NRC in Assam: That state of statelessness

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The new year may have brought new hopes for many. But not for lakhs of men, women and children from the historically marginalized communities in Assam who are going deep into the darkness of uncertainty, anxiety and fear of losing their citizenship and of subsequent dehumanization.

The fear of detention is no more an individual experience. The sheer uncertainty of the citizenship determination processes has made the fear of detention a collective experience for communities like Bengal origin Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindu living in Assam. On August 31, 2019, the office of the Assam state coordinator of the NRC published the final list of citizens that excluded over 19 lakh people. These people have been living in perpetual limbo with no clue as to what is going to happen to them.

The story of 108-year-old Majiran Begum dadi in Mohammadpur village in Barpeta district of Assam is no less tragic. She was marked as a ‘D’ (doubtful) voter, by the election commission in 1997. She has not been allowed to vote since then. It has been more than two decades but she hasn’t received the notice from the tribunal to start the proceeding. In the meantime, all her civil rights including the right to vote, are suspended.

She came to Assam from the Bengal province of British India as a young child along with her parents. When her family migrated, it was one country, there was no border and the place where they set up their home was a marshy land. Her parents survived the wild animals and deadly diseases, cleared the land and made it habitable, she recalls.

Her name was included in the first NRC prepared in 1951. She voted in the first election of Independent India. Decades later, in 1997 She was declared a doubtful voter.

Majiran dadi says, “I can’t explain how it feels to know that someone has marked me as a ‘D’ voter.”

As per the Supreme Court directions, those excluded should have received the reasons of their rejection so that they can approach the foreigners’ tribunal to get their citizenship status determined. Now, the NRC authority is struggling to find the reasons for the rejection in majority of the cases. It only proves how the genuine Indian citizens were excluded from NRC to reach the imaginary number of so-called “illegal immigrants” in Assam.

The fact is that most of the excluded people are the victims of a biased, prejudiced and inefficient administrative process which put them on the verge of losing their citizenship.

Even in the face of a pandemic, the police have been arresting the so-called declared foreigners and sending them to detention centres.

The citizenship contestation processes all together has created a situation of an unprecedented fear and anxiety among the vulnerable communities, especially the fear of detention is profound. Though only declared foreigners are to be sent to the detention centres but the fear transcends across the marginalised population. Technically, Majiran dadi is not supposed to be detained until she is declared a foreigner by the tribunal, but she feels she might be arrested by police anytime.

“I heard from people that they will pick me up too. If they detain me, I will not survive,” she said in a trembling voice.

The foreigners’ tribunals across Assam have declared more than 1.30 lakh people as foreigners across the state. Most of these cases are either decided ex-parte or decided against them on frivolous grounds such as spelling mismatch in various documents, mismatch of age in two or more documents or even not mentioning the details of extended family members in the written statement before the tribunal.

Over the last few months, the border police have been going to villages with the list of “declared foreigners” to collect their photos and location.

One of the “declared foreigners”, Kamala Khatun was coerced by the police to receive a reference case notice served in the name of another person. Since the husband’s name was the same, she had to accept the notice and fight the case in the tribunal. The tribunal declared her as a foreigner. All her siblings are Indian citizens but she was declared as a foreigner. She has been evading police for the last four years.

Meanwhile, her minor son was forced to take up hazardous job in the construction company; her minor daughter was forced to discontinue education and now a victim of child marriage and domestic violence.

While narrating her ordeal, Kamala said, “In the last 4-5 years, I have neither slept peacefully nor have I eaten a meal properly.What wrong did we do? What sin did our children do?”

After a few weeks of this visit, the police picked up a woman from her adjoining village and sent her to the detention centre. The horror Kamala and 1.3 lakh declared foreigners and their family members are living cannot be fathomed by anyone outside Assam.

Despite having their presence in this country for generations, having documentary evidence, having been part of historical events and processes, they are being haunted like criminal and forced to experience most inhuman suffering.

Meanwhile, the BJP government is Assam is continuously dismissing the NRC as apparently it has excluded more Hindus and included more Muslims than they had expected. As if taking a cue, the current coordinator of Assam NRC Hitesh Dev Sarma has recently filed an affidavit in the Gauhati High Court alleging that ineligible persons’ names have been included in the final NRC.

Sarma, a 1989-batch Assam Civil Service officer, is known for his controversial social media posts which made people question his neutrality as a government official.

(Names changed on request)

(Abdul Kalam Azad is a human rights researcher and community worker based in Assam. He is currently working on PhD thesis at Athena Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

A house for Mr Azad

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Two years ago, I decided to move out of Guwahati to spend more time on my research and grass-roots activism. I was looking for a house in a town that happens to be a district headquarter. I finally found a place after several rejections. The quality of the house, its distance from the school where I was thinking of enrolling my then two-and-a-half-year-old son, the rent, the separate electric sub-meter—almost everything was perfect.

“Your house is nice but I would like my wife to see it once and decide,” I told the landlord.The soft-spoken retired schoolteacher replied: “No problem. Just don’t take too long to decide. I have enquiries from many prospective tenants.” I thanked him and said goodbye. But before I could reach the gate, he called out to me from the first floor and asked me to stop. He came to the gate and said, “Sorry, my wife is a religious person….”

I understood that my search for a new house was not over.

Finding a suitable rented house is always a challenging task and I have accepted this challenge since my early youth, having lived in a dozen rented places across Assam. However, as I get older, I realize that moving homes doesn’t come with just physical and financial challenges; it takes me through an emotional upheaval.

Whenever I speak to a homeowner, I make it clear right from the start that I am a Miya Muslim, a community often looked down upon in Assam, to avoid wasting time on futile negotiations. The landlord I spoke of earlier seemed to be okay with this initially, but his family probably had second thoughts about renting a house to us.

Fortunately, I soon found another (better) house on the same street at an affordable rent. The landlord was a young government officer. He explicitly told me that he had no problem with Muslims. He had many friends from my community. “My friends from the Miya community come here and we dine together,” he told me. He also said that there were other children in the same compound—he had two children and his brother had a boy the same age as my son—and that my son would probably love to be friends with them.

We shifted to the new house. As predicted by the new landlord, my son started loving the company of other children his age. In a few months, he had picked up the local accent of Assamese, though my wife and I speak a slightly different Miya dialect. It was his new friends from whom he learnt the language so fast.

Almost every day after school, he would enquire about my landlord’s nephew and his daughter and after they had finished their lunch, all the children would get together in the living room of our second-floor home. They would play, cycle, sing and make a lot of noise.

Though everything was nice and warm inside the house, the outside world was changing fast.

In July last year, Assam was going through turmoil over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (later passed; CAA). In the meantime, a controversy started over a new genre of poetry called Miya poetry, alleging that the Miya poets were portraying Assam and Assamese people in bad light.

I am one of those Miya poets against whom the frivolous allegations were levelled.

One day, I was invited to a prime-time television debate on the controversy. I was bombarded with questions and allegations, with little opportunity given to clarify that this poetry actually portrays the pain and suffering of my community, which they have had to endure because of the faulty implementation of citizenship contestation processes in Assam.

The next day, I realized that several criminal cases had been filed against me and my fellow poets and activists. I was in hiding, away from my family. I didn’t see and hear my son for days. One night, I managed to call my wife. Her biggest concern was what would happen if the landlord had watched the television debate. I comforted her. “Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” I said.

But the reassurance didn’t work. As the months passed, the anti-CAA movement was gaining momentum in Assam. Simultaneously, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was escalating its anti-Miya rhetoric. On 15 December, I remember it was a Sunday, my son and I went to our landlord’s house on the first floor to call his daughter to play.

I rang the doorbell. The landlord opened the door and told me: “I have been thinking of calling you. Please look for another house.”

For a moment, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “But why?” I asked him.

“We need the space,” he said.

I insisted on knowing the real reason. Finally, he told me: “You know I don’t have any problem with Muslims. Miyas come and eat in my kitchen. But I am facing problems from society. I have been ostracized for renting my house to a Miya. People don’t invite me to social functions.”

His eyes had welled up and both of us avoided looking at the other directly.

Meanwhile, my son was not interested in our conversation. He was busy calling out to his friend and trying to get into the house.

The landlord told him “she won’t come today” and closed the door.

We had to move out. My son couldn’t understand why. It was difficult to make him understand the concept of a rented house. And it was definitely a hundred times more challenging to answer his questions, like “how often will my friends visit the new house?”

How strange it is that my son and I stay in the same house but live in two different societies. I am sure the children in the previous house are going through the same confusion. Our children are living in their own society full of love, while we are living in a society of bigotry and segregation.

On this day of love, I hope my son and his friends will grow up to conquer our society with their love and compassion.

Abdul Kalam Azad is a human rights researcher based in Assam.

The Tragic Demise of a ‘Declared Foreigner’ at Goalpara Detention Centre

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Goalpara, Assam: Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that there were no detention centres in the country, Naresh Koch, a detainee in the Goalpara detention centre in Assam, breathed his last at the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital.

Naresh passed away on January 5. He became the 29th person to have died while being at a detention centre in the state since 2014. The state has six detention centres housed inside district jails, while a central-government funded exclusive centre is being constructed in Goalpara’s Matia area.

Three days after his death, I visited his family at his home, located close to the well known Archeological Survey of India protected historical site, Surya Pahar, in the state’s Goalpara district. I have been meeting the families of those who have been kept in detention centres, those who have died by suicides out of fear of being sent to detention camps, those who have been excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), those who have been facing litigations at the foreigners’ tribunals, etc. on a regular basis. All the stories are living testimonies of institutionalised brutalities, of sheer injustice. However, Naresh Koch’s story is one of the most disturbing stories I have encountered so far.

