In response to a right-to-information application, the Assam government’s home and political department has stated that none of the state’s Foreigners Tribunals have notified the appointment of their public-information officers. The RTI response, dated 29 October, stated that 300 Foreigners Tribunals have been constituted across the 33 districts of Assam. Of these, only 100 are functioning and others were newly constituted. On 11 September, the home and political department had notified the appointment of 221 members to preside over the 200 new Foreigners Tribunals and to fill in the existing vacancies. Yet, no effort appear to have been taken to appoint any PIOs.
The RTI application was filed by Venkatesh Nayak, a programme coordinator with the non-profit Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. Foreigners Tribunals form a unique institution in the National Register of Citizens structure—they are quasi-judicial bodies constituted to adjudicate on the citizenship of suspected foreigners and are empowered to adopt their own procedures to do so. This does not, however, exclude them from the ambit of the Right to Information Act, 2005. Yet, by failing to appoint the PIOs, the Assam government has ensured that the tribunals escape the scrutiny and transparency envisioned under the RTI Act.
The RTI Act mandates all public authorities to designate public-information officers and maintain records to ensure that “access to such records is facilitated.” The definition of a public authority under the act includes “any authority or body” constituted “by notification issued or order made by the appropriate government.” Foreigners Tribunals, constituted by the central government in accordance with the Foreigners Tribunals Order of 1964, would clearly fall within this definition.
But Assam’s Foreigners Tribunals have long functioned under a cloud of opacity and the non-appointment of PIOs serves to reinforce this secrecy. A report published by The Caravan in November 2019, detailed how the tribunals function as kangaroo courts in order to persecute Assam’s minorities. The article noted that the presiding tribunal members regularly refuse to provide the suspected illegal immigrants a copy of the inquiry reports on the basis of which their citizenship is under challenge, and that these reports, when they are provided, have revealed significant anomalies. In such circumstances, an RTI application would remain one of the few routes available for individuals facing proceedings before the Foreigners Tribunals to procure the inquiry report and other documents concerning their case.
Nayak discussed the consequences of the Assam government’s response. “Persons declared foreigners or those whose citizenship status is under cloud—whether or not formal proceedings have been launched or completed—have the fundamental right to know matters that affect their well-being,” he said. “Whenever and wherever such persons are denied the right to access information critical to their needs, their only option is to move the Gauhati High Court. This is as good as the option of going to the moon to collect the information because of the obvious hurdles involved. Unfortunately, neither the central nor the state government of Assam have paid attention to these matters till date.”