Supreme Court Overturns Foreigner Tag, Declares Assam Man Indian Citizen

In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of India has overturned a Foreigners Tribunal order that had declared an Assam resident a foreigner, instead affirming his Indian citizenship. The ruling in Md. Rahim Ali @ Abdur Rahim vs The State of Assam & Ors (Civil Appeal arising from SLP(C) No. 20674 of 2017) has significant implications for cases involving determination of citizenship, especially in Assam.


The case pertains to Md. Rahim Ali, a resident of Nalbari district in Assam, who was accused of being an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh who entered India after March 25, 1971 – the cut-off date for detecting foreigners in Assam as per the Assam Accord. In 2012, a Foreigners Tribunal in Nalbari had declared Ali a foreigner in an ex-parte order. The Gauhati High Court upheld this order in 2015. Ali then approached the Supreme Court challenging his classification as a foreigner.

Key Legal Issues:

1. Burden of proof under Section 9 of the Foreigners Act, 1946

2. Interpretation of “main grounds” under Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964 

3. Evidentiary value of minor discrepancies in documents

4. Application of principles of natural justice in foreigner detection cases

Court’s Ruling:

A two-judge bench comprising Justices Vikram Nath and Ahsanuddin Amanullah allowed Ali’s appeal and declared him an Indian citizen. The court quashed both the Foreigners Tribunal’s 2012 order and the subsequent Gauhati High Court judgment.

On burden of proof, the court held that while Section 9 of the Foreigners Act places the onus on the accused to prove citizenship, the authorities must first have some material basis to suspect a person of being a foreigner before initiating proceedings.

The judges observed: “It cannot be left to the untrammelled or arbitrary discretion of the authorities to initiate proceedings, which have life-altering and very serious consequences for the person, basis hearsay or bald and vague allegation(s)”.

On interpretation of “main grounds”, the court clarified that it is distinct from mere allegations and authorities must share the material on which foreigners proceedings are based with the accused.

Regarding minor discrepancies in documents, the court held that variations in name spellings or dates are common, especially in rural areas, and cannot be the sole basis to doubt citizenship claims.

The judgment emphasized that principles of natural justice must be followed even if not explicitly mentioned in the statute. The court stated: “Audi alteram partem does not merely envisage a fair and reasonable opportunity of being heard. In our opinion, it would encompass within itself the obligation to share material collected with the person/accused concerned”.

Importantly, the Supreme Court declared Ali an Indian citizen instead of remanding the case back to the Tribunal, noting that the discrepancies in his documents were minor and insufficient to doubt his claim.

Key Observations:

The court made several significant observations:

“The consequences which would befall the person declared as a foreigner are no doubt penal and severe. The moment a person is declared to be a foreigner, he/she is liable to be detained and deported to the country of his/her origin”.

“There cannot, however, be any doubt whatsoever that adequate care should be taken to see that no genuine citizen of India is thrown out of the country”.

“Even for the person to discharge the burden statutorily imposed on him by virtue of Section 9 of the Act, the person has to be intimated of the information and material available against him, such that he/she can contest and defend the proceedings against him”.

The case  was argued by advocate Aman Wadud for the appellant, while Additional Solicitor General Vikramjit Banerjee appeared for the Union of India.

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