Naresh Koch belongs to the indigenous Koch tribe of Assam. His son and his brother were included in the final NRC released last year. He is neither a Muslim of Bengali origin nor a Bengali Hindu and doesn’t belong to any of the other communities which are widely perceived to belong to the category of people who could have migrated from Bangladesh. Naresh developed hypertension during the two years he spent in the Goalpara detention centre, suffered a stroke and finally died at the Gauhati Medical College.

Naresh and his second wife Jinu, who belongs to the Garo tribe from Meghalaya, used to work at a fish farm, a few kilometres away from his home. Two years ago, at the end of a hard day’s work, Naresh went to a country liquor shop on the main road to have a drink. His wife said local police picked him up from there. They later learnt that, as per the police records, he had been named a ‘declared foreigner’ by a tribunal.

There have been several reports about how the citizenship of people in the state, particularly the poor, is being contested by various governmental agencies including the election commission, the border unit of the Assam Police, and through the update process of the NRC. Reports also indicate that the foreigners’ tribunal members are under pressure to declare as many persons as foreigners to save their contractual jobs. Naresh’s story comes across as no different. He was declared a foreigner despite the fact that he and his ancestors did not have a connection with any foreign country other than the soil of Assam.

The Koch dynasty once, under the reign of glorious kings like Nara Narayan and general Chilarai, spanned across various parts of Assam and Bengal.

Naresh was a ‘Declared Foreign National’ (DFN), an abbreviation which implies rightlessness. According to Jinu, she and his son Babulal (from his first wife) didn’t know about this and Naresh’s detention for a few days. A couple of days after Naresh had been picked up, they heard, from some villagers, that Naresh was sent to the detention centre. Forget the costs of fighting Naresh’s case in the higher courts, the family couldn’t even manage to amass one hundred rupees to cover the expenses for transportation to visit him in the detention centre.

Due to Naresh’s arrest, Jinu soon lost her job at the fish farm, as well as the pending wages. Babulal occasionally worked as manual worker, which became the only source of income for the family. Naresh continued to remain in detention.

Jinu at her house’s courtyard. Photo: Shakil Ahmed

Two years passed by. Suddenly, this in December 2019, a police team visited Jinu and requested her to leave immediately for the Goalpara Hospital to see her husband. She was told that he was seriously ill. Since Jinu didn’t have a penny in the house, the police team gave her Rs 100 so that she could rush to the hospital. However, before she could reach the hospital, her husband was shifted to the Gauhati Medical College, about 150 km from her home.

This time, the local police gave Jinu Rs 1,000 and sent her to Guwahati. An uneducated tribal woman from Khardang village on Assam-Meghalaya border, Jinu had never visited Guwahati before; she couldn’t even speak Assamese fluently. “I somehow reached the hospital but found him paralysed. I had not seen or spoken to him in the last two years. I wanted to speak to him. He tried speaking to me, but couldn’t,” Jinu related. The stroke had paralysed his tongue as well.

Jinu spent the next 13 days at the hospital and looked after Naresh while two policemen guarded them day and night.

On January 5, Naresh breathed his last. The police brought his body to his village from where he had been detained as a ‘declared’ foreign national. While he was alive the state treated him as a ‘foreigner’, his wife and son were separated from him. But death had finally brought them together.

Jinu said that the police cremated him that night itself in the presence of a group of five or six people and left immediately after the cremation.

When I had reached Naresh Koch’s home, it was getting dark. I found Jinu at the courtyard. The sound of the Azaan was coming from a nearby mosque. I noticed the green light from the government-subsidized electric metre attached an exterior wall of the house twinkling. Jinu entered her Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana funded house. I presumed she had gone in to turn on the light. Instead, she came out with a kerosene lamp. Even though she had a free electricity connection from the government, she didn’t have enough money to buy even a bulb.

Jinu said that after Naresh’s death, she had nothing to eat at home. She had to resort to begging and collected two hundred rupees to buy rice, potato and green chillies. Her biggest challenge now is to repay the seven hundred rupees she borrowed to cover the cost of firewood used in Naresh’s funeral.

How many more will suffer such a fate if a nationwide NRC is to be carried out?

Actually, Naresh Koch didn’t belong to any community – not even to his own Koch community. Even though Naresh was a Hindu, he doesn’t belong to the BJP even though its government at the Centre has brought in a law to protect Hindus from neighbouring countries. Naresh didn’t belong to the hegemonic Assamese chauvinism which has been opposing the BJP government’s move in order to protect the indigenous communities of Assam.

The empty courtyard of his house echoed Hannah Arendt’s words on ‘The Calamity of the Rightless’:

“but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed but that nobody wants even to oppress them. Only in the last stage of a rather lengthy process is their right to live threatened; only if they remain perfectly ‘superfluous’, if nobody can be found to ‘claim’ them, may their lives be in danger.”

Abdul Kalam Azad is an Assam based human rights researcher.

The stories of people in Assam’s detention camps are harrowing — mothers separated from children, wives from husbands

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Mamiran Nessa is back home, but lives in constant fear. Released a little over a week ago from a detention centre in Assam’s Kokrajhar, the 40-year-old mother of two can’t forget her 10 years in detention.

Pregnant when she was forcibly taken to the centre, she lost her foetus in its eighth month. Her husband fell into depression and died four years ago.

Her elder son Muktar Hussain, now 17, could meet her only thrice during those 10 years; her younger son, Mijanur, just once. “When I first saw my mother after six years, I didn’t recognise her,” Mijanur says.

Nessa does not know how to rebuild her life. Her house was washed away in a flood, while her parents sold their land to fund her legal fight. She is still being seen as an “illegal Bangladeshi”, and has to report to the police every week. “Since I am not allowed to go outside the jurisdiction of the police station, I can’t even go out in search of a job,” she says.

The stories of people in detention camps across Assam are harrowing. In January 2018, I was part of a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) mission set up to study the condition of the detention centres. The mission was led by activist Harsh Mander, the then special monitor of the NHRC. The mission prepared a detailed report and submitted it to the NHRC, which took no cognisance of it. In June last year, Mander resigned from the Commission and filed a petition about the centres in the Supreme Court (SC) of India.

Based on the petition, the SC in May this year ordered the government to release detainees who had spent more than three years in such centres. According to the media, over 300 detainees have spent more than three years in different centres across Assam, and many even 10 years. The government, however, has identified 56 detainees for release.

Assam has been at the centre of a violent storm over the presence of Bangladeshi nationals said to have crossed over illegally over the years. The border unit of the Assam Police and the Election Commission of India have identified over half a million people as “suspected foreigners” and referred their names to foreigners tribunals — quasi-judicial courts that determine a person’s citizenship, according to data released by the state government in the state Assembly. The tribunals have declared more than 1.17 lakh people “foreigners”.

In 2009, the Gauhati High Court ruled that those declared foreign nationals by the tribunals be kept in detention centres until sent back to their country. The then Congress-led Assam government created two detention centres within jail premises — one in Goalpara for males, and the other in Kokrajhar for females. Later, four more detention centres were set up in Dibrugarh, Silchar, Tezpur and Jorhat jails. The government says that they are illegal migrants who have no papers; human rights activists hold that many of the detainees are Indian citizens.

Assam’s BJP government, with financial support from the Centre, is constructing a detention centre in Goalpara district in western Assam. Ten more detention centres are on the anvil. According to reports, the number of foreigners tribunals is also being increased from the current 100 to 1,000.

In the old centres, created within jail premises, the detainees are kept in dormitories, sometimes 35-40 to a room. Half-open toilets are attached to the dormitories, leading to a foul stench throughout the day and the fear of disease.

In the last few years, at least 28 detainees have died at these centres. Many others committed suicide fearing that they’d be detained. As of now, more than 1,000 people are in these camps. There are hundreds of cases of mothers separated from their children, husbands from wives.

Over the last two weeks, I met some of those who had been released. Besides Nessa, I also met Sabiya Khatun (45), a resident of Shimlabari village in Bongaigaon district of western Assam. She was released from the Kokrajhar detention centre after four years. She was freed under the SC’s order, on two surety bonds of ₹1 lakh each and on the condition that she would not go beyond the jurisdiction of her police station and appear at the designated police station once every week.


Falling apart: Sabiya Khatun’s family collapsed while she was at a detention centre

She has enough documents to prove that she is Sabiya Khatun. But a tribunal had declared her a foreigner because the panchayat secretary, who provided a certificate to prove her parental linkage, failed to appear before it to testify that he had issued the certificate.

“I am ill and my feet shake when I walk,” says Khatun, seated at the back of her 16-year-old son’s cycle. “But we can’t afford to hire a vehicle, and I am afraid of being sent back to detention.”

The officer in charge of the border unit says she will have to appear before it every Monday without fail, even if unwell. If she doesn’t she may be sent back to detention centre, he tells me.

Khatun recalls how her family collapsed while she was detained. Her husband, she says, was a healthy and cheerful man before she was taken away. “The neighbours say that after that, he stopped plying his rickshaw, stayed home almost all day and would suddenly cry out aloud,” she says.

Her family members and villagers requested the border police to allow her to meet her husband when he was critically ill. She was denied permission. His health deteriorated, and the money for his treatment, she rues, went in the court case for her release. He died, and their children dropped out of school and started doing manual work. She was not given permission to see her husband’s body, she adds.

