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‘Massive scale exercise’: 5-NLU-project to help NRC ‘non-citizens’ appeal, not get stripped of basic human rights

NLUs team up to make NRC live up to its friendly logo, if that is possible
NLUs team up to make NRC live up to its friendly logo, if that is possible

NUJS Kolkata, Nalsar Hyderabad, NLU Delhi. NLU Odisha and NLUJAA Assam have jointly launched a legal aid-style clinic called Parichay, to help those stripped of Indian nationality under the controversial _National Register of Citizens (NRC)_regime.

“The clinic will function as a clearinghouse of litigation and research assistance for lawyers filing appeals against exclusion from the NRC,” the schools said in a statement, adding:

Over 19 lakh people have been excluded from the final list of the NRC that was released on August 31, 2019. Excluded persons may file appeals against their exclusion within a period of 120 days from receipt of their rejection order.

Parichay would help lawyers to draft appeals, research questions of law, training lawyers and paralegals and assist in preparing information surrounding the NRC appeals process before Foreigners’ Tribunals.

Tribunal > Deport / Detain > ...

By most accounts, the process before Foreigners Tribunals to positively prove you’re a citizen is not going to be an easy one. With strict rules on what kind of documentation is sufficient, “bias, inconsistency and errors” is reportedly common at such tribunals. Prashanth Bhushan in the Indian Express and others have criticised the tribunals as constitutionally questionable.

This is not helped by the fact that only 100 tribunals are currently going to have to deal with 1.9m people’s cases, working out to 19,000 cases per tribunal (though that number may be increased to more than 200).

Even if these tribunals had the much-vaunted efficiency of a high court, that’s a pendency mountain that will probably last quite a while, leaving those appealing in limbo (and on the hook for travel, legal and other expenses); not succeeding in the appeal, could mean being shunted to a “detention centre” for years before eventually being deported (or not).

The clinic would also document the NRC and prepare policy recommendations to “inform legal and policy discourse on citizenship laws in India”, according to Parichay.

Uncertain how things will pan out, but massive endeavour in any case

The clinic was co-founded by NLU Delhi assistant professor Anup Surendranath, JGLS Sonepat assistant professor M Mohsin Alam Bhat and Kolkata-based lawyer and researcher Darshana Mitra.

Anup Surendranath told us by phone that the “massive scale... and the kind of legal representation that’s going to be required” was daunting: “On the ground the sense is that there’s nowhere near the kind of legal assistance that might be required for this.

“Even an effort like this is just going to be a drop in the ocean and everybody will have to work together to do this. Most of the people are going to be extremely poor: how are we going to ensure a fair process is followed in determination of their citizenship status?"

“There’s no illusion it’s going to be a massive coordination exercise,” he added. “Law schools are not used to this kind of collaboration and going to be some kind of discomfort around that as well.”

On top of that, how it all will proceed was not clear yet, said Surendranath. “All of those procedures will depend on what they notify as rules - a lot of that will only get clear in the coming days.”

As of now, those not included in the citizen register will have 120 days to file appeal from the date they get a certified copy of their exclusion (which would happen in the coming days).

At that point, they could either actively appeal, or the district officer could push their case to the Foreigners’ Tribunal to get a final finding of non-citizenship (or otherwise), at which point the deportation process could kick in.

Funding comes from participating law schools’ legal aid budgets, though Parichay also hoped to get “participation and support” from the legal fraternity and civil society. It is also seeking applications for 10 students in a core team as well as student volunteers via its website by 15 October.

Each participating university has designated a faculty advisor who will coordinate with Parichay.

VCs back project

Vice-chancellors (VC) of participating colleges have each made statements in the launch announcement.

NLUJAA Assam VC Prof JS Patil said:

This is a historically unprecedented collaboration between law schools in India, and we believe that this is necessary to ensure that no one is deprived of their right to legal representation.

Nalsar VC Prof Faizan Mustafa said:

After the NRC absence of effective legal aid would mean that many persons would be rendered stateless without due process. An innovative collaboration like Parichay is essential to prevent such a humanitarian crisis.

NUJS VC Dr NK Chakrabarti said:

Parichay is an extension of NUJS’s commitment to the provision of legal aid, to fulfill the constitutional mandate under Article 39A of the Constitution of India.

While the Assam government has assured that legal aid will be provided to all, an exercise of this scale requires the participation of law schools and civil society.

Parichay would attempt to “further India’s obligations under international human rights law”, with NLU Odisha VC Prof Srikrishna Deva Rao commenting:

Citizenship grants an individual identity in the eyes of the state, and allows them to enjoy other human rights. Deprivation of citizenship, therefore, can result in further deprivation of an individual’s basic human rights.

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