Ground Zero: The 'suspected foreigners' of Assam

With the second and final draft of Assam’s National Register of Citizens set to be published on July 30, the fate of millions hangs in the balance. The Hindu reports on the predicament of those declared as ‘suspected foreigners’ and their efforts to convince the state otherwise

Updated - July 14, 2018 04:48 pm IST

Published - July 14, 2018 12:15 am IST

Najima Khatun waits with her child outside an NRC verification centre in Morigaon.

Najima Khatun waits with her child outside an NRC verification centre in Morigaon.

Badal Das is paying for his illiteracy and a possible clerical error made five decades ago. He hails from Kinna Khal, a village of mostly Scheduled Caste Bengali Hindus located 500 metres east of the India-Bangladesh border. Since 2016, when the Foreigners Tribunal (FT) 4, one of 100 across Assam, in Silchar first summoned him, Das has spent more than ₹50,000 on policemen, lawyers and middlemen who had promised to settle his case quickly.

Silchar, the headquarters of Cachar district in southern Assam’s Barak Valley, is 40 km from Kinna Khal. Despite all the ‘speed money’, the FT fixed the first hearing of his case only in March this year. But luck was not on his side. Two days before his scheduled hearing, lawyers in Silchar began a four-month boycott of the FT over a fee dispute. On June 6, Das was declared a foreigner.

Villagers pooled funds to help Das, 53, who barely earns ₹4,000 a month selling fish, file a case against the declaration. FT4 has called him again on July 27. “All I want is two square meals a day for my family of three. I am not sure what will happen to me a few days from now. I have nowhere else to go,” he says.


Victimised by clerical error

Das’ problems began soon after the Assam government launched the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC was first prepared in 1951 using the particulars of everyone enumerated in the Census that year. Das used his father’s legacy data code, 310-4006-8764, to submit his papers. Specific to Assam, legacy data is an NRC applicant’s family link with names in official documents up to the 1971 voters’ list. But he ran into trouble because his father’s name read ‘Nokesh Chandra Das’ instead of ‘Nokesh Ram Das’ as was written in the refugee registration certificate of September 17, 1954. He had not realised that ‘Ram’ had become ‘Chandra’ in earlier voters’ lists when he enrolled as a voter in 1989 as ‘son of Nokesh Ram Das’.


Most of the nearly 10,000 residents of Kinna Khal and the adjoining Narapati Colony, Subodhnagar, Chandinagar Part 4, and Salimabad belong to the fishing community. These villages are in low-lying areas locally known as ‘haor’. They remain flooded for eight months a year, as the Surma river beyond the Bangladeshi border tends to overflow.

None of the 3,500 people living in Kinna Khal made it to the first NRC draft list of 19 million names (32.9 million had applied) published on December 31, 2017. They fear that they may be excluded from the second and final draft too, which is scheduled to be published on July 30. But why such a fear?

“Ours is a flood-prone area and many documents have been destroyed by water. They (the NRC Seva Kendra or the NSK) have found fault with every single document we have submitted, be it the refugee registration card, the voters’ ID or the ration card. It is as if they have already decided that we are foreigners. This is our reward for living so close to the border,” says Kamal Krishna Das, who retired as a school teacher 15 years ago. He is in trouble for using his mother’s legacy data, which apparently did not match his credentials.

A clerical error has also made 36-year-old Rasendra Namashudra’s life difficult. His wife Lakhi Mandal’s voter ID not only has her name printed as ‘Lakri’ but states her husband’s name as Bajendra Mandal. In the case of Bamacharan Das, 53, who runs a small pharmacy in Kinna Khal, the error is even more baffling. “A few letters here and there are understandable. But a very special system must have changed my name to an alien-sounding ‘Lakakagap Banre N’ in the voter ID,” he says.

The NRC cows

Every family in Kinna Khal has spent ₹10,000-12,000 to get their names in the NRC. The expenses pertain to a range of bureaucratic hurdles, from submission of documents to the family tree verification process. Some like Sanchita, wife of trader Manmatha Das, have spent much more. Sanchita had to travel to an NSK in Dibrugarh, about 650 km away. Similarly, fisherman Nikunja Das had to travel to the Mayong NSK in central Assam’s Morigaon district, 350 km away, because a person not related to him had used his father’s legacy code.

Among the first to travel beyond Barak Valley for family tree verification was Upen Das, 55, of Motinagar, a village near Silchar. The marginal farmer was summoned to an NSK in Hojai, 260 km away, a couple of months ago. “A man in Hojai was found to have used Upen’s legacy code fraudulently. But Upen was called at a very short notice. He sold his prized possession, a cow, cheaply to fund his trip to Hojai, where he hoped to prove that he belonged to the genuine family,” says Aurobinda Roy of the Silchar-based NGO, Unconditional Citizenship Demand Forum.

At least 40 others who were summoned to NSKs outside the Barak Valley sold their cows at less than half the going rate of ₹35,000-40,000 in order to fund their trip. “Cattle sold off cheap in a hurry have come to be known as ‘NRC cows’. The exercise to weed foreigners out has thus devalued the otherwise revered cow,” Roy says.

