How Assam’s Supreme Court-mandated NRC project is targeting and detaining Bengali Muslims, breaking families

By PRAVEEN DONTHI | 2 July 2018

On the morning of 18 February 1983, over 3,000 Bengali Muslims in central Assam were brutally murdered over a period of just six hours. The massacre came to be known after Nellie, one of the 14 villages where the attacks took place. No action was taken against the perpetrators and no one was ever held responsible. The impunity has since been replicated in many anti-Muslim massacres in Assam—each time, the victims were branded illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, to justify the violence. The last such attack happened in May 2014, when 38 people, including 20 children—the youngest of whom was three months old—were shot dead in Khagrabari village on the periphery of Manas National Park.

The normalisation of such violence pervades Assamese state and society in many banal ways. The justice-delivering mechanism and the many arms of state government machinery have collapsed into each other to formalise what the Assamese chauvinists have been doing for a long time: target and persecute the weakest members of religious and linguistic minorities. The National Register of Citizens in Assam—the final draft of which is due soon—is a direct outcome of this formalised targeting. What is happening in Assam is strikingly similar to American President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policy, which targets minorities and separates children from their parents. In this, as in others, the Bengali Muslims, disparagingly called Miyas, are the most vulnerable.

I | Detention

Kamala Begam, a woman in her 50s, has been interned at the Kokrajhar district jail since September 2015, when a Foreign Tribunal—a quasi-judicial body established under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order of 1964—declared her a foreigner. She is the only daughter among nine children—Dhani Mia, her father, died in 2003, and her mother Saleman Nessa, is now in her late 80s. Legally, the entire family is Indian but her.

I met them at their home in her native village, Datirbori, more than a hundred kilometres away from the jail, on a scorching day in the first week of June. Weathered faces, sunken eyes and skeletal bodies map out their hard lives. All of them are daily-wage labourers—before she was arrested, Begam worked at a tea stall. For almost two months after her arrest, none of her family members could visit her because they didn’t know where she was. When they found out, money became a problem. By the time they got the money, they had already visited her once, and didn’t have the heart to see her again.

Shahanur, her youngest brother, who works in Tamil Nadu as a security guard, visited her in early June when he came home for Eid. He carried four small mangoes, two cucumbers, some betel nuts and leaves in a small bag. During the meeting, with the tall red grill of the jail separating them, he barely spoke. “I forget what I want to say when I look at my sister there,” he later told me. He gave her Rs 700. “Even a Rs 10 biscuit packet costs Rs 50 inside,” he said. The food, Kamala Begam had told him, is “not fit to feed even the dogs.”

 

Kamala Begam’s family. (Credit: Dhruba Dutta for The Caravan)

Begam moved 20 kilometres away from Datirbori to Pakabetbari after marriage, about 40 years ago. Her husband, Mazibar Rahman Dewan, suffers from severe asthma and works as a daily wager. They have two daughters.

In February 2012, she received a notice from the Barpeta Foreigner Tribunal asking her why she shouldn’t be declared a “foreigner.” The notice did not explain why her citizenship was under doubt—it simply said that she had less than three weeks to come up with documents to prove it before the tribunal. Begam submitted voter’s lists from 1965 and 1997, which mentioned her father Dhani Mia. Despite this, in November that year, the tribunal declared her a foreigner who entered Assam after 25 March 1971—the cut-off date to be eligible for Indian citizenship, according to an accord signed between the All Assam Students Union, and the state and central governments, in 1985.

In the judgment pronouncing her a foreigner, the tribunal member hearing her case questioned her paternal lineage, and the proof of her marriage. He pointed to the fact that the name of Dhani Mia’s father was listed as “Abdul” in the 1965 voters list and “Latif” in the 1997 one. Begam had filed an affidavit stating that the names refer to the same man, and that her grandfather was named Abdul Latif. The tribunal member asked why, if the Dhani Mia on both the lists is the same person and is the son of the same Abdul Latif, he didn’t “take any step for correction of the name of his father in the voter list.” The member further noted that Kamala Begam was “quite silent” on why this correction had not taken place for 50 years, since 1965.

