The updated National Register of Citizens, a list of Indian citizens in Assam that was first prepared in 1951, is due to be published on 31 August. According to the draft NRC published in July last year, and an exclusion list published this June, a total of forty-one lakh residents of Assam have been left out from the NRC. Their fate remains uncertain. While the updation process has been ongoing since 2013, it gathered significant momentum the following December, when a Supreme Court bench comprising Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton Nariman passed a detailed order through which the court assumed a pivotal role in overseeing the implementation of the NRC project. Since then, the Supreme Court—and Gogoi in particular—have closely monitored the NRC updation, and paved the way for its earliest possible execution. This has included setting up additional Foreigners Tribunals—quasi-judicial bodies that adjudicate on the citizenship of suspected illegal immigrants—across the state.
The tribunals have faced severe criticism for the procedures adopted to determine an individual’s citizenship and the frivolous grounds on which it is denied. Sanjay Hegde, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, has represented several people who have been declared foreigners. Ahead of the publication of the final NRC, Arshu John, an assistant editor at The Caravan, spoke to Hegde about his experience representing claimants, the Supreme Court’s role in the updation process, and the moral tenability of the NRC project. “The NRC is a bad idea because it begins on the postulate that some people have a superior right to be in this country and the rest better get out,” he said.
Arshu John: What has been your experience representing the people declared foreigners by the Foreigners Tribunals of Assam?
Sanjay Hegde: My appearances have only been at the Supreme Court at an appellate stage. What this means is that the matter has travelled from the Foreigners Tribunals, to the high court and then comes the Supreme Court. Appreciation of facts is only at the tribunal stage. Therefore, if a tribunal—on its reading of whatever documents are produced—takes a call, then it’s often the last word on the case.
It also often happens that the matter has gone ex-parte at the tribunal stage because people have not received notices—or claim that they have not received notices. Or they have hired lawyers who have either been absent or have not done an effective job. Or even if the party has been present and a lawyer has been present, there sometimes simply is no way of bringing documents that prove ancestry to an identified Indian citizen who was there on the land before 1966 or 1971 [as required under the Citizenship Act].