But the fishing villages of ‘haor have no cows to sell. A few have sold their only asset and means of livelihood, their boat, while others have been supplying fish free to the people from whom they have borrowed money.

Villagers at a National Register of Citizens verification centre in Morigaon district of Assam.

Villagers at a National Register of Citizens verification centre in Morigaon district of Assam.


The D-voter target

Kinna Khal falls under the Katigorah police station, about 12 km away. Within the station complex is a weather-beaten cottage that houses the Border Police unit where sub-inspector A.H. Laskar heads a three-man team.

Assam is the only State to have something like the Assam Police Border Organisation, or Border Police, dedicated to curbing illegal migration. Set up in June 1962, it was initially a wing of the police’s Special Branch, under the Prevention of Infiltration of Pakistanis Act, 1964. In 1974, it became an independent branch headed by an additional director general of police (ADGP).

“Come after July 15 when the case is registered (in the FT),” Laskar tells Farman Ali and his wife Majlufah from Siddipur, on the outskirts of Katigorah. Their names are in the new list of 1,440 D-voters under the Katigorah police station. In Assam, a D-voter is a ‘doubtful voter’, disenfranchised by the government on account of his or her alleged lack of valid citizenship credentials.

“My family of five are in the NRC first draft. We have no idea why our daughter [Majlufah] has been marked a D-voter,” says 72-year-old Haji Sofiullah of Teentikri village. He is convinced that the government machinery is targeting Bengali Muslims. As an example, he cites the case of Suleiman Ahmed in the adjoining district of Karimganj. FT4 in Karimganj had declared Ahmed an Indian in a 2017 case, but he has been declared a ‘foreigner’ in a new case.

Laskar, one of the 3,153 retired soldiers drafted into the Border Police under a Central government scheme, says he feels the pain of the people who have been served notices. “But I have a job to do. I have to submit a report within three days of receiving instructions,” he says.

The 1,440 D-voters are scattered among the 199 villages under the Katigorah police station, with the farthest being Natanpur, on the Bangladesh border 32 km away.

“At least 500 D-voters are in Kinna Khal and adjoining villages. We are easy targets for a police force that has been given a monthly target to produce D-voters,” says Shanku Chandra, a businessman-activist who has taken up 50 cases of poor D-voters and declared ‘foreigners’ in his village.

A senior Border Police officer admits that the district police chiefs are under pressure to deliver but claims there were no specific targets in terms of generating D-voter cases. “Call it pressure or over-enthusiasm, most people targeted as suspected foreigners turn out to be Indian citizens,” says Aminul Islam of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a political party that has been helping the “victims of the system”.

Islam says that the harassment of Bengali-speaking people — be it Hindus or Muslims — has increased ever since the Supreme Court in 2005 scrapped the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983. As per this law, when it came to branding someone as a ‘foreigner’ or ‘illegal migrant’, the burden of proof was on the state. The Supreme Court brought back the British-era Foreigners Act of 1946, which shifted the burden of proof (that they are not foreigners) back on the individuals under suspicion.

Non-Bengali Muslims too have carried the Bangladeshi tag. The Election Commission had allegedly, without investigation, marked Kismat Ali, 41, a D-voter in 2006, the year he cast his vote for the first time. He was served a notice, but when he failed to turn up for the hearing he was declared a ‘foreigner’ in an ex parte judgment. On August 12, 2015, he was sent to a detention camp in western Assam’s Goalpara, about 260 km from his home in Udalguri district. Kismat was freed on October 30, 2017, after having spent more than two years in Goalpara’s district jail, which doubles up as a detention centre for D-voters and declared foreigners. His freedom came only after he took his battle all the way to the Supreme Court.

Ali’s father, Mukhtar, is originally from Uttar Pradesh’s Chhatia village. He had come to Assam in 1956 as a truck driver. But this information did not suffice for Ali’s older brother Yusuf, who has also been served a notice branding him a suspected foreigner. Sheikh Asghar, a 48-year-old carpenter from West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas, has a similar story. He was sent to the Goalpara detention camp in July 2017. His wife Shahnaz Begum, their 13-year-old son, and nephew Zishan have made up their minds to go back home as soon as he is released. “Uncle’s problem is that his father’s name is Sheikh Moral in some documents and Mohammed Jarif in some others. We don’t understand how we are ‘suspected foreigners’ when we have no property in Assam and don’t intend to stay here forever,” Zishan says.

The system has also not spared some indigenous people, allegedly marked because of surnames common with Bengalis. One such is Anna Bala Roy, a Koch-Rajbongshi of Bongaigaon district, who was declared a ‘foreigner’ but was released after she submitted proof of her Indian citizenship. Her case came to the notice of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), which had spearheaded the anti-foreigners Assam Agitation from 1979 to 1985. “We will provide legal help to D-voters who can prove that they are Indian citizens by submitting any of the 14 documents accepted as valid,” AASU president Dipanka Nath says.

The agitation, fuelled by the paranoia that the khilonjia (indigenous) would be overrun by Bangladeshis, ended with the Assam Accord of 1985, which fixed March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date for detection, deletion (from voters’ list) and deportation of illegal immigrants. But it bred xenophobia and an ethnicity-based nationalism that presented the bohiragata (outsider/non-indigenous) as the root of all evil.

Suhagi Mandal spends sleepless nights in Morigaon district, Assam, as her family’s names are yet to appear in the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Suhagi Mandal spends sleepless nights in Morigaon district, Assam, as her family’s names are yet to appear in the National Register of Citizens (NRC).


Preparing for the worst

Zishan says he changed his lawyer when he discovered that the man had been fleecing his uncle. “The police and the lawyers make the most of the poor people’s ignorance. People are served notices arbitrarily and are made to run from pillar to post. If this is not harassment, how do you explain the fact that more than 90% of the cases involving D-voters and foreigners are dismissed?” says Kamal Chakraborty of Unconditional Citizenship Demand Committee.

He cites the example of Geeta Namasudra, 65, of South Shingari village in Karimganj district. She was sent to a detention camp on August 2, 2015 even though she had the 1966 legacy data of her father. She was granted bail in 2017, but her family could not manage the two sureties of ₹20,000 each that were needed. Kamalakhya Dey Purkayastha, a local Congress MLA, has promised to get her out on bail.

“The problem lies in the so-called investigation by the Election Commission and the Border Police. Its purpose is only to pander to the prejudices of the Assamese majority and the government, who believe that there are millions of Bangladeshis in Assam. Hence, if they don’t find Bangladeshis, they accuse Indian citizens of being Bangladeshis, grossly violating their citizenship rights and making a mockery of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution,” says Aman Wadud, who takes up cases of suspected foreigners pro bono.

ADGP (Border) Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta denies that genuine citizens are being harassed. “Action is taken according to inputs gathered from various sources. But our force takes care that no genuine Indian citizens are harassed,” he says.

NRC Coordinator Prateek Hajela says there will be three categories of people after the final NRC draft is published: those with their names in the list, people put on hold due to doubts about their status, and the excluded. “But people will get an opportunity to prove their citizenship through claims and objections,” he says.

The fear that genuine Indian citizens could get left out was sparked by Hajela’s submission before the Supreme Court on July 2, which stated that about 1.5 lakh people named in the first NRC draft would be left out of the final draft because of family tree test failure, suspicious certificates obtained by married women from gram panchayats, and data entry errors.

“The NRC is a pre-planned exercise to exclude the names of non-Assamese, particularly the Bengalis of Barak Valley. We fear the creation of a stateless people, who will then be exploited, as India has no treaty with any other country for their deportation,” says Sadhan Purkayastha of Citizens’ Rights Protection Coordination Committee.

“The Brahmaputra Valley has always viewed Barak Valley as a cancer, and the rift between the two has only widened over the NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which, if passed, will grant citizenship to Bengali Hindus excluded by the NRC. So it is better to cut the cancer away and make Barak a separate State,” says Pradip Dutta Roy, founder-president of the All Cachar Karimganj Hailakandi Students Association. In May, he had written to Chief Justice Dipak Misra about a possible conflict of interest involving Justice Ranjan Gogoi, a “resident and voter in Assam” who “is monitoring the NRC process”.

Others, though, give the benefit of doubt to the NRC machinery and see how things pan out. “There could be some problems with people who cannot prove their citizenship, but the government has laws to protect the rights of everyone, even those who have sought asylum for persecution in their countries,” says Cachar deputy commissioner S. Lakshmanan.

The government is also aware of the cost on declared foreigners. It spends ₹13 lakh per month on 885 inmates — 265 Hindus and 618 Muslims — locked up in six detention camps.

“The NRC will impact many lives, particularly poor, illiterate Bengali people who had citizenship documents but did not know their worth or could not preserve them. Our central leadership will find a way out,” says Amarchand Jain, Katigorah’s BJP legislator.

The ‘haor’ residents, though, are angry with the Bharatiya Janata Party for ‘false promises’ that Bengali Hindus would be protected. “We voted for them for nothing. The Congress at least did not needle us,” says Shyamalkanti Deb, a teacher. There are nearly an equal number of Bengali Hindus and Muslims in the Barak Valley, comprising Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts.

“The Muslims in Barak Valley are older settlers than the Hindus, many of whom came only during and after 1971. Many Muslims from here had actually gone over to what was then East Pakistan. The BJP’s pro-Hindu politics is behind the push for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. But for the Assamese nationalism that drives politics in the Brahmaputra Valley, Bengali Hindus and Muslims are the same — both are unwanted. That is why we are trying to set aside religious differences for a united stand against the disenfranchisement of Bengalis, which is what NRC is all about,” says Hilaluddin Laskar, a professor of philosophy in Hailakandi.

Meanwhile, for people like Jitendra Deb, 60, a farmer in Kinna Khal, all that matters is his daily bread. “Our people came from barely a kilometre in that direction during Partition,” he says, pointing to the Sylhet district of Bangladesh 500 metres away. “They came here to escape conflict and persecution. We would rather die than be forced to go back there.”

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