As many as three hundred Foreigners Tribunals are expected to begin the task of hearing appeals from suspected foreign nationals within a month in Assam.
While the appeals from people delisted by the National Register of Citizens (NRC) will not come up before the quasi-judicial bodies immediately, they will deal with cases from three other categories of people who have or are likely to be declared as suspects.
A senior official of the NRC secretariat was quoted by the media on condition of anonymity as saying that the issue of ‘rejection slips’ has been kept in abeyance since the Registrar General of India (RGI) is yet to issue the notification on the final publication of the register.
The ‘rejection slip’ will spell out the reason for the exclusion of the person from the NRC which he would have to submit while appealing before the tribunal.
The Centre’s plans on the NRC are not known although several senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders have been categorical in expressing their displeasure over the final outcome of the exercise. It is no secret that the BJP is unhappy over the exclusion of a large number of Bangladeshi Hindus and inclusion of more Muslims than expected in the register.
Once they are operationalised, the tribunals will hear three kinds of cases – those referred by the police, Election Commission and the cases under the erstwhile and controversial Illegal Migration (Determination by Tribunal) Act 1983 which was repealed by the Supreme Court in 2005.
The Assam Border Police Organisation had also embarked upon a revamp of its mechanism and procedure two years ago to identify foreign nationals in the state. The objective is also to make the process efficient and prevent harassment of genuine citizens.
If the RGI issues the notification, then two more categories of appeals would have to be heard by the tribunals in Assam. This includes the appeals from people excluded from the NRC and the cases referred by the deputy commissioners from the districts on the people who do not file appeals before the tribunals.
Last year, a Supreme Court bench led by the-then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi ordered that 200 new Foreigners Tribunals should be made functional by September 1, 2019. Subsequently, 221 members were recruited on a contract of one year which included 21 vacancies from the 100 existing tribunals.
Currently there are 78 tribunals functioning in the state. For months after their recruitment, the members had no work as they were awaiting their postings. Many members have already resigned to resume their practice either in court or continue with their engagements with other occupations.
The recruited members are currently undergoing attachment in different courts. For some time it was also unclear whether they would be allowed to hear appeals from other categories of suspects until it was decided two months ago following a directive from the Centre.
Last February, union minister of state for home Nityanand Rai informed Parliament that 9,457 cases were referred to the Foreigners Tribunals in 2017, a total of 2,051 in 2018 and 599 last year till November.
Before the NRC was published in August 2019, the home ministry had approved the setting up of 1,000 additional Foreigners Tribunals in a phased manner for hearing the appeals of people excluded from the NRC.
The plan was to settle at the earliest the huge number of appeals expected in the post-NRC phase. So far, the ministry has given its consent for 400 of which 200 tribunals have been sanctioned. However, as the NRC’s future in uncertain, it is doubtful if more tribunals would be set up very soon in Assam.
(Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam. Views expressed are personal)