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.

Originally published at https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/assam-miya-poetry-culture-nrc-5895176/

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 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/03/india-assam-muslim-families-evicted-weeks-elections-190325064004315.html

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.”

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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.

Originally published at https://caravanmagazine.in/religion/bjp-weaponised-evictions-tool-assam-muslim-residents

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 https://caravanmagazine.in/politics/growing-up-miya-in-assam-how-the-nrc-weaponised-my-identity-against-me

Assam NRC: A History of Violence and Persecution

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In a three year-long project, more than 55,000 officials performed the herculean task of examining the citizenship status of more than 31 million people living in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam. On July 30, 2018, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) published the final draft excluding more than four million people out of the list, keeping them on the verge of losing their citizenship and effectively making them stateless. However, the NRC authorities have assured that they would be provided with sufficient opportunity to prove their citizenship during the claim and objection process.

There is a huge uproar among a section of Assamese intellectuals that the national and international media have ignored the historical perspective of NRC updating process. But they are being equally ignorant of the other side of the same history – the history of violence and persecution with absolute impunity. The legacy of anti-immigrant sentiment in public sphere for more than a century needs due consideration along with the colonial policies and schemes which enabled such a huge human population to move from one place to another.

Politics of anti-immigration sentiments

In mid-19th century, a British military officer Maj. John Butler visited and described Assam as “it seemed totally devoid of man, beasts, or birds; a death-like stillness everywhere prevailed”. The sparsely populated, rich in natural resources and abandon fertile land soon motivated the colonial administrators to bring large number of people from other parts of British India, including the Bengalis from the over populated Bengal to resettle in Assam under projects like called ‘Grow More Food’ with an intention to increase the revenue. The colonial administration recruited a ‘colonisation officer’ for hassle-free immigration of Muslim peasants from greater Bengal to Assam.

The immigrant Muslims settled in Brahmaputra valley accepted Assamese language and culture and denounced their Bengali identity to assimilate with the host community. As early as the 1930s, the immigrant Muslim community appealed to the colonial administration to enrol them as Assamese speaking Muslims in the census of 1941. Subsequently, they set up Assamese medium schools and started assimilating with the Assamese community,  participating in various socio-cultural platforms and events, such as Bihu.

However, a wide section of the local community still felt threatened due to the large scale immigration. This fear of losing land, identity and culture to the immigrants soon transformed into conflict in the 1920s. The colonial administration was forced to demarcate the area for settlement, known as line system, which barred the Muslims from settling down in certain localities. In the meantime, the colonial administration under whose patronage Muslims were brought to Assam, wanted further division between the Assamese community and the immigrant Muslim community. While presenting the 1931 census data, British civil servant C.S. Mullen wrote that if the migration continues unabated, Sibasagar would remain the only district where Assamese race would find home of its own. Historian Amalendu Guha wrote, “The Census Report aggravated the fear complex”.

On the other hand, immigrant peasants under the leadership of Maulana Bhashani intensified their movement to abolish the line system and to get land rights which they propagated as ‘gift of God’ which is to be shared by everyone. Maulana Bhashani criticised the line system as Apartheid but the Gopinath Bordoloi-led state Congress was in favour of strict implementation of the line system. In present day discourse, the ‘cut off date’ for determining citizenship often pops up in debates and discussions. However, the commentators tend to forget that if the line system wasn’t the first attempt to keep the immigrant Muslims from enjoying equal opportunity, the 1940’s ‘Development Scheme’ also barred those Muslims who migrated after January 1, 1938 from enjoying land rights.

Local people hardly paid any attention either to the ‘line system’ or the ‘development scheme’. Meanwhile, the immigrant Muslims continued to buy land from Assamese people. Syed Sadulla of Muslim League (ML) was seen as someone tweaking the line system and settling more Muslims in those restricted areas for his party’s electoral benefit. The tug-of-war for power between Sadullah and Bordoloi continued and hatred against immigrant Muslims escalated further in the late 1940s when Bordoloi became the premier of Assam after ousting Sadulla and evicted thousands of Muslim peasants in 1946, alleging them to be illegal immigrants from East Bengal settled by the earlier ML regime.

