Immigration issues

Millions in limbo

Print edition : August 31, 2018

People waiting to verify their names on the NRC final draft in Morigaon district on July 30. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Many Muslim women in rural Assam, such as the women from Kamrup in this photograph, have no papers to prove their link to their parents. All they can furnish to prove who they are are is the certificate from the village headman. Photo: Kulendu Kalita

Rajiv Chandra Das of Balabhita village. Neither Rajiv’s nor his father’s name is on the final draft. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Saina Khatun, showing the birth certificate of her son, Samirul Alom. Both mother and son have been excluded, in Barpeta district. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Nur Begum, whose husband, Majam Ali, was killed in police firing in 2010 during a protest against the NRC. She has been excluded from the final draft. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Fear and anxiety grip lakhs of people in Assam who have been left out of the final NRC draft.

A sense of uncertainty, confusion and fear pervades the length and breadth of Assam after more than 40 lakh people were excluded from the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) released on July 30. The people left out of the NRC are searching frantically for possible reasons for their exclusion; many of them have family members who are included in the list. While they cling on to the hope that everything will be set right once the final NRC is done, a niggling doubt in their minds forces them to contemplate a future of homelessness and despair.

The Hatishala Bhalukabari gram panchayat (GP) in Kamrup district presents a troubling scenario. From the five villages that comprise the GP—Bhalukabari, Hatishala Pam, Hatishala Gaon, Karaibil, and Laruajan—1,202 women were left out, though the men in their families, husbands, sons and fathers, were not. Octogenarian Suraya Banu of Bhalukabari village, who has had her name on the voters list since 1966, has no idea why it is not there in the final NRC draft. “Is it fair to make a person of my age go through this worry? I am an Assamese citizen, and yet my name is not on the list. What if my name is not on the final NRC either? What will they do to me?” she asked plaintively. Aitra Begum, wife of Altaf Hussein from the same village, is the only one in her family who does not figure there. She said it has taken away her sleep: “Shouldn’t I be worried? I submitted the gram panchayat certificate as well as the certificate from the village head, as I was directed to, and still my name is not on the list.”

‘Problem of linkage’

Married women in the Muslim-majority villages face what local people call the problem of “linkage”—having to prove their legitimacy as residents of Assam, or any part of India, from before March 24, 1971, by establishing their relationship with their ancestors. According to Akram Hussein, president of Hatishala Bhalukabari GP, most of the women are from extremely impoverished backgrounds and have neither birth certificates nor any other documents connecting them to their parents. “Most of them never received any formal education, and so have no school documents, and were married off before the age of 18. As a result, even their voter ID cards do not carry their parents’ names and addresses,” he said.

The Supreme Court allowed the gram panchayat certificate issued by the panchayat secretary as a valid document that could be submitted for inclusion in the NRC, and most women have submitted only this as they had no other document. However, the Supreme Court had also ordered that the GP documents be thoroughly inspected, and many of these women have been rejected on some ground or the other. Mahibur Rahman, a vice president of the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU), feels the rejections were deliberately engineered. “There is an informal order in the NSK [NRC Sewa Kendra] centres to ask for additional documents from the women,” he told Frontline.

According to Abu Ashique Siddique, president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) in Goraimari block in south Kamrup, more than 3,000 names had been excluded in the block alone. “I can say with certainty that there is not a single person in Goraimari who is not an Indian citizen, but still there are so many who are not on the list. There is a fear now of being labelled a Bangladeshi simply on the grounds of being a Muslim. There is clearly a political agenda working here,” he said.

Puzzled & bewildered

Most of those excluded are unable to comprehend why they were left out. Mohammad Syedur Rahaman, a local resident of Chaygaon, said that the first draft had five members of his family, though his wife’s name was missing. Three of those five have now been excluded. “I do not understand this, but I am confident that it will be rectified as I have given all the necessary documents,” he said. In the household of his mother, Sahatunnesa, three out of six members did not make the list. “It is essentially the same family, with the same legacy data [documents including the NRC of 1951, electoral rolls up to March 24, 1971, or any of the other 12 prescribed documents], so why are some being left out and others included?” asked Sahatunnesa. Zahiruddin Ahmed found that his name did not make it to the list, though the names of all his 11 siblings did, as did the names of two daughters. “I, along with my brothers and sisters, have shown as legacy my father’s documents in Assam dating back to 1951,” he said.

Around 300 kilometres away, in Barpeta district, the problem is even more acute. In Raipur village, someone or the other from every family has been left out. Dilwar Rahman is on the list, but his mother, wife and six-year-old son Samirul Alom are not. The child’s visibly worried mother, Saina Khatun, showed his birth certificate, which she had submitted for the NRC, and insisted that all her papers also were in order.

In the same village, Md Kuddus Ali was bewildered by his exclusion. He had won a trial in the Foreigners Tribunal in 1993 where it was established that “Md. Kuddus Ali, his parents, his wife and his children as mentioned in the reference are not from East Pakistan to Assam”. His younger son, Md Tamar, was also excluded, though his elder one, Jehrul Islam, was not. The two brothers had submitted almost identical documents with the same “legacy data” of their father.

Name confusion?

