Assam and NRC — the struggle to belong where you belong

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The arbitrary manner in which the National Register of Citizens exercise was conducted has spread a pall of alienation, doubt and paranoia in the State. In the end, despite such systemic uncertainty, the citizen whose citizenship is under doubt has no option but to comply and hope for the best.

Having to dig up and produce legacy documents to prove your citizenship would prove a challenge for most rural families. But finding yourself excluded despite your papers being in order?

In 1994 my maternal aunt Amina Khatun married my paternal uncle and travelled across the Brahmaputra to live with his family. In doing so she broke two loose conventions. The first convention was that two sisters should preferably not end up as married women in the same household. Second, and this was a convention my mother also broke, a woman from the north bank of the river should preferably not choose a mate from the south bank. When the updated NRC was published in August 2019, my aunt’s name was missing though everyone else from her family, including my mother, was included. Her three children, who traced their ancestry to their paternal grandfather, were included in the NRC.

Ever since the exclusion list of the updated NRC was published questions have been raised about the random manner in which people are included and excluded from the NRC but things become clearer when it happens in one’s own family. My mother and aunt both submitted the legacy documents of their father, whose name was included in the 1951 NRC. Both provided similar link documents to show that they were daughters of the same man. And yet, one sister’s citizenship was cleared while the other’s was left in doubt. Many people have not found their name in the NRC because of tiny inconsistencies in their documents but my aunt’s documents are all in order — her name is spelt the same in all her documents, her date of birth is correctly recorded in her school-, college- and university-leaving certificates, etc. In short, there is no reason why she should have been left out of the NRC.

My aunt’s exclusion from the NRC is not an aberration. Take the curious irony of Shajahan Ali Ahmed. Ahmed is a popular grassroots activist who has instructed people on the NRC process since its inception in 2015. He put together a team of volunteers, trained others and went from door to door instructing people on the benefits of a fair and free NRC, telling them how to fill their forms, and helping them source their legacy documents. On August 31, Ahmed found out that 30 members of his family, himself included, were excluded from the NRC. In a conference titled ‘Contested Citizenship in Assam: People’s Tribunal on Constitutional Processes and Human Cost’, which was held in New Delhi on September 7 and 8, Ahmed spoke about his personal experience with the NRC. “My great-grandfather had land documents dating back to 1934. My grandfather was 30 years old in 1951 and his name appeared in the NRC. Am I a Bangladeshi, a foreigner?” asked Ahmed.

 

The NRC officials should have no doubts about his or his relatives’ citizenship if the documents were properly perused. Instead, out of a total of 33 people who traced their legacy to his grandfather only three people found their names included in the NRC. “Whenever we try to explain our problems with the NRC or about the injustice we have faced, we are accused of defaming Assam,” lamented Ahmed. “When my house was burning you stood by and watched it burn. When people from a neighbouring village helped me put out the fire you questioned me: ‘Why did outsiders help you put out the fire?’ you asked me,” says Ahmed. Ahmed was one of the ten Miyah poets and activists against whom an FIR was lodged in July. The crime they were accused of was the same charge that is repeated every time someone raises their voices against systemic harassment in Assam — of collaborating with forces outside Assam and defaming the State and its people.

Sadly, the metaphor of his house being on fire is not merely figurative speech for Ahmed. In 1994, members of the Bodoland Liberation Tigers, an insurgent group in Assam, set houses in his village on fire. Ahmed’s uncle took refuge in a shelter camp. This happened on July 24, 1994. The then Chief Minister of Assam, Hiteswar Saikia, visited the camp that day and on the night of his visit the BLT set the shelter camp on fire. Ahmed’s uncle died in the fire along with more than forty other people.

Shakil Ahmed, who also offered a testimony at the Tribunal, had a similar story. During the NRC process an objection was filed against the inclusion of his father’s name in the NRC. “On that day a question formed in my mind — are we really citizens of this country or has our citizenship always been in doubt?” he said. Shakil, a journalist by profession, investigated the matter and found that the person who had filed an objection against his father lived about 70-80 km away from their village. The objector didn’t present himself during the verification process, but that’s the general trend. A large number of objections were filed, mostly against Assamese Muslims of Bengal-origin and in almost all the cases the objectors didn’t turn up for the hearing. Shakil says, “Most Assamese Muslims of Bengal-origin have more documents than the ‘khilonjiyas’ or indigenous people of Assam. These are valid documents, but the owners of the documents are accused of making the documents themselves through dubious means.”

Doubt is a powerful weapon of fear and exclusion. In the case of Assam, when the citizenship of linguistic and religious minorities is doubted, few eyebrows are immediately raised. On August 3, notices were suddenly given to almost every family in my village Sontoli in Lower Assam and people were called for re-verification in districts of Upper Assam with a notice period of two days. My mother received a notice to present herself at a verification centre in Nagaon (Central Assam) on August 6. On my father’s side of the family objections had been filed against two of my female cousins. We were asked to present ourselves as witnesses for their hearing at a verification centre at Hajo (in Lower Assam) on August 5. This meant that my family had to be on the move for two days. We had to provide evidence that our cousins were indeed members of our family and my mother had to travel the very next day to a different verification centre to prove that she was indeed her father’s daughter.

