The air of uncertainty and confrontation built up assiduously by some quarters over the acceptability of panchayat certificates and ‘Origil Inhabitant’ tag in the NRC verification process has been well and truly cleared by the Supreme Court. The apex court after reading of relevant provisions of the Assam Panchayat Act, 1994, has ruled that it will be “legally fragile” to consider panchayat certificate as a ‘private document’, which was the view taken by Gauhati High Court and the State. However, the SC bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and RF riman has specifically laid down as to what cannot and can be done with the panchayat paper. The residence certificate issued by the village panchayat secretary (and countersigned by the local revenue official), mostly to women migrating to other villages after marriage — is by itself not a proof of citizenship, nor can it be used to claim inclusion into the tiol Register of Citizens. The panchayat certificate can only be acted upon to establish a linkage between the holder and the person from whom legacy is claimed — and this ‘limited use’ can come only after ‘the contents of the certificate are found to be established on due and proper enquiry and verification’. In this context, the apex court has ruled: “The certificate has to be verified at two stages. The first is the authenticity of the certificate itself; and the second is the authenticity of the contents thereof. The latter process of verification is bound to be an exhaustive process in the course of which the source of information of the facts and all other details recorded in the certificate will be ascertained after giving an opportunity to the holder of the certificate.”
As for the ‘Origil Inhabitant (OI)’ tag used in the NRC verification stage, the SC bench has made it clear that the NRC update exercise is intended to identify citizens, not origil inhabitants. Since the test for citizenship will be as per constitutiol laws and rules, the OI tag issue is beside the point. “Citizens who are origilly inhabitants/residents of the State of Assam and those who are not, are at par for inclusion in the NRC,” the apex court has ruled. It has further refused to go into the issue of defining who is an origil inhabitant of Assam. This is as should be, because when the political leadership has failed to agree on a definition of OI for donkeys years while playing endless games over it, why should the court do their work? As of now, the bottomline is that panchayat certificates submitted by around 28 lakh women will next have to be properly verified and authenticated. It will be an onerous responsibility of the NRC authority, when the verification work of second part of draft NRC is taken up after December 31. For the first part of draft NRC that must be published before the December 31 deadline, verification of papers of around 2 crore claimants is said to be completed while NRC teams are set to begin re-verification of papers of 38 lakh applicants by visiting their homes. When panchayat certificates come under scanner next, it will be keenly watched how many of these turn out genuine. In case fake panchayat papers are detected, parties playing politics over it will stand exposed, as they have over doubtful (D) voters and electoral rolls riddled with the mes of foreigners. Such mischievous designs, along with the security challenges, must be countered firmly.