It is not just physical detention that is destroying families; the fear of detention is wreaking havoc, too. Last year, I met a 10-year-old boy called Bobbydul Islam in Dumerguri village, about 40 km from the Bongaigaon district headquarters. I counselled the boy’s father about the need to educate him, and ensured his admission in a government school.

Last month, I went to the village to meet members of a bereaved family. The head of the family had committed suicide because his name did not figure in the final National Register of Citizens of Assam and he feared that he would be locked up in a detention centre. When my colleague, rights activist Suman Das, took me to Bobbydul’s house, I realised it was his father — with whom I had shared the dream of educating Bobbydul — who had committed suicide.

“He thought he would be arrested and sent to detention. He thought about his own fear but not about who would look after our children,” his wife says.

Bobbydul has dropped out of school again.

Abdul Kalam Azad is a human rights researcher

Graveyards of the Living Dead: Former Inmates on Life in Assam’s Notorious Detention Centres

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By Abdul Kalam Azad and Wahida Parveez

Barpeta/Goalpara/Baksa/Bongaigaon, Assam: Most of us in India do not know how it feels when our right to be proud of the tricolour is arbitrarily taken away from us. But when Kaddus Miya walked through the red gate that led to the Goalpara detention centre, he knew this feeling very well.

The 71-year-old from Barpeta in western Assam spent nearly three years in the Goalpara detention centre from June 2017 to April 2020 because, according to Assam’s foreigners’ tribunal, his Indian citizenship is in doubt and he was declared a foreign national.

Like Kaddus, hundreds of women, men and children in Assam have been sent to the six detention centres in the state because their citizenship is disputed. Some have been released, but others are still crammed in cells at these centres that are known for their inhumane and distressing conditions of living.

Several million others in the state live in extreme anxiety, afraid of losing their citizenship through processes like the National Register of Citizens (NRC), D voter (doubtful or dubious voter, a category of voters in Assam who have been disenfranchised because of an alleged lack of proper citizenship documentation) and references by various government agencies.

Most of the people dealing with citizenship disputes in Assam are poor, illiterate and from historically marginalised communities. Unable to afford even their daily needs, they certainly cannot afford legal representation, which explains why, when asked how it feels to have their citizenship questioned, one of them said, “Like the sky is falling on our heads.”

So far, Assam’s foreigners’ tribunal, a quasi-judicial body ill-famed as an extended arm of the government, has given more than 1,30,000 people the status of ‘declared foreign national’. This makes them stateless and until their citizenship of India is proved or they can be repatriated, they are sent to the detention centres. In May 2019, after a long legal battle, the Supreme Court of India ordered the conditional release of detainees who had spent more than three years in detention. After the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the apex court further slashed the time of detention to two years, to decongest the centres. Now, many of the detainees are out on bail.

Subhuman and inhumane

Kaddus Miya lost his father when he was a 13-month-old infant. Then for 13 years, he worked as a pet-bhati, a near slave, labouring in exchange for food. As a grown up, Kaddus, like many other poor, landless people, applied for a plot of government land as part of a state government scheme for the rehabilitation of victims of land erosion.

But instead of allotting him the land, the government alleged that he was a foreigner even though his name had been recorded in the 1951 NRC. A foreigners’ tribunal then declared that Kaddus was a foreign national and he was taken to Goalpara detention centre from where, after almost three years, he was released on an interim bail order from the Gauhati high court.

Goalpara detention centre, said Kaddus, is a dark place, devoid of light and hope. “Sometimes 60 to 70 people were crammed into one room like a herd of cattle. After 5 pm, there was no one to listen to our plight,” he said. According to him, the detention centre officials planted three or four convicted criminals in each cell to discipline the detainees.

Adam Ali, a detainee from Baksa district, said that when he first entered the Goalpara detention centre on December 2, 2016, where he remained till April 2020, the cells had been without toilets. Those who needed the toilet had to be escorted elsewhere by a guard. “Sometimes, the elderly detainees couldn’t wait and defecated in their clothes and on their beds,” he said.

Labourers work at a construction site of a detention centre for illegal immigrants at a village in Goalpara district in the northeastern state of Assam, September 1, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Anuwar Hazarika

Later, when toilets were built inside the cells, the upper portions of the toilet doors were kept half open so the detainees could not attempt to die by suicide within the toilets. According to a detainee named Surya Miya, who was at Goalpara detention centre from August 2015 to April 2020, the design not only denied them their privacy, but the whole cell smelled foul.

Detained in Kokrajhar detention centre for eight months between October 2016 and August 2017, Arjina Bibi of Goalpara district had been a victim of mistaken identity. She had had no case against her, but had been arrested by the police as a declared foreign national. “In the detention centre, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep,” said Arjina. “I could only wonder what I had done for them to put me in this hell.”

The food the detainees received was insufficient and substandard. According to Rabiya Begum, who was arbitrarily declared to be a foreign national named Mabiya Begum and detained at the Kokrajhar detention centre between May 2016 and October 2019, the roti the inmates received with their meals was as thin as the skin of a garlic clove.

The insufficiency of food and other essential commodities allowed corrupt detention officials to set up a fully-fledged illegal market inside the detention centres, where articles were sold to the detainees at exorbitant rates.

When Kaddus Miya’s son once gave the guards a hen, requesting them to slaughter and cook it for his father, the guards ate the chicken themselves, leaving just the neck pieces for the detainee. “I returned the plate and skipped that meal,” Kaddus said.

For Adam Ali, the detention centre was a graveyard of the living dead, filled with hopeless bodies controlled by an unknown power. The detainees frequently thought of death and heard news of death. Ali himself witnessed three deaths in the detention centre. One of the three was a young Bengali Hindu man from Goalpara. “He was leaning against the wall of the cell. He didn’t speak and move for a long time. When someone touched him, he fell down. He was dead,” said Ali.

Crammed together without privacy and hope, many detainees began to lose their grip on reality, said Arjina. “Always, someone was singing, someone was crying, some were dancing, some were talking without a break. When new detainees came and cried, everyone cried,” she said.

Food for answers

When Adam Ali was arrested, the police had told him that he would be freed as soon as a higher court overruled the tribunal’s order. But in the detention centre, he found detainees who had been there from five to seven years because no courts had overruled the orders of the tribunal. He also met a few actual Bangladeshi and other foreign nationals who were desperate to return to their countries but had been languishing in detention for years.

An illiterate man, Adam Ali believes his only crime was that when he was asked by the foreigners’ tribunal to name Assam’s chief minister, he could not answer. “I have not even killed an ant, how they can punish me more than people who have committed heinous crimes like rape and murder?” he asked.

Like Adam, many people had no idea why they had been declared foreigners. Ultimately, said Surya Miya, the detainees decided to go on a hunger strike until they were told by the government what would happen to them.

The hunger strike that followed was organised on the lines of Gandhian satyagrahas (search for the truth). The detainees asked the detention centre authorities, “Why are we here? How long will we have to survive on substandard food and live in these subhuman conditions?”

According to Adam, the officials told them: “We are like animal herders. We are here just to feed you and look after you. We can’t take decisions. We just follow orders.”

When the officers requested them to break their hunger strike, the detainees demanded, “Bring us those who take decisions.”

Officials came and went, begging the detainees to break the strike. “The officers were compassionate; they arranged medical support for us. But they didn’t have answers. They were also helpless,” said Kaddus Miya.

On the seventh day of the hunger strike, the detainees were visited by the deputy commissioner (DC) of Goalpara. “While listening to our stories, the DC became emotional and promised to do her best to release us. We called off the strike,” Surya Miya recalled.

An outer wall of an under-construction detention centre for illegal immigrants is pictured at a village in Goalpara district in the northeastern state of Assam, September 1, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Anuwar Hazarika

After a few months, the Supreme Court passed an order to release those who had spent more than three years in the detention centres, after hearing a case filed by human rights activist Harsh Mander. “When we heard that the court had ordered our release, we were mad with joy,” said Surya Miya.

Lost to detention

Because Kaddus Miya had not completed his three years at the detention centre, he was not eligible for release. But in the latter part of his third year in detention, Kaddus Miya’s family sold their only plot of land and paid a lawyer Rs 80,000 for his bail from the Gauhati high court.

When a guard told Kaddus Miya that the court had ordered his release, he couldn’t believe it. “I said I will only believe it when I cross the red gate,” he told The Wire.

Now Kaddus Miya and many of his fellow inmates are out on conditional bail. But they are not free. Every week they need to visit a designated police station and they cannot travel beyond the jurisdiction of their local police station. They have also lost significant portions of their lives to the detention centres.

Kaddus Miya has a fatty liver, prostate problem and suffers from sleeplessness. Surya Miya lost his wife while he was incarcerated. His children are now with adopted parents. Rabiya lost her husband. Adam Ali is trying to regain his physical and mental strength to pull a thela (cart) once again, to feed his ailing parents and physically challenged daughter.

Note: The names of the detainees have been changed to protect their identities

Abdul Kalam Azad is PhD candidate with Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.

Wahida Parveez is a PhD candidate at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi.

Detention, Criminalisation, Statelessness: The Aftermath of Assam’s NRC

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By Angana P. Chatterji, Mihir Desai, Harsh Mander and Abdul Kalam Azad

Excerpted with permission from BREAKING WORLDS: Religion, Law and Citizenship in Majoritarian India; The Story of Assam, a report by the Political Conflict, Gender and People’s Rights Initiative at the Center for Race and Gender at UC Berkeley.

