Communalism

Assam Govt Replaces 7 Muslim Foreigners' Tribunal Pleaders With Hindus in Border District

This attempt by the government to segregate lawyers on the basis of religion follows the BJP's marked displeasure at the NRC exclusion rate in border districts.

Guwahati: Exactly a year ago, Assam finance minister and influential state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, while addressing local media, had expressed concern about the exclusion rate of people from the districts bordering Bangladesh in the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC). 

The rate was 6-7% for the districts. For those dwelling in the autonomous districts, it was 16%.

The minister essentially revealed that the ruling BJP and its government suspected possible irregularities in the NRC exercise, in the border districts. 

Both the state government and the BJP had last year also wanted re-verification of 20% of the updated NRC figures in the border districts of Dhubri, Karimganj, South Salmara and Hailakandi. They had also asked for 10% re-verification in the other parts of Assam.

An affidavit was placed before the Supreme Court bench hearing the NRC case. The apex court had rejected the plea after then NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela said that 27% re-verification had already been done.

Cut to September 2020, seven assistant government pleaders (AGPs) – all with Muslim names and working at Dhubri, a border district – and associated with the local Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs), had their services terminated on September 8. 

Also read: Explainer: What Do the MHA’s Changes to 1964 Foreigners Tribunals Order Mean?

Assistant government pleaders conduct cases on behalf of the government in the Foreigners’ Tribunals.

Most of these government pleaders belonging to the Muslim community have been replaced by people from the Bengali Hindu community. As per media reports, a large number of Bengali Hindus, considered a distinct vote bank of the BJP, have found themselves in the excluded list of over 19 lakh people after the final NRC was updated last year.

Some examples of the notice issued by the state government read:

“The Orders by the Governor Notification dated September 8 in the interest of public services, the services of Aminul Islam AGP, FT 1st Dhubri are hereby terminated with immediate effect. Rituparna Guha is appointed as Assistant General Pleader, FT 1st Dhubri vice Aminul Islam terminated.”

The format continued:

“Kamal Hussain, AGP, Dhubri FT 2nd terminated and Gokul Chandra Karmakar appointed. Nasir Ali Mondol, AGP,  FT 4th  Dhubri and Adhir Chandra Roy appointed. Rabial Hoque Mondol, AGP, FT 5th  Dhubri terminated and Aninda Paul appointed. Aftab Uddin, AGP, FT 8th, Dhubri terminated and Aninda Paul appointed. Aftab Uddin, AGP, FT 8th, Dhubri terminated and Shankar Prasad Chakraborty appointed.”

Only two newly appointed AGP in the FTs of that district are from other Hindu communities. As per the 2011 Census, Muslims are the largest religious group in the district and comprise 79.67% of the population, followed by Hindus at 19.92%. 

According to a source in Dhubri, some of the terminated FT pleaders are now in consultation with respective legal counsel and may contemplate challenging the state government’s order in court.

Dhubri district had 10 FTs. Aside from the replacements, one such quasi-judicial body (FT 6th Dhubri) had a vacancy of a pleader and as per the September 8 notification, Sujit Kumar Saha had been appointed as an AGP.  

Officials check the documents submitted by people, ahead of the release of the final draft of National Register of Citizens (NRC), at an NRC Seva Kendra in Guwahati, Monday, August 26, 2019. Photo: PTI

The Wire reached out to one AGP whose services were terminated. He preferred to be anonymous and said, “The government did it without prior information to us, no prior notice was served to us about it. The termination of our services should have gone through a proper channel adhering to the law and bureaucratic mechanisms. I feel incredibly sad and disappointed and I still fail to comprehend the reason behind it. I have been providing my services since March of 2016 and we were even given advance training by the government in 2017. In 2019, we were given training again on how to conduct cases in an FT court.”

Also read: Assam Discharges Foreigners’ Tribunal Member Who Wrote Letter With Communal Overtones

He said, “Some of us have begun consulting advocates on the termination order and whatever action we may take will be based on legal counsel’s suggestions. If our case is valid and strong, we may even move court. We have not decided yet.”

On being contacted by The Wire, Guwahati-based lawyer Aman Wadud who had posted the state government’s notification on his Twitter handle, said, “Foreigners’ Tribunals decide the most important right in the constitution – the right to one’s citizenship, which is often called the right to have other rights. FTs often fail to meet the fair trial standard; this attitude of the government (to segregate lawyers as per religion) makes it very apparent that they don’t care about a fair trial.”

Masood Zaman, a lawyer from Dhubri district, called the move a “Sanghi-isation of the FT courts”.

“It is very disappointing that most of the AGPs have been replaced so abruptly and that too without any prior information dispensed to them. This is an attempt to paint the FT’s in a different colour. I feel quite sad as these seven AGPs have been serving for a few years,” he said.

Congress MLA and Opposition leader in the state assembly, Debabrata Saikia, told this correspondent, “This is quite unfortunate. The pleaders whose services were terminated should approach the Minority Commission. Rules must be followed according to our Constitutional values and everything should be based on these principles. The termination of services shouldn’t have happened.”