Workings of these specially formed tribunals have been stuck in controversy since their inception in 1964
Just a day ago, they were citizens of the most populous democracy in the world, and thus protected by the Indian constitution which guaranteed them the right to live with human dignity.
Currently, around 1,000 people declared as foreigners are detained in prisons. Their right to dignity has been stripped away, and more lives will be destroyed as the Modi government builds an exclusive detention centre capable of holding 3,000 more detainees.
With one swift move on Saturday, the Assamese government rendered 1.9 million Indians stateless, leaving their fates in the hands of the state’s inconsistent and dubious Foreigners Tribunals — whose records so far have been less-than-stellar.
This is their only hope, as according to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) — a list of people who can prove they came to the state by 24 March 1971 — people left off the list will have 120 days to appeal against their exclusion to these tribunals.
Speaking to BBC, Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, author of Assam: The Accord, The Discord, said: "People whose names are not on the final list are really anxious about what lies ahead. One of the reasons is that the Foreigners Tribunal does not have a good reputation.”
Workings of these specially formed tribunals have been stuck in controversy since their inception in 1964.
Today, there are over 100 such courts in Assam, and their numbers are expected to reach a thousand by October. "From September 1, a total of 200 additional Foreigners Tribunals will start functioning across Assam," a senior Home Ministry official told BBC.
An investigation by VICE News into these tribunals revealed a biased process barely resembling India’s traditional legal system. Analyzing data of judgements issued in the last six months of 2018, from five courts, showed many inconsistencies.
For example, the percentage of people declared foreigners varied dramatically from tribunal to tribunal.
“In one of the courts, every single person processed in six months was declared a foreigner because they were not present at their hearing. Some people said the Assam Police Border Organization, a force unique to the state that files complaints and summons accused illegal immigrants to court, had never notified them in the first place,” reports VICE News.
People have also allegedly been declared foreigners by the courts because of differences in spellings of names or ages in voter rolls, and problems in getting identity documents certified by authorities.
Additionally, in those tribunals, nearly nine out of 10 cases were against Muslims. Almost 90% of those Muslims were declared illegal immigrants — as compared with 40% of Hindus tried.
Furthermore, the members who declare people nationals or foreigners are not actually judges. Initially, only serving and retired judges presided over the tribunals, but when 36 courts mushroomed to 100 in 2015, the Supreme Court approved the government’s request to fill vacancies with lawyers who have at least 10 years of experience.
The burden of proof also lies solely on the accused or the alleged foreigner. The only way to prove their citizenship is through documents, which many families are unable to produce due to poor record-keeping, illiteracy or because they lack the money to file a legal claim.
The tribunals will be required after the publication of the final National Register of Citizens, a list of Assam's residents, on Saturday.
People who may be excluded from the final NRC can approach any one of these tribunals for inclusion of their names, the official said.
Who is paying for the appeals?
A potentially long and exhaustive appeals process will mean that India's already overburdened courts will be further clogged, and poor people left off the list will struggle to raise money to fight their cases, reports BBC.
Those excluded have 120 days to prove their citizenship at hundreds of regional quasi-judicial bodies known as foreigners’ tribunals. If ruled to be illegal immigrants there, they can appeal to higher courts.
However, if these people lose appeals in higher courts, they could be detained indefinitely.
“Everyone in my family is on the list but not me,” said Munwara Khatun, while accompanied by her two grandchildren and her husband, Sahar Ali, at a registration center in Assam’s central district of Nagaon. “How can that be?”
Her 65-year-old spouse, a farmer, told Reuters that the draft list had also omitted Munwara, prompting them to provide authorities with documents ranging from land records to her voter identification and the Aadhaar identification number of Indian residents.
Some of the two dozen people at the center said officials had asked them to go to court to get included on the register.
“They are saying go to court,” said car mechanic Ritesh Sutradhar, 45, who had been left out, along with his wife. “But who will pay for all that?”
Fate of the foreigners
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which rules the state, has insisted in the past that illegal Muslim immigrants will be deported. But the chances of Bangladesh complying with such a request is quite low at this time, since the country is already hosting over 7.41 lakh Rohingya refugees since August 25, 2017.
Many believe that India will end up creating the newest cohort of stateless people, raising the spectre of a homegrown crisis that will echo that of the Rohingya people who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh.
It is not clear whether the people stripped of their Indian citizenship will be able to access welfare or own property.
One possibility is that once they are released, they will be given work permits with some basic rights, but will not be allowed to vote, however that remains to be seen.