In such environment of communal polarisation and conflict, the country became divided and attained Independence. Guha observed that after Independence, the migration of Muslim peasants almost stopped. Prof. Monirul Hussain of Gauhati University argues, “The 1951 census recorded for the first time the decreased rate of growth of Muslims in Assam, that is, 17.6% against a total of 20.2%.” But the anti-Muslim sentiment created in the Assamese society in the run up to Partition remained only to be extended to newer heights by interested political forces.

Post Independence, the Muslim community in Assam faced large-scale violence and was forcibly displacement in 1950. Infamously known as ‘rioter bosor’ (the year of riot) among the community, thousands of Muslims fled the country to take shelter in the then East Pakistan through the open border. Famous Assamese parliamentarian and author Hem Barua wrote that as many as 53,000 such families, who left the country in 1950, came back to Assam under the Nehru-Liaquat Pact.

In 1951, the first National Register of Citizens was prepared to weed out the illegal immigrants from East Pakistan. Since then, the anti-immigrant politics has been feeding the Assamese community with the fear of losing their land, identity and culture. On the other hand, the Muslims have been regularly experiencing state-sponsored persecution and mass violence.

‘Quit India Notice’

In late 1960s, several thousand Muslims were forcefully deported to East Pakistan under a draconian scheme called ‘Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan (PIP)’, without following any legal mechanism of detection and deportation. The border unit of Assam police used to deport hundreds of Muslims without any hue and cry. Hiranya Bhattacharjee, the former DIG of border police in 1979, stated in an interview with The Wire, “At that time, the process of deportation was on, in spite of the fact that there was no formal agreement with East Pakistan or Bangladesh on deportation. Those days, when we deported thousands, there was no hue and cry. What was happening was considered natural.”

This author traced back many such families in present-day Bangladesh who were arbitrarily identified as illegal immigrants and served notice to leave the country. They remember it as ‘Quit India Notice’. The families were separated, few members remained in Assam while a few were deported to East Pakistan. In present-day Bangladesh, they still live with trauma and social segregation. Many of their settlements and villages are known as ‘Assam Para’, ‘Refugee Colony’ etc.

Former home minister and chief minister of Assam Hiteswar Saikia admitted that 1,92,079 persons (unofficial figure is much higher) were deported under the PIP scheme between 1961-69. Prof. Monirul Hussain wrote, “Police committed excesses on the Muslims due to certain extra-legal commitments”. A border police officer, who was in charge of deporting Muslims under PIP, narrated the horrific stories of forceful deportation to this author. He said that he resigned from his job due to mental distress caused by the experience of injustice and inhuman atrocities committed upon those Muslims, apparently who were his fellow countrymen. (The individual called this author after reading the stories of deported Muslims living in a refugee colony in present-day Bangladesh).

After deporting huge numbers of Muslims to East Pakistan, Bimala Prasad Chaliha, the then chief minister of Assam, announced on the floor of the Legislative Assembly in 1969 that ‘no more infiltrators were to be found in Assam’ and hence, the PIP scheme was to be abandoned. But the series of violence and persecution against Muslims continued unabated. Since the early 1980s, an unprecedented violent agitation against the Muslims engulfed the entire state. The agitating group alleged that large number of illegal Bangladeshis infiltrated to Assam during Bangladesh’s Liberation War. But the data says that only three per cent of total Bangladeshi refugees (85% of whom were Hindu) took shelter in Assam. Even smaller states like Meghalaya sheltered more than double of Assam’s figure. But the agitation continued full-swing based on false propaganda and constructed xenophobia. The six year long students agitation took several thousand lives, including the victims of the infamous Nellie Massacre where an estimated three thousand Muslims were killed within few hours of day time.

People check their names on the final draft of the state's National Register of Citizens after it was released, at a NRC Seva Kendra in Nagaon on Monday, July 30, 2018. Credit: PTI

In 1985, the agitating groups, the state and central governments signed the ‘Assam Accord’ and agreed to detect and deport any immigrant who entered the state after March 25, 1971. This document is seen as the genesis of the ongoing NRC updating process.

