The final list of NRC came out on 31st August 2019 which has excluded more than 19 Lac people in Assam from the National Register of Citizens. These exclusions are based on decisions by the Foreigners Tribunals on claims for inclusion and objections against inclusion filed before these tribunals. These 19 Lac people also include those who did not file claims to be included in the NRC. The huge number of exclusions caused panic among the affected population fearing detention. However, both the central and state government made it clear that these people are not yet declared foreigners and no one would be arrested before they exhaust their legal remedies.
Government’s position on legal aid
The Ministry of External Affairs made a press statement on 2nd September stating, “Anyone excluded from the list at this stage has a right to file an appeal within 120 days of receiving a notification exclusion, to the designated tribunal. All appeals and excluded cases will be examined by this tribunal, i.e. a judicial process. This judicial process will commence only after the appellate period is over. Thereafter, anyone still aggrieved by any decision of being excluded will have the right to approach the High Court of Assam and then the Supreme Court.” It further added that there shall be no implication on the rights of an individual citizen in the state of Assam in case of exclusion from the NRC list. Even the ones excluded from the latest prepared list of NRC shall continue to enjoy all the rights before they exhaust all possible remedies available to them under the law. The order has clarified that exclusion from the NRC process does not make the person ‘stateless’ or ‘a foreigner’, as per the strict legal meaning of the term. Therefore, they will not be deprived and rather continue to enjoy all entitlements and rights as before.
The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Chief Minister of Assam have stated it multiple times that the government shall provide legal aid to the needy. Assam’s CM Sarbananda Sonowal said that there is no need for anyone to panic or be worried over the NRC list. He assured that the government will take care of all the ones who are excluded from their list and provide with an opportunity to prove their Indian citizenship.
The state government has also increased the number of Foreigners Tribunals from 100 to 300 and has inducted advocates with 7 or more years of practice and retired judicial officers as ‘judges’ for these tribunals. The process of appeal will begin after the excluded people start getting the rejection orders issued by the tribunal.
Promises of legal aid by organisations and individuals
These developments have led to a flood of promises for providing free legal services to those excluded from NRC. Those making these promises include non-governmental organisation, political parties and voluntary groups.
Mr. Naba Kumar Sarania, an independent Member of Parliament from Assam said that he will deploy 500 people to help the non-Bodo people in the Bodoland Territorial Council areas. The Assam Congress has also offered to provide legal assistance to the people affected from the NRC list published on 31st August, 2019. Mr. Pradyut Bordoloi, Congress MP from Assam and also the vice-president of Assam PCC said, “Genuine Indian citizens need not panic if their names do not figure in the updated NRC. The Congress will provide all legal help to these people.”
Parichay is an initiative launched in collaboration by five National Law Schools which will have a legal aid clinic in Guwahati “to provide assistance to the lawyers”. The initiative is founded by Mr. Anup Surendranath, Assistant Professor at NLU Delhi, M Moshin, Professor at JGLS and Darshana Mitra, a Kolkata based lawyer.
The Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) run by Teesta Setalwad and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) organised a solidarity meeting in Mumbai on 11th October. Teesta has said that she, along with others, are currently touring some districts in the state of Assam. From the said tour, it has come to their knowledge that a large number of cases are there where, despite having all the required documents, people have been declared as foreigners in the said exercise.
Shakil Ahmed, a Guwahati based freelance journalist and Advocate Mustafa Hussain, legal advisor of the All Assam Muslim Student’s Union(AAMSU) have launched an app which will serve as a repository for all kinds of documentation related to the NRC process. He further said that Moreover, it — can also be used by anyone to understand the process, be it a journalist or a researcher, who wants to understand the NRC process”. The app is called NRC eHandbook. Mr. Ahmed claims that this app will guide people on how to move forward.
However, the local organisations are not coming out in media at par with the organisations based outside Assam. This is so because of the highly political environment in the state on this matter. The All Assam Students’ Union(AASU) has out to oppose the government’s legal aid offer by terming it as “confusing, conspiratorial and unnecessary”. The organisation raised the concern of government going “soft on illegal immigrants”.
Despite the overflow of organisations, individuals and government’s promises for providing legal aid to those excluded from NRC, the real picture of how many of these 19 Lac people get legal help will only be revealed in next few months when they will start getting the rejection orders from the tribunals.