It is clear that the government wants this process to work in a way that does not meet the standard of a fair trial. I can say this with full responsibility and conviction, that this process does not meet the fair trial standard. The investigative process makes a mockery of the guarantees in the Constitution because a fair investigation is part of the right to a fair trial. When I speak of the investigative process, I become speechless because there is no investigation to speak of, and anyone can be picked up randomly and be accused of being an ‘illegal migrant’. For example, my client Mohammad Sanaullah, who is an ex-army veteran who served the country for 30 years, who was in Manipur in a counter-insurgency operation, Hifazat, when the forged ‘confessional statement’ of him of being an ‘illegal migrant’ was signed. Hifazat means security, and when he was securing his country, he was accused of being an illegal migrant by the Assam Border Police. I shudder at the thought. This is why I really wish that the academics, scholars, and law schools, who have taken so much interest in the citizenship issue now, had done so earlier. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and because people did not speak up when injustice was happening in Assam, it is haunting us all over the country. Every person who believes in the rule of law, and the theory of justice, must speak out against the gross injustice happening in Assam. This is not what the founders of India envisaged, and our Constitution says that all are equal before the law, and that the rule of law is supreme. These kangaroo courts should not exist because they do not follow due process. As a responsible citizen, I feel very sorry that no one did enough to raise their voices.
DM: It is of note though that while the rest of the country, and the world, did not pay attention to the issue in Assam keenly, you and other lawyers have continued this fight at the FTs there. As a young lawyer, what has been your experience working in the FTs? Within the community of lawyers, how has your experience with the Bar Association, and others litigating before the FTs panned out? Did you have a mentor to guide you in this process?
AW: With regard to upholding the Indian Constitution, and inspiring me to become a human rights lawyer, I had two mentors. Firstly, Mr. Prashant Bhushan with whom I interned in the SC in my fifth year, in January 2010. In 2014, I met Mr. Harsh Mander as well. Both of them mentored me in that sense. But my inspiration to litigate in the field of citizenship specifically is owed to the fact that I’ve been accused of being a Bangladeshi myself, by my batchmate in secondary school. While studying law, I initially wanted to appear for UPSC, but I realized I would lose my voice. I wanted to speak out about what was happening. I realized I needed to tell the stories of how people of Indian soil are accused of being illegal migrants in their own motherland. They are abused and massacred in the name of being illegal migrants. Although we elect MPs and MLAs, they don’t speak about these issues. Our leaders and representatives should speak, because they have social and physical security, unlike me. I’m faced with threats to my life and my career but I continue to speak because I cannot compromise on what I believe. That’s why I gave up my dream of writing the UPSC exam, because I want to speak the truth and tell my stories. The day I stop speaking the truth, I will not be able to live with dignity. And it’s not just about my dignity, but the right of the persecuted and marginalized and voiceless people to live with dignity, that is what keeps me going. It is a right that predates the Constitution. It is an inherent right, the Constitution and the Hon’ble Supreme Court through various judgements only confirmed the right to live with dignity. Any person born in any country, whether Stateless or legal or illegal, possesses rights to live with dignity (The word ‘illegal migrant’ itself is wrong, but it is the language of the Citizenship Act, which is why I’m using this term.)
Several lawyers have fought these cases, but it was just a case for most of them, and not a cause. In 2014, I started fighting these cases and I realized that most of the people who approached me were rickshaw pullers or thela walas who could not pay my fees. I realized that I belong to a privileged background, so I was not after money but the core of it was that I empathize with them. Empathy, not sympathy, because I saw myself in their position, because I know I could be one of them. When I was in secondary school, a friend called me ‘Bangladeshi’ so if instead of him, it had been the Border Police, they would have referred my case to Tribunal and I would be standing in the FT defending my citizenship. I saw myself in their place and I started doing this pro bono. In 2016, someone from my nani’s (maternal grandmother) place who knew that I practiced in the Supreme Court approached me. Moinal Molla had been detained for two and a half years by then, because of an ex parte order declaring him to be a foreigner. Both of his parents were declared Indians by the same FT. His writ petition and review petition were dismissed by the High Court and they had no money to go to the Supreme Court.
