Prateek Hajela was the face of the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of 1951 in Assam for six years till November 2019. Less than three years later, this 1995-batch Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre has been tagged an anti-national.
Hitesh Dev Sarma, Mr. Hajela’s successor as the State NRC Coordinator, had on May 19 lodged a first information report (FIR) with the Criminal Investigation Department seeking action against his predecessor for knowingly disobeying the law, intentionally avoiding mandatory quality checks in the process of updating the NRC and allowing declared foreigners, doubtful voters and their descendants to enlist their names.
The FIR said Mr. Hajela “intentionally avoided re-verification of 64,247 persons despite a complaint” and his act should be treated as “treason for doing an activity which is likely to threaten national security”.
This was not the first case against Mr. Hajela since the Supreme Court, which monitored the NRC exercise from December 2014, transferred him to his home State Madhya Pradesh in November 2019. The apex court did not give any reason but it was believed that he, given watertight security earlier, was under pressure from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition government in Assam for handling the “expensive” NRC exercise “only to produce a faulty list of citizens that left out genuine Indians and included illegal immigrants”.
The Assam NRC exercise cost more than ₹1,600 crore, and indigenous groups were unhappy that the number of “people with suspicious nationality” was “trimmed” from 41 lakh in the draft citizens’ list of July 2018 to 19.06 lakh in the complete draft published on August 31, 2019. There was a total of 3.3 crore applicants.
The indigenous groups want all pre-1971 settlers, perceived to be close to 40 lakh, excluded while the BJP wants the left-out Hindus included and more Muslims excluded from the NRC. While the non-indigenous Hindus are a sizeable vote bank for the BJP, they are the key to the party’s goal of implementing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 that seeks to grant fast-tracked citizenship to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who took refuge in India by December 31, 2014.
The bureaucratic circle in Assam had an inkling the axe would fall on Mr. Hajela, who began work on a “potentially explosive project started in the Congress era”, once the draft citizens’ list was published during the BJP reign. He had himself indicated he was skating on thin ice.
“The exercise was easier said than done. We had to create our own model of updating the NRC of 1951 as there was no precedent anywhere in India, apart from a failed pilot project in Assam’s Barpeta and Chhaygaon in 2010,” he had told The Hindu before the complete draft NRC was published.
The BJP government in Assam was quick to label the NRC faulty and demanded re-verification of at least 20% of the names in districts bordering Bangladesh and 10% in the other districts. The NRC authority did not disclose the details of those who were left out of the list, but it is believed the BJP was unhappy with the rejection of as many non-Muslims as Bengali-speaking Muslims perceived to be “Bangladeshis” or “illegal immigrants”.
The basic objective of the NRC was to weed out “illegal immigrants” on the basis of the Assam Accord of 1985, which prescribes March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for detecting, detaining and deporting non-citizens from the State. The so-called Bangladeshi issue has dominated politics in Assam since.
Not the first case
Mr. Sarma’s was not the first complaint against Mr. Hajela. The Assam Police had in September 2019 registered two cases against him and other unidentified officials for alleged “discrepancies” in the complete draft published less than a month before. A businessman in eastern Assam’s Dibrugarh and an indigenous Assamese Muslim students’ organisation in Guwahati had filed those cases against him.
In May 2020, the Assam Public Works, the NGO whose July 2009 petition in the Supreme Court led to the NRC exercise, filed a complaint against him with the Central Bureau of Investigation, which did not find it worthy of a probe. In June 2021, the same organisation lodged an FIR with the State’s CID, accusing him of manipulating the family tree verification during the updating process.
The family tree is the detail of different generations of an applicant’s family traced to a legacy person, preferably someone who figured in the 1951 NRC or was established as a pre-1971 resident of Assam.
Mr. Hajela chose not to react to the FIR against him by his predecessor. Neither did most organisations or political parties in Assam except for a few voices like All India United Democratic Front MLA Aminul Islam. “The NRC Coordinator is not fit to carry on,” he said.
Bengal-origin or Bengali-speaking Muslims are said to be the “vote bank” of Mr. Islam’s party headed by perfume baron and MP, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal.
The NRC has virtually been in cold storage barring a few members of Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs) who — much to the annoyance of the NRC authority — have been interpreting the complete draft as the “final” list to adjudge suspected foreigners as citizens.
Assam currently has 100 functional FTs that are quasi-judicial set-ups tasked with trying people marked foreigners by the Border wing of the Assam Police.
“Mr. Hajela had erroneously claimed the NRC list of August 2019 was final, leading to confusion and unwarranted decisions by the FTs. The NRC will be final only if the Registrar General of India issues a notification saying so,” Mr. Sarma said, adding that the next phase of NRC is yet to be undertaken.
This phase involves sending rejection slips to each of the 19.06 lakh people left out of the draft citizens’ list with a note on why they have been rejected. Such people will have to approach the assigned FT within 120 days of receiving the rejection slip with documents to prove they are citizens.
Amid the uncertainty of the exercise, one thing is certain. Mr. Hajela may have left the NRC almost three years ago, but the NRC refuses to leave him.