A recent statement by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in Parliament in reply to a query has sent a section of government officials in Assam into a tizzy, who are groping for an explanation on the reason that triggered the episode.
On 27 July, Minister of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai, tabled a statement in the Lok Sabha that the process of issuing rejection slips to the people excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam had been postponed due to the “outbreak of COVID-19 and flood situation”.
The Minister was replying to a query from Assam Member of Parliament (MP) Abdul Khaleque, who was elected from Barpeta. His question sought information from the Ministry on the reason for the delay in the issuance of rejection slips by the NRC Secretariat in Guwahati.
The supplementary list of NRC, which was published on 31 August, 2019, excluded close to 2 million people. As per the procedure laid down, the NRC Secretariat was supposed to have issued rejection slips to the delisted people, which is a mandatory step prior to approaching the Foreigners Tribunals. The Tribunals would deliver the verdict on their status, which could be challenged in higher courts.
The rejection slips spell out the reasons that led to exclusions from the list.
The Ministry had issued instructions to begin the process of issuing the rejection slips, which were not complied with by the NRC Secretariat.
The NRC, which was a unique exercise in Assam, was monitored by the Supreme Court and updated by the Registrar-General of India (RGI), which is under the administrative control of the Home Ministry. The NRC Secretariat was manned by officials deputed from the state government and a section who were recruited for the exercise.
But were COVID-19 and flood in the state really the factors that prevented the NRC Secretariat from implementing the order of the Home Ministry?
NRC Secretariat’s Affidavit To SC
The answer lies in the 38-page affidavit submitted by NRC Coordinator Hitesh Dev Sarma to the Supreme Court on 8 May, which made a prayer for the deletion of the names of illegal immigrants from the voters’ list and continuing the update of the register.
The affidavit explicitly mentioned that the delay in the process of issuing the rejection slips was due to the “glaring anomalies” found in the register. In addition, it said that the RGI was yet to publish the final NRC meaning that the notification has not yet been issued.
Further, the affidavit underscores that issue of the rejection slips without the final publication of the NRC would violate as many as three provisions laid down under the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003.
Nowhere has the affidavit mentioned COVID-19 or flood as the reasons for the delay in the issuance of rejection slips.
RGI’s Communique To NRC Secretariat
Assam Public Works, the NGO whose PIL prompted the Supreme Court to order the update of NRC, has received a letter written by the RGI to Sarma in response to a memorandum submitted to Prime Minister’s Office(PMO) on the anomalies in the NRC.
Written on 25 November last year by RGI Joint Director Jaspal Singh, the letter reminded Sarma about the need to issue rejection slips in cases that were “correct”, and cases with “mismatch in result” were to be referred to Deputy Commissioners of the districts concerned for clarifications.
The letter referred to a meeting held at the North Block under the chairmanship of the Home Secretary on 22 February last year, where rejection slips were discussed. It also discussed the Supreme Court order to create a regime of the NRC data similar to AADHAR, which was still unimplemented.
However, COVID-19 and flood in Assam were not mentioned in the letter. Instead, Singh mentions an affidavit submitted by the Home Ministry to the Supreme Court early last year, which makes a case for allowing people “not satisfied with the outcome of the decisions of the claims and objections” (in NRC) to file appeals before the Foreigners Tribunals “without waiting for publication of the final NRC…..”
“Why the Home Ministry has mentioned COVID-19 and flood as the reasons for the delay in issuing the rejection slips is baffling. It is possible that the officials entrusted with the task to compile answers to questions in Parliament were not conversant with the developments in NRC,” said an official who did not wish to be named.
(Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)