Prateek Hajela, a bureaucrat many in Assam love to hate

He headed exercise to update NRC before he was transferred to Madhya Pradesh in 2019

Prateek Hajela left the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in October 2019, but the exercise to update Assam’s list of citizens refuses to leave him even after 20 months.

Assam Public Works, the NGO whose July 2009 petition in the Supreme Court led to the NRC exercise from 2013, on June 21 lodged a first information report with the State’s Criminal Investigation Department against Mr. Hajela for allegedly manipulating family tree verification during the updating process.

This was not the first FIR against the 1995-batch Indian Administrative Service officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre. The same NGO had in May 2020 filed a complaint against him with the Central Bureau of Investigation, which did not find it worthy of a probe.

In September 2019, the Assam police had registered two cases against Mr. Hajela and other unidentified officials for alleged “discrepancies” in the final draft NRC published that year.

A businessman in eastern Assam’s Dibrugarh and an indigenous Muslim students’ organisation in Guwahati had filed those cases against Mr. Hajela.

Family background

Mr. Hajela, 51, comes from an illustrious family in Madhya Pradesh capital Bhopal. His father S.P. Hajela was an M.P. 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 the Vice-Chancellor of Allahabad University and Sagar University in M.P.

He acquired his B.Tech in Electronics from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi in 1992, three years before becoming an IAS officer. As Assam’s Home Commissioner, he handled the aftermath of 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.

NRC job

Mr. Hajela was appointed the State Coordinator for NRC in October 2013, two months before the notification was issued for the start of the exercise. The Supreme Court started monitoring the updating exercise in December 2014.

“The exercise was easier said than done. We had to create our own model of updating the NRC of 1951 as there was no precedent anywhere in India, apart from a failed pilot project in Assam’s Barpeta and Chhaygaon undertaken in 2010,” he had told The Hindu before the final draft NRC was published.

The problem faced with the 1951 NRC was that it was a reproduction of that year’s Census without any citizenship check. Besides, rule 4A – Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules of 2003 – for Assam meant people had to apply, unlike other States where officers go house-to-house to enumerate.

His team 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 technology-driven verification process began on September 1, 2015. The complete citizens’ list published on August 31, 2019, left 19.06 lakh people out of the 3.3 crore applicants.

Courting controversy

Detractors had 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 was published on December 31, 2017. On May 1, 2019, 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 for NRC.

The next day, 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 NRC strengthened the statelessness scare. Mr. Hajela insisted there was no communal agenda behind a transparent exercise that propagandists have targeted as being anti-minorities and designed to snatch citizenship from millions of Indian Muslims. “People not listed will be given opportunities to prove citizenship through claims and objections,” he said.

Assam exit

The bureaucracy in Assam had an inkling that the axe would fall on him after the retirement of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, who monitored the NRC for the top court, in November 2019.

This was because Mr. Hajela was under pressure from the BJP-led coalition government for handling the “expensive” exercise to produce a “faulty list of citizens that left out genuine Indians and included illegal immigrants”.

Indigenous organisations too were unhappy with the trimming of the rejected list from more than 41 lakh published in a draft list in July 2018 to 19.06 lakh in the final draft in August 2019.

On October 18, 2019, the Supreme Court ordered the inter-cadre transfer of Mr. Hajela to M.P. on deputation for the maximum period permissible under the rules.

“I cannot tell you the reason for the order. But M.P. is my home State and I am grateful to the Supreme Court for the experience of handling a massive, complicated exercise that was never done before,” he said that day.

Colleagues in the bureaucracy said the threat perception could have been the primary reason. In July 2018, the Supreme Court had asked the Assam government to provide him with adequate security in view of the death threats he had reportedly received.

Kamal Nath’s Congress ruled M.P. when Mr. Hajela was transferred. However, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s BJP government removed him as the State’s Health Commissioner in April 2020. He is now the Principal Secretary of Social Justice and Disabled Welfare Department.

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