EDITORIAL

Foreigners Tribuls

The recent attack on a Foreigners Tribul judge at Goalpara has exposed the levels of intimidation facing these tribuls. Added to the utter lack of basic infrastructure and manpower shortage in these tribuls, the risk to life and limb of judges needs to be taken with utmost seriousness by the powers-be in Dispur. This is what comes of endless political chicanery over detecting foreigners in this State. If the earlier Congress regime in the State did everything possible to keep these tribuls hamstrung and toothless, the present NDA dispensation at the Centre is pulling out all stops to change the definition of foreigners by amending the concerned law. Is it any surprise that the Foreigners Tribuls in Assam exist in some kind of limbo, carrying out a thankless task at a sil’s pace? In 2015 at Dhubri, Foreigners Tribul members were threatened and assaulted; an FIR was filed but nothing came out of it. Last week at Goalpara, a bunch of around 20 lawyers barged into tribul judge Ajay Kumar Phukan’s chamber, beat him up for judging some of their ‘doubtful voter’ clients to be foreigners, ransacked the office and walked blithely away. A few of the attackers have been arrested, but the others are still at large. Goons like these, masquerading as members of the legal profession, should be given exemplary punishment under the law. But the State government needs to take a hard look at the security cover given to Foreigners Tribuls, particularly in districts with overwhelming numbers of suspected Bangladeshi infiltrators. Hopefully, inputs given by the high-level fact finding team sent to Goalpara, led by Justice Ujjal Bhuyan of Gauhati High Court, will this time be taken seriously and acted upon. The tribul premises and members’ quarters need to be well guarded round the clock with CCTV camera coverage, adequate number of PSOs and other fool-proof safety measures. The intolerable situation of tribul judges not getting salaries, typing their orders in the absence of staffers, hankering for computers and stationery, writing to deputy commissioners for trifling office expenses — must not be put up with any longer.

Over 45,500 persons have been declared foreigners so far, as revealed by the State government in the current assembly session. In 2014, the number of Foreigners’ Tribuls in the State was increased to 100 to expedite disposal of cases under the Foreigners’ Act. What is more, the present State government made it known last year via a notification — that it reserves the right to challenge the decision of a tribul even after a person is declared an Indian citizen. District and State-level screening committees have been accordingly empowered to examine any tribul decision, and recommend to the State government to challenge it in higher court whenever deemed fit. After the shameful Goalpara incident, Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal should now act fast to deliver on his promises last June when he met members of Foreigners Tribuls. He had then said his government will provide all necessary facilities and fincial help to tribuls, and will take strong action against those obstructing the tribuls’ work. If he does not take a hand here, there is no way the tribuls can dispose of over 2.6 lakh pending cases anytime soon. Only after the tribuls do so, can the administrative machinery deal with declared foreigners effectively under the law. In the past, most persons declared to be foreigners by tribuls simply went missing. It was Sonowal’s petition that had led to the Supreme Court in 2005 striking down the IMDT Act, which the Central government next year tried to retrieve through the Foreigners (Tribul for Assam) Order. The AGP and the BJP (along with the AASU) had then petitioned the apex court that shifting the burden of proof away from the person accused to be a foreigner, was in contravention to the law as applicable elsewhere in the country. Now that these two parties are running the government, both should do the utmost to safeguard the Foreigners Tribuls and allow these to complete their mandated work.