The next aberration the tribunal member saw was that, in the 1965 list, Dhani Mia’s age was recorded as 21, but in the 1997 list, his age is said to be 74, whereas it should have been 53. The FT member again stressed that Begam has been “quite silent on such increasing of her father’s age.” He noted that she didn’t provide any document from the village headman to show that she had been living in a different village after marriage. “It is very easy to pick up voter lists, find out name and particulars resembling her father’s name and dump it to the Tribunal taking it granted that Tribunal will swallow the same,” the member noted.

The fact that the people in question are illiterate and poor did not appear to have mattered to the tribunal member. Nor did it occur to him that Dhani Mia may not have known his real age and may have given approximate ages both times, nor that electoral enumerators routinely make mistakes while entering the names and details of people in the voter list. He treated the evidence she presented with great mistrust—he chose to lean towards the possibilities that the Dhani Mia mentioned in the two lists are different people from the same village; that Abdul and Latif are different people; or that Kamala Begam selected these names from the voter lists. He did not consider the fact that the 1965 list contains the same address for Dhani Mia and his father Abdul: house number 6 of Datirbori village. He wrote that he was in favour of the state declaring Kamala Begam “a foreigner entered into Assam (India) after 25th March, 1971.”

In January 2013, the family approached the Gauhati High Court with the help of community leaders, after gathering some more documents—the 1985 and 2010 voter lists, land documents mentioning the name of Dhani Mia and his father’s complete name, Abdul Latif, as well as a Gaon Panchayat Certificate, a document issued by a village head, which certifies that the holder is a resident of the village. Expressing his inability to consider fresh evidence under the writ petition and pointing to the same concerns as the tribunal member, the judge BK Sharma noted, “Such wide variation cannot be brushed aside lightly that too in the matter of determination of one’s Indian citizenship.” The petition was dismissed in August 2015, but Begam didn’t understand the import of this decision. A month later, she got a call from the border wing of the superintendent of police’s office in Barpeta, asking her to come to register her attendance the next day. Begam did. She was promptly arrested and taken to the Kokrajhar jail. None of her family members were with her.

Around noon that day, Begam called her favourite brother, Kaimuddin—the second eldest sibling, who keeps a cellphone—and told him that the border police were taking her away, but that she didn’t know where. Kaimuddin’s voice choked as he recalled the day. He bent his head, fighting back his tears. Saheb Uddin, the eldest sibling, who was sitting next to him, couldn’t hold back. Saleman Nessa, their mother, had been sitting silently for over an hour. Her name figures in the National Register of Citizens of 1951, the oldest possible evidence of citizenship in Assam. She stared at me, looking hurt. Suddenly, she spoke: “What kind of a government is this? They are also born out of a mother, isn’t it? Don’t they have a heart? She was working so hard. Why keep her locked in? It’s better to kill her,” she said. “How can a human being be kept inside an iron cage?”

Kamala Begam at the Kokhrajhar jail. About 2,000 Declared Foreigners are languishing in jails in Assam. (Credit: Praveen Donthi for The Caravan)

At the Kokrajhar jail, I also met the family of Sofia Khatun, from Kamargaon village. The tribunal in Barpeta has declared Khatun, also a woman in her 50s, a foreigner as well. Her case was initiated in 1998 but the trial began in 2016. She is one among ten siblings—five sisters and five brothers. She has three daughters and one son. Khatun, too, faced difficulty in proving a link to her father, Hasan Munsi, due to a mismatch of his name in various voter lists, which identified him as Hasan Ali, Hasan Munsi and Hasan Ali Munsi. Her father died in 1988 and the mother in 1991—several years before the case against her was filed. The judge in Khatun’s case noted that there were discrepancies in her grandfather’s name as well.

Her family is relatively well off, but had engaged a lawyer who was new to the foreign-tribunal cases and committed some basic but grievous errors. The lack of good legal assistance at the district level is a norm for cases of such gravity. Her lawyer didn’t mention her date and place of birth, the names of her brothers, sisters or even her children before the tribunal. The tribunal member noted in his judgment—which the high court judge later endorsed—that Khatun “didn’t disclose” and was “silent” on the basic facts that are “essential … when one’s nationality is questioned.” The lawyer didn’t call upon her brothers or her husband and children to depose in her favour—this, too, was also adversely noted by the high court. When Khatun presented the documents and information before the high court, the judge noted the discrepancies in the names of her father, mother and grandfather. Her case has now reached the Supreme Court.