After several years of debates, discussions, and also several rounds of violent events, almost all the stakeholders, including the Muslims who are often branded as illegal Bangladeshis, came to the consensus of updating the NRC. The Muslim community perceived an updated NRC as panacea to all sorts of persecution, harassment and discrimination which are running high for nearly a century.

But gradually, the NRC was made another tool of persecuting the Muslim and Bengali Hindus through its range of exclusionary and discriminatory provisions. Though the entire population of Assam had to file the application for inclusion in the NRC, as many as 12 million “indigenous people” were given the benefit of ‘original inhabitant’ or ‘OI’, a category which may not even hold any constitutional validity and was never part of the initial modalities but it empowered the lowest level registering authority to include any names even if s/he fails to provide any documentary evidence. On the other hand, the Muslims, Bengali Hindus and few other marginalised groups are subjected to stringent verification process, including a ‘family tree’ matching.

Apart from this discriminatory and racial provisions, the NRC authority deployed a number of exclusionary diktats, mostly beyond the initial modalities to exclude as many Muslims and Bengali Hindus as possible. Already, there are more than 1.3 lakh people who are arbitrarily marked as doubtful or D voters and their cases are pending in the 100 Foreigners Tribunal set up by the Supreme Court across the state. The NRC authority excluded those people from the draft NRC, to which the SC agreed. It also excluded the declared foreigners, their descendants and siblings as well, to which the Gauhati high court agreed. Even several thousand people who have been declared as ‘Indian citizen’ by the tribunal were also not included in the final draft.

Initially, the NRC authority accepted a number of documents, but at the last moment, the district level officials were instructed either to reject certain documents or were instructed to strictly scrutinise the contents of those documents. It can easily be inferred that these discriminatory and exclusionary provisions were fielded to inflate the number towards the fag end of the process at the cost of genuine Indian citizen’s suffering only to fulfil the collective conscience of a politically motivated hostile regime and some chauvinist groups.

This will have far reaching repercussions on the lives of several million people, mostly poor and impoverish and already messed up in the recurrent conflicts and environmental disasters. Thousands of families across the state are going through tremendous mental pressure and trauma. In most cases, some of the members of a family have been included and the remaining are excluded. Most of the excluded are from the vulnerable groups, like women and children. This has not only affected the excluded but also the family members who are included in the list. In the last few months, more than a dozen of people have committed suicide, said to be in the fear of losing their citizenship.

In the current scenario, if someone fails to prove his/her citizenship before the NRC authority during the claim and objection process, then s/he will have to go through the foreigners tribunal which is widely seen by the community as biased and prejudiced towards them. If the person fails to prove citizenship in the Foreigners’ Tribunal, the person will be stripped off the citizenship rights. He/she can thereafter go to the higher courts, which will take time and money. Nobody knows what will happen to those who fail to prove their citizenship.

As per the current mechanism, the government has the only option to dump them in the detention centres. Presently there are six overcrowded detention centres holding about 1,000 such people and the government is working on to build another giant detention camp in the Goalpara district of western Assam. Even in best case scenario, if they are not detained they would lose their civil and political rights, including the right to property. They wouldn’t be able to flee to other Indian states; as the government is planning to collect their biometric information so that they can’t forge their identity and flee to other states. Thus, an environment of deadly silence and trauma has taken control over the lives of several million people across the state.

It is in this context that a section of “Assamese intellectuals” look at history from the other side and realise the sufferings of their own people.

Originally publish at https://thewire.in/rights/assam-nrc-a-history-of-violence-and-persecution

Karbi Anglong Lynching: The other side of Assam

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The divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is the main culprit behind the Karbi Anglong violence that led to the killing of two young men on June 8

I am walking on a narrow track on the Karbi Hills, about 150 km from the spot where two men — Abhijit Nath and Nilotpal Das — were killed by a mob a little over a month ago. I am escorted by Ananda Teron, a 55-year-old Karbi community leader, who recalls the fear that spread well beyond the Karbi Anglong region after the two were lynched by a crowd that thought they were child-lifters.

