After years of allegation over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) update exercise in Assam, the court proceedings begin against the former State coordinator Prateek Hajela (for his involvement with a financial scam to the tune of over Rs 155 crores), the system integrator (Wipro Limited) and a subcontractor Integrated System and Services (ISS). Hajela, who has already retired voluntarily from service under the Assam government, was recently summoned by the Kamrup (metro) District and Sessions Court to appear on November 17, but he failed to do so. The district court in Guwahati has now fixed February 6, 2024 for the next hearing. It has even allowed the petitioner Luit Kumar Barman who filed a revision petition to bring the matter to the retired IAS officer’s notice (as he is a resident of Madhya Pradesh) through newspaper-advertisements.
Barman, an Assamese entrepreneur-turned-award-winning film producer, prepared for the advertisement to be published in two national dailies (one in English and another Hindi) and two widely circulated newspapers of Assam and MP. However, Hajela responded to the concerned court through his counsel on November 21 with an appeal for withdrawal of permission for advertisement. The counsel informed that Hajela had already come to know about the summon from various social media posts. He also appealed to the court to allow Hajela to file an affidavit. So, Barman now awaits fresh court direction.
Wipro Limited, an Indian IT company of international repute, had already submitted an affidavit through its representatives. But the ISS (represented by proprietor Utpal Hazarika) was not served the summon duly and the court directed the petitioner Barman to take necessary steps. Both Wipro and ISS face serious allegations of tampering with the software allowing thousands of illegal Bangladeshi nationals to apply for Indian citizenship.
Barman lodged a complaint at a city police station on October 19 against Hajela, Wipro limited and the ISS for their suspected roles in money laundering as indicated by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report on social, economic and general sectors for the year ending on March 31, 2020. Though the CAG pointed out irregularities in the NRC updating process in Assam (from May 2014 to October 2019) and recommended penal actions against Hajela and Wipro limited, an FIR was not registered.
The complainant then sent an electronic mail (on March 17, 2023) to the city Police Commissioner, but that too went in vain. Later Barman approached the court of Kamrup (metro) Chief Judicial Magistrate. The CJM too refused to entertain his appeal for justice, citing the sensitivity of the issue, potentially implicating lakhs of legitimate residents of Assam. Then Barman approached the district sessions court. He introduced two important witnesses, namely, Hitesh Dev Sarma (a retired IAS officer) and Abhijeet Sharma (President of Assam Public Works, who was the original petitioner in the Supreme Court of India for updation of 1951 NRC in Assam).
Both Dev Sarma (who was the immediate successor of Hajela as NRC State coordinator) and Sharma had already lodged three FIRs against Hajela alleging financial mismanagements, intentional inclusion of illegal migrant’s names in NRC draft and underpayment of over 6000 contractual data entry operators (DEOs). The DEOs, some of whom were paid as low as Rs. 5,500 (per month per person), are still deprived of their dues. The dues which accrue to around Rs 100 crores, out of the total expenditure (Rs 1600 crores) sanctioned by the NRC authority, were siphoned off by the concerned agencies.
Amidst the NRC scam debate, social media users named and shamed three Guwahati-based television journalists as beneficiaries of it. These scribes are known to be involved in supplying DEOs to the ISS, subsequently benefitting themselves through clandestine means. The people of Assam still remember how some television anchors lavishly praised Hajela as an outstanding officer and exalted the NRC draft as final one, though it had yet to be endorsed by the Registrar General of India. The social media users were unanimous that DEOs must be financially compensated under law. Apprehensive that the audience may perceive the entire media to be corrupt, the Journalists’ Forum Assam urged the local news channels to clarify that their journalists were not involved with the scam.
Some time back, the nationalist body Bharat Raksha Manch (BRM) urged the Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, to approve all the five FIRs against Hajela, to be registered against the NRC scam-stars. It also appealed to the State government to file an affidavit before the SC seeking for a complete re-verification of the NRC draft with the base year of 1951 (instead of 1971). The State unit of BRM, under the leadership of Dwijendra N Borthakur, even organised a protest demonstration in the city on October 2, demanding due legal action against Hajela and other individuals, who are involved with the NRC scam. They also approached Governor Gulab Chand Kataria with the same appeal.
Barman affirms that he holds no personal enmity towards Hajela, but has taken this up as a cause for the nation. He disclosed that thousands of his friends and followers on social media generously contributed funds, enabling him to take this initiative. Originally earmarked for advertisements, the contributions from crowd funding were intended to support the cause. However, Barman has now decided to refund the money to the donors. The engineer-turned-entrepreneur is excited due to the overwhelming response of the common people for the cause, underscoring its socio-political significance in Northeast India and beyond.