“Finally, we are Indians.”
Rubul’s relief and elation, his identity no more in question, travels over the long distance phone call from Guwahati as he speaks with me.
The 24-year-old social worker – whose official name is Iftikar Hussein Siddiqui – recently found his name on the second draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was released on July 30. His name, including those of his entire extended family, was missing from the first draft that was released on January 1, 2018. With his family now mentioned on the second list, Rubul – a Bengali-speaking Muslim man living in the northeastern Indian state of Assam – feels that he will no longer need to prove his patriotism in India.
However, 4 million people who did not make it to the list now lead anxious lives.
Rubul’s family speaks a dialect of Bengali. They are devout Muslims. But Rubul identifies his mother tongue as Assamese. Both Bengali and Assamese have the same script, with the exception of one letter of the alphabet. But language is at the heart of a process that aims to identify people who may have illegally migrated into Assam from Bangladesh. The NRC wants to settle what has been the bone of contention in Assam’s politics for decades, leading to a popular movement that turned violent, and fissures within a community that takes pride in diversity.
The NRC was first produced in 1951 based on the Census that year. In 1979, when a student-led movement to filter out “illegal migrants” from “genuine citizens” took hold of campuses, Rubul’s grandfather participated in the movement: even though he spoke Bengali, he considered himself Assamese, having been born in Assam.
But the movement turned bloody at several junctures, the most notable among them being the Nellie massacre. In a span of merely six hours, 2,000 people from villages in and near Nellie were hacked to death. Unofficial sources claim the death toll to be thrice the official number. The state observes 855 people as martyrs of the six-year-long movement toward protecting the Assamese identity.
The Assam Accord that was subsequently signed ruled that the cut-off date for identifying foreigners was March 24, 1971, just before Bangladesh emerged as a separate country. As a result, individuals have to prove that their ancestors entered Assam prior to that date to be counted as a citizen of Assam and thus India.
The issue of “illegal migrants” has persisted in the psyche of Assam. The politics of identity by the state’s various indigenous communities, questioning their place within the broader political processes, has slowed the economy too. Freeing Assam from “illegal migrants” has been the unanimous promise across party lines during elections.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Assam in 2016 based on that same promise. By that time, anti-Muslim rhetoric was already deafening across India, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP was ushered in as the country’s prime minister in 2014. In response to a petition seeking implementation of the main clause of the Assam Accord – detection and deletion of “foreigners” from the state’s voter lists – the Supreme Court issued a directive to update the NRC.
“The NRC from 1951 had my paternal grandfather’s name. So that became our legacy data, and based on that we had to show our family tree. My mother had to do the same, but her family tree was restricted to listing only her children: my siblings and I,” Rubul explained, adding that legacy data mistakenly used by others meant everyone in the family tree had to appear to give evidence more than once.
But most married women who had submitted a Panchayat certificate had to undergo a trying verification process. So was it for Rubul’s mother Anuwara Begum, who grew up in a village in the district of Nalbari, but was married into a village in the district of Bongaigaon.
“My mother was married when she was 16, and hence her name did not figure in the voter list in Nalbari. She had studied only till the seventh grade, so she did not have a matriculation certificate either.” The matriculation certificate mentions a student’s father’s name as well as place of birth, and is hence regarded as a vital identity document across India. But Begum was challenged to prove that she was her father’s daughter, from Nalbari. So she had to resort to obtaining a Panchayat certificate from her birth village in Nalbari. Both the village-level administrative unit of the Panchayat, and the gaon bura – which literally translates into “village old man” – are equipped to certify the birthplace and birthdate, through family and familiar associations, of women like Begum.
Begum headed to another village in Nalbari district, where she was summoned for verification. Her brother had to join her to testify his relation to her. “We had to hire a car so it would be easy for my uncle to travel. We were lucky that my mother had to testify only 18 kilometers away from her original home. Other people have had to travel across the state for the same process,” said Rubul. Women who lived in districts far away after their marriage had to travel long distances to testify in their birth village.
Prateek Hajela, the NRC State Coordinator, had argued that the Panchayat certificate could be easily faked; the Gauhati High Court invalidated its use. But the Supreme Court overruled that judgment. Over 4.7 million women submitted a Panchayat certificate to prove their backgrounds.
In spite of all these efforts, Begum’s name did not figure in the first list. The first draft of the NRC was released on January 1, 2018. Of the 32.9 million applicants, only 19 million figured in the list.
But there was nothing to be done but to wait for the second draft. Rubul’s family found their names on the second one. But, he quickly added, the process of exclusion of the 4 million who did not is arbitrary.
And that’s the word that Aman Wadud, a 32-year-old lawyer, keeps repeating, even as he wades through legalese in helping nearly 100 people who have been declared as foreigners by the state’s foreigners tribunals. Most of these tribunals were set up in 2015; today there are 100 across the state. Assam is the only Indian state to have a separate Border Police, which identifies a person as a possibly illegal immigrant. The person is then sent a notice, and has to prove his or her citizenship to the tribunal. According to one news report, 80,194 people were declared foreigners through December 2016. The number rose to 93,399 in February 2018.
But even before the foreigners’ tribunal was set up, the Election Commission of India had begun to scrutinize voters’ list in 1997, and any voter whose citizenship documents appeared to be inadequate was marked as a “Doubtful” or “D” voter. Later, the foreigner’s tribunal had the authority to conduct a trial towards erasing the prefix “D” before a person’s name on the voter list.