His 30-year-old son, who works in the forest department in Guwahati, panicked. The fear of retaliatory attacks on Karbi people from those belonging to other communities in Assam forced him to flee his government quarters and rush to his village. He stayed there until the situation improved.

On June 8, the two men — who were travelling in an SUV — were beaten and axed to death by the villagers, who had been hearing and reading about men picking up children from the region. For the villagers, the men were the archetypal “other” — they were in a car, one had dreadlocks, and they did not belong to the neighbourhood.

In video recordings of the incident, the victims are heard pleading for their lives, stressing that they were not abductors or outsiders. “Moi Axomiya (I am an Assamese),” one said. But for the crowd, even the identity of an Assamese was alien. “Pleading for his life as an ‘Axomiya’ did not touch the perpetrators; rather it might have made the victims more vulnerable,” says Prafulla Nath, who teaches at Assam University’s Diphu campus.

There is a great divide between the people of Karbi Anglong and those elsewhere, and there is little sign of the gap being bridged. Daniel Langthasa, a cultural activist from Haflong, says he was sickened by the video. “At the same time I am forced to review my idea of a greater Assamese society,” he says.

Members of the marginalised tribal group in Assam have long felt a sense of alienation, he says. When he came to Guwahati for higher studies, he heard the tribal people being referred to as ‘jungli’ (barbaric) and bloodthirsty. Langthasa says he experienced a “cultural shock” but overcame it by learning the Assamese language and adapting to its culture. “But is ‘adaption’ the sole responsibility of marginalised groups? Doesn’t the mainstream community have a responsibility to at least respect tribal groups such as the Karbis or Dimasa or Bodos,” he asks.

A horrific crime such as mob lynching is mostly propelled by fear and hatred. The ordinary person in the crowd has to overcome his or her basic human instinct of empathising with fellow human being. Experts hold that such brutalities are legitimised by people who create and propagate a sense of “otherness” and demonise a victim as a child-lifter who is outside the group the crowd belongs to.

Assam has a history of seeing other communities as a threat. As far as Karbi as a social group and Karbi Anglong as a geographical area are concerned, the gap between large sections of the people and the Karbi community project has been widening.

The Karbis are one of the most marginalised indigenous tribal communities in the State and have for long been demanding autonomy. However, they have also had a fairly amicable relationship with the mainstream Assamese community.

“We had the opportunity to move with Meghalaya in 1970, when it got separated from Assam, and enjoy the full benefit of the sixth schedule tribal State, but we remained with Assam because of our good terms with the Assamese people,” says Bikram Hanse, general secretary of Karbi Students’ Federation.

But times have changed. Nath believes the “inclusiveness and progressive outlook” of the Karbi leadership took a downward turn soon after they won a share of political and economic power through elections to the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council in the late ’70s.

Langthasa holds that the problem doesn’t lie with the “institution of the autonomous council” but with the attitude of politicians who want to control the council from the state capital and underscore their cultural and linguistic hegemony. “That creates a sense of alienation and manufactures a ‘fear of the other’, which can turn lethal if it is orchestrated into something like a mob lynching,” he says.

Hanse stresses the role the State can play in embracing people on the margins. He recalls that the place where the two young men were killed is by a picturesque waterfall.

“Just imagine what would have happened if the Assam government had read our aspiration and developed the place as a tourist destination? There would have been roadside eateries, and the Karbi youth who were a part of the lynch mob could have been the tourist guide leading the two Assamese men to them,” he says. Instead, they were led to death.

Assam NRC Draft: How Women in Char Areas Were Left High and Dry

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The news of four million people being excluded from the final draft of Assam NRC and pushing them to the verge of being stateless has caught the attention of various stakeholders across the country and beyond. The media has also brought out cases of large number of well-established individuals, including a former Chief Minister of Assam, family members of former President of India, family members of former deputy speaker of Assam Assembly, number of armed forces personnel who couldn’t make it to the final NRC draft. But the stories of fear and anxiety of the marginalised and vulnerable sections have still remained unreported.