Sofia Khatun’s son Shafikul Islam, her brother and nephew had come to visit her at the jail when I met them. She is a small and frail woman. For most of the meeting, she cried while her family members consoled her. They had brought her two bags full of treats, but she refused to take them, saying that there was no space to even sit or stand inside the jail, or to keep any possessions. “Get me some poison instead,” she said. A woman inmate who came along with Khatun helped her carry the items back. Her brother, Usman Goni, told me it was Khatun’s job to mop the floors, but she is too unwell to do so, and often paid others to work in her stead. Later, when I was waiting outside the jail, I saw her son, who is in his 20s, crying as he left the premises.

Both Kamala Begam and Sofia Khatun were first listed as D-voters—“doubtful” voters, the condemned category of citizens in Assam who have to prove their citizenship before the Foreigners Tribunals—around 1997, when the electoral rolls underwent an “intensive revision,” aimed at ridding them of illegal foreigners. Women have become the soft targets of this dispassionate process—over 60 percent of D-voters are married women. The certification and verification processes of the state do not correct for patriarchal norms. Illiterate women from poor families, who are often married young and subsequently move to other villages, have no records to prove their links to their places of birth and to their families. Very few women have their names on property records. Many have to rely solely on the certificates issued by authorities such as the Gaon Burah—the village head—and Gaon Panchayat, which are weak and unreliable in the eyes of the judicial system.

Sofia Khatun's son, Shafikul Islam, exiting the Kokhrajar jail compound.
Sofia Khatun’s son, Shafikul Islam, exiting the Kokhrajar jail compound. (Credit: Praveen Donthi for The Caravan)

Many Bengali-origin Muslims in Assam live on chars, the fertile sandbars or riverine islands of Brahmaputra and its tributaries. When a char begins to be submerged due to the floods, its people move out, suddenly becoming visible. Their houses, mostly made of corrugated tin sheets, are easy to dismantle and build. Sometimes, the char residents prosper, and are able to build new homes on the mainland. This gets them into trouble. The sight of new houses feeds into an existing paranoia: of infiltration by Bangladeshi Muslims. Often, the residents of the homes are reported to the Border Police as foreigners. Every new family is at risk of being considered “doubtful.” Bengali Muslims from Lower Assam—the geographical region that shares borders with Bangladesh and Bengal—work at construction sites in the hegemonic and predominantly Hindu Upper Assam, where they are exploited as cheap labour, and then also reported as foreigners. For some of these people, the construction sites are listed as their addresses. Since 1997, as per government figures, over 2.4 lakh people have been declared D-voters in the state, and over 1.1 lakh cases are still pending in the tribunals. And while the Muslim peasants have, for generations, been adept at dealing with the vagaries of nature, they are not prepared for the challenges thrown at them by the state machinery. “The history of violence in Assam against Bengali Muslims is linked to erosion. The internally displaced people are considered as illegal immigrants and attacked,” Abdul Kalam Azad, a research scholar working for the Char area conservation, told me.

Nur Islam Sikdar, a 31-year-old cab driver and his family live on Majarchar in Barpeta district. They built a house in Kakdhua village on the mainland in 1995, but continued living on the char. In 2016, Sikdar’s elder brother got a notification from the foreign tribunal. “Somebody alerted us saying that the names of the entire family have been listed as D-voters,” Sikdar said. “We went to election commissioner’s office and realised that we had been marked as D-voters way back in 1997 in the village where we built the house but we didn’t know. We have always exercised our voting rights on the char where we live till now,” Sikdar continued. Aside from his three younger brothers and a sister, all members of the family have been marked as D-voters. “Those who gave our names gave two names wrong but four names correct. My mother was listed as Rohima Khatun but her name is Johura Khatun,” Sikdar said. “We went to the FT and filed a case asking them to show the notice for D-voter.” The case is currently with the high court; the final hearing is scheduled for 13 July. His father’s name appeared in the NRC based on the 1951 census, but he is bound to run into the same problems as many others—Sikdar’s father is listed as Anwaruddin in 1951, as Anwar Hussain in 1966, and now, as Anwar Sikdar.

Currently, there are six jails in the state with detention centres and nearly 1,000 declared foreigners are languishing in them, with little hope of ever being set free. Though the Supreme Court directed the government in 2014 to work out an arrangement with Bangladesh, it has not done so yet. So far, Bangladesh has viewed the NRC as an internal issue for India.

