Eight months ago, when I first visited Assam, I started to study the issues of Assam, NRC and D-voters problem. SIO had decided to send a team led by me, to study the situation on ground. We were there for a week and met intellectuals, advocates, social activists, leaders of various organizations and common people who are the real victims of the state and by the state. The detailed fact-finding report will be released soon, but here I intend to bring to light issues that many legal citizens of India face in Assam and that most Indians are unaware of.

The content below is a discussion with various people, and few of our observations.

History of Assam:

The British took over Assam in 1826 after the Yandabo Treaty, and then different groups of people were invited to Assam for its economic development. People of Bengal were educated and aware of English language, they were called to manage the administrative sections such as revenue, post office, railways, banks, etc. Later this group merged themselves with Assamese community who were earlier migrants from Bengal, Orissa, and Kanauj (dist of UP). Another group was invited by Britishers from Bihar, Jharkhand and some parts of U.P for developing tea cultivation specially and this group now constitutes the labor population of Assam. To meet the food needs of the two migrant groups and the British, Muslims of East Bengal, famous for cultivation skills, were brought to Assam, which had suitable land for cultivation and also rich in natural resources, and put to work for the production of food, vegetables and jute. Original Assamese accepted the first group of people from Bengal, who are now part of intellectuals of the Assamese and also the second group of migrants as workers, majority of whom belongs to scheduled tribes. But the people who were brought to feed the above two groups were termed as foreigners (Muslims who were invited from East bengal before 1930’s are now termed as illegal migrants or foreigners).

Issue and Its Background:

⦁ In the year 1998, Late Sri. S.K Sinha, the then governor of Assam, reported on the influx of Bangladeshi into Assam, and it was alleged that daily 6000 Bangladeshi were coming into Assam, without verifying the authenticity of the reports, HC of Assam repealed IM(D)T Act.

⦁ Any citizen can be made doubtful by putting D mark against his/her name in the prepared voters list without any intimation or notice.

⦁ Border police can report a free citizen as a foreigner on mere suspicion and refer the case to the Tribunals.

⦁ The targeted people are mostly illiterate, poor and unaware of what is happening regarding their citizenship.

⦁ Officials have no proper proof/basis to explain the marking of ‘D’ against voters in the voters list and making them vulnerable to be declared a ‘foreigner’.

⦁ Some authorities at the tribunals are picking up minor discrepancies in the name, title, age, change of residence, marital status etc in the ID proofs and essentially ignoring genuine evidence.

⦁ Guidelines framed in the full bench are not followed by most of the tribunals as well as by the higher judiciary in deciding the ‘foreigners’ cases. The tribunals have adopted an attitude to not to accept any evidence and to just declare the alleged person as a ‘foreigner.’

⦁ Every year erosion by the Brahmaputra and other rivers have made lakhs of people, mostly Muslims, landless and homeless. The government has not rehabilitated these people. Landless, jobless Muslims who move place to place to find work are caught as doubtful citizens and are harassed, or also declared as foreigners later.

A case in point – Bimala Khatum, a victim of state or illiteracy? 

Some lawyers who are dealing with ‘foreigners’ cases argue their cases very loosely which allow the tribunals to declare the alleged doubtful voters as foreigners who are then placed in 6 detention camps across the state of Assam. Here is one example of Bimala Khatun. Bimala was served a notice by the police. She contacted a lawyer and provided him with all documents she had to prove her identity as an Indian citizen. Later she received two more notices, and lawyer failed to argue his case to prove his client as Indian and tribunal declared her as a foreigner.

Later, police arrested her with her younger son and put her in the central jail of Tezpur. Bimala Khatun is the mother of four children, and three of them are with their father. After few days, father of 4 and husband of Bimala khatun died due to ill health. After the death of their father, the children were staying with their uncle, elder brother of her husband. Sometime later the uncle too expired and children are now staying with their grandparents (parents of Bimala Khatun). She is helpless in jail at Tezpur, crying for well being of her children. Bimala’s parents are very poor, unable to fulfill basic needs, but still, they are trying to make both ends meet.

Children said they are allowed to meet their mother only once a month at the jail. When we met Bimala Khatun in jail, she narrated her life in jail and was too emotional for her children. As she, along with others, is fasting inside the jail, authorities are not providing them food. Idgah committee is providing Iftaar to two hundred people inside jail daily.

The education of children is stalled, they are away from the love of their mother. No one knows what happens to her when she will be released and what about the future of children..?

This is one story which I narrated here; there are many such cases in many districts of Assam.

Present Situation of Citizens

The government of Assam is making the list of citizens; they must provide documents proving that they or their family lived in the country before March 24, 1971 – a date that accounts for the migration of people from across Bangladesh. Though all the communities have to fill up the form for the NRC [National Register of Citizens of India] updating, the verification process has particularly been made very tough for Muslims and Bengali Hindus.

Approximately 2.9 million women, most of whom are Muslims, and nearly 4.5 million others (men, children) are part of about 13 million people who were left out from the first draft NRC published on December 31, 2017.

A large number of genuine Indian citizens might be dropped from the NRC list, which is slated to be published on 30th June 2018. The NRC is not going to decide on the fate of more than 300,000 people who have either been declared foreigners or have cases pending against them in special courts, i.e., Foreigners Tribunal. Later, tens of thousands whose names will not be in NRC list will be thrown in detention centers and may be rendered stateless, their basic right to vote will vanish, they cant buy property, etc. Most of their fundamental rights as Indian citizens will be erased, similar to the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

Pray for Justice

On one side, the case is pending in SC. The people whose names will be missed in NRC list after 30th June will be given 1 or 2 months to prove their identity. In just 100 tribunals in which 89 are in working condition, will these courts be able to do justice with lakhs of people? Many senior lawyers said that most of the tribunal workers are biased and appointed temporarily.  They need to satisfy the government and so called politicians to cement their jobs as permanent employees of the state. How can justice be provided to people when authorities are biased ?

On the other hand, Bangladesh authorities will demand to prove their identity as Bangladeshis when they are declared as foreigners by India. What will be the condition of Assamese after 30th June 2018? Will Assam be Episode – II of Myanmar?

Also read Will Assam Be Episode II of Rohingya?

Many questions are being raised, no one has answers. Who is responsible for such a situation in Assam? present government or the past ones? What will be the fate of illiterate people? It’s time that people and authorities should think on a humanitarian basis for the plight of Indian citizens in Assam and let them lead their life with dignity.