Among Muslim dominated areas in the state, Kalgachiya in Barpeta district is one of the most affluent with a high literacy rate. According to community leaders and few government officials, only a nominal percentage of applicants have been excluded from the final draft. People who are capable of raising their voice and have access to proper documentation were able to apply and hence made it to the NRC draft.

A visibly anxious boatman said that while his name is there on the list, his wife has not been included in the draft NRC. Most passengers in the boat also described stories of how their family members, mostly women and children, are not in the list.

On the bank of the river, in a crowded small tea stall everyone was speculating about the reason of rejection. Their major apprehension is that the panchayat certificate provided by married women to prove linkage with the legacy holder has been rejected. Gani Dewani, an influential community leader, said, “Only 15-20 families have all members in the list. NRC has divided families with some members being included and others excluded.”

The NRC authority, concerned of ‘breaching of privacy’ of the excluded, hasn’t made the reason of rejection public. Those rejected will have to file another application to get to know the reason for being excluded from NRC.

The discussion in the char village centred around the panchayat certificate and delayed birth certificate. They said initially these certificates were accepted by the NRC authority but later they declined to accept birth certificates and started scrutinising panchayat certificates “strictly”.

Fifty years old Moriyam Begum lives in a tin-roofed house surrounded by the jute and paddy fields in the char. Illiterate Moriyam was trying to find a particular document with the help of her 12-year-old daughter from a pile of papers scattered on the floor. “Keeping documents in order is a challenge,” she murmured.

Almost every year char dwellers experience flood and erosion and often have to move from one place to another. In the last two decades, Moriyam has shifted her residence thrice often taking shelter in the temporary relief camp during the flood. Keeping valuable documents safely becomes a major challenge for these people who are often labelled as illegal immigrants.

Though her husband and eldest son’s name appeared in the draft, she along with two of her daughters and one son were left out from the final draft NRC. Since Moriyam doesn’t have any admissible education documents (only board certificate is accepted), she provided a panchayat certificate.

More than 4.7 million married women submitted panchayat certificate as linkage document out of which 1.7 million women were brought under “original inhabitants” status, a privileged category and were exempted from the stringent verification process. However, Muslims and Bengali Hindus, didn’t fall under the category thus despite being from one of the most marginalised social groups, Muslim women from the char areas had to go through a stringent verification process. Moriyam is one of the 2.9 million “unfortunate” women who submitted panchayat certificate.

It is speculated that most of these Muslim women are from char areas of Assam, which accommodates nearly 10 per cent of Assam’s population. There are more than 2,200 river island villages spread over 14 districts in Assam, which are geographically plagued with floods and erosion.

As per the last survey by Assam the government in 2002-03, as many as 68% of char people live under the below poverty line (BPL) and over 80 per cent of them are illiterate. Assam Human Development Report (2014) says that the Mean Year of Schooling (MYS) in char areas is 4.76 years which is the lowest among all marginalised communities in Assam. The abysmally low female literacy rate was one of the reasons of higher number of women submitting panchayat certificate from these areas.

Another reason that is equally responsible for making the char women most vulnerable in the NRC updating process is the feudal legacy and continuance of core patriarchal practices like child marriage. A study conducted by Manoj Goswami says that in char areas the mean age of marriage remains low 17.1 years.

National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4 data reveals that in char dominated districts nearly half of the women get married before the age of 18. When women are married off before attaining the age of 18, they miss the opportunity to get enlisted in the voters list in their parental house. In absence of other documents (read educational document), it effectively delinks them from their parents and forces them to use panchayat certificate to prove linkage with parents. If they were married after getting enlisted in the voters list at parental address i.e. after attaining the legal age of marriage, they could have used the voter’s id for linkage

Today, it seems the “masculine state” is hell bent to snatch the citizenship right from women like Moriyam. She hasn’t been able have proper sleep and food ever since the final NRC draft was published. Now her only concern is ‘would they send me to ‘Kalapani’?’ She used the infamous cellular jail in Andaman and Nicobar Island to describe possible detention centres.