Another factor that makes release for the detainees harder is that the Border Police, who file cases against them, often don’t fill the crucial column marked “Address in the country of origin,” though it is required by law. Even if the government works out an arrangement, Bangladesh will not accept anyone who doesn’t have a listed address.

II | Detection

“It’s almost as if, on discovering that law alone was too blunt an instrument for deterring and excluding immigrants, [Theresa] May decided to weaponise paperwork instead,” the political theorist William Davies recently wrote in the London Review of Books. “The ‘hostile environment’ strategy was never presented just as an effective way of identifying and deporting illegal immigrants: more important, it was intended as a way of destroying their ability to build normal lives.” Davies, writing about the British prime minister’s campaign against the Windrush generation—the Caribbean immigrants who came to the United Kingdom in the 1960s—could very well have been writing about Assam.

For decades, Bengali Muslims in Assam have lived in fear of the state machinery—an insoluble web formed by the Foreigners Act of 1946, which empowers state governments to deem any person suspicious and detain them, the mendacious Foreign Tribunals that are vested with the power to declare anyone a “foreigner,” a high court that appears eager to uphold the verdicts of the tribunals, and the Assam Border Police, which has the power to directly refer any resident to the Tribunals as a suspected foreigner. To this system, the National Register of Citizens, which resurfaced in 2005 and is being implemented since 2015, comes as a force multiplier.

A version of the NRC was first formulated in 1951, based on the census conducted that year. It was widely understood to be both flawed and incomplete, but over the decades it came to be used to draw a line in the sand. In 1970, the Gauhati High Court ruled that the 1951 NRC is not admissible as evidence of citizenship. But the 1951 document became key to the Assam agitation of the 1980s—Prafulla Mahanta, then the president of the AASU, which was key to the agitation, demanded that the NRC be updated in many of his letters to the prime ministers serving through its duration. Though it was not mentioned in the subsequent accord in 1985, the NRC can be seen as a logical corollary to the accord’s main objective—the detection, deletion and deportation of illegal immigrants.

In 2005, the United Progressive Alliance government announced that the 1951 NRC would be updated. In 2012, there was large-scale ethnic violence between Bodos and Bengali origin Muslims in Bodoland Territorial Area Districts, leading to the deaths of over 70 people and the displacement of 400,000 people, nearly all of whom were Muslims. During a two-day visit, LK Advani described it as a clash between Indians and “illegal immigrants.” By this time, a few writ petitions had been filed in the Supreme Court asking for the NRC to be updated and demanding the deportation of illegal immigrants to protect people of the state.

In December 2014, a division bench of Supreme Court comprising Ranjan Gogoi, who hails from Assam, and Rohintan F Nariman, ordered that the NRC be updated in a time-bound manner. The judgment cited several of the arguments and concerns that have been used by the Assamese nationalists over a period of time—from a colonial census officer CS Mullan who mentioned, in 1931, the threat of destruction to the Assamese way of life and culture due to large scale immigration of Muslims from East Bengal, to the former Governor of Assam, Lt General SK Sinha, who sent a report to the president of India, in 1998, warning him that it is only a matter of time before the Muslim-dominated areas of Assam demand a merger with Bangladesh. Sinha’s report is in line with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s ideology—in 2009, the RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat said, “We have more people and less land. We will expand our land by merging Assam with us. This is Bangladesh’s intention, whether it says or not. This is their need.”

Though the NRC is the outcome of a long-running process to comfort the xenophobic anxiety of a majority, everybody in Assam welcomed the Supreme Court decision. The Bengali-origin Muslims and Hindus thought it would put an end to a life lived under constant suspicion and harassment. Prateek Hajela, a tech-savvy IAS officer, was designated the State Coordinator for the NRC in September 2013. Hajela likes to stress that he reports to the Supreme Court. When I asked him if it helped having a judge from the state on the Supreme Court bench monitoring the NRC, he said, “Supreme Court is Supreme Court.”

By 31 October 2015, 3.29 crore people had applied with 6.6 crore documents at 2,500 NRC Seva Kendras in the state. (“That is 107 percent. Our target was based on 2011 Census. It accounted for the annual growth rate plus diaspora as well,” the NRC project manager Ajupi Baruah told me.) About 50,000 state government officials and 8,000 contractual workers work in the project across the state and are responsible for reviewing the applicants’ documents, and deciding whether or not they belonged on the NRC. Around 100 developers from Wipro work alongside them, who manage the database, as well as 1,200 other professionals. The first draft of the registry came out in December 2017, and enlisted 1.9 crore people—less than 60 percent of the applicants—as Indian citizens.

