India

Govt replaces 7 Muslim lawyers with Hindus at foreigners’ tribunals in Assam

‘It is just a normal government notification’

Seven Muslim Assistant Government Pleaders (AGPs) at one of the Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT) in Dhubri district of Assam state of India were removed replaced by seven advocates belonging to the Hindu community.

The tribunals are quasi judicial bodies reviewing cases of those whose citizenship has been marked suspect by the Assam Border Police Organisation, and of those left out of the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) list. Each FT has one AGP.

According to a report by The Print, in service from last 4 four years, a 50-year-old Kamal Hussain Ahmed was among the seven Muslim AGPs who were removed from service at the FTs in Dhubri.

As seven of them were removed and replaced by advocates belonging to the Hindu community, the move has sparked allegations of “bias and discrimination” in the process, the report said.

“This is political discrimination. It has been done on religious lines,” the report quoted Hussain Ahmed as saying. Ahmed had been serving at FT No. 2 in Dhubri since March 2016, and granted three extensions.

“Without offering any explanation, the deputy commissioner cannot recommend our names for termination (of services) — it is the home secretary or the Gauhati High Court that seeks an application from the official concerned before passing an order under valid reasons,” he added.

On September 8, a notification signed by the state’s joint secretary, announced a termination of the services of AGPs identified as Aminul Islam, Kamal Hussain Ahmed, Rabial Hoque Mandal, Aftab Uddin Ahmed, Sahabul Ahmed and Motiur Rahman Paramanik.

The seven members, according to the report, have been replaced by Rituparna Guha, Gokul Chandra Karmakar, Adhir Chandra Roy, Aninda Paul, Shankar Prasad Chakraborty, Ananda Kumar Rai and Sangita Koeri at different FTs in Dhubri district. Assam currently has 100 FTs across the state, and there are several Muslim AGPs serving in them.

In this regard, the Dhubri district, Assam Chief Secretary Kumar Sanjay Krishna, has termed it “just a normal government notification”.  “The termination notice comes before the expiry of my present term,” said Hussain Ahmed told The Print.

As the move was opposed and other affected lawyers have also questioned the decision.

“My performance report last year was ‘Well and Good’; not only me, all of us got good performance reviews from the Home and Political (B) department. But this time, they did not wait for any report and terminated us,” the report quoted  a 45-year-old Sahabul Ahmed, who was the AGP at the court of FT 9 in Dhubri town, as having said.

Not willing to make further comments, Sahabul said the decision has “immensely hurt” him.

Aman Wadud, a Guwahati-based human rights lawyer, told The Print that the decision reeked of bias.

“The FTs are infamous for violation of the rule of law and arbitrary stripping of citizenship of Indians,” Wadud said. “The government decision to remove an entire set of government pleaders from one religion and replace them with another will not inspire the confidence of people in the system. This is not how a government in a Constitutional democracy should behave,” the lawyer was further quoted.

Meanwhile, according to the report, Abhijeet Sharma of the Assam Public Works (APW), who is a petitioner in the NRC case in the Supreme Court, welcomed the decision.

“If the state has found discrepancies in their functioning, it is a right decision as FT courts have an important role to play in the issue of illegal immigration. Many a time, an innocent has been declared non-citizen while the one who is possibly a foreigner remains undetected,” he said.

“We had always suspected that names of illegal immigrants have been included in the final NRC. Former state NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela had told the court that there was no need for 10% re-verification in all districts because he had already done 27% re-verification. In Dhubri district, 38% re-verification was done. As many as 4,096 people were excluded,” Sharma added according to the report.

Dhubri district has a total of 10 FTs under it. While the AGPs in seven FTs have been replaced, sources told The Print that no replacement has been made in FT 7 where Chandan Debnath continues to serve as the AGP, while a vacant AGP post in FT 6 was filled with the appointment of Sujit Kumar Saha, according to a notification issued under ‘Orders by the Governor’.

Mohammed Harun, according to the report, remains the AGP for FT 3 (South Salmara), but the court is currently non-functional.

The Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam were created through the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964. These quasi-judicial bodies review cases of suspected citizenship. Before the FTs came into existence, the decision on citizenship of any person, and thereafter their expulsion, was done exclusively by the border police.

The tribunals’ workload has increased after 19.22 lakh people were left out of the final NRC list, published on 31 August, 2019, the report mentioned.

Earlier, the state’s Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had ensured that people who are excluded from the register will have 120 days to appeal before an FT.

If anyone loses a case in FT, they can move the high court and then even the Supreme Court with necessary evidence to prove citizenship. But the FTs themselves have come under the scanner due to their functioning.

 

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