Gauhati High Court on the issue of Res Judicata in Foreigners’ Tribunal Proceedings

This research note is part of Parichay’s ongoing project to study, track, and publish key propositions and latest developments in citizenship law and adjudication in India. This note was prepared by Sitamsini Cherukumalli and edited by Arunima Nair.

I. Background

Res judicata is a principle of law which states that the final decision given by a competent court on a matter between the same parties is binding, and cannot be put to litigation again. It is enshrined in Section 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure.

It was held by Gauhati High Court in Musstt. Amina Khatun vs. Union of India and Ors. [(2018) 4 Gauhati Law Reports 643] that the principle of res judicata, as articulated by Section 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure, would not apply in proceedings instituted under the Foreigners Act and the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, since the Foreigners’ Tribunal was not a Court, and the proceedings could not be said to be judicial proceedings.

However, the Supreme Court in Abdul Kuddus vs. Union of India & Ors [(2019) 6 SCC 604] considered, among other questions, the nature of a Foreigners’ Tribunal proceeding. It held that the opinions given by the Foreigners’ Tribunal were quasi-judicial and not administrative in nature, because such orders by the Foreigners’ Tribunals had civil consequences. It elaborated on the difference at para 23:

The opinion by the Foreigners Tribunal is a quasi-judicial order and not an administrative order. The expression ‘quasi-judicial order’ means a verdict in writing which determines and decides contesting issues and questions by a forum other than a court. The determination has civil consequences. Explaining the meaning of quasi-judicial body in Indian National Congress (I) vs. Institute of Social Welfare & Ors (2002) 5 SCC 685, it was held that when anybody has a legal authority to determine questions affecting the rights of subjects and a duty to act judicially, such body of persons constitute a quasi-judicial body and decision given by them is a quasi-judicial decision. It would also be a quasi-judicial order if the statute empowers an authority to decide the lis not between the two contesting parties but also when the decision prejudicially affects the subject as against the authority, provided that the authority is required by the statute to act judicially. Further, what differentiates an administrative act from the quasi-judicial act is that a quasi- judicial body is required to make an enquiry before arriving at a conclusion. In addition, an administrative authority is the one which is dictated by policy and expediency whereas a quasi-judicial authority is required to act according to the rules.

II. Gauhati High Court judgments applying Abdul Kuddus in FT cases

Several recent Gauhati High Court orders and judgments have applied Abdul Kuddus to petitions challenging individuals’ second references to FTs after having been declared Indian citizens in a previous FT proceeding. The Jahir Ali v. Union of India and Ors. [WP (C) No. 3402/2020] judgment was given by the Court on 3-3-2021, in response to a writ challenging an order given by the Foreigners’ Tribunal (1st) Mangaldai, Assam in 2018 declaring the petitioner to be a foreigner, despite an earlier order from 2015 by the very same Foreigners’ Tribunal declaring him to be an Indian National. In the 2018 order, the Tribunal held that the principle of res judicata will not apply in a proceeding under the Foreigners Act, 1946, went into the merits of the case again, and found that the Petitioner had not adduced satisfactory evidence.

The Gauhati High Court held in Jahir Ali that as correct as the Tribunal might have been in following the ratio of Amina Khatun (supra) at that time, it was no longer tenable in light of the Abdul Kuddus judgment. They declined to get into the merits of the case or the quality of the evidence adduced, and reiterated that the earlier decision of the Foreigners’ Tribunal declaring the Petitioner to be an Indian would have a binding effect, given that the opinion rendered by a Foreigners’ Tribunal is a quasi-judicial order and not an administrative one. The Court further said that the Foreigners’ Tribunal cannot go into the merits of an earlier order given on the question as they are not exercising an appellate or review jurisdiction.

By applying the principle of res judicata, the Court remanded the matter and directed the concerned Tribunal to only look into the question of whether the present petitioner is the same person in favour of whom the earlier 2015 FT order declaring him to be an Indian national was passed. If found to be the same person, the case is to be dropped and the petitioner is to be “set at liberty without any condition.”