In Assam, the Sangh Parivar (family of Hindu nationalist organizations) has amplified their campaign for prejudicial citizenship for decades. Official discourse has routinely propagated that Bangla-descent Muslims of Assam, many among whom also self-identify as “Miya” Muslims, are “foreigners” and “intruders” who have “illegally” immigrated to India. The criteria for citizenship in Assam are that: (1) An applicant must be an individual who entered Assam before March 1971; and (2) The children of such person(s). Thereby, even if an individual was born in Assam in 1973 and has never traveled out of Assam during the last forty-seven years, they will not be treated as a citizen unless they are able to show that their parents entered Assam before March 1971. Bangla-descent Bangla-descent Hindus of Assam are Bangla origin Assamese (Axomiya, Oxomiya)-speaking Hindus (also, Bengali). They are often identified and targeted based on their last (family) names. Non-Muslims without documentary evidence of their birth may claim to have come from Pakistan or Bangladesh and posit that their documents were seized. This seizure may be evidenced as entitlement to citizenship in India. Muslims, especially Bangla-descent Muslims, may not make such a claim.

“Original Inhabitants” | “Infiltrators”

The portrayal linking Muslim immigration from neighboring countries to India and Assam and population growth was not based on census data. This narrative has been politicized to create social tension. Vulnerable communities across Assam contend that the present government and majoritarian activists are weaponizing citizenship to manufacture Muslims as the “enemy within.” Central to the plan is to advance the idea of the “original inhabitant,” which is not defined in Indian law. For example, in January 2021, at a rally in Kokrajhar, Amit Shah, stated: “Do you want to make Assam infiltrator-free or not?” The population of Assam was recorded at 31.2 million in 2011. In 2020, while Muslims reportedly constituted approximately 37.1 percent of Assam’s population of 35 million and numbered about 13 million, Bangla-descent Muslims numbered almost nine million and were alleged to be of “Bangladeshi origin.”

Exclusion from NRC

The publication of the draft NRC in Assam in 2018 revealed the exclusion of more than four million persons from the survey rolls. Reportedly, some people were excluded due to spelling errors in their names or inconsistent names in documents. After the draft list was made public, excluded individuals were permitted to submit further documentation proving their citizenship. While a majority were not of Hindu descent, reportedly between one and 1.5 million were Hindus. The exclusion of a large number of Hindus from the 2018 NRC list is presumed to be the foremost reason that changes were made to the citizenship law, and that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 was enacted, whereby, in effect, only Muslims would be excluded from citizenship.

The (ostensibly “final”) update to the Assam NRC was undertaken on August 31, 2019. Approximately 1.9 million persons (numbering 1,906,657) were excluded from the 2019 published list, and may potentially lose their citizenship, and face expulsion, exile, and statelessness. The 2019 Assam NRC list reportedly excluded approximately 486,000 Bangla Muslims (25.5 percent of those excluded from the August 2019 NRC list) of a total of 700,000 excluded Muslims (36.7 percent of the excluded); 500,000-690,000 Bangla Hindus (26.2-36.2 percent of the excluded); and 60,000 Assamese Hindus (3.1 percent of the excluded). However, Hindus excluded from the 2019 NRC list are likely to be protected through the 2019 amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955. Those at risk of loss of citizenship reportedly included thousands of tribal (indigenous), ethnic, and minority communities. Among the latter, individuals including those from indigenous groups number between 240,620 and 670,657 (between 12.6 and 35.2 percent of the excluded). The Assam Border Police too have pronounced certain persons to be “foreigners.” The Election Commission has decreed 231,657 persons as “doubtful” citizens, declaring them “D voters” (“doubtful voters”) and divesting them of voting rights, and has referred their cases to the Foreigners Tribunals.

Assam’s “Foreigners Tribunal

The Foreigners Tribunal of Assam remains the state mechanism for appeal for persons excluded from the NRC. Individuals may petition the Foreigners Tribunals with requisite documentation validating their citizenship. An appellant is deemed to be either “foreigner” or “citizen” as per the ruling of the tribunal. The process is hard, complex, and arbitrarily and routinely discriminatory. An analysis of 787 Guwahati High Court orders and judgments published by The Wire found that cases before the tribunals took about 3.3 years on average.

On March 16, 2021, the Lok Sabha recorded that there were 300 Foreigners Tribunals in Assam and that the Home Ministry had authorized the establishment of an additional 200. The tribunals routinely lack transparency with respect to principles, standards, and functioning. There is pressure on temporary tribunal appointees to decide against citizenship applications brought before them. Individuals who receive an unfavorable judgment from a tribunal have the sole option of appealing to the Assam High Court (unaffordable for many), followed by the (small) possibility of approaching the Supreme Court. As of October 2019, it appears that the cases of 468,905 persons have been brought before the Foreigners Tribunals. Of these cases, reportedly 136,149 people were declared to be “foreigners.” Community leaders, lawyers, and journalists state that of the 136,149 persons declared “foreigners,” 70 to 80 percent (90,306 to 103,207 persons) are reportedly Muslims Among these Muslim individuals, about 90 percent (81,275 to 92,886 persons) are reportedly Bangla-descent Muslims. The results are gendered. In 2019, 290 women were reportedly declared “foreigners.” In December 2020, 140,050 cases were pending before Foreigners Tribunals in Assam. Community knowledge holders say that most of the above individuals are local inhabitants with documentary evidence of belonging and citizenship. Further, the NRC may refuse citizenship to Muslim asylum seekers and refugees. Civil society leaders contend that such persons, and the few who may be “illegal” (undocumented), must be entitled to asylum.

By February 2019, 63,959 individuals in Assam had been stipulated as “foreigners” reportedly through ex parte proceedings, where a tribunal issued a judgment in the absence of the accused. Individuals can apparently intervene in these proceedings in an attempt to influence the outcome. In September 2019, a Muslim family with land documents dating back to 1927 found that all members of their family were not on the NRC due to: “an objection filed [apparently anonymously] by someone against their inclusion in the final draft.” It is unclear who may file bad-faith objections or how they may be held accountable. Reportedly, approximately 250,000 such objections have been made, mostly anonymously. The Foreigners Tribunal procedures are reportedly manipulated by officials and others to extort bribes and discipline and criminalize targeted community members. Such actions have caused economic hardship. People have sold their possessions or used up their savings on defense lawyers. The mental health of innumerable people has been impacted, as exemplified by a Muslim woman who reportedly committed suicide after her husband’s citizenship case drained the family of their property and money.

Foreigners Tribunals: 38 Cases

A review of 38 cases comprising 37 Foreigners Tribunal orders and one affidavit attests to the capricious and hostile nature of the proceedings. In numerous instances, the state’s legal representative does not even appear, often to the detriment of the person appearing before the tribunal. In 51 percent of the analyzed orders, the state’s representative was not present for a part or the entirety of the proceedings. In 30 percent of the orders, a document submitted by the individual was rejected by the tribunal member because the official who had issued the document was not present at the tribunal to testify to the document’s contents and authenticity. In 11 percent of the orders, the tribunal member dismissed a document due to the location of the state emblem embossed on the document. In 38 percent of the orders, the tribunal member mentioned name or age discrepancies in the documents submitted, and in numerous instances, this impacted the ruling on an individual’s citizenship status.

Detention, Criminalization

Once declared a “foreigner,” an individual may be held in detention. Immigration detention centers are often locally referred to as “concentration camps.” Detention serves to criminalize and confine those deemed “illegal foreigners.” Without established limits or protocols for ethical resolution of the matter, detentions can be prolonged or indefinite unless deportation ensues.  Currently, India operates thirteen detention centers, and others are being constructed to assumedly hold “undocumented” individuals. The six detention centers in Assam are operated within existing jails and reportedly confine those declared to be “foreign nationals” by the Foreigners Tribunals. A detention center to hold 3,000 persons is reportedly being constructed at Goalpara in Assam. It is India’s largest and first detention center for “illegal” immigrants.

In November 2019, 1,043 persons were reportedly being held in detention at six centers in Assam. Approximately 20 to 25 percent of them were reported to be women. Some young children were also detained. By March 2020, it was reported that 3,331 persons had been held in the six detention centers in Assam. As of April 2020, at least 30 persons have died in Assam’s detention centers since 2009, most due to health conditions and others under mysterious circumstances; 16 reportedly of Hindu descent and 14 of Muslim descent; three among them women. In May 2019, the Supreme Court ordered that those regarded “non-citizens,” and detained for more than three years, be conditionally released. Despite the apex court’s directive, people continued to be detained. In February 2021, it was reported that some detention centers were cramped, lacking in basic hygiene and sufficient food. Earlier, detainees have organized hunger strikes. At the end of May 2021, reportedly 170 detainees remained incarcerated, while in July 2021, the reported number of detainees was between 177 and 181. In June 2021, local communities and lawyers noted the number of incarcerated detainees to be approximately 500.

“Definitive List,” COVID-19

The delivery of notifications to those who had been excluded from the 2019 NRC was reportedly scheduled to commence on March 20, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic and the floods in Assam in 2020 led authorities to postpone the distribution of NRC notifications. The hearings of the Foreigners Tribunals were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which also delayed the activation of 200 new tribunals. In December 2020, a state official alleged that the Assam NRC list of August 2019 was a “supplementary” record and that a definitive list is due to be published. On May 13, 2021, the Assam NRC Authority approached the Supreme Court seeking re-verification of the NRC list (emphasizing districts bordering Bangladesh and with significant Muslim populations), appealing that “illegal voters” be purged from voter lists. Earlier, on April 1, 2021, the central government reportedly ordered the Assam state government to send “rejection” notifications to persons who were not on the NRC, triggering the 120 days to launch an appeal.