“There have been instances where those who have been accused of being foreigners have been declared as Indians by the foreigner’s tribunal, but have received notices again to prove their citizenship. Those who have been declared as illegal immigrants by the tribunal are taking legal recourse and approaching the Gauhati High Court, as well as India’s Supreme Court,” said Wadud. He left his job in Delhi to return to Assam in 2012, in the wake of a violence between the indigenous Bodos and Bengali-Muslims in Assam’s Kokrajhar district, which killed 77 people.
Wadud said that in most cases, people have been declared foreigners because of clerical errors in documents, including voter lists. The Border Police has arbitrarily questioned the citizenship of people from all identities: Assamese Muslims, Bengali Muslims, Bengali Hindus, and the Rajbonshis. There are also those whose ancestral roots are in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But Wadud said that the common denominator among them is their poverty. “You would hardly find the middle class accused of being foreigners. If they target the big and powerful, there will be a severe backlash. The whole process is to appeal to the majority community,” he said. The family of a former president of India was not on the second NRC list, as well as that of a retired sergeant of the Indian army.
Yet Wadud believes that a free and fair NRC will actually halt the politics of illegal migration. “Many people are now trying to discredit the NRC, because they know that the number of those who are not on the list will come down from the current 4 million, and this would expose the vested interests in raising the issue of foreigners repeatedly. Even those who were part of the Assam movement have realized that the number of foreigners had gone down significantly,” he observed.
According to Wadud, the state is trying to manufacture foreigners, based on fomenting the fear of the death of the Assamese language and culture. “But Bengalis have accepted Assamese after it was declared the state language way back in 1960. I have not come across any person who may have filed a police complaint that a so-called Bangladeshi person has encroached upon his land. Bengal has always been a part of the Indian subcontinent. So there is no question of migration from a different territory; it took place within the same region,” Wadud explained.
This is also why Sameena (real name withheld upon request) insists that she isn’t part of the optimistic club about the NRC. “So just because one’s name features in the NRC the person suddenly becomes an Assamese? What about the years of discrimination upon being looked down upon as a Miya?”
Anywhere else in the world, the term “Miya” is used to address a Muslim man with respect. But it is a pejorative in Assam, hinting at the possibility of the person being from Bangladesh, thus questioning the person’s identity.
Rubul remembers being addressed as “Miya” while in college, and it stopped being funny after a while. “I studied in an Assamese medium school. Every document we have is in Assamese. And yet we are made to be different. Hence, the Bengali-Muslim community in Assam has always shied away from openly stating that we are ‘Miya.’ We have always asserted that we are Assamese,” he said.
But Wadud asserts that “Miya” as an identity is slowly being reclaimed. A recent wave of poets are flaunting their Miya identity, as a political act. “By reclaiming the term ‘Miya,’ we aren’t asserting that we are different. We are only addressing the long-standing persecution of the community,” said Wadud.
Hafiz Ahmed, an academic in his 50s, published his poetry on Facebook in 2016, spurring ripples of poetic eloquence as other Bengali-Muslims followed suit. An excerpt:
I am a Miya
My serial number in the NRC is 200543
I have two children
Another is coming
Will you hate him
As you hate me?
But the NRC process – and the uncertainty of those who are found to be foreigners – continues to dog Assam. It goes back to the question of who is more indigenous to Assam than the other.
In 1967, Bengali was made the official language in the state’s southern Barak Valley, in the districts of Cachar, Karimganj, and Hailakandi, following a violent revolt that had killed 11 people in May 1961. The dead are regarded as martyrs in Barak Valley.
Sameena said that many of her Assamese friends who live outside the state did not apply for the NRC, because, as upper-caste Hindus, they have been confident that they will not be expelled from the country. “But my father called me up daily from his village, inquiring if I was submitting my documents correctly. The Bengali-Muslim community in Assam has been living with a sense of anxiety for several years now, which the rest of the state has not had to live with. Others take it for granted that their name would feature on the list, because nobody says it aloud: that the NRC is exclusively to corner the Bengali Muslims.”
Rubul believes that the NRC process will deliver his community a respectful life in Assam hereafter. “We are ready to give all our time we have for this, to prove we are Indians.” However, Sameena insists on reading through the fine print and seeing the discrimination embedded within. The entire exercise of the NRC has so far cost nearly 12.2 billion Indian rupees ($174 million). The team administering the NRC comprises over 30,000 government officials.
The 4 million who have been excluded from the list will have an opportunity to know the reasons for their exclusion and reapply. Those who may not be included in final list would have to go to foreigner’s tribunals. “What’s needed now is to create awareness on how to apply again,” explains Wadud.
Those rendered stateless can take legal recourse. Of course, until that happens, the person might run the risk of being sent to one of six detention centers across Assam, which are based in district jails. An exclusive center is coming up soon in Assam’s Goalpara district. According to Wadud, in February this year, 899 people were in these centers. Now there are about 1,000.
Wadud is representing 10 people who are lodged in these detention centers before the Gauhati High Court. However, he is cognizant that with a right-wing BJP in charge of the central and the state governments, prejudices would be glaring in the entire process. “The NRC process is very scientific and stringent but on the ground a section of executing authorities are representatives of the government, which has so much of hatred for Muslims everywhere.”
The first weeks of January and August – after the release of the first and second draft of the NRC, respectively – saw a spate of suicides by those whose names did not figure in the lists.
One of Rubul’s cousins did not make it to the NRC draft. She had submitted a photocopy of her admit card from her matriculation examination, from 2000. The admit card bears the necessary information: the names of her parents as well as her place of birth.
I told him that 18 years is a long time to preserve one’s admit card. I don’t think I have my admit card for the matriculation exam from around the same time. Rubul said softly, “We Miya people have to preserve every document of our lives.”
Priyanka Borpujari is an India-based independent journalist and a contributor to The Diplomat’s Pulse section.