‘I Hope I Never Have To Prove My Indianness Again’: The Horrors Of Assam’s Citizen Registry

Posted by Suktara Purkayastha in Human Rights, Politics, Staff Picks
February 15, 2018

Pass ne fail bhonti?” (pass or fail sister?) Kusum enquired with a gloomy face sitting in our courtyard rubbing a pinch of tobacco on her palms. Normally in my childhood, this query meant the only inevitable thing – some sneaky neighbour eager to dissect my annual school results. But Kusum’s concerns are not remotely related to academics. Her question alludes to Assam’s litmus test or the verification for the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Kusum Khatun, 48, works at a private hospital in Dibrugarh, Assam. Her name does not figure in the first updated NRC list, published at midnight of December 31, 2017. Mine does, hence with a wee bit of discomfort, I tell her yes I passed NRC verification. I am now a legitimate citizen of India and resident of Assam.

“Do you know how difficult it was? I stood in long lines to submit my NRC documents,” she complains. Her husband and their two children also failed to find a spot on the list. Her sombre mood is later reflected in many other faces in the days that follow the eventful night of December 31.

Similar is the case with Ajit Bhattacharjee, 83, a retired government employee. Except for his granddaughter, his entire family’s name is missing. “But how could this happen? My documents were verified twice. The NRC officials even visited my residence for the verification,” said a visibly disturbed Bhattacharjee. The octogenarian now has his hopes pinned on the second and final NRC list due this month or in March. Pallab Bonik, 30, a salesman at a retail store echoes similar sentiments. At his hometown Silapathar, names of entire families are missing, including his.

Going through these maze of responses, I recollected my bitter two-year rendezvous with NRC. It began one evening in June 2015, when I received a call from my mother, while barely maintaining my balance inside a packed Delhi Metro. Her words like “NRC”, “we have to prove our citizenship”, “my legacy data” sounded alien-esque inside a carriage reeking of sweat and body odour. I was more baffled when she insisted I dig out our ‘legacy data’. Later, the ever-helpful Google provided a clear answer.

In December 2014, the Supreme Court (SC) directed the Assam government to update its register of citizens (NRC) first published after the 1951 Census. An upgraded NRC would help segregate illegal immigrants settled in the state from its rightful residents. As per estimates, Assam has over 50 lakh illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. To be included in NRC one had to establish his/her residency claim through a list of admissible documents, issued up to the midnight of March 24, 1971, the cut-off date. Why this particular date one might ask? Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan on March 25, 1971 and this exercise intends to detect those illegal Bangladeshis who entered Assam after the midnight of March 24, 1971.

Among the list of admissible documents primary was the ‘legacy data’ or the collective digitised records of 1951 Census and electoral rolls up to March 24, 1971. Other documents included land and tenancy records, passport, birth certificate, citizenship certificate, educational records, bank/post-office accounts, LIC policy etc. issued before the cut-off date. Those born in Assam after the cut-off date had to establish their legacy with ancestors i.e. parents, grandparents, which meant that they had to pray really hard that their parents or grandparents had their names in the 1951 census or on any of the electoral rolls up to the cut-off date or at least owned one of the above-mentioned documents.

My ordeal started with obtaining this all-important legacy data, numerous attempts coupled with endless frustration and some decent expletives failed to open the NRC portal. Finally, after many attempts, I could extract my family’s legacy details.

My family has three members my mother, my sister and I. My father passed away in 2010. To establish my mother’s legacy with her father, I had to feed her details like name, her father’s name, their village/district name into NRC website, soon enough I found my grandfather’s name and his legacy code. I prayed for a similar miracle, in my case also and voila! My father’s name was also present! I heaved a sigh of relief and thanked my grandfather and father for being such law-abiding citizens.

My moment of glory was soon downplayed by my family who said I had it fairly easy. Those who were sadly unaccustomed to the marvels of technology stood in the queue for long hours at NRC Seva Kendras (NSKs) set up across Assam and struggled to find their legacy data; they then completed the NRC application form and submitted it along with their legacy data and one of the admissible documents.

Just when I thought my tryst with NRC was over, a surprise visit to Dibrugarh in July 2015 proved me wrong after my mother entrusted me with the responsibility of filling up and submitting our NRC form. In retrospect, I should have fled. If ever there was a compilation of best jigsaw puzzles the NRC form would probably top the list. The form with its several columns and rows had to be filled up with our personal details in codes of 1, 2, 3 etc. with 1 indicating male and 2 for female and so on and so forth. Once completed it could be submitted online or at one’s designated NSK. Several errors later I completed the form only to be put off by the sluggish pace of the internet during online submission. It was then I made the tactical mistake of submitting the form at our designated NSK.

Assam citizens queued at centres for National Register of Citizens to submit documents that proved their legitimacy as Indian citizens.

