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Who is Prateek Hajela, who’s making the headlines in Assam?

Prateek Hajela.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Few bureaucrats in Assam, including J.P. Rajkhowa who had a controversial tenure as Governor of Arunachal Pradesh post-retirement, have made the headlines as much as Prateek Hajela, Principal Secretary, Home, and the State Coordinator for the never-before exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of 1951. He has received bouquets and brickbats in almost equal measure. But both admirers and critics agree he has the unenviable task of delivering an error-free NRC, the work on which will continue after the July 30 deadline set by the Supreme Court for publishing the second and final draft.

What is his background?

Mr. Hajela, 48, hails from a prominent family of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. His father S.P. Hajela was a Madhya Pradesh civil service officer and his elder brother Anoop Hajela is a leading doctor in Bhopal. His uncle P.D. Hajela was a renowned economist, who served as Vice-Chancellor of Allahabad University and Sagar University in Madhya Pradesh.

A 1995 batch IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre, he did his B. Tech in Electronics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, in 1992. As Home Commissioner, he handled the aftermath of an ethnic cleansing in 2013, and was later appointed Special Commissioner for emergency operations. He received the Chief Minister’s award for transparency in the recruitment of more than 5,000 police constables. But these did not attract as much attention as his stewardship of the NRC updating exercise since September 5, 2013.

What challenges did he face?

Mr. Hajela and his team had to create their own model of updating the NRC as there was no precedent anywhere in India, apart from a failed pilot project in Assam’s Barpeta and Chhaygaon undertaken in 2010. The problem in the 1951 NRC was that it was a reproduction of that year’s census without any citizenship check. Besides, Rule 4A — the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules of 2003 — for Assam meant that people had to apply, unlike in other States where officers go house to house to enumerate.

He created the mechanism to be implemented, and the first major step was the development of the legacy data, where applicants have to submit the 1971 NRC or pre-1971 electoral roll (mandated by the Assam Accord that sets March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for detecting and deporting illegal migrants) that they would search for.

Digitisation of the exercise was the next hurdle, followed by building a team of 68,000 government officials and contractual workers and specialists to run the NRC Secretariat in Guwahati and some 2,500 Nagarik Seva Kendras across the State.

Forming the base took almost two years before the verification process began on September 1, 2015. He claims the entire exercise is technology-driven and transparent with enough safeguards for Indian citizens and a grievance redress mechanism.

Why has he courted controversy?

Detractors have likened Mr. Hajela to the Reserve Bank of India that used to issue a string of notifications during demonetisation. He was first accused of pruning the list of admissible documents after the partial draft containing the names of 1.9 crore of the 3.29 crore applicants was published on December 31, 2017. On May 1 this year, he issued a notice saying documents such as court affidavits, village head certificates and birth certificates with delayed registration would not be considered legally admissible.

And on May 2, he issued another notice directing the centres not to include the names of siblings of a person detected as an illegal citizen. While indigenous groups appreciated these steps, communities such as Bengali Muslims and Hindus — often ‘suspected Bangladeshis’ — sniffed a “predetermined” move to make millions stateless. His submission before the Supreme Court on July 2 that the names of 1.5 lakh people would be deleted from the first draft has added to the apprehensions. Mr. Hajela insists there is no communal agenda. People not listed will be given opportunities to prove citizenship through claims and objections, he says.

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 11:48:39 AM |

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