Originally published at https://www.news18.com/news/opinion/assam-nrc-draft-how-women-in-char-areas-were-left-high-and-dry-1835325.html

How Sword of NRC is Destroying Families in Assam

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On a soaring summer morning, Ilim Uddin Dewan (50) drove his SUV to the Chenga Circle Office in Barpeta district of Western Assam. He met the circle officer, the executive magistrate of the revenue circle and the designated Circle Registrar of Citizen Registration (CRCR), for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) within the jurisdiction of revenue circle area.

Ilim Uddin, a middle age successful businessman and politician, who fought for assembly seat in 2011, alleged that his wife Mamataz Dewan was harassed in the name of being illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. A case under Foreigners Act was referred by the border police to foreigner’s tribunal in 1997 and the tribunal upheld her Indian citizenship in 2016 after a decade-long legal battle.

The NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela has said time and again through the media that once the alleged foreigner or D voter gets clearance from Foreigners Tribunal and found to be Indian citizen will be included in the NRC. The NRC website also says “D voters can apply for inclusion of their names in the updated NRC. However, a D Voter’s name will only be included in NRC only after getting clearance from the Foreigners Tribunals.”

However, the Circle Registrar of Citizen Registration (CRCR) Rajiv Kumar Das said “My hands are tied; I can’t do anything. We are doing what the state office has instructed us to do. State office has a sent list and asked us to keep those names on hold, I can’t do anything”. As per media report, the NRC authority has blocked 63,000 D voters or doubtful voters.

The officer inquired with his junior officer and confirmed that the database sent by the state office contains her name. “Even though you won the case, I can’t accept the papers,” said Rajiv Kumar and advised Ilim Uddin to contact additional deputy commissioner, who is his supervisor if a person is not satisfied with the officer’s response.

The persons, who have been declared as Indian national by foreigner’s tribunal since 2015, will have to wait till the complete draft is published. They will have to go through the claims and objection process along with those whose name do not appear in the complete draft. A window of one month will be provided for re-examination citizenship documents who wouldn’t figure in the complete draft or someone who is wrongfully included in the list.

How Significant is Doubtful Voters in NRC?

In March 2018, Assam Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary informed that state assembly that as on December 31, 2017, there were 4,85,640 D voters and suspected citizen (2,44,144 D voters and 24,14,96 reference cases), out of which 2,40,583 (1,31,034 D voter and 1,09,549 reference cases) were disposed of. The foreigners’ tribunal has declared over 92,000 persons as foreigner and remaining were able to prove their Indian citizenship.

However, out the 92,000 declared foreigners nearly 15,000 declared foreigners were found to be pre-1971 immigrants, who are treated as Indian citizen as per Assam Accord. Interestingly, over 26,000 cases out of the declared foreigner cases were declared as foreigner through expatriate decree. That means that those 26,000 declared foreigners didn’t appear before the court and court didn’t examine their citizenship credential. On other words, in many cases, those so called declared foreigners even don’t know that the foreigners’ tribunal has declared them as foreign national!

On May 2, the NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela sent memo to all district magistrates to block the name of declared foreigners and their family member’s names entering into the complete draft NRC. The NRC coordinator says that the letter has been issued based on an order given by Gauhati High Court last year. Considering the timing and far reaching and retrospective impact of the letter, the religious and linguistic minority communities perceive it as a ploy to exclude large number of genuine Indian citizen from complete draft and make them vulnerable for torturous battle in the foreigners’ tribunal and augmenting the risk of landing in the detention centre.

However, NRC coordinator has clarified that out of 92000 plus declared foreigner they could have identify only 4259 applications submitted by those declared foreigners. He speculated that the number of family members of the 4259 declared foreigners would be around 50000.

Meanwhile, the decision of excluding the family members of declared foreigners, who have documentary evidence to prove their Indian nationality and whom the NRC updating authority itself had provided the legacy document, not only created public outcry in Assam but also got attention from national and international media as well human rights bodies and human rights defenders.