 In Alal Uddin v. Union of India and Ors. [WP (C) 3172/2020], the petitioner had been proceeded  against twice by the same Foreigners’ Tribunal (2nd) in Nagaon, with the Tribunal first declaring the petitioner as an Indian citizen in 2008 and then subsequently declaring him a foreigner in the impugned order from 2019. The petitioner had contested the maintainability of the second reference before the Tribunal by pleading that Abdul Kuddus would bar the second set of proceedings. The Tribunal rejected this contention by proclaiming that Abdul Kuddus was delivered in the context of Abdul Kuddus’ inclusion in the NRC, and is thus inapplicable to the petitioner’s case. The Gauhati High Court in a judgment dated 12-03-2021 disagreed and held that the Tribunal’s interpretation was incorrect. The bench reiterated that Abdul Kuddus explicitly discussed the legal implications of Sarbananda Sonowal Iand II [(2005) 5 SCC 665 and (2007) 1 SCC 174 respectively] and the nature of Foreigners’ Tribunals, especially that they are quasi-judicial authorities whose orders would operate as res judicata. The Court thus set aside the 2019 order by the Nagaon (2nd) Tribunal, and held that the previous Tribunal order from 2008 declaring the petitioner to be an Indian citizen will stand.

Similarly in Bulbuli Bibi v. Union of India [WP (C) 7810/2019], in a judgment rendered on 22-03-2021, the Court reinstated the petitioner’s first FT order from 2013 that held her to be an Indian citizen and set aside the subsequent FT reference from 2017 declaring her to be a foreigner. Although the two reports of the Government Verification Officer in the two references had inconsistencies in the names of the petitioner’s husband and father, the Court opined that these discrepancies are minor and it was clear that it was the same person, i.e. the petitioner, who had been proceeded against twice. By applying Abdul Kuddus,  the Court held that the second 2017 FT order is hit by res judicata and barred.

