A paper trail that leads nowhere

One fine day, a policeman knocks on your door and demands you prove who you are on pain of harassment and detention. What do you, a Sylheti Bengali, do when you're labelled an illegal immigrant with no defence?

Updated - July 30, 2018 09:56 am IST

Published - April 13, 2016 01:37 am IST

This is a blog post from

It was morning rush-hour in Chennai, and I was trying to convince an auto-driver to go by the meter in broken Tamil, when my phone rang. “Hello! Ami Hemanta koiram [This is Hemanta speaking]. Is it a good time to talk?”

Hemanta da is a senior journalist in a leading Bengali newspaper based in Barak Valley, in the south of Assam. This is a Bengali-speaking region which was demarcated from Sylhet (then part of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) in 1947 and made part of Assam. Today, it shares a border with Bangladesh.

Barak Valley is my home too, and Hemanta da wanted to get a non-resident’s perspective about the elections in Assam (Barak Valley went to the polls on April 4 and the second phase of election was concluded on Monday, April 11). And on that much-haggled auto ride, I thought more about the problems in that distant valley that never ceased to bother me.

Sure, I could complain endlessly about the state of the roads — practically non-existent. My father often jokes, “It was raining, so I had to cross the pond [a water-filled, pot-holed road] to get to the market!” But there’s an issue that is much more personal as it is political -— illegal immigrants. And for the Bengalis in Assam, the issue has come to boil with the updating of the National Register of Citizens. In a process that was completed last month, people had to submit documents to prove their Indian citizenship.

Suchandra Raychoudhary Goswami, a homemaker, received a notice last year in the name of “Sochindra,” which stated that she was a D-voter (disputed or doubtful voter) as the documents submitted by her weren’t satisfactory. Suchandra is a science graduate from a reputed local college. She and her husband, Gauranga Goswami, ignored the letter. After a week, she was put in a detention camp for three days.

“Police came in one afternoon and asked me to accompany them to the police station because they want to re-check the documents. Halfway down the road, they said they were taking me to a detention camp. I argued with them. I told them I had all the documents, I could show again. But they didn’t listen. I spent nights with murderers and drug-dealers. The trauma that they caused me I don’t think I will ever forget,” she told me, her voice breaking.

Assam is the only State where a citizen’s register is being updated; ideally, it should have been done for other States as well.

Suchandra, who went under treatment for trauma, was released on bail after three days. She later won the case. I asked her if she would vote and she said, “I don’t want to but I have to. If my name doesn’t appear in the electoral roll, they might once again put me behind bars.

“I am educated and aware, and if this can happen to me. Imagine the plight of poor, uneducated ones.”

Since 1997, under the election commissioner’s instruction, several people — especially Bengalis — have been marked as D-voters in Assam. Between 1998-2012, several cases were registered, among which a few cases are pending, a few thousands have been declared Indians and a few thousands foreigners.

“In the name of illegal immigrants genuine citizens are put in jail,” says Dharmananda Deb, joint secretary at Silchar Lawyer’s Association, a lawyer, who has come across several cases of D-voters over the years.

“There are over 1.5 lakh people in the State at present who can’t vote, can’t apply for jobs because their names are in the D-voter list. And this is not just it. The government had said six central jails in Assam were to be treated as detention camps on a temporary basis in 2010, and six years later central jails continue to be the detention camp. This is a human rights violation,” he adds.

In a similar case of neglected verification, Bandana Rani Das, a housewife from a village in Cachar district, was put in detention camp.

“I did not receive any notice from anyone. In fact, nobody ever came for verification. One fine day, police showed up saying they got my name spelled wrong and asked me to accompany them to the station but later locked me up in jail. I am humiliated. My son works for the Border Security Force, he protects the country and they tell me I am not a citizen of this country,” she says, her voice choking.

She was released on bail and is waiting for the final judgement to come.

Updating National Register of Citizens

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was initiated in 1951 post the census that year, to record the number of villages, houses and people in Assam. The updating of the NRC, started in September 2013, is designed to detect, deport and detain illegal immigrants who had crossed the border and come from Bangladesh post the 1971 war. Assam is the only State where a citizen’s register is being updated; ideally, it should have been done for other States as well.

According to the rules, Bengalis in Assam will be recognised as Indian citizens only if they can show their or their ancestors’ names on the electoral rolls published up to midnight of March 24, 1971, or the National Register of Citizens of 1951. People who came from Bangladesh between January 1st, 1966 and March 25, 1971, need to produce the "necessary" documents. Those who fail to produce the documents are removed from the updated list. And those who find their names in the D-voters list — either foreigner or genuine citizens — won’t have their names in the updated NRC list.

So, what would happen to all those who don’t make the list? I worry about the many people who live in slums, battling rains and floods every year. It is doubtful if they would have any documents with them. And about those who prove themselves to be an Indian citizen but fail to make it to the NRC list due to delay in procedure.

It’s an issue about which every leader has something to say. The BJP, which is in alliance with the Asom Gana Parisad, has promised to solve the problem if it comes to power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, in his 2014 General Election campaign, promised to make detention camps disappear.

All-India United Democratic Front chief Badaruddin Ajmal has been very firm in voicing his support for the targeted Bengali-speaking residents, especially Muslims. The Tarun Gogoi government, however, has, time and again, promised but failed to stop the influx of people from across the border. Thus, it will be definitely interesting to see how the new government deals with the issue.

There are over 1.5 lakh people in the State at present who can’t vote, can’t apply for jobs because their names are in the D-voter list.

Back home in Barak Valley, we all grew up hearing about the struggle that Bengalis (the majority speak Sylheti, a Bengali dialect) had to undergo in Assam for their rights. In May 1961, eleven people were shot dead while fighting against the imposition of Assamese as the sole official language. The movement started from Katigorah, my village, and my uncle was one of the protesters put behind bars for several days. The region's history has caused an inevitable sense of insecurity among the people here.

So, more than the elections, many Bengalis in Assam might be nervously following the verification of the National Register of Citizens data, which will follow the polls. The illegal immigrants issue should be resolved, the influx of people must be stopped but targeting anyone on the basis of race or religion is definitely not the solution.

I am left only with questions. Is there a better way to deal with this? Where will those without the documents go?

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the expansion of the abbreviation NRC as National Register of 'Crimes'. The right expansion is National Register of Citizens. The error is regretted.

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