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Opened the Pandora’s Box?

On June 11, four Special Rapporteurs of United Nations Human Rights Council has sent a strong communication to the MEA Sushma Swaraj. The eight pages letter alleged that the order “may lead to the wrongful exclusion of close to two million names from the NRC, without a prior investigation and trial.” The letter also questions the independence and impartial functioning of foreigners’ tribunal and terms it as “so-called foreigners’ tribunal”.

It labelled serious allegation “members of Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam experience increasing pressure from State authorities to declare more persons as foreigners. On 21st June 2017, 19 members of the Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam were dismissed on ground of their under-performance over the last two years. More than 15 additional Tribunal members were issued with a strict warning to increase their efficiency. Considering that tribunal members serve on a contractual basis for two years, which may be extended on a needs and performance”

One of the terminated members of foreigners’ tribunal, on the condition of anonymity said that one of their performance indicators was – how many cased they decided in favour of the state’ or in other word how many cases they declared as foreigners!

In the wake of the controversy regarding the May 2 letter of the NRC coordinator, another important and shocking development is observed. Earlier this year, noted human rights worker and former IAS officer Harsh Mander led the National Human Rights Commission’s Mission to detention centres in Assam as Special Monitor to NHRC. His mission studied the conditions of detainees inside two detention centres in Goalpara and Kokrajhar district of Assam and studied the process of the identifying doubtful voters and functioning of border police who refers cases to foreigners’ tribunal. Harsh Mander submitted the report but NHRC didn’t take any step on his findings and suggestions. He resigned from NHRC as Special Monitor and made his report public.

The report alleges “these detention centres lie on the dark side of both legality and humanitarian principles”. There are nearly 900 hindred declared foreigners who are detained in six detention centres across the state. Some of them are detained for nearly a decade. Their families have been separated; they don’t have any right to payroll, means of communication with the family members. There is no manual or proper guideline for the administration of these detention centres. In one hand the detainees are treated as convicted criminals on the other hand they are not allowed the basic rights like payroll and wage against which are available to convicted criminals.

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Harsh Mander further wrote, “Overall, I am convinced that for a process that can result in the disenfranchisement, indefinite detention or expulsion of a person, the state government needs to ensure due process and, with it, compassion and an understanding of the predicament of persons with a poor education and lack of economic resources and social or political capital.”

However, the Assam government and the NRC authority have not reacted either to UNHRC Special Rapporteurs letter or Harsh Mander’s report.

Changing Narrative

The citizenship tangle in Assam has a long history and many complexities. Apart from the administrative complexities involving multiple agencies, nearly a dozen of Acts, Rules and Accords, numerous state and non-state stakeholders; the complexities of narratives are also emerging.

The narrative of large scale, uninterrupted influx of migrants from Bangladesh causing threat to demography, language and cultural heritage of Assam has been slowly shifting towards the narrative of persecution and mistreatment of genuine Indian citizen who are religious and linguistic minorities in the state of Assam. There is little doubt that the ‘doubtful voter’ and its ecosystem has been the breeding ground for such counter narrative and the May 2 letter issued by NRC authority has given the long awaited exposure to the issue.

This will be interesting to observe how the things get unfolded once the complete draft NRC is published.

Originally published at https://www.news18.com/news/india/despite-valid-documents-my-wife-is-a-doubtful-citizen-how-sword-of-nrc-is-destroying-families-in-assam-1827111.html

Error-Free NRC Is A Broken Dream

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The NRC is a rare project on which every section of Assamese society, including Muslims, who have been historically harassed as illegal immigrants, came to a consensus with the Assamese nationalist groups to settle the citizenship question and move forward. When the project started in 2015, civil society groups representing Muslims tried to convince the community that once the NRC is completed, there wouldn’t be any D-voters or atrocities by the border police, no Indian Muslim would be at detention centres, and no vigilante group would bully them in the name of examining their nationality. The convincing voice of late Lafikul Islam Ahmed, president of the All Bodo Minority Students Union, which was silenced by unidentified assailants, still echoes in my ears.
Though the promotion of NRC didn’t stop, all was not well with the process. And as soon as the BJP came to power in Assam, the dream of an error-free NRC started fading.