From the distance, verification for the NRC looks like an exhaustive and scientific process. The NRC is being updated in accordance with The Citizenship Act, 1955 and The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, which define rules for identifying individuals as citizens of India. At the heart of it is the digitised Legacy Data, which includes the 1951 NRC and electoral rolls up to 1971. These are termed the List A documents—14 types of documents dated before 24 March 1971 that applicants can submit to prove citizenship. List B documents are those that are used to establish links with the List A documents of an applicant’s parents or grandparents—bank documents, birth certificates, and the like—thereby proving that they, like their parents or family members, are Indian citizens.

But in reality, the process is not as neat. Aside from the lists of 1965-66 and 1970-71, no voter lists have been made public, and those relying on these lists have been unable to get their status verified. The system is plagued by inconsistencies and leaves much room for human error, or for other mitigating influences such as prejudice and societal structure.

In 1997, for instance, when the electoral rolls went through an intensive revision, officials such as a block-level officer, who was usually a government employee from a department such as education or irrigation, sat with a person from the village and prepared the updated rolls. Anybody new to the village fell under suspicion—new families, especially Muslim families, were automatically assumed to be Bangladeshi, and declared “doubtful.” This is one of the first steps in the process towards being declared a foreigner—their cases would then be referred to the tribunals, where they arrived with a cloud hanging over their heads. An alternative method of weeding out “illegal” immigrants brought the border-based approach to the mainland—the border wing of the Assam police, established under the Prevention of Infiltration Pakistani Scheme in 1962 and the personnel of which were present at every station, can directly refer cases to the tribunals. Instead of making a register of citizens, the NRC has become another alienating mechanism under the state machinery—merging with the arbitrary procedures of the border police, the tribunals and the courts, and mutating into something sinister.

Mid way through the current verification process, Hajela, the state coordinator, came up with an innovation called Family Tree Verification, which he believed would be crucial to verifying false claims of citizenship. The tool ostensibly creates a family tree for each applicant, creating a digital web of citizens. The Supreme Court “approved it after Hajela sir made a closed door power point presentation where only four people were allowed,” Baruah, the project manager, told me. This has the potential to change the outcome in various cases—Shariful Islam, the state HR manager for the NRC, explained that Family Tree verification was not done for the first draft. “Names from the first draft might be missing from the Final Draft. That’s why we call it a draft. What is a draft? That can be changed,” Islam said.

Those watching the NRC closely say that the doubts regarding the neutrality of the NRC process started creeping in during the summer of 2017, into the mind of a common man. Justices Ujjal Bhuyan and Rumi Kumari Phukan of Gauhati High Court declared that the Gaon Panchayat certificate has no statutory sanctity and cannot be used as a linking document for married women. The bench warned that the Gaon Panchayat secretary might be penalised if a person who has been issued a certificate is subsequently declared a foreigner by the tribunals. In December 2017, the Supreme Court modified this approach—it granted the use of the GP certificate, subject to special verification of its content and authenticity. “The NRC authorities said the GP certificate will be verified according to the order of Supreme Court but when the actual verification started on 2 April 2017, the officials started asking for alternative documents dated before December 2015,” Abdul Batin Khandkar of the Brahmaputra Civil Society, which works on minority rights, told me. “If they had those documents, they wouldn’t need the GP certificate in the first place.” Khandkar added, “They are using the Family Tree Verification only to check misuse of family data. They are not using it positively to see the linkages of children. It should be used not only to check misuse but also to establish linkage.”

On 2 May this year, just a month before the final draft was due to be released, Hajela sent out a far-reaching order. He sent a notice to all districts saying that the brothers, sisters and other family members of Declared Foreigners such as Kamala Begam and Sofia Khatun will be put on hold and not included in the NRC until the tribunals decide their fate. He backed that rule with a Gauhati High Court judgment delivered by the judges Bhuyan and Paran Kumar Phukan exactly a year earlier, in which the high court, while disposing a plea by the family of a person who was declared a foreigner, ordered an inquiry into “the status of the petitioners” themselves.

