Assam citizenship rights: Unfair to discard validity of Panchayat certificates as a link document

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A Delhi Action Committee for Assam note on the current political impasse in Assam on updating the National Register of Citizens and the Question of Citizenship:

The Assam Accord signed on 14 August 1985 established an important foundation to settle the complicated and sensitive issue of the presence of “foreigners” in the state, especially by determining the “base year” for identification of foreigners, even though it could not exhaust all kinds of political opinion. But unfortunately, due to the lack of political goodwill, the task of detection and deportation of potential foreigners residing in the state has been utterly neglected ever since the Assam Accord had been signed. Yet, Assamese Muslims of East Bengali origin and a section of Bengali Hindus have been targeted and victimised under the usual suspicion of being doubtful voters (“D-voters”).

Therefore, the need for detection of foreign citizens and preparation of a register of Indian citizens has become more urgent than ever before. Under such circumstances, a general consensus has been built in Assam to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of 1951. As it has been decided in the Assam Accord that 25 March 1971 would be the cut-of date for deportation of foreign citizens, the people of Assam have accepted this date to work as a base to update the NRC. The need to prepare an NRC has been felt among both the majority and minority communities in Assam. An authentic NRC could assure the indigenous communities in Assam against the perceived fear of ongoing illegal immigration and simultaneously safeguard the minority communities from institutional and public harassment in the name of suspicion.

Therefore, the people of Assam have willingly and actively facilitated the arduous and lengthy process of updating the NRC and are hopeful of a positive outcome. Most of the people in Assam stand reassured regarding an updated and accurate NRC as the Hon’ble Supreme Court has borne the responsibility to direct and oversee the entire process. But it has also been alarmingly observed that the ruling BJP government has been forcefully trying to obstruct the ongoing process of updating the NRC. The Supreme Court has even criticised the Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, for such uncalled-for interventions by his government. Attempts to grant Indian citizenship to all non-Muslim foreigners through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in the midst of efforts to prepare an authentic NRC run the risk of reducing the entire process of updating the NRC to a travesty of the purpose it is supposed to fufil. Nevertheless, the task of updating the NRC continues to move on despite these challenges.

Again recently, there have been unforseen complications in the process over the acceptability of Panchayat documents. The guidelines inscribed in the process of updating the NRC state that, as “linkage” certificate for married women, certificates issued by the Panchayat Secretary and granted by the Revenue Circle Officer may be submitted as supporting documents. But certain political viewpoints in the wake of a judgement of the Gauhati High Court in a case of foreign citizens have given birth to complications and the matter has reached the Supreme Court. There is information that more than 47 lakh of people have used Panchayat documents to prove their linkage. The State Coordinator of the NRC has informed the Supreme Court that out of the total number of people who submitted Panchayat documents, 17.40 lakh are “original inhabitants”of the state and therefore their names would be included in the NRC. The rest have been tentatively excluded from the NRC and so there is uncertainty about the condition of those more than 29 lakh of people whose names have been directed to be kept separately.

 Brief Note on Updating of NRC

Recent developments in the updating of NRC in Assam now threaten to create serious conflicts among communities and even among groups within the communities. There were confusions created by bringing the issue of Original Inhabitants, a category undefined till date; neither the Citizenship Act, 1955 nor any constitutional authority define the category of “original inhabitant(s)” of Assam. The “original” and “non-original” dichotomy has polarised the inhabitants of the state which has led to an unfortunate possibility of creating an atmosphere of unnecessarily escalating suspicion, discontent, fear and conflict. The authorities are now maintaining that this category will not be shown in the NRC but that has not ended the controversy created. The clashes before a meeting called to discuss the issue with the Registrar General of India on 2 November 2017 bear proof of this.