Psychosocial Health and Suicide

The experiences of those who are forced to prove their belonging have exacerbated mental and emotional strain. The processes to prove citizenship, the resultant and imminent dangers, the actuality of detention, and the prospect of deportation have injuriously impacted the psychosocial and inter-generational health of individuals and communities. This is instantiated through health crises, including sleep irregularities, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicidal ideation, and suicide. Between July 2015 and October 2020, between 38 and 42 persons apparently committed suicide in Assam in connection with the revocation of their own or a relative’s citizenship rights. In research into 38 instances where persons committed suicide, reportedly: 20 individuals were of Muslim descent, 16 were of Hindu descent, and two were from tribal/indigenous communities. Seven persons were women, six of whom were of Muslim descent.

Presumptive Statelessness

The dread of would-be dispossession is tangible for millions of Muslims across Assam, in its villages and cities, the char areas (river islands), and World Heritage sites. Muslim communities say that the implementation of exclusionary citizenship is desecrating the very structure and composition of social and political life. While the tribunals have not resulted in increased deportations thus far, they have contravened the rights and entitlements of countless residents of Assam and proclaimed innumerable citizens to be “foreigners,” and therefore, presumptively stateless. As a woman interviewee noted: “We are terrified because we are Muslim.” The rules of the CAA are yet to be announced by the parliament. However, the BJP national government issued a notification on May 28, 2021, reportedly operationalizing prejudicial citizenship in certain areas in the states of Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan. On July 27, 2021, it was reported that the rules of the CAA would not be announced by the parliament until January 9, 2022.

Write… I am a Miya

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OVER the last few months, the controversy on and around Miya poetry has received an overwhelming response from readers, poets, critics, public intellectuals and online trolls. The controversy about this new genre of poetry led to the filing of four police complaints in different parts of Assam, which was followed by an outpouring in favour of the poets, poetry and the causes they spoke about. Most important is the support and curiosity from the mainstream Assamese community, whom the bullies wanted to incite against Miya poets. People from the mainstream Assamese communities organised Miya poetry reading and discussion sessions, invited Miya poets to recite and speak while they were hiding from police. However, those in the opposition responded with more virtuosity, sometimes with death and rape threats to the poets.

That night on the terrace of Shalim’s apartment in New Delhi’s Zakir Nagar, we translated Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the wind to the Miya dialect, reflecting the suffering and agony of our community. Soon after, Shalim translated Gil Scott Heron’s The revolution will not be televised and recited it. He also helped translate a Bengali song on water, sanitation and hygiene to Miya and we started using it in our campaign for development in char (river island) areas.

We call ourselves the first generation of progressive and professional social workers, civil rights activists, and writers who have pledged to use the Indian Constitution to defend our rights. We use a number of secular and democratic campaign tools to amplify our voice; poetry, especially performance poetry, is one of them.

In the meantime, the preparation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was underway. People from our community hoped the NRC would be a panacea to all our problems. Hundreds and thousands of educated youths volunteered to make the NRC project acceptable among the community and help the poorly lettered collect documents and file their application forms. The NRC authority had already made the legacy data (digitised government records of 1951 NRC and subsequent electoral rolls till 1971) available for the general people. A large number of people of our community, who have been constantly displaced because of annual floods and erosion, ethnic conflicts and forceful eviction by government over the last several decades, had hardly any access to these invaluable documents.

In the last week of April 2016, Dr Hafiz Ahmed, president of Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad and a strong propagator of Assamese language and literature among our community, wrote a poem in English and posted it on Facebook: “Write/ Write Down/ I am a Miya/ My serial number in the NRC is 200543/ I have two children/ Another is coming/ Next summer/ Will you hate him/ As you hate me?…”

This poem went viral and other young poets started responding to him through poems. The young poets also started reclaiming “Miya”, a slur used against us, as our identity with pride. This chain of Facebook posts continued for days, reiterating the violence, suffering and humiliation expressed by our community.

As time passed, more poets wrote in various languages and dialects, including many Miya dialects. The nomenclature ‘Miya Poetry’ got generated organically but the poets and their associates have been inspired by the Negritude and Black Arts movements, and queer, feminist and Dalit literary movements, where the oppressed have reclaimed the identity which was used to dehumanise them.

The trend transcended our community. Poets from the mainstream Assamese community also wrote several poems in solidarity with the Miya poets while some regretted not being poets. Gradually, this became a full-fledged poetry movement and got recognised by other poets, critics and commentators. The quality and soul of these poems are so universal that they started finding prominence on reputed platforms.

For the first time in the history of our community, we had started telling our own stories and reclaiming the Miya identity to fight against our harassers who were dehumanising us with the same word. They accused us of portraying the whole Assamese society as xenophobic. The fact is we have just analysed our conditions. Forget generalising the Assamese society as ‘xenophobic’, no Miya poet has ever used the term ‘xenophobic’ nor any of its variants. The guilt complex of our accusers is so profound that they don’t have the patience to examine why we wrote the poems.

Another accusation against us is of weakening the Assamese language when most of our poems are written in Assamese language and a few in Miya dialects. We fail to understand how writing Miya poetry in Assamese could weaken Assamese?

Anyway, the controversy is now dying down gradually, Miya poetry is getting much wider readership and the Miya poets and their associates (like me) have learnt new skills: how to remain calm while facing threats of all sorts, coordinated online bullying, and the anxiety of their loved ones, and to continue to write, promote poetry.

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In India’s Assam, Muslim families evicted weeks before elections

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After battling for life for five days at a hospital in Guwahati, the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Kulsuma Begum succumbed to her injuries on March 11.

Her mother-in-law alleged police and paramilitary forces barged into her house to physically remove Kulsuma – who had given birth to a baby boy just two hours ago – during an eviction drive at Sarkebasti village in central Assam’s Hojai district, about 150km east of Guwahati.

Authorities in the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) forcibly evicted more than 600 Muslim families from their land in Hojai, saying the families, including Kulsuma’s, had encroached upon government land.

“Seven to eight policemen entered the house and started ransacking it. I could take some stuff out. When I came back I saw Kulsuma was lying on the floor and couldn’t move,” Ramisa Khatun told Al Jazeera.

“I took up the baby as I feared they might kill him,” said Ramisa, 50. As Kulsuma was being ushered out of the house she collapsed, said Ramisa.

The 22-year-old was rushed to Guwahati after a local hospital in Hojai referred her to Gauhati Medical College and Hospital, where a doctor said she had “suffered shock”.

In one corner of the Guwahati hospital corridor, the newborn baby was sleeping next to Ramisa on a visibly dirty blanket. The baby has now been handed over to the family.

FIR filed

Following public outrage, a formal police complaint (First Information Report) was filed against several KAAC officials as well as a local police officer.

“A case has been registered and the investigation is going on,” Hojai Deputy Commissioner (DC) Tanmoy Borgohain told Al Jazeera.

A court in Guwahati has put a stop on the evictions [Courtesy of Ain Uddin/Al Jazeera]

Tuliram Ronghang, chief executive member of the KAAC and leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam, alleged that undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh had encroached upon the land, which belonged to Karbi Anglong.

However, the evictees refuted Ronghang’s allegations, saying they are genuine Indian citizens. Some activists questioned the legality of the entire operation, saying Sarkebasti village fell under Hojai district and not under KAAC jurisdiction.

“The Karbi Anglong district doesn’t have any locus standi to evict the people here,” Saidur Rahman, president of Hojai district committee of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a peasant movement, told Al Jazeera.

A letter by a top Hojai official to Assam’s chief secretary corroborated their claims. The letter written on February 28 rejected the allegation that people had encroached upon forestland and warned against any eviction drive.

Despite concerns of human rights violations and legal complications, the Karbi Anglong administration still went ahead with its operation to uproot hundreds of families weeks before the general elections scheduled in April and May.

A court in Guwahati finally put a stop on the evictions asking the administrations in Hojai and Karbi Anglong to settle the border dispute.

Eviction drives

Under the BJP government in Assam, which came to power in 2016 on an anti-immigrant plank, eviction drives have escalated.

Less than six months after coming to power in Assam, the BJP government – the first in the northeastern states – launched eviction campaign near the famous Kaziranga National Park against what it called “illegal encroachment”.

In February 2017, the government informed the Assam assembly that about 3,481 families were evicted from 13 districts. While most of them were Muslims, they also included other marginalised social groups such as the tribal people.

However, government records reveal hundreds of people were evicted from the lands they officially owned.

Indrajit Bezbaruah, an associate professor at Assam’s Lumding College, said those evicted were either internally displaced persons (IDPs) from flood-affected areas, IDPs from ethnic conflict-ridden Bodoland districts, or the local landless peasants belonging to the indigenous Kachari Muslim community settled in the area since the 1970s.

Experts say that recurring ethnic strife and floods in Assam have resulted in the state having one of the highest numbers of IDPs in the country. In 2015, Assam hosted an astounding 74.4 percent of all the IDPs in the country.

Assam has 362,450 landless families spread across 31 of its 33 districts, Forest Minister Pramila Rani Brahma told the state assembly in February last year.

Peasant organisations in the area have been demanding the government to provide them with land ownership for more than two decades.