Sadullah Ahmed, who is working as a senior auditor with the Accountant General office in Guwahati, received summons from the local police station in the first week of June. His sister was declared a foreigner in 2015.
Sadullah Ahmed, who is working as a senior auditor with the Accountant General office in Guwahati, received summons from the local police station in the first week of June. His sister was declared a foreigner in 2015. (Credit: Dhruba Dutta for The Caravan)

There has been speculation that the notice was shrewdly released in the final stage of the implementation and just before the Supreme Court took a summer break, so no one would be able to approach it for relief. “The Supreme Court heard the matter on 8 May but the state coordinator didn’t mention anything about this order,” a Guwahati-based lawyer told me. “Shouldn’t he inform the bench monitoring the NRC about such a big order?” The lawyer, who asked not to be named, also pointed out that according to the Citizenship Act of 1955, which guides the NRC, every person born in India before 1 July 1987 shall be a citizen of India by birth. It is therefore entirely possible that the siblings of a declared foreigner were born in India in that time frame—before July 1987.

Hajela later tweaked his order to say that family members will be put on hold only if the border police refer the case of the siblings to the tribunals. The border police have since been acting in overdrive. In his 2 May order, Hajela directed the district officials “to coordinate closely with the Superintendent of Police (Border) in your respective district” to ensure submission of the list including all the declared foreigners and their family members. According to the order, there are 53,056 Declared Foreigners in the state. Taking a conservative estimate of even three siblings per family, each with a spouse and three children, this would mean at least six lakh people. Not only do all of these residents face the threat of being put on hold from the NRC, they may also have to face the Foreign Tribunals.

Sadullah Ahmed, a former senior non-commissioned officer with the Indian Air Force, who is working as a senior auditor with the Accountant General office in Guwahati, received summons from the local police station in the first week of June. One of his sisters living in Barpeta was was declared a foreigner in December 2015 and her case is pending before the Supreme Court. I asked him if she had been arrested. “The police won’t dare do that. Three of our family members are in the army,” he told me. I met several villagers in Nellie who were summoned by the police and asked for their fingerprints and photos—the method for the border police to register cases and refer them to the tribunals. For now, the villagers have refused to give fingerprints but have given their photos. The border police are referring the cases of siblings and family members to tribunals all over the state. The border police are referring the cases of siblings and family members to tribunals all over the state. This is how the NRC is charging the existing system of manufacturing foreigners out of minorities. According to government figures from 31 December 2017, over the years, more than 2.4 lakh people have been identified as D-voters, and a similar number have been referred to the tribunals by the border police. More than 90,000 of these sets of people were declared foreigners in Assam—like Sadullah, the family members of each of these persons are now at risk.

The tribunals and the NRC have formed a seemingly endless loop—they feed each other cases, and those who will be left out of the NRC will have to appeal to the Foreign Tribunals. A process being dubbed as exhaustive and scientific in effect is inferior to the system of tribunals. In a report he wrote on Assam’s detention centres, Harsh Mander, formerly the special monitor for minorities at the National Human Rights Commission, noted that the central government had failed to clarify whether the tribunal could hold primacy over the NRC:

What are the respective jurisdictions of the foreigners’ tribunals and the NRC? If the NRC is supposed to be the definitive definition of citizenship, how canthe foreigners’ tribunals continue to adjudicate on citizenship? Someone maybe on the NRC list of citizens, but that does not matter to the tribunals.

III | Direction

Soon after the BJP government came to power, in 2016, the chief minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, formerly a president of AASU, met with members of Foreign Tribunals, which had recently risen in strength from 36 to 100. “Proper and effective functioning of tribunals is very important as they are dealing with cases of suspected illegal citizens,” Sonowal told the media after the meeting. Earlier, retired judges were given the job, but now advocates with ten years of experience can also be appointed. They are given two-year contracts and a salary of Rs 85,000 per month. The home and the political department of the state government appoint the members, and high court judges monitor their performance closely.

Nineteen foreign-tribunal members were terminated in 2017 on the grounds of unsatisfactory performance. They approached the high court but it upheld the government’s assessment. One of the terminated members told me they had been let go because they were not declaring enough people foreigners. Their expulsion sent a message to other members—find more foreigners, or lose the job. The terminated member explained that members are given monthly targets and rated on their performance. Ratings could be as low as single digit and as high as 200 percent, the former member said. “For instance, if some member declares not just the accused as foreigner but manages to bring in the family members then their rating would be very high for that case,” he told me. According to the lawyers fighting citizenship cases at the high court, the matters are all listed before the bench of one judge, whose roster doesn’t seem to change.