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The other problem relates to the documents to prove once linkage to an ancestor. The major statutes governing NRC updating in Assam are The Citizenship Act, 1955, and The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity cards) Rules, 2003. The modalities for NRC updating have been developed jointly by the Government of Assam and the Government of India in adherence to these statutes. The current updating is being carried out under the supervision of the Supreme Court. Which implies that the list of documents used for the purpose of including names in the NRC have the approval of the Court. These documents are provided in two lists:

List A:

Any one out of the following documents issued before midnight of 24th March 1971 where name of self or ancestor appears—

  1. 1951 NRC
  2. 1971 Electoral Roll(s) up to 1971
  3. Land and Tenancy Records
  4. Citizenship Certificate
  5. Permanent Residential Certificate
  6. Refugee Registration Certificate
  7. Passport
  8. LIC
  9. Any government issued License/Certificate
  10. Government Service/Employment Certificate
  11. Bank/Post Office Accounts
  12. Birth Certificate
  13. Board/University Educational Certificate
  14. Court Records/Processes.

List B:

This second requirement arises if the name mentioned in any of the documents included in List A is not of the applicant himself or herself but that of an ancestor. In such cases, the applicant shall have to submit any one of the documents mentioned below to establish his or her lineage with the name of the ancestor whose name appears in the document under List A—

  1. Birth Certificate
  2. Land Document
  3. Board/University Certificate
  4. Bank/LIC/Post Office records
  5. Circle Officer/Gaon Panchayat Secretary in case of married women
  6. Electoral Roll
  7. Ration Card
  8. Any other legally acceptable document.

It is noteworthy that the above document are only ‘supporting’ documents and would be accepted only if accompanied by any one of the admissible documents mentioned under List A. For example, if an applicant submits a Board/University certificate which gives the name of both parent and child as a ‘supporting’ document, it has to be accompanied by a document from List A issued in the name of the parent (before 24th March 1971) with whom lineage is claimed by the applicant.

Under these circumstances, the Gauhati High Court passed an order dated 28th February 2017 Case no. WP(C) 2634/2016 of Monowara Bewa alias Monora Bewa which in effect rejected the submission of Panchayat secretary-issued residency certificate as “link documents” and declared it as “unconstitutional” as it had “no statutory sanctity”. Such documents are being submitted by 48 lakh applicants about 44 lakh of them married women who have no other proof of linkage to a pre 1971 resident. The High Court in its ruling referred to Section 19 of the Assam Panchayat Act, 1994 and held that the Panchayat secretary is not entitled by the functions prescribed under the said Section to issue residency certificates to a local resident that could serve the purpose of establishing his or her linkage to an ancestor before March 24 1971.

It is to be noted that the Registrar General of India and the Supreme Court of India have already approved the Cabinet decision of the Government of Assam that entrusted the Panchayat secretaries to issue link certificates which during the process of NRC updating. However the certificate issued by Panchayat secretary should be endorsed by either Circle Officer or BDO. In a Government of Assam circular vide memo no. SPMU/NRC/district-Co-EAUIP/68/2014/265 Dated 05.05.2015, it was specified that the Panchayat certificates would be accepted as a supporting document for establishing linkage with the parents of married women and that it shall be valid only if accompanied by legacy data or any other admissible document issued for the person with whom linkage is claimed for inclusion in the updated NRC. The finding and conclusion in the High Court order dated 28.02.2017 needs a relook in view of the said fact.

It needs to be noted that most of the 48 lakh people who have submitted Panchayat documents are married women belonging to the Muslim community of East Bengal origin, who had no other documents to prove their citizenship. Many such applicants have stated that since they never went to school and were married off before they attained the age of 18, they neither have a school certificate to support what is stated in the Panchayat certificate, as required, nor do they have their names in the voters list of their paternal family as they moved to their husband’s home before they were eligible for it. Under these circumstances, it would be unfair to discard the validity of Panchayat certificates as a link document. The High Court order has sent the wrong message to all the stakeholders of an authentic updated NRC and has caused suffering to vulnerable sections of the society.

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