With less than two weeks to the publication of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) list, the Gauhati High Court has appointed 221 new members to 100 existing and 121 new Foreigners' Tribunals (FT). According to the notification, the members consist of retired judicial officers, advocates and civil servants who were interviewed between July 16 and August 11 and selected on order of merit. A further 50 names have been placed on a waiting list.
Foreigners' Tribunals are quasi-judicial bodies that will rule on the fate of people excluded from the final version of the NRC; essentially, they will decide whether the excluded individual is an Indian citizen and therefore be allowed to reside in Assam.
"In a democracy, everyone has the right to ask questions. After the publication of the NRC on August 31, if necessary in future, we will take whatever steps will be required," Mr Sonowal said after a meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday, appearing to indicate his government would be open to challenges to the final version of the NRC.
The Chief Minister's comment has triggered a storm, with many reading it to understand the BJP, which is in power at the centre and the state, may use the legislative (or ordinance) route to re-examine the list.
In the last two months, the Supreme Court has thrice turned down pleas for NRC re-verification after the centre and state alleged 'rampant misuse of legacy data" leading to inclusion of illegal migrants and exclusion of citizens.
The Chief Minister's comment also reflects growing anxieties within the BJP that the final NRC may end up excluding large numbers from the majority community - the party's core vote bank.
After the meeting between the Chief Minister and the Home Minister, the ministry released a statement that said exclusion from the NRC did not, by itself, amount to being declared a foreigner. The appeal period for excluded individuals was also raised - from 60 days to 120 days.
The Assam BJP has declared they have every right to question the NRC.
"If large amount(s) of illegal foreigners enter the NRC then what can we do? We have to think of correctional measures to weed out the illegals... we have a lot of respect for the Supreme Court and that is why the NRC is coming out on August 31," Bijon Mahajan, a party spokesperson, said.
Meanwhile, the Congress, the main opposition in Assam, has hit out at the BJP, with former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi accusing the party of turning the NRC into a "wastepaper" with which to appease its Hindu vote bank.