Many lawyers have stopped taking these cases as it has become impossible to get a fair hearing. “They are not houses of law. They are slaughterhouses. Law in Assam can’t cross the line drawn by FT. That has become the limit of law here,” Masud Akhtar Zaman, an advocate in Dhubri, told me. The tribunals are not linked to the web and there is no central database, leading to a duplication of cases, and to many people being referred to the tribunals by different border-police personnel. In Nellie, I met a 68-year-old man named Abdul Hamid, who had been sent tribunal notices three times. Hamid won his case each time.

Abdul Hamid was sent summons repeatedly, and had to prove his citizenship before the Foreigners Tribunals thrice.
Abdul Hamid was sent summons repeatedly, and had to prove his citizenship before the Foreigners Tribunal thrice. (Credit: Dhruba Dutta for The Caravan)

In Dhubri, I also met Azizul Hoque Mondal, a resident of Gossaidubi village, outside the tribunal. He had received a notice a second time. Mondal was frantically looking for his lawyer, seeking to find out how could he have been suspected again. “I had spent Rs 40,000 on the case and won in June 2016. The NRC verification also had no problem. But suddenly I got the notice two days ago,” he told me. The notice was handed over to the anganwadi head of his village, which is a violation of the rules.

The NRC exists in an ecosystem that is awash with prejudice and anxiety, even among those who implement it. The Assamese bureaucracy and state machinery, staffed largely by caste Hindus, actively participated in the Assam movement of the 1980s, the anti-foreigner sentiment of which continues to haunt the state today. Some NRC officials I spoke to openly discussed this worry—many brought up Tripura, where they argue the indigenous people have become a minority and the outsiders dominant, as the possible future of Assam. “Tripura is so packed with Bangladeshis that they have their own government now,” a senior NRC officer casually told me. “The notion of citizenship is a political issue for Assamese. Politics is all about numbers. Probably it is the fear of numbers. NRC will lead to a loss of numbers. Whoever will be in the NRC, they will vote,” Baruah, the NRC project manager, told me.

On 28 May, Pradip Dutta Roy, a senior advocate of Gauhati High Court, wrote a letter to the chief justice of India, Dipak Misra, regarding a possible conflict of interest. Roy noted that Justice Ranjan Gogoi, who is a resident and voter of Assam, is monitoring the NRC process while falling under its purview. He wrote: “I reiterate the fact that people in general are, in the interest of natural justice, curious about his involvement in the NRC process as a judge.”

A few Bengali Muslims suggested to me that the NRC is an excuse to disenfranchise 15,000–20,000 people in every legislative assembly constituency where the Muslims are in a position of electoral strength, by declaring them foreigners. “In countries like Syria, Myanmar and Turkey we hear about minorities being persecuted by the rulers. But in this country they are trying to persecute an entire community, a minority community, through a nice judicial process making them stateless,” Zaman told me. “The Nellie massacre is nothing. Now anybody can be picked up from their homes and put in detention camps. Nobody knows which court will declare me a foreigner.” Though the Bengali Hindus also suffer harassment under the existing structure, some respite appears to be on the horizon. The Central Government passed an order in September 2015 that the Hindus and other minorities from Bangladesh and Pakistan who came to India before 31 December 2014 will be exempt from the provisions of the Foreigners Act. The BJP government is keen on passing the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which will confer citizenship on Bengali Hindus—their vote bank—and other minorities except Muslims, even though it has faced vehement backlash.

The Assamese nationalists who demanded the updating of the register have a conditional stand about accepting the NRC results. “Some numbers already exist. Supreme Court is not targeting those numbers…The main petitioner in the case, Assam Public Works, mentioned that there are 41 lakh illegals on the electoral rolls and it was not contested either by the government of India or the election commission,” Samujjal Bhattacharya, an AASU advisor, told me. “The process we have accepted, the modalities we have accepted. We have full faith in the Supreme Court. But we hope this process will tally with the figures also. It is very important. It is reasonable feeling also.”