However, neither the central nor the state government has laid down any policy to rehabilitate Assam’s IDPs. With little institutional support, many of them have settled on government land over the decades.

Muslim IDPs

Suprakash Talukdar, a leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), alleged that Assam government has not conducted any land settlement survey since 1965, which has denied land to the landless and kept them vulnerable to forced evictions.

Bhabesh Kalita, Minister of State for Revenue and Disaster Management in Assam, however, said his government was working to rehabilitate those displaced by erosion.

“We have a policy for rehabilitation for erosion affected families only for those people who are displaced from patta [documented] land and we are rehabilitating them,” Kalita said.

“Our government has taken a target to provide land patta to one lakh [100,000] people this year. No government has taken such target based initiative so far.”

Muslim IDPs in Assam carry an additional risk of being stripped of their citizenship rights, according to Guwahati-based activist Hafiz Ahmed.

Ahmed alleged the government has built an anti-Muslim sentiment to marginalise the community.

“BJP came to power in the state on the premise of hatred against the Muslims. They want to keep the momentum of hatred on till the general election,” he said, referring to the national elections.

Kalita, the Assam minister, however, denied the government was targeting a particular group.

“Eviction policy doesn’t discriminate against people based on caste, creed or religion,” he told Al Jazeera.

Syed Burhanur Rahman, a lawyer at Gauhati High Court, said the eviction could result in the affected Muslims being declared stateless.

Last July, nearly four million people, mostly Muslims, were excluded from a draft citizenship list, effectively stripping them of their citizenship. A Supreme Court-monitored body National Register of Citizens (NRC) is working to publish its final list that aims to identify undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants.

“Despite the warning from the highest authority of the district administration that it will affect the NRC process, how the government could go ahead with the eviction drive,” asked Rahman.

Meanwhile, Mafijul Islam, Kulsuma’s brother-in-law who works as a construction worker in Guwahati, told Al Jazeera that they were asked to attend the NRC hearing in Nagaon district, about 50km from Hojai, three days after their house was demolished.

Nearly 3,000 people have been rendered homeless [Courtesy of Ain Uddin/Al Jazeera]

As Kulsuma fought for her life at the Guwahati hospital, her family members travelled over 120km to Nagaon to meet the NRC official, who refused to meet them since they had reached the venue after the 4pm deadline.

Back in Hojai, hundreds of families have been rendered homeless.

Hojai Deputy Commissioner Borgohain said on “humanitarian grounds we have sent a medical team and trying to provide drinking water”.

Activists have raised concerns at the timings of the evictions as elections are barely a couple of weeks away.

But Borgohain assured his administration has taken steps to address the concerns regarding the conduct of the elections (among the displaced people).

In Guwahati, Talukdar’s CPM party and other civil society groups organised a protest march to seek justice for Kulsuma.

Assam’s Muslims are more vulnerable as certain political forces treat them as “second class citizens because of their identity”, Talukdar said.

Originally published at

How the BJP weaponised evictions as a tool against Assam’s Bengali Muslim residents

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On 8 March, the KAAC officials, police officers and paramilitary personnel returned to the Hojai-Karbi Anglong eviction site for a third round of evictions. But the eviction was halted by the intervention of the Gauhati high court, which issued an order that day, taking note of Borgohain’s letters and instructing the chief secretary to “stop the eviction drive before final boundary demarcation is done.”

The high court’s order did not prevent police excesses at the eviction site, where a group of residents were protesting against the drive. In the afternoon, while I was visiting Kulsuma Begum at the hospital, Ain Uddin, a 29-year-old resident of the area, called me to inform me that the police was lathi charging the protestors. In the background, I could hear people screaming and praying. A short while later, he sent me several photographs of the police assault—one image showed a traumatised-looking old man with a white beard, standing with the support of two young men. Uddin had added the caption, “Police has broken his leg.”

The BJP had begun the practice of evictions soon after forming the government. On 6 February 2017, Pallab Lochan Das, the state’s revenue minister, informed the assembly that the government had evicted 3,481 families from 17 districts across Assam within the first six months of coming to power. Since then, the state government has continued to conduct large-scale eviction operations across the state, but it has not provided any data concerning the drives. Bhabesh Kalita, the minister of state in the revenue and disaster management department, told me he did not have updated data because the evictions drives were still ongoing. Though precise demographic statistics are unavailable, most of the evictions have taken place in Muslim-dominated areas, and have also led to the displacement of Adivasi communities in some cases.

My colleagues and I have been visiting the eviction sites to document as much as is possible. Over the last three years, I have visited at least ten eviction sites across Assam. A clear pattern emerges from studying these evictions—the Muslims residents of an area are described as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, an eviction drive is carried out without prior notice or compliance with such procedural requirements, and it is marked by the use of brute force and impunity for those responsible. This modus operandi was visible in the BJP-led state government’s first eviction operation, in September 2016, near Kaziranga National Park, in central Assam’s Nagaon district.

On 19 September, following an October 2015 Gauhati high court order, the state government conducted an eviction drive in three villages—Bandardubi, Deosursang and Palkhuwa—located on the periphery of the Kaziranga National Park. During the drive, the government destroyed the houses of nearly two hundred families—all but seven of these belonged to Muslims. The police shot two people dead, including a 12-year-old girl; several were injured in police firing and lathi charges. Soon after the eviction drive was conducted, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the state finance minister, posted a tweet congratulating the district administration and declaring that the BJP government would “never compromise on JATI, MATI & BHETI.”


Around two weeks later, I went to the eviction site as part of a fact-finding team of academicians and activists. At the office of a farmers’ collective near Kaziranga, one of the farmers showed me his land documents and said, “We are neither encroachers nor illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, we were evicted from our patta land”—referring to the official land-holding document. Even government records reveal that Bandardubi and Deosursang villages were given the patta in 1961, whereas Kaziranga was declared a national park only in 1974. In fact, Abdul Hamid, one of the victims of the eviction violence, gave me certified copies of land records that clearly stated that the land does not fall within the national park’s demarcated area. He also gave me a copy of a six-month old revenue receipt and said, “I have been paying the revenue regularly, how could the government evict me without resettlement?”

None of the mainstream Assamese media houses reported on the apparent illegality of the eviction. Instead, the media largely portrayed the victims as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who encroached upon the land of the indigenous Assamese. After the Hojai-Karbi Anglong eviction too, the media continued the same narrative. I spoke to a journalist who covered the eviction for one of the oldest and most widely circulated English dailies in Assam, whose story framed the victims as “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.” When I asked him how he was certain that they were Bangladeshi nationals, he argued that he has to call them “Bangladeshi” because the politicians and the people in position of power have identified them as such. The journalist requested not to be identified out of fear for his safety.

The next morning, I experienced the reach and might of the Assam government first-hand, during my attempt to carry out a fact-finding mission at the eviction site. Upon reaching Lanka railway station in Hojai district, I got a call from a police officer summoning me to the Lanka police station. I informed the police officer that I was waiting for a colleague and that we would come to the station together. But over the next ten minutes, the police called me not less than ten times. At the police station, at least five officers, including a deputy and additional superintendent of police as well as an officer of the special branch, questioned us for almost seven hours.

The officers were polite and served us snacks, but they were relentless. They asked me why I was interested in knowing about the situation, about my background, about where I work and for whom I write, and about the international news organisations for which I have written or given an interview. The police officers were particularly suspicious about my connection with Al Jazeera, the news website for which I was reporting on the evictions at the time, treating it not as an international media platform, but almost as an outlawed organisation.

Eventually, the police refused to let us visit the eviction site or meet the deputy commissioner Borgohain. The deputy commissioner later told me over phone that the police had prevented us from visiting the site “in fear that our visit would escalate tensions in the area.” He evaded questions about why the state administration had proceeded with the eviction drive despite his letters. I tried contacting Alok Kumar, the chief secretary of Assam, and Mahananda Hazarika, the principal secretary of the KAAC, to ask why they did not take heed of the deputy commissioners concerns about the eviction. Hazarika asked me to visit the KAAC office, but did not respond to messages or calls seeking a phone interview. Kumar did not respond to multiple calls and messages.

Over the last few months, the BJP’s popularity in Assam has been on a downward spiral. The disaffection with the party began with the BJP’s introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, in 2016, which sought to give citizenship to all the immigrants except Muslims, whereas even the BJP’s Assamese allies are opposed to the Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh. While the BJP appears to have brokered peace with its allies ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, in Assam’s tribal areas such as the Karbi Anglong, the disillusionment is compounded by allegations of rampant corruption in handling the funds allocated to the autonomous council and the KAAC’s proposal to allot land in the area for a Patanjali herbal and food park to the business tycoon Ramdev. The Hojai-based activist Rahman, who is the president of the Hojai unit of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti—a peasants-rights organisation in Assam—said that the BJP was losing ground in the Diphu Lok Sabha constituency, which consists of the autonomous districts Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong.

“The BJP was in desperate need of a situation through which they could consolidate the tribal vote before the general election,” Rahman said. “What could be more appropriate than orchestrating an eviction drive against the Muslims, that too, through which the BJP can claim that they got back the council’s land, which was never under their possession.” Prafulla Nath, an assistant professor with the centre for tribal studies at Assam University’s Diphu campus, said that the BJP government could exploit the situation by portraying the situation as an encroachment of tribal land by the Muslims residents. “The government knew that if the eviction is done by the Hojai district, there would be lots of hue and cry,” Nath said. “As it is done by Karbi Anglong administration, they can use the tribal card.”

