A civil society group called United Against Hate that sent a fact-finding team to check on allegations against foreigners tribunals in Assam today said these bodies were trying to declare 'as many Bengali Hindus and Muslims foreigners as possible'.
Among the problems the group cited was the unreliable way in which residents of Assam were declared foreigners, the dilution of the eligibility criteria to select tribunal members, and the stress on the members to brand as many people possible as foreigners because the continuation of their tenure seemed to depend on it.
At the Press Club in New Delhi today, the team which travelled to five districts of Assam from September 5-8, released a report and a short documentary on how the foreigners tribunals work.
The report, called Democracy under Detention: Horrors of NRC, was made by four journalists and activists. The short documentary, called State of the Stateless, was also screened during the release of the report.
“We found lots of anomalies and a clear bias in the way the foreigners tribunals are disposing of cases,” the team said in its report.
The NRC final list, released in Assam on August 31, declared over 19 lakh people to be doubtful citizens. Those excluded from the list will now have to appeal in the tribunals across Assam to claim Indian citizenship.
United Against Hate’s Nadeem Khan, an activist, said the tribunals do not inspire confidence, going by how they handled cases in the past.
Khan spoke about the case of Omela Khatun. Omela, 40, lives Darrang district’s Mangaldai and was sent a notice by a tribunal in 2015. She hired a lawyer and fought her case. In March 2015, the tribunal declared her an Indian citizen. Four years later, she was served another notice on the basis of a new complaint that she was a suspected foreigner. “In July 2019, the tribunal questioned her lineage and declared her a foreigner. Within a year, the same tribunal changed its own decision,” Khan said.
The team raised doubts on the competence of those manning the tribunals.
It noted that what was stricter eligibility criteria in the beginning to select members was relaxed to hire more members and increase the number of tribunals from 100 to 300 as the NRC deadline approached.
The tribunal members have a two-year contract, but for some the contracts were terminated. Ten former tribunal members petitioned Gauhati High Court questioning their termination.
The team found out that the reason given for the termination was that their performance was poor when they were assessed on the number of foreigners each had declared. “Say, if someone declared only 10 out of the 300 cases as foreigners, the performance was marked as poor. If someone declared 160 of 200 people foreigners, it was said to be a good performance. In any judicial system the judgment is on the basis of evidence, witnesses and documents, not on the basis that one (tribunal member) has declared only five people foreigners,” Khan said.
The report cited the example of tribunal member Kartik Roy who had heard 380 cases during his tenure. He declared five applicants as foreigners and therefore was judged as 'not satisfactory' and his termination was recommended.
The report claimed that the state government controls the tribunals. Khan asked that if a tribunal member is given a car and paid well by the state, why would he or she not do the state’s bidding.
The report cited testimonies of people the fact-finding team spoke to.
One of them, Bassu Ali from Lakhipur in Goalpara, described his ordeal in one of the detention centres. He was from the detention centre after serving five years when he paid a surety amount. Ali told the team he was kept in “a small cell with 50 people in a jail where I used to get only two-foot space to sleep. I will die, I will commit suicide, but will never go there.”
“He told us how his mother died worrying about him. He told us that they lived in an overcrowded space and somehow survived under inhuman conditions inside the jail,” said Afroz Alam Sahil, an independent journalist who was part of the team. Sahil made the film that documents the trauma of the victims.
“We found that 25 people died in detention centres (which are in jails). They were declared Bangladeshis when they were in the camps, but when they died their bodies were sent to their Indian homes,” Sahil said. He said that the documentary’s objective was not just to capture testimonies of the people there but also their apprehensions about tribunals and the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill, which the BJP government wants implement.
One of the testimonies was of Pradip Kumar Saha. In his large family of 22, only eight were on the NRC list,14 were excluded. “The government is saying the CAB (Citizenship Amendment Bill) will come. But how can we trust politicians. They make tall promises and implement none,” Saha said.
The team also visited the detention centre being constructed in Goalpara district of Assam. It will have the capacity to hold 3,000 people. Some workers at the site were also excluded from the NRC. They were building a centre that may some day be their prison.