The senior advocate Upamanyu Hazarika, who led a one-man commission appointed by the Supreme Court bench monitoring the NRC in 2015 on Indo-Bangladesh Border problems, appears to agree with Bhattacharya. He referred to a statement by Sriprakash Jaiswal, who was minister of state for home affairs during the UPA government, which put the number of “Bangladeshis” in Assam at 50 lakh as of 2001. The Congress “loves Bangladeshis because they are Muslims … they fit into their overall national political plan,” Hazarika said. “That is 50 lakh out of 2.62 crore total population, makes it 20 percent … The only measure of a true NRC will be if the figure is between 50 to 80 lakh of those who are left out, because 50 lakh comes from Bangladeshi-loving ministry.” He heads the Prabajan Virodhi Manch, which actively campaigns for the constitutional safeguards of indigenous Assamese.

The collective wish of the Assamese Hindu nationalists seems to be that those recognised as illegal immigrants are stripped of voting right and banned from owning land and receiving any state benefits. They also want constitutional safeguards such as 100-percent reservation of electoral constituencies. Basant Deka, a senior AASU ideologue, said, “They will have no other right except right to life.”

Three women declared as foreigners being taken from the court to district jail. (Credit: Praveen Donthi for The Caravan)
Three women declared foreigners being taken from the court to district jail. (Credit: Praveen Donthi for The Caravan)

The NRC is already being employed as a machine of truth—in mid June, a non-Assamese young man was nearly lynched in Gauripur in the state’s Mangaldoi district while waiting for a woman friend. One of the questions the mob asked him was whether his name was in the NRC.

In Nellie, Jamaluddin Ahmad, 48, who lost 18 family members including his parents in the 1983 massacre, is again at a crossroads. Standing next to the graveyard of the martyrs, he told me, “We thought the NRC will solve our problems, the harassment of being a foreigner. That’s how the massacre started in 1983, calling us foreigners,” he said. “But now we have realised the system is rigged.” There is a declared foreigner in his family, so everyone else has received notices from the police. The anxiety is at a fever pitch. “Back then it was just one community attacking us. But this time it’s the government that is against us. Will there be another 1983?” he said, referring to the imminent final draft of the NRC. “Will 2018 be another 1983?”

Corrections: 1. The text has been corrected to attribute to Assamese Hindu nationalists the “collective wish … that those recognised as illegal immigrants are stripped of voting right and banned from owning land and receiving any state benefits.” 2. An earlier version of the piece included an incorrect figure for the number of Declared Foreigners that are currently interned at camps in Assam. The number was not 2,000, as previously noted, but nearly 1,000. This has been corrected. 3. The paragraph beginning “Sadullah Ahmed, a former senior non-commission officer …” noted that “By 31 December 2017, over 2.4 lakh cases had been referred, and 69,628 people had been Declared Foreigners.” This figure has been updated, as it did not include those who were listed “doubtful” voters and were subsequently declared foreigners. The Caravan regrets the errors.

Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.

READER'S COMMENTS

3 thoughts on “How Assam’s Supreme Court-mandated NRC project is targeting and detaining Bengali Muslims, breaking families”

The writer has come to Assam with an agenda and a story line already prepared to please a certain political party. Then he met a few people to fill up the gaps in his story to make it sound like a “real field work based story”. The writer has no understanding of the socio-political context of NRC or immigrant issue in Assam. The “original inhabitants” of this land is becoming minorities in their own land. The “unaccounted heads” are not only changing demographic trend of the land but are posing serious security concerns for our country. The Writer is carelessly quoting numbers without caring to quote source and looks like with only intention of creating sensationalism and perhaps to stir communal hatred. He happily packed his back after his week long excursion in Assam and posted this on internet happily projecting Assam as a land of radical religious and linguistic fanatics supporting and participating in a Supreme Court orchestrated racial profiling and cleansing exercise. A master piece of bad journalism.

This is a very well researched, but extremely disturbing piece. I had no idea about the serious ramifications of this issue as it’s not covered by mainstream media. This piece is an eye opener. Thank you.
‘Due process of law’ now seems to be a joke in the Assam context. But the situation is so complex & a political hot potato that we don’t know what can be done.

We were condemning the US for tearing apart inhumanely the families of Mexican immigrants but didn’t know what is happening in our own country. What about the human rights violations happening in Assam? So very sad & scary.

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