The Gauhati High Court has held that any question arising about the citizenship of a person must be adjudicated on the basis of ‘merits’ on hearing the person concerned. This is no doubt going to have a far reaching impact in Assam where thousands of people are declared foreigners ex parte i.e in their absence by Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT). In most cases, these people hail from socio-economically backward communities and are therefore unable to attend hearings regularly. Often the victims of ex parte orders are unlettered women from far-flung rural areas.
The court made key observations about the importance of citizenship while hearing a petition filed by one Rahima Khatun challenging an ex parte 2016 order passed by the Dhubri FT that declared her a foreigner.
A Bench of Justice N Kotiswar Singh and Justice Soumitra Saikia said, “It is to be remembered that citizenship is one of the most important rights of a person. By virtue of citizenship, one becomes a member of a sovereign country and becomes entitled to various rights and privileges granted by law in the country and, as such, if any question arises about citizenship of a person, in our opinion, the same should be adjudicated as far as possible on the basis of merit and on hearing the person concerned.”
Rahima Khatun had argued before the court that upon receipt of notice from the Foreigners Tribunal, her son appeared on her behalf without her knowledge. Since he neglected to appear before the Tribunal on various dates fixed by it, an ex-parte order was passed against her. The High Court Bench observed that the Foreigners’ Tribunal had passed the said order “without hearing the petitioner”.
It has now remanded the matter to the Foreigners’ Tribunal for “reconsideration of the issue as to whether the petitioner is a foreigner or not”. She has been directed to appear before the Tribunal on or before May 5, 2021. She has also been offered relief in the form of bail.
Since Rahima has been declared “foreigner”, the court ordered that she will “appear before the Superintendent of Police (Border), Dhubri within 15 (fifteen) days from today. On such appearance, the petitioner shall furnish a bail bond of Rs.5000/- (Rupees five thousand) with one local surety of the like amount to the satisfaction of the said authority thereafter she shall be allowed to remain on bail.”
The Bench then directed the Superintendent of Police (Border) to obtain necessary information and documentation for her presence before the FT and to take all necessary steps for capturing her fingerprints and biometrics of the iris. Rahima has also been directed to not leave the jurisdiction of Dhubri district, Assam, without giving details of the place of destination and her place of stay to the Superintendent of Police (Border), Dhubri.
Last month, the High Court had restored the citizenship of a woman who was declared a foreigner by the FT in 2017 due to some minor dissimilarities in names. In another instance, with CJP’s help, Chenbhanu Begum, a Darrang based woman in Assam, who was declared a foreigner in 2017, secured bail from the Gauhati High Court.
The order in Rahima Khatun’s case may be read here: