Aman Wadud: Assam’s advocate fighting the National Register of Citizens (NRC)

This lawyer-turned-politician, who recently joined the Indian National Congress, is defending people’s right to live with dignity

Updated - March 22, 2024 04:38 pm IST

Published - March 22, 2024 02:23 pm IST

Lawyer Aman Wadud wants to be the voice of his people and change the narrative.

Lawyer Aman Wadud wants to be the voice of his people and change the narrative. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

When the first list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released in Assam in 2018, it excluded 4 million residents. They had to reapply to be included and submit their biometrics. That day, lawyer Aman Wadud got a call from a 77-year-old Bengali Hindu retired professor seeking help.

Wadud, 38, defends those Indians with long family histories in this country, who struggle to prove their citizenship in Assam’s quasi legal ‘Foreigners Tribunals’.

It is largely thanks to people like Wadud that we first realised something deeply problematic was happening in the border state. When he helped release Moinal Molla after 2 years, 11 months and 29 days of detention, he posted an image of the frail book binder with the caption: ‘Moinal Molla’s Long Walk to Freedom’. “By then I had read Nelson Mandela, and the post went viral,” he said.

He introduced a wider audience to a dystopian world where the most marginalised were labelled ‘Bangladeshis’ or ‘D (doubtful) voters’ for the tiniest discrepancies in their carefully preserved identity documents; and ‘detention centres’ where people were summarily taken after being declared ‘illegal migrants’, and where they stayed for years, estranged from families. In 2018, the Central government commissioned the country’s largest 15.5 acre Matia ‘transit camp’ in Assam. It opened last year.

People’s rights

Now, after a decade of fighting hundreds of citizenship cases pro bono, Wadud wants to “play a bigger role” and fights all types of constitutional law cases. He has joined the Indian National Congress and was recently appointed joint convenor of the party’s leadership development mission in Assam.

It all has to do with a thought that struck him when the professor called. Wadud told the gent that the country’s top court had ratified the NRC process and that, if he was on the list, he had no option but to submit his biometrics. “There was a pause, his voice choked, he broke down, saying ‘it hurts my dignity, I cannot submit my biometrics’. He said this repeatedly and it made me think, in the 4-5 years I had been working for citizenship, no one had spoken about dignity.”

Wadud asked clients who had been released from detention centres how the ordeal had made them feel. They listed anger, despair, resignation. Some viewed it as a test from god. “They didn’t speak about the indignity they faced,” Wadud said. “The professor had articulated his thoughts in a way I hadn’t heard before.”

That’s around the time he began talking to people about how the state was violating their dignity. “It’s important to talk about constitutional rights to people, they are still very ignorant about their rights,” he added. Wadud’s ideology is best encapsulated in the one-pager that is our Preamble.

Foray into politics

Looking back at his own life, Wadud saw many points where his dignity had been attacked. Like the time a classmate in Guwahati called his teenage self a Bangladeshi. “It was an expression of indignity, to show me I’m not equal, I don’t have the same rights as other students in that class. That I’m different, even without committing any wrong,” he said. When he moved to Bengaluru in 2005 to study law, he spent a large chunk of his money in the city’s bookstores, reading Nehru, Gandhi, Maulana Azad, Benjamin Franklin and Anne Frank.

At first, Wadud wanted to be a “big shot lawyer like Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Manu Singhvi”. But the guilt that he was not doing anything to help people back home gnawed at him during his stint in the capital after he graduated from law school. “I realised I wasn’t making a difference,” he said. “I wanted to be the voice of my people, change the narrative.” He did just that when he returned to Assam and put faces and stories to Indians who were being stripped of their citizenship.

When he switches on the TV, Wadud said, he watches the dignity of Assam’s Muslims eroding. “The way elected functionaries address us is a perennial violation of our fundamental right to live with dignity. Not just detaining or accusing us as Bangladeshi, the entire discourse is very undignified,” he said.

Politics is a different struggle, one that requires financial heft and influence. “In politics you need money and a godfather, both of which I don’t have,” he said. “But I’m trying to make my presence felt through my work.” Wadud hopes to contest the 2026 State elections.

Every time he presents a case before the Foreigners Tribunal, a thought crosses his mind: “What if my classmate was a police officer? Then I would have been the one defending my citizenship.”

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the co-founder of India Love Project on Instagram.

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