Queued up since morning, some as early as 4 am, the wave of humanity, I was staring at the NRC kiosk was beyond my anticipation. Valiant and armed with tools of self-preservation – a Bisleri bottle, Lays potato chips and cookies. I joined the queue at 7 am, but by noon, the July humidity, swarm of flies, and claustrophobia bogged me down. For motivation, I even considered humming “we shall overcome”. Thankfully some good Samaritans kept the mood entertained in the queue, with some suggesting a post-NRC ‘get-together’ if all of us make it to the list.

Sometime after 4 pm, I submitted our documents, too exhausted to even feel a sense of jubilation. I wondered what if, after so many struggles my family failed to find a place in the coveted list? What then? The entire point of NRC was the detection of illegal immigrants but here genuine residents who are settled in the state for decades are in danger of being branded ‘illegal’, if they failed to furnish some decade-old data, which has been difficult for most to procure. Finally, I got my answer on January 2, when the NRC website again after several attempts confirmed that my family and I are through the NRC process.

The quagmire in Assam is a result of its complex demography. The British colonial rule ushered relocation of labourers from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh for tea cultivation. Following the partition of Bengal in 1905, when East Bengal was clubbed with Assam, Bengali Muslims farmers from that region migrated to the fertile lands of the state for paddy cultivation while Hindu Bengalis were employed in British administrative jobs. The steady flow of migration continued during the 1940s till 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and even after when Hindus preferred settling in India than Bangladesh due to incidents of religious persecution while Muslims preferred to escape an impoverished country. Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal due to geographical proximity to Bangladesh became preferred areas for immigration.

By 1960s and 1970s, the genesis of a strong anti-foreigner sentiment developed in Assam as locals wary of losing their indigenous culture and land to large-scale Bengali settlements. This began the All Assam Movement in 1979, which reached a crescendo with the Nellie Massacre and the Silapathar Massacre in 1983 where over 2000 Bengali Muslims and over 50 Bengali Hindus were killed respectively. The 1985 ‘Assam Accord’, marked the end of the agitation, it stipulated that foreigners who entered Assam after March 24, 1971, should be deported.

The population dynamic further skewed during the 90s when a porous border and patronage of the then Congress government together with a high birth rate increased the Muslim population. As per the 2011 Census, Muslims are in the majority in nine out of 27 districts, and they represent 34.22% of the state’s population. Researchers claim that ethnic groups consisting of Ahoms, Mising, Karbi, Dimasa etc. are poised to become a minority in the state by 2047.

The NRC initiative was necessary to drive out illegal Bangladeshis who enjoy government subsidies, grab land and job opportunities meant for locals. Unfortunately, NRC has acquired undertones of the anti-Muslim drive rather than an anti-Bangladeshi drive. Muslims are anxious to be included to stop being stamped as Bangladeshi or Bangladeshi Muslim sympathisers. The first NRC draft has evoked mixed reaction from all quarters, 1.9 crore applicants out of a total 3.29 crore were included. The indigenous Assamese, who have been excluded from the first list, were surprised, not pleasantly; so were Hindu Bengalis, whose inclusion in NRC would seal their assertion to the land.

The state’s BJP government has urged citizens to stop drawing conclusions on the basis of the first draft since lakhs of documents are still pending verification. It also insists that NRC is not intended to malign any particular community. Despite this, apprehensions of what if remains. Those failing NRC verification will possibly lose their right to franchise, along with other government benefits. My mind swiftly goes back to 83-year-old Bhattacharjee, whose may lose his pension benefits if he doesn’t make it to the second list and this is perhaps the single most worrying factor of NRC, genuine citizens being left out of the register.  Also if the central government passes the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, persecuted Hindu refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, will be eligible for Indian Citizenship, this would render Assam’s NRC exercise futile since it aims to detect illegal Bangladeshis irrespective of religion.

During the 90s when Assam insurgency was at its peak in parts of Upper Assam, where I hail from, the region witnessed a steady flow of a distinct group of people. They were beggars who came in hordes every single day. They were different from us in their dialect and appearance. When asked about their identity most claimed that they were from Dhubri, Goalpara and Barpeta. These are Assam’s border districts with Bangladesh. To test the veracity of their claims we asked them to ‘say something in Assamese’. Most failed, silently took their alms and left. After two decades many among them are engaged in blue-collar jobs in the state. Probably most of them have acquired legal papers through different means and maybe most of them will fail the NRC test but what is the guarantee they will not settle down in any other part of India? After all, doesn’t India already have a population of an estimated two crore Bangladeshis?

The after effect of this herculean task on Assam’s polity is challenging to predict. Skeptics, like me, remain doubtful of any effective change simply because New Delhi is unlikely to jeopardise its relations with the Sheikh Hasina government, known for its pro-India stance. Bangladesh also refuses to acknowledge the problem of illegal immigration hence repatriation of such persons is not possible. Exclusion of a large number of people is also unlikely since it may trigger ethnic strife particularly in sensitive districts like Kokrajhar, Barpeta, Bongaigaon etc. Those failing the test can take legal recourse, but until they prove their claim, they will remain stripped of their nationality. Meanwhile, I am NRC-verified Bengali from Assam, and I sincerely hope I never have to prove my Indianness again.