III. Table of Judgments from Gauhati High Court post-Abdul Kuddus

S.NoName and CitationDate of JudgementJudge NamesRelevant Extracts
1Jahir Ali vs. Union of India   WP (C) No. 3402/20203-3-2021J. N. Kotiswar Singh, J. Soumitra Saikia[15] Be that as it may, since we have already held that the principle of res judicata will apply in view of the decision in Abdul Kuddus (supra), the Foreigners’ Tribunal in the present instant proceeding cannot re-examine the legality or otherwise of the opinion rendered earlier by the Foreigners’ Tribunal, except to ascertain as to whether the petitioner was the same person against whom the Foreigners’ Tribunal in F.T. Case No.771/2012 had given its opinion. If it is found on consideration of the materials on record and after hearing the parties that the present petitioner was indeed the same person against whom the Foreigners’ Tribunal had given its opinion in the earlier proceeding in F.T.Case No.771/2012, the present proceeding will be barred by application of principle of res judicata.   [16] Accordingly, for the reasons recorded above, we allow this petition by remanding the matter to the concerned learned Tribunal to consider the case of the petitioner afresh by giving him an opportunity to prove that the present petitioner, namely, Jahir Ali, aged about 52 years, S/O Nesar Ali @ Mesar Ali,R/O Ward No.6, PO & PS-Mangaldai, District-Darrang, Assam, is one and the same person in whose favour an opinion was earlier given by the same Tribunal on 15.07.2015 in F.T. Case.
2Alal Uddin v. Union of India and Ors.   WP (C) 3172/202012-03-2021J. N. Kotiswar Singh, J. Soumitra Saikia[4] We are, however, unable to agree with the said opinion of the learned Foreigners’ Tribunal No.II, Nagaon passed on 30.09.2019. Though, in Abdul Kuddus (Supra), the Hon’ble Supreme Court was considering the matter relating to inclusion of the name in the NRC, yet at the same time the Hon’ble Supreme Court had also considered the provisions of Foreigners’ (Tribunals) Order, 1964 and had discussed about the various legal implications arising out of Sarbananda Sonowal vs. Union of India, reported in (2005) 5 SCC 665 as well as Sarbananda Sonowal vs. Union of India, reported in (2007) 1 SCC 174 and elaborately discussed about the procedure for disposal of such matter by the learned Tribunal under the Foreigners’ (Tribunals) Order, 1964 and in that context it was held by the Hon’ble Supreme Court that the Tribunal functions as a quasi-judicial authority and it would be incorrect to hold that the opinion of the Foreigners Tribunal and/or the consequential order passed by the Registering Authority would not operate as res judicata.   [6] Accordingly, the present petition is allowed by setting aside the impugned order dated 30.09.2019 passed by the learned Foreigners’ Tribunal (2nd) Nagaon in F.T. Case no.1082/2011. As a result, the order passed by the learned Foreigners’ Tribunal (2nd), Nagaon on 19.08.2008 shall stand revived and the petitioner’s status as an Indian citizen in terms of the earlier opinion passed by the learned Foreigner’s Tribunal (2nd), Nagaon, on19.08.2008 will stand.
3Bulbuli Bibi v. Union of India   WP (C) 7810/201922-03-2021J. N. Kotiswar Singh, J. Soumitra Singh[7] Thus it appears that the only difference or inconsistency is about the difference is the name of the husband, viz. Nazim and Najimuddin. We feel that this difference is minor and not substantial and hence can be ignored. Similarly, the name of the father of the proceedee has been recorded as late Giapuddin Fakir in the first proceeding and in the second proceeding, it has been recorded as Giyas Fakir. We are also of the opinion that these are minor variations, and as such the same can be ignored.   [8] From the above, it appears that it was the same person who was sought to be proceeded against. However the finding given in the first proceeding under Case no. K/FT/D/771/11(B/KJR/D, voter/2010/164) vide opinion dated 30.09.2013 that the proceedee is not a foreigner of 1966-1971 stream and her name should not have been recorded in the ‘D’ voters list. The said finding given in earlier opinion dated on 30.09.2013 has not been interfered with and has attained finality. Accordingly, we are of the view that the subsequent finding opinion given by the Foreigners’ Tribunal in K/FT/D/714/10, (No. B/KJR/D.voter/2010/108, dated 23.12.2010) rendered 18.08.2017 is barred by principle of res-judicata, as has been held by the Hon’ble Apex Court in judgment reported in Abdul Kuddus vs Union of India, (2019) Vol. 6 SCC 604, that in the proceedings before the Foreigners’ Tribunal, the principle of res-judicata is applicable.
4Basanti Sarkar v. Union of India and Ors.   WP(C) 6768/201918-12-2019J. Suman Shyam, J. Parthivjyothi SaikiaThis writ petition is directed against the final order and opinion dated 31/07/2019 passed by the Foreigner’s Tribunal(2), Lakhimpur, North Lakhimpur, in connection with FT Case No. 262/2007.   Mr.Bhowmik submits that besides being perverse, the impugned order is also barred under the principles of res judicata since the petitioner has already been declared as an Indian citizen by the Foreigner’s Tribunal by order dated 21/04/2010.   From the perusal of the materials on record, we find that by order dated 21/04/2010 passed in connection with LFT-II(D) case No. 274/2008, the learned Tribunal had declared that the petitioner is not a foreigner. The said order was passed after taking note of the documents including voters’ list of 1966 produced by the petitioner, which contains the names of the father and mother of the petitioner.   Under the circumstances, we are of the prima facie view that the subsequent opinion of the learned Foreigner’s Tribunal is untenable in the eye of law.
5Musst. Fulbanu Nessa v. Union of India   WP(C) 725/202115-2-2021J. N Kotiswar Singh, J. Soumitra SaikiaAccordingly, learned counsel for the petitioner submits that the subsequent review and the opinion rendered by the Foreigners’ Tribunal, Diphu, on 16.03.2020 is ex facie illegal apart from the fact that in the present case the principle of res judicata applies as held by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Abdul Kuddus vs. Union of India & Ors. reported in (2019) 6 SCC 604.   It has been submitted that the petitioner is in custody since 17.03.2020 on the strength of the aforesaid order dated 16.03.2020 passed by the learned Foreigners’ Tribunal, Diphu.  On perusal of the materials available on records, we are prima facie satisfied that the petitioner has made out a case for her release on bail and suspension of the order dated 16.03.2020 passed by the learned Foreigners’ Tribunal, Diphu.  
6Sabita Das vs The Union Of India   WP(C) 182/2020  12-2-2021J. Michael ZothankhumaThe plea was specifically taken before the Foreigners Tribunal-II, Lakhimpur, North Lakhimpur that the petitioner has been already declared as not a foreigner. Ext.-9, which, however was not accepted by the Tribunal. It has been submitted that the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Abdul Kuddus Vs. Union of India, reported in 2019 (6) SCC 604 has held that the principle of res judicata will also apply in the proceedings before the Foreigners Tribunal. The matter needs examination. We are prima facie satisfied that the impugned order needs to be stayed.