It’s well known that the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, holds strong views about the huge National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise conducted in Assam. He’s has been a key force behind the NRC, setting timetables and insisting deadlines can’t be extended even when asked by the State government. As the Chief Justice, he also occupies a very special position in the hierarchy of constitutional functionaries. His actions in court and his rulings can only be criticised on narrow legal merits. Anything more would invite charges of contempt of court. He’s not a figure like the Prime Minister, who’s expected to face critics’ attacks. In fact, it’s established practice that the Chief Justice preserves an Olympian aloofness and stays above the fray.

It’s reasonable to ask, therefore, whether Chief Justice Gogoi should have expressed himself as forcefully as he’s just done on the subject of the NRC. It’s understandable that as someone from Assam (and the first Assamese Chief Justice of India) he feels his knowledge of the subject is superior to outsiders. It’s still not correct for him, though, to reject all criticism as coming from “armchair commentators” who have no understanding of what’s admittedly a complex situation. Without mincing words, Gogoi has lashed out at critics, saying: “They launch baseless and motivated tirades against democratic functioning and democratic institutions.” To accuse all critics of being motivated by “vile intentions” is unfair from a person who can’t (and shouldn’t) be attacked in similar terms.

Certainly, strong doubts can be expressed about the NRC and they shouldn’t be dismissed as “motivated.” The number of people initially declared to be “foreigners” has fallen to 1.9 million from four million after a reassessment. Under the circumstances, it’s entirely fair to comment on the quality of a far-reaching legal exercise which made mistakes in a massive 2.1 million cases. It’s well-known that some lawyers in Assam say they won’t even appear before the NRC tribunals because they’re resulting in an overwhelming number of miscarriages of justice. Experts forecast the total of “stateless” people will finally fall, after all appeals, to 5,00,000 from 1.9 million. Of course, it’s commendable people are getting another chance to prove they’re Indian citizens. But the number of cases where the tribunals have been wrong must throw doubt on the entire process even if the Chief Justice doesn’t think so. To expedite the appeals, the government is appointing more tribunals, but there aren’t enough experienced people to appoint, casting another cloud over the procedure. We can also very legitimately ask whether the entire NRC process is aimed squarely at Muslims, because refugees who are Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Christian will have the right to apply for citizenship once the Citizenship Act’s passed. The Act specifically denies Muslims the same right.

Finally, it’s entirely fair to ask what will happen to the people who will, at the end of the NRC process be, to all intents and purposes, stateless. Will they be permanently consigned for the rest of their lives to camps like the one being built at Goalpara to house 3,000 people? Given the way this country functions, it’s safe to bet it will end up housing far more than the sanctioned 3,000. How many camps will be needed to house 5,00,000 stateless people? What will happen to children of these stateless people and will they be separated from their parents? The Central government says it’s looking at extending the NRC process to other parts of the country. Is that the future people want for this country? Chief Justice Gogoi has praised Assam and its culture, its ‘magnanimity’ and ‘large-heartedness’. He says the NRC’s merely an exercise updating what occurred in 1951 and calls it “a base document for the future.” Maybe he’s right. But in a democracy, all citizens have the right to raise doubts — and nobody should ever question that.