In the wake of the Citizenship Amendment Bill protests, ministers in the Assam government resorted to spreading communal and polarising rhetoric, terming the state’s Muslims as illegal immigrants who snatched land and resources from the indigenous Assamese people. For instance, in 2016, the finance minister Sarma began spreading misinformation that Muslim residents had encroached upon the land belonging to a satra—socio-religious monasteries established by Srimanta Sankardev, the architect of modern Assamese society.

For the Assamese, the satras are an emotive part of their state and culture, and Sarma sought to invoke their pride in order to exploit it and target the Muslims. “Does secularism mean that the satras have to move out of their original places?” Sarma asked in a November 2016 press conference. “Does secularism mean some people will snatch away land belonging to Batadrava satra? Does secularism mean some people will encroach upon land in Kaziranga and Pobitora?” But Sarma’s inflammatory rhetoric was defeated when Kalita placed government records before the state assembly, which revealed that the satra land was not encroached by the so-called Bangladeshi Muslims, but that it was eroded by the Brahmaputra river, and that the government had failed to protect it.

In present-day Assam, no one questions the government—not even the human-rights organisations. Once in January 2017, when I was talking to a senior officer of an international child-rights organisation, my friend sent me a photograph of the dead body of a three-day-old infant, who had died in a resettlement camp a few days after an eviction drive in Sipajhar town, in Assam’s Darrang district. I showed him the photograph and requested to do something for the evicted children. “Officially I cannot do anything, Abdul,” he replied. “This is a different government. But if you ask me personally, I would be happy to donate something.”

During the Kaziranga fact-finding mission, one experience was particularly telling of the fearful conditions prevailing at the resettlement camps. At one of the camps, I saw a young boy curiously looking at us. When I opened the lens of my camera to take a picture of him, the boy cried out loud and his mother rushed out from her shelter and immediately took him into her lap. The mother explained that since the eviction, her son lives in fears of the “khaki dress and anything that resembles a gun.” The incident brought to mind a disturbing parallel—the viral photo of a Syrian girl who surrendered to a camera, mistaking it to be a gun.

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Growing up Miya in Assam: How the NRC weaponised my identity against me

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He has settled down now. He has many friends. Every day, he has a new story to tell. In the living room of our rented house he often plays with our landlord’s young daughter. They sometimes sing together: “bilote halise dhunia podumi phool”—In the pond a lotus sways. I never had the flawless Assamese pronunciation that he has already acquired in the first three years of his life. Listening to him, I feel immensely proud.

But when I look at him, I also feel immense fear.

I am reminded of my own childhood. My father never told me that the world outside his warmth and protection would be hostile to me. This only became apparent to me when I first visited Guwahati. It was here that I first realised that I have another identity, a subordinate identity—I was miya, a Bengali-origin Muslim, seen in Assam as an outsider, a suspected Bangladeshi.

Every year, a large number of people from my native place in Barpeta district of western Assam migrate seasonally to Guwahati to work in various unorganised sectors. When I was 14 years old, I went to see the city and write a homework essay on how I spent my summer break. Late one afternoon, my uncle Sirajul Haque and I were waiting to cross a busy road in Guwahati’s Lalganesh area. My uncle, who was then in his forties, had not been keeping well for two days, and had been unable to ply his rickshaw.

A group of young men stood nearby. They asked him to help push start a vehicle. My uncle began telling them about his health. The words had barely left his mouth when the young men began cursing at him. They called him “Kela Miya” and “Bangladeshi” while kicking him. My middle-aged uncle pleaded for mercy with folded hands, but the young men did not relent. I was scared and fled the scene. I ran down a dark lane and disappeared, reaching the rented tenement where we were staying. Uncle also returned after a while. He didn’t go to the pharmacy. As my other relatives prepared the evening meal, he lay in one corner and would not speak to anyone. He could not eat properly. I also kept quiet, did not tell anyone about the incident. I could not sleep that night. Whenever I closed my eyes, the image of my uncle played again and again, like a motion picture.

I came back to my village with a heavy heart. I could not write that essay. For some reason, I resolved that day that I would continue to study, at any cost. I wanted to be Assamese—a better Axomiya then anyone else, whose identity cannot be questioned by anyone. I learned the language. I imbibed the cuisine. I immersed myself in the tunes of Bihu songs. I did not realise when this became my life’s biggest mission—from my classroom to my workplace, from my emotions to my imagination, my focus was to be Axomiya.

But every so often, I would be reminded that my efforts to be Axomiya were not enough. My accent was not pure—I was reminded that the dialect I spoke at home was filthy. I was warned that my lungi could not be a part of Axomiya identity. I was reminded that my ancestors were not the sons and daughters of this soil.

Sometimes these warnings were violent—either verbal or physical—but sometimes, they were devoid of any action. I studied law for a few years at Assam University in Silchar, although I was unable to complete the course due to financial constraints. Silchar, a town in the Barak Valley, is known as the heartland for Bengali nationalism in Assam. One day, I met an Assamese senior in the hostel. We introduced ourselves. When I told him where I lived—an address in the Barpeta district—he nonchalantly replied, “Oh, tumi Miya?”—You’re a Miya? When I said yes, he silently walked away down the stairs, as if uninterested in talking to a Miya. I could not move for a few moments. I never had the courage to talk to him again.

I often wonder what makes him—and others like him—so powerful, and me so vulnerable. I ask myself why I felt subordinate in the first place. Why did I not revolt against the young men who punched my uncle? Why didn’t I kick them back? What made me think the quality of their Assamese accent, the language and culture they possess is superior? What compelled me to think that without imitating their way of life, I could not be a dignified Assamese? Why can’t my accent, my dialect, my costume and culture be the part of the greater Assamese identity?


The answer lies in the century-long histories of oppression, persecution and production of unlimited fear. Miya Muslims like me are not part of the Assamese vision, which begins and ends with the indigenous Axomiyas. Though we have been living and working on this land for centuries—often for the so-called indigenous Axomiyas—we are not to be allowed in. This xenophobia has been formalised in the National Register of Citizens, which threatens to delegitimise any person who cannot prove their credentials to the satisfaction of the Axomiya state. It has weaponised all aspects of our identity, using them to keep us out of our own state and nation.


My uncle, who was abused by the so-called sons of the soil, has lost his soil to the erosion of the river Beki, one of the ferocious tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra. Every year in Assam, thousands of people living on the chars—riverine islands—and along river banks, mostly Miya Muslims, get uprooted because of erosion. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries swell during the rains, swallowing parts of the chars and leaving their residents with no choice but to move inland. In any other part of the country, the victims of such erosion would be likely to receive compensation and rehabilitation from the government, or at least ask for it. In 1995, my uncle lost his land to the river and shifted to our village, hardly three kilometres from his previous home. Instead of a rehabilitation grant, he was served a notice by the Foreigners Tribunal, asking him to prove his Indian nationality.

He was not the only person in the family whose identity fell under suspicion after they moved inland. His elder brother, who also settled in our village along with him, was marked a D-voter—a “doubtful” voter, suspected of being an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant and required to prove his identity before the tribunal as well. Though our village is hardly seven kilometres from the district headquarters, it still does not have access to all-weather roads. Throughout the summer and monsoon months, our houses remain surrounded by water. Often, my uncle would call out my name in his loud voice, telling me to come to his house, or he would sail his banana raft across the water to come to ours. We would discuss the progress of their cases. In these conversations, he would appear confident in his ability to prove his Indian nationality. But I could see the fear and anxiety on his face.

One Monday, both my uncles went to the Foreigners Tribunal at the district headquarters to face trial. While they were on their way back, the elder brother suddenly collapsed from a stroke. He died before he could be taken to the hospital.

This is the cost my uncle paid to defend his Indian citizenship—the life of his elder brother, then five bighas of land, which he sold to cover the court expenses. After his brother’s death, my uncle also became responsible for four more family members. He risked the abuse of being called a Bangladeshi once again, and went back to Guwahati to pull a rickshaw so that he could feed his family.

My uncles are not my only relatives to be labelled D-voters. In 1997, nearly four lakh people across the state—mostly Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus—were marked D-voters. Two members of my extended family made this list—a widowed aunt, and another uncle. My aunt became a widow at a very early age. She had a tough time looking after her five minor children. Being designated a D-voter increased her vulnerability, but her indomitable courage and resilience helped to look after the family with her meagre income from labouring in the fields. My “doubtful” uncle has a master’s degree in economics from Gauhati University and teaches in a government school. During elections, he would perform the duty of a presiding officer, even though he was barred from exercising his voting rights for almost two decades.

“D” is not the only category that haunts my family members and me. A few years ago, personnel from the Assam Police’s border unit—which has over four thousand members, who have the power to ask anyone to prove their identity as Indians, and to refer any citizens to a tribunal—raided a rented house in Guwahati’s Dhirenpara neighbourhood, where residents of my village, who had travelled there to work in the informal sector, were staying. The police asked for their citizenship documents, noted down their names and addresses, and took impressions of their fingerprints on blank papers. After almost a year, they started receiving notices from the Foreigners Tribunal, asking them to prove their citizenship. Among those who received these summons were two of my uncles, and one cousin, who sells jhaalmuri—a type of rice puff—on the streets in Guwahati. My relatives were able to successfully defend their citizenship, but I cannot forget the looks of fear on their faces when they first received the notices.

