It is called Blackstone’s Doctrine and in simple and unambiguous language it declares that: It is better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man be wrongly convicted.
In India, with our billion-plus population, we tend to ignore the rights of that one innocent man. Our numbers are too great and our creaky judicial system too overloaded to worry about the rights of one or even hundreds and thousands of individuals. But even by our standards, the entire National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise has been an appalling miscarriage of justice from beginning to end.
Consider the extraordinary numbers. The provisional NRC list had 4 million illegals. That’s now come down to 1.9 million. Or, to look at it differently, the authorities were initially wrong about 2.1 million cases before them. That’s now been put right but not before appalling levels of anxiety and suffering for over 2.1 million people.
Also, consider, if the authorities were wrong about 2.1 million cases, how many more might they be wrong about now? The answer is most people now reckon that out of the 1.9 million, some 500,000 will end up being declared illegal after this mammoth exercise that’s stretched over years. The distress and expense, for those who finally made it to the list and for those who didn’t and will want to appeal, are untold. Impoverished villagers have had to trek to regular hearings and even to visit relatives incarcerated in jail for years. The cost to public coffers has been an enormous ₹1,220 crore.
And what’s been the outcome of this gigantic exercise? Almost nobody’s happy. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) is dismayed by the final result and its cadre is asking if this is what they spent 30 years fighting for.
For the BJP, which used illegal immigrants as a vote-catching device, the plot has gone seriously haywire. Don’t forget BJP chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal was once an AASU leader. And Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP’s state strongman, is now saying the government will ask for a review of the NRC results. That’s after one appeal by the State government for a recount has already been rejected by the Supreme Court. Ominously, he says: “You can’t stop border police from pursuing any case.”
The BJP is particularly incensed about the fact that in the interim list in three Muslim-dominated border districts, Dhubri, South Salmara and Karimganj, fewer people — around 7 per cent — were found to be non-citizens than in Hindu-dominated border district Cachar where 12.91 per cent were designated non-citizens.
Filing another appeal would be an injustice of extraordinary proportions, stretching out the agony and leaving a Sword of Damocles hanging over the necks of people who thought their ordeal was over. Sarma is literally asking for a recount because the match hasn’t gone his way. Many of those found illegal are Bengali Hindus who form part of the BJP’s voter base.
Don’t forget that just months ago, Amit Shah was branding illegal immigrants as “termites”. Today, he’s Home Minister and keeping a very conspicuous silence. Following a Home Ministry meeting some weeks ago, it was announced that the time to file appeals for those left off the NRC list would be extended from 90 to 120 days and that the first 300 and later another 200 tribunals would be set up to wade through the sea of documents to be reviewed.
There’s even talk that 1,000 tribunals will be set up and there’ll almost be one for every block in the State. Each tribunal has six members who are expected to have legal training of some sort to be able to follow correct procedures for document-vetting and accepting evidence from witnesses. Already, it’s been tough to find qualified members for the tribunals. With almost 6,000 tribunal members needed, quality will inevitably suffer.
As it is, the exercise has thrown up all manner of absurdities. In innumerable families, one person’s been declared illegal while the rest of his family has passed through the eye of the NRC needle. Absurdly, children have been declared illegal while their parents have been found to be legal. But consider that a total of 66 million documents were processed by authorities during the mammoth NRC operation. A substantial number will still have to be deciphered during the 120-day appeal period. These documents could stretch all the way back to Independence. Already, authorities have struggled with fading, torn and mostly indecipherable documents. A minor spelling mistake has spelt doom for countless people.
The entire NRC operation was born from the Assam Accord in 1985. But successive governments have been dodging the bullet, possibly because they realised the havoc it might cause. But now it’s been pushed forward and forced into a strict timetable by the Supreme Court. The list of documents that would be accepted by the government has changed from time to time. The cut-off date for citizenship finally became 1971.
What we also need to keep in mind is that countless people were deprived of their liberty years before the final results were declared. In fact, the Supreme Court had to step in and say people held for three years had to be released from jail. The Assam government has already started building one refugee camp that will be able to contain 5,000 people. Will it now embark on building several hundred camps all over the State to house the people who’ve been declared illegal? The government’s keen to stress that people can still appeal to the tribunals and then to the high court. It’s not clear what action might be taken against them if they lose in the tribunals.
The BJP’s often said the NRC exercise would be carried out across the country — they were originally keen to start with Bengal. Now that talk is somewhat muted. Also, there’s no talk of expelling people and sending them back to Bangladesh because the government doesn’t want to cause an international furore and upset one of the few governments it’s on good terms with on the subcontinent
So, what conclusions should we draw after this gigantic exercise in folly? The BJP is already claiming multiple forgeries have resulted in fewer Muslims being discovered as Bangladeshi non-citizens.
Alternatively, it could be that the people who came over from Bangladesh were mostly Hindus escaping persecution at different points of time. And it could be that the bogey about Bangladeshi Muslims pouring into this country was a canard that has been shown to be untrue. While that might well be the case, there are many in this country who will never accept that as a fact.