We had a small group of friends then, and I told them that this was a good opportunity to help someone and simultaneously get the word out about detention centres in Assam, and the arbitrary process of FTs by which one can be declared foreigner ex parte. In 2014, the issue was an elephant in the room in Assam which no one wanted to talk about, and outside Assam, no one knew. It was, and still is, a taboo to appear for the defense in these cases at the FTs or HC, they think they will get branded in a certain way, sadly. One of my friends told me that she will give her zakat money, and another friend also came forward. Eventually, we landed up in the SC, and we briefed Mr. Raju Ramachandran about the case. The case got remanded to the FT in Barpeta, Assam, where I appeared 11 times and fought his case fully pro bono. He was declared an Indian and released after 2 years, 11 months and 29 days of detention. This story got out when notice was issued for the SLP by the SC, and eventually when he was released, it made big news! There have been subsequent cases of Mihir Biswas, Kismat Ali, Ashraf Ali, Mohd. Azmal Haque, and Sanaullah, which I fought and tried to publicise to bring the focus the issue deserves. At least people are talking about it, even jurists like Faizan Mustafa are writing about the FTs being kangaroo courts, and rightly so. Constitutional experts and jurists are speaking about this now, and I wish it had happened sooner. The blame also does lie on the civil society in Assam, which could not tell the world what is happening, and we had to start it.
DM: There is often this narrative around the NRC, that there is political consensus on the need for this exercise, but its implementation has alienated people. Is it true that this consensus exists and if yes, could it have been done in a way that could have been fair and independent?
AW: There was no such consensus about NRC from all groups of people – why should everyone’s citizenship be scrutinized? But then the SC ordered that the 1951 NRC should be updated in Assam, and since it was the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s order, we took it very positively. We thought that if at all there should be scrutiny, a Court-monitored process would be better than merely an Executive process. We wanted closure – how long will one group of people accuse another group of being illegal migrants? We thought that this issue must end; every election is fought only on this issue. In 2016, BJP fought and won the election only on this migrant issue. Hence, the Bengali Hindus and the Muslims took part in the process very actively. Plenty of lawyers, civil rights activists, and organisations travelled all across Assam to create legal awareness about how to fill up the form. I was also one of the privileged people who got to travel all over Assam, particularly the minority dominated areas, and I told the people I met, in each and every meeting, that this is a Court-monitored process so they should have faith in the Supreme Court of India. I assured them it would be a free and fair NRC, but the process turned out to be very harsh. There were several rounds of scrutiny, but people thought that “This is the last time going through this process, after this, do not accuse and abuse us as foreigners, let there be closure!”
The Supreme Court quoted Shri Prakash Jaiswal’s statement before the Parliament about ‘5 millions illegal migrants’. Although, Shri Prakash Jaiswal himself withdrew that comment, this withdrawal was not recorded and the SC recorded only his first statement. After the process, only 1.9 million people were excluded. We found that many relatives, including my own cousins, were excluded from the NRC, which is how these numbers reached 1.9 million. But, in an Economic Times report, NRC authorities say that apparently names included in the NRC were deleted later on. In June, the NRC authorities issued another order for rectifying the Order which excluded people. What can be more outrageous than this? After excluding people from citizenship in an Order, they turned around to say that there are anomalies in that Order! Citizenship is not a petty thing. After the NRC list was out, when 1.9 million were excluded, the supporters of NRC began speaking against it.
Today, we say – notify the NRC, and confirm it. There were 3.29 million people who applied for it, and 1.9 million have been excluded, so the others should receive the national identity card. That is the requirement under the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003. More than one year later, nothing has happened. Within a week, excluded people were supposed to receive rejection orders so that they could appear before the FT. The Guwahati HC selected 200 people to be appointed to the FTs in 2019 as I mentioned earlier, who are taking salaries of around INR 85,000 without doing any work, through taxpayers’ money. There is no issuance of notice because the very people who advocated the NRC found that their propaganda did not match the reality because allegedly there is ‘less exclusion’ so they do not accept this NRC. Now, the Home Minister says there will be another NRC in Assam, and the BJP government in Assam also says that they will scrap the NRC to hold another round of NRC, recently they stated they want re-verification. INR 1600 Crores were spent only by the Government in this exercise, which involved 55,000 Government employees, and these costs do not even include the costs incurred by the common people travelling across the State. People went through a lot of harassment during the process, and some even committed suicide for fear of losing their citizenship. How can you ask people again to produce documents in the name of re-verification? This would be a betrayal of the faith which people reposed in the Supreme Court when the Court ordered that the government update the NRC.
Devashri Mishra is a fifth-year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. She is a member of the Parichay Blog Team.