Compared to many others, my family members were fortunate. Even aside from the D-voters, nearly 2.5 lakh people in the state—most of them poor like my uncles and cousin—have been referred to the Foreigners Tribunals under suspicion of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. There are cases where government officials, including those from the army, the air force, the border security forces and the police, as well as schoolteachers, have been suspected and referred to the tribunal. There are cases where one person has been referred to the tribunal several times, even after the same tribunal declared them an Indian citizen. The border police is never held accountable for such errors, or for inflicting this burden on citizens—it does this work with absolute impunity, guaranteed under the draconian Foreigners Act of 1946.

The tribunals themselves have become houses of horror for Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus. The institution is supposed to deliver justice, but has in reality worked like a slaughterhouse, snatching the citizenship and rights of rightful residents of Assam. Like the border police, the tribunals are a one-of-a-kind system, plying only in Assam. The quasi-judicial body hears the cases of people whose citizenship is doubted by the state. The cases are decided not by judicial officers, but by mostly lawyers appointed as members of the tribunal on a contractual basis. There are a hundred such tribunals operating across the state. Their members are appointed by the government, remunerated by the government, appraised by the government, and if found unsatisfactory, shown the door by the government. In 2017, 19 members of the tribunals were removed from office. It has been reported that these members were removed in part because they did not declare enough people “foreigners,” as the border police that referred these cases had claimed they were.

According to government records, over ninety thousand people have been declared foreigners, of which more than twenty-six thousand cases were decided by ex-parte decree in the absence of the respondents. Nearly a thousand of them are being held in six makeshift detention centres, housed inside jails across the state.

I visited several of these jails. I went to the detention centres as part of a research contingent—in January this year, the activist and writer Harsh Mander, then the special monitor of the National Human Rights Commission, invited me to join an NHRC Mission to examine the due process through which a person is sent to a detention centre, study the centres, and assess the human-rights situation of the detainees.

Over these visits, the little hope I had remaining turned into despair. The detention centres are nothing but sections within district jails that have been cordoned off to house those who have been declared foreigners. The detainees are not allowed any formal communication with their relatives. The detainees do not have access to legal recourse such as appeals—the tribunals do not hear appeals, so the detainees can only file cost-intensive writs in the high court or the Supreme Court. Inside the detention camps, they live as convicted criminals.

At a camp in Kokrajhar, I met an elderly woman detainee, who couldn’t stand straight. With her half-bent body, she crawled towards me, and tried to touch my feet. I stepped back. She rolled on the floor of the camp and began howling, with what seemed like all the might of her skinny body. She begged me for death—a mercy death.

I met a woman whose four-year-old son lives in the camp with her. She told me that when she was brought to the detention centre, he was 14 days old. Since then, the boy hasn’t seen the world outside the four walls of jail.

In the Goalpara detention centre, there were more than fifty actual Bangladeshis. Their circumstances showed how little concern the state has for those it deems foreigners. Some of the people we met had been there for nearly a decade, with little or no contact with the outside world. One of the detainees showed me a torn piece of paper with a Bangladeshi phone number. He had memorised the number five years earlier when he was first brought to the centre, and had now scrawled it on the paper, in the hope that he would one day get to call his family and inform them of his whereabouts. While my community is abused as illegal Bangladeshi on a daily basis, while lakhs of us are stripped of our citizenship rights, thousands arbitrarily declared foreigners and hundreds detained, actual Bangladeshis are dying to go back to their country. The government is taking no steps to make this happen.


After I returned from the detention centre, the innocent face of the boy continued to haunt me for a long time. Even now, I imagine my son in his place. The very thought sends a shiver down my spine.

I tried thinking of my visit as a privilege. After all, I had a firsthand experience of the horrors that people from my state were being subjected to. I became hopeful. I worked to document every important detail, so that when the report went to National Human Rights Commission and subsequently to my government, it could result in some positive change. My confidence was bolstered by various details that I was privy to—for instance, the mother of the four-year-old child was neither a Miya nor a Bengali Hindu, she belongs to the so-called indigenous Muslim community, a khati—pure—Axomiya. I was sure that my chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, who has built his political career on the campaign platform of protecting the rights of indigenous Assamese, would not tolerate this gross violation of their human rights.

But I was wrong again. Mander submitted the report to the NHRC, detailing the inhuman conditions of detainees and the procedural drawbacks of the process, as well as suggesting remedies. The NHRC—the highest quasi-judicial body in the country, which is mandated to protect the human rights of every individual, especially disadvantaged groups such as women, children and minorities—did not respond even after repeated follow-ups. This forced Mander to resign from the position of special monitor. He wrote a compassionate essay calling the detention centres “the dark side of humanity and legality.”

In June, four special rapporteurs of United Nations Human Right Council wrote a letter to the ministry of external affairs, expressing its alarm and concern at complaints it had received about the exclusionary measures being taken by the NRC authority and the Election Commission. The measures, it feared, would exacerbate the discrimination faced by Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus, “who may wrongfully be declared as ‘foreigners’ and consequently rendered stateless” or deprived “of the right to political participation and representation.”

The letter cast the national spotlight on the NRC process. National and international media, which had so far paid little attention to the issues and concerns of Miya Muslims such as myself, began giving us coverage. No doubt there were issues—a community, many members of which have lived in Assam for generations and have done everything within their power to assimilate into Assamese society and culture, was referred to simply as “Bengali,” either Muslim or Hindu. Nevertheless, these stories highlighted the plight of the Assamese speaking Miya Muslims, especially the role of foreigners tribunal and border police, or the pathetic conditions of people living in the chars of Assam.

I expected that this would help bring some justice to the people fighting the biased tribunal and languishing in detention centres across the state. But the Assamese nationalists had a different plan. A counter-campaign soon ensued in Assamese media, accusing an imaginary vested interest group of acting against the interests of the state, and attacking human-rights workers such as Mander for attempting to throw a spanner into the works of the NRC.

An error-free NRC is not the demand of only the so-called Assamese nationalists, but also for a Miya like me, whose Assamese identity has always been under question. In July 2010, along with three others, my wife’s nephew was killed in police firing. They were protesting against the pilot project of the NRC being conducted. One of the columns in the form led to much anger as it asked for the country of origin. They were demanding an error-free NRC. My community viewed the NRC—a document that would officially grant us our identities—as a weapon to fight the humiliation and persecution we faced.

This belief was systematically destroyed as dozens of exclusionary filters were put into the updating process, including the clause of the so-called “Original Inhabitants” to exclude Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus. The issue of D-voters could have been solved along with the NRC updating process, but excluding the descendants of people deemed foreigners by the tribunals has created more problems.

When someone raises these questions against these exclusionary and discriminatory processes, they become anti-Assamese even in the eyes of the so-called liberal Assamese intellectuals. My liberal Assamese friends accuse me of not being sensitive to the “threat” they are facing from the supposed large-scale migration from Bangladesh. I almost want to feel this threat, but when I look back at my life, I realise that this threat is me—a Miya.

I think of my mission to be called Axomiya.  If I lay claim to Srimanta Sankardev, the architect of modern Assamese society, if I prefer organising Bihu over an Eid mehfil—we stopped celebrating the Bengali New Year over a century ago—if I feel proud when my son sings the songs of the revolutionary Assamese cultural icon Bishnu Rabha, then what threat do I carry? Why do the Assamese chauvinists question my identity despite me having a history of five generations living in this land?

I realise that my Axomiya qualities do not matter. What matters is that I am not them. They are not concerned about deporting illegal immigrants. The “threat” is not about a threat to the Assamese language or the culture—Miya Muslims like me are a threat to their privilege and supremacy.

I do not know how to explain to them how I feel when I see my mainstream Assamese friends and their children being included in the NRC without having to produce so much as a document, while our credentials are examined thoroughly. If the NRC process is a test and everybody consented to participate, why is there not a level playing field?

Even our supposed allies appear not to understand. During the Assam Agitation in the 1980s, when the demand to update the NRC became a point of fierce contention, Hiren Gohain was one of the few intellectuals who described the agitation as hollow. An outspoken public intellectual, Gohain is also a fierce critic of the BJP’s majoritarian rule. But even he couches his descriptions of the suffering of Assam’s Muslims with the terms “seems” and “maybe.”

Although he said in an interview with Al Jazeera that everyone who came to Assam before 1971 should be termed natives of this land, Gohain clarified many things for the people of Assam, especially Miya Muslims, in a recent Assamese-language article. He gave us a suggestion, saying that Miya Muslims “should not forget that seeking safety from platoons of police and CRPFs is delusional. Their safety and the preservation of their basic day to day life is chiefly dependent on the trust and goodwill of the indigenous people.”

If I understand him correctly, I must console myself that my self-respect, my pride of being Assamese, or even my mere existence in this part of the world, is not only dependent on the trust and goodwill of the indigenous Assamese people but also on their kindness and grace. If the indigenous people do not trust us, Gohain appears to be saying that the world’s largest democracy cannot provide us security or protection. Gohain is not just another intellectual— for our community, he was the epitome of courage and struggle. When he suggests that we not seek protection and justice from the state and surrender before the supremacy of indigenous people, I understand why thousands of my community members massacred in Nellie, Nagabanda, Chaolkhuwa, Bahbari, and Khagrabari did not get justice.

Gohain’s words, though hurtful, have a kernel of truth—I no longer trust the state to accept that I am Axomiya, to protect my rights. But I will survive. Swallowing abuse and humiliation has made me resilient. I have learnt how to live like a second-grade Axomiya. I only wonder how to prepare my three-year old son.


Originally published at