Akkash Ali Ahmed, the principal of a school in Kamrup, has a theory about why so many Muslims who are legitimate Indian citizens have been excluded: “For Muslim men, the surnames do not always go down from father to son. As we do not have a caste system in Islam, our surnames are chosen according to the Islamic way, and from the 99 names of Allah. The authorities are probably confused about why each male member of a particular family may have totally different surnames; and because of this they have doubts about their backgrounds and do not put up the names on the list,” he told Frontline.

Interestingly, practically everyone, including those whose names have not come in the final draft, welcome the NRC, which will distinguish Indians from “foreigners”, though they are dismayed at finding themselves listed as “outsiders”. Abdur Rezzak, a Youth Congress general secretary, was not alone in his opinion when he said, “We don’t care whether those who are from Bangladesh or Nepal are harassed, but we cannot tolerate the harassment of Indians. Just as we will not allow a single outsider to remain here, we will not allow a single Indian citizen to be driven out.” Rezzak also believes that many of the mistakes in the NRC final draft are deliberate and designed to harass the minority community for political gains. “Otherwise, how is it possible that my name is on the list but my child’s name is not?”

There is a widespread belief, however, that since the NRC is being monitored by the Supreme Court, all the mistakes will be rectified in the end and genuine citizens recognised as such. Amjad Ali, who has been excluded along with four other male members of his family though their wives are on the list, said: “Mistakes are bound to happen in a massive project like this. It is not like only Muslim names have been left out. I am certain that all legitimate citizens will find their names in the final NRC.” Indeed, the fact that members of other communities such as Gorkhas, the indigenous people from Assam, and some Hindus have also been excluded is a source of reassurance because it seems to indicate that one particular community is not being targeted.

Yet, most do not have the confidence of Amjad Ali and are apprehensive of what the future will bring. In the picturesque little village of Balabhita by the side of the Beki river, Rajiv Chandra Das and his friend Swapan Das sat brooding. Neither Rajiv’s nor his father’s name was in the final draft. “My father is over 60 years old and was born here. We are being told everything will be set right, but how do we know that? Our names were not in the final draft. Where is the guarantee that they will be included in the NRC?” Rajiv said. Swapan’s name is on the list, but his elderly mother has been left out. “These are old people and they worry. It is difficult to reassure them in times like these,” he said.

Anger and resentment

Along with fear and anxiety, there is a groundswell of anger and resentment. The situation is particularly sensitive in Barpeta district, where four people died in police firing in July 2010 during an agitation spearheaded by the AAMSU against the content of the NRC. Nur Begum of Kumullipara village, whose husband Majam Ali was killed, could barely contain her anger as she spoke of the NRC: “It has taken everything away from me—my husband, my happiness, I have nothing.” The then Congress government had promised her a job, but eight years later she ekes out a miserable living as a domestic worker. About her own exclusion from the final draft, she said: “I don’t care. I will not even try to contest it. Let this whole land become nothing but a dalil [a list/document].”

The people excluded from the final draft do not report any intimidation or hostility, yet. But there are claims of not being allowed to open bank accounts or apply for ration cards.

When Ahmad Ali and his sister Basat-un-Nissa went to collect their old-age pension cheques from the bank, as they have been doing for many years, they were asked by a bank official whether their names were on the list. “They insisted that we show them our names and only then they would give us our pension,” Ahmad Ali said. They feel the NRC has caused a schism in society and stoked a feeling of resentment against Bengali-speaking Muslims.

D-voter woes

The NRC exercise worsened the already difficult situation for the D-voters—doubtful voters who are under suspicion of not being Indian citizens. Being a D-voter does not mean that a person is automatically out of the NRC. To be included, she will have to fight a case in the Foreigners Tribunal Court and get a clearance from it. There are, however, many cases of D-voters receiving notice that they continue to be considered as such despite being cleared by the tribunal.

Anwara Begum, 60, of Majortop village in Chaygaon was listed as a D-voter before she challenged it in the Foreigners Tribunal at Uluberi in Guwahati, nearly 100 km away from Chaygaon. She won a decision in her favour in February this year. But in June she received notice that she was a D-voter. She and her husband have been running from pillar to post in order to establish her Indian citizenship. Her father, Mohoruddin, and her husband, Abdur Rehman, are both Indian citizens. Abdur, a landless agricultural worker, has already spent Rs.60,000 on lawyers to fight her case at the tribunal and has no more money left to pursue the matter. “On August 3, I was supposed to go and present myself with my wife at the tribunal, but I could not, as we have nothing left,” he said. There are several similar cases in Majortop, all of them stories of hopelessness. “Whatever happens to the others will also happen to us,” said a defeated and despairing Abdur. In a few cases, children who are not old enough to vote have been listed as D-voters. Eight-year-old Monuwar Hussein of Hojai district has no idea what it all means, but he has had to travel over 200 km with his father, Babur Ali, to Guwahati, to meet with lawyers.

Mahibur Rahman, vice president, AAMSU, said: “This kind of deliberate harassment is ruining the poor people financially and destroying their health. They have lost their peace of mind, as they know being a D-voter, they are not eligible to enjoy the basic rights of a citizen. They can neither open a bank account, nor get a driver’s licence.”