 

 

The notices were served late into the night and the paranoia created was such that the whole village emptied itself in the marketplace to compare their notices and decide on the next plan of action. My aunt, who had not received a notice, called the Panchayat officials to check if they had misplaced her notice. Other families who had not received notices travelled the next day to the circle office to check if their notices had been left behind. In one family the parents and sons were called to one verification centre and each daughter-in-law was called to a different verification centre, all on the same day! We are talking about illiterate village women who had hardly travelled outside their village. Now all of a sudden they were expected to travel hundreds of kilometres on their own to a completely unfamiliar district without a male escort and verify documents they couldn’t even read.

Masuma Begum, a student who belongs to the Lakhimpur district of Upper Assam and lives in Guwahati spoke at the People’s Tribunal about how her family’s confidence in the NRC gradually eroded. When the first draft of the NRC was published on December 31, 2017, she was in Guwahati. She checked her family’s Application Receipt Number (ARN) and was surprised to find that only her father’s name was included in the draft list. Everyone else was excluded. When the ‘final draft’ of the NRC was published on July 30, 2018, it was again Masuma who checked the ARN number. This time around she was the only one from her family excluded from the NRC draft. “I didn’t take it too hard because I knew that it could be corrected. After all, my parents and grandfather were government servants. We have all the necessary documents to prove that we are genuine citizens of the country.” A few days before the exclusion list was to be published on August 31, Masuma received a notice asking her to present herself in Lakhimpur for verification. She was given a notice of two days. Masuma couldn’t make it to Lakhimpur at such short notice and on August 31 she found that her name had once again been excluded from the NRC. Everyone else in her family, including her younger brother featured on the list.

 

“In an enquiry report on a school teacher who had a reference case against him it was written that he was not a suspected foreigner. Basically he was given a clean chit. The Tribunal, despite that, issued him a notice and the person was subsequently declared a foreigner.”

 

Much has been said about the non-partisan, non-personal machine-like precision of the NRC. Precision aside, it is the apparent non-human aspect of the process that has disregarded the woes of the disadvantaged and exposed them to the full brunt of state power. It didn’t help that a large section of the Assamese middle class didn’t see any problem with re-verification hearings held at such short notice. If they could travel across Assam for work and leisure why couldn’t the poor do it? Why did the applicants pack their whole families into buses while travelling for re-verification? It was specifically mentioned in the notice that if a family was called as witness to verify the identity of someone who had used their legacy data, one member from the family unit was sufficient representation. Why did they have to pack themselves like chicken? And why didn’t they use the train? These questions, raised when there was a frantic search for vehicles to carry people to verification centres, were perfect examples of crass elitism.

On the morning of August 5, I rented a car from Guwahati and travelled to my village to take my mother and aunt for my cousins’ hearing at Hajo. Every single vehicle was moving out of the village. People had rented every bus, truck and autorickshaw and even mini-trucks used for ferrying fish and chicken. Poorer families which had not managed to book a vehicle stood on the roadside waiting for someone to give them a lift. The village market was almost empty as was the school where my mother works. The paranoia and rush was rational because the NRC updating process was unprecedented and no one knew how much trust they could invest in the NRC machinery. Our entire clan booked six cars and turned up en masse for the verification of our cousins’ citizenship. Who knows what would happen if even one person didn’t make it.

The same process was repeated the very next day for my mother’s side of the family. All my aunts, my uncle and their children left their villages at three in the morning and reached Nagaon hours in advance because they didn’t want to take chances. It was a family reunion. The Brahmaputra is a massive river and in the days before modern means of communication a woman who married across the river lost touch with her family. Hence, the convention that the two banks of the river should not be joined in matrimony. Other families who had come from my mother’s village met my mother and aunt after almost a decade. Nephews and nieces and cousins reconnected and there was a subdued joviality in the hot August summer. People who didn’t have the means to a comfortable means of transport and who had to lose days of income and appear in an unfamiliar town to prove their citizenship didn’t have the luxury of taking the exercise lightly. And yet, after all the care and all the hysteria my aunt’s name was still excluded from the final NRC.

Amina Khatun, just like Masuma Begum and Shajahan Ali Ahmed will now have to appear before the Foreigners’ Tribunals and participate in a drawn-out legal process to prove their citizenship. After so many rounds of application, verification and re-verification they will have to present the same documents they had submitted for the NRC.

Aman Wadud, an advocate with the Guwahati High Court, who has been fighting cases pertaining to D-voters and ‘declared foreigners’ over many years and who also spoke at the People’s Tribunal highlighted the arbitrary nature in which Foreigners’ Tribunals functioned in Assam. In the pre-NRC period if the Election Commission marked a person as a D-voter or the Border Police sent a reference to the Tribunal doubting the citizenship of an individual, the Tribunal was bound to send a notice to the person only if prima facie only if there was a real case against him. “The modus operandi is that randomly notices are being sent,” said Wadud. “In an enquiry report on a school teacher who had a reference case against him it was written that he was not a suspected foreigner. Basically he was given a clean chit. The Tribunal, despite that, issued him a notice and the person was subsequently declared a foreigner.” The incidence of judgments such as this shakes one’s faith in the Tribunals. However, the citizen whose citizenship is under doubt has no option but to comply and hope for the best.

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