OPINION |As NRC Deadline Ends This Month, Will There Be More Sanaullahs in Assam?
In the past few years, several citizens have been declared foreigners. The most recent case was that of a former army personnel Mohammad Sanaullah, who had to spend 11 days in judicial custody after being declared a foreigner by a tribunal.
File photo of retired Indian army soldier Mohammed Sanaullah from Kolohikas village in Kamrup district of Assam (CNN-News18)
The government has gone on an overdrive in Assam to meet the challenges once the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is completed this month. A flood of fresh appeals by people excluded from the citizens’ list is expected to be filed before the Foreigners’ Tribunals which would then give their opinion.
Needless to mention that the process of identifying foreign nationals in Assam has been a thorny one and mired in controversies from the very beginning since the Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan (PIP) scheme was launched in the 1960s.
Strange cases surfaced in the past few years wherein citizens were declared foreigners or even foreigners engaged with the NRC secretariat for identifying more foreigners. The most recent case was that of a former army personnel, Mohammad Sanaullah, who had to spend 11 days in judicial custody after being declared a foreigner by a tribunal. He was later released by the Gauhati High Court.
The cumbersome process begins with the referral of cases to the Foreign Tribunals by the Assam Border Police Organisation (ABPO) after supposedly completing the investigation and gathering evidence against the accused. The next category is ‘D’ or doubtful voters referred by the Election Commission to the tribunal after the category came into being in 1997.
In the post-NRC situation, the people excluded from the list would be able to file appeals before the tribunals with a certified copy of the rejection order from the NRC along with the grounds for appeal. It is now mandatory for the tribunal to give its opinion within 120 days from the date of appeal.
In these cases, the applicant would have to produce documents justifying his claim to citizenship and he can further make an appeal to the higher courts against the tribunal’s opinion. However, he stands the chance of being arrested and sent to a detention centre if the tribunal upholds the decision of the NRC.
A combination of many factors has contributed to this messy situation in Assam. Many government officials are of the opinion that the absence of a central database accessible by all the departments engaged in the process of identifying illegal migrants and faulty investigation by the border police have led to victimisation of citizens and also acceptance of illegal migrants as citizens in the past several decades.
Work on a central database was begun by the NRC Secretariat following an order from Gauhati High Court in 2017. It entailed culling data from the Assam Border Police Organisation, Election Commission and Foreigners’ Tribunals, but progress was sluggish since the secretariat was focused on compiling the list against the deadline set by the Supreme Court.
Besides, there was data format mismatch, lack of data sanctity and absence of a system ensuring regular update of data by the concerned departments. Subsequently, the project was transferred to the border police after it submitted a concept note to the government last year.
Funds have been sanctioned by the central home ministry on the project after several rounds of discussions on the detailed project report. The database would also include biometric data of the accused as a measure to facilitate keeping a tab on the declared foreigners.
In the final stage, the database would be linked to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) which issues Aadhaar and the Integrated Criminal Justice System, which is being implemented by the home ministry to revamp the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS). All Foreigners’ Tribunals would be equipped with a digital ecosystem for efficient and faster disposal of cases in a scheme called the integrated e-FT System.
The database is expected to be operational by September, although its final completion would consume more time. Once complete, the contradictory decisions by the concerned departments are expected to come to an end. For instance, cases have been found when people had to struggle to get their names included in the electoral rolls even after being given a favourable opinion by the tribunal.
The border police have also firmed up an action plan to revamp the entire process of identifying foreign nationals in Assam. Included in the plan is a ‘single window system’ involving simplification of procedures for both the police and the alleged foreign national. Instead of the three pages which the border police personnel have to fill up and submit to the Foreigners’ Tribunals, they will now be provided with a single page form in a digitised format.
Data entered in the form would be linked to the server at the headquarters, which will also record all details of the investigation carried out by the border police such as the time and location of people interrogated by the police.
The data would be generated through a hand-held device equipped with GPS. And to ensure that the accused is informed in advance about the date of hearing in the tribunal, SMS-based alerts would be sent in addition to the regular notices which were sometimes found delivered to wrong addresses.
An official explained, “The inconsistencies and faulty probes that have been unearthed in the past are expected to be drastically reduced. Once the new system becomes functional, there will be no scope for the police personnel to play truant in the investigation.”
He added that a series of meetings between the Assam government and the ministry of external affairs has resulted in a new e-form which would be less complicated for the police personnel to fill up and forward to the ministry for the purpose of deportation of the foreign national to his country of origin.
(The author is a senior journalist in Guwahati, Assam. Views are personal.)
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