The first assault on the NRC’s credibility was by bringing in the provision of original inhabitants, or ‘OIs’, without even a proper definition or clarity on its constitutional validity. While large numbers of people, including tea-garden workers brought from British India’s Central Province, were included in the NRC without documentary evidence if the registering authority was satisfied, it was not allowed for Muslims who came from the East Bengal province of British India. The OI provision was not part of the modalities and wasn’t even discussed in the cabinet sub-committee. This made the verification process stringent for Muslims. The results were evident in the NRC’s first draft published on December 31 last year. It led to allegations that 90 per cent of the people were left out in districts dominated by the religious and linguistic min­ority, while 70 per cent were included in the ‘OI’-dominated upper Assam districts.

The second assault was the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, which promises citizenship rights to six persecuted religious minorities, including Bangladeshi Hindus. Then, on May 1 and 2 this year, NRC state coordinator Prateek Hajela sent out circulars to district magistrates, asking them not to accept certain documents that were earlier accepted as per the modalities, and to keep on hold applications of family members of declared foreigners until their names are cleared by the Foreigners Tribunal. The D-voters were already a category of exclusion.

Meanwhile, hundreds of fresh notices of reference cases are ­being served even as the NRC updating process is in its final phase. Muslims read these as an attempt to exclude as many of them as possible, and eventually dump them in the already overcrowded detention centres. Thus the very community that expected the NRC to solve their problem once and for all finds itself in the crosshairs of another evil exercise like the ‘D-voter’ one of 1997 and at risk of being arbitrarily stripped of citizenship rights. News of more and more paramilitary deployment in Assam to tackle the post -NRC law and order situation, with footage of shooting people in mock drills made viral through both mainstream and social media, only instilled more and more fear. Similar is the effect of reports that a giant detention centre is coming up in Goalpara district. The fear is genuine and unaddressed so far. And it may thwart the intended goals of the NRC.

Originally published at https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/error-free-nrc-is-a-broken-dream/300434

 

Tribute to Sukracharjya Rabha

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Sukracharjya Rabha dreams of a people’s theatre in char!

Till this time, I was lucky enough not to write an obituary; perhaps, I have not been inspired and influenced by any living person to such an extent that his or her departure would put an end to this luxury. But Sukrachariya Rabha is different, he is unique and here I am writing my tribute!

I had a very short but an extraordinary meeting with Sukra da in March this year. After several rounds of telephonic discussions, Rahul bhindeo (Rahul Dev Nath, a noted filmamer from Goalapra, I address him as bhideo – husband of elder sister) confirmed that he would be visiting our “Parag Kumar Das Char Library’ in Barpeta district of Assam along with two distinguished personalities one of them is Sukracharjya Rabha. It was almost unbelievable for me, I asked him twice and his confirmation gave me goose bum!

I heard and read a lot about his theatre involving the rural community. I became a fan of his initiative to bring back the theatre from sophisticated urban sphere to the nature. We are living in a time, when the political class conveniently ignores the destruction of nature and silently approves further destruction in the name of development. One the other hand, the artists’ community run towards urban area, chasing their dream to make them reality through the recognition and fame provided by the urban elites. But as I have mentioned in the very beginning that Sukra da was different, he was unique. While living in the age of market driven creativity, he rejected the conventional way of art and life. In an interview with Ratna Bharali Talukdar, he said “theatre became not a part of my life, but my entire life. I was stubborn in insisting that we must take theatre out of the sophisticated auditorium or stage, and take it to our own people. Forests are always an integral part of the life of the tribes in Assam, and the idea of celebrating drama in the midst of a forest environment took roots in my mind.”

When I met him for the first and unfortunately for the last time on 11th March, it didn’t take much time to read his simple but eclectic outlook towards marginalized and hard-working rural communities. He was traveling from Guwahati via Nalbari (to pick up Pankaj Govind Medhi, well known columnist and author from Nalbari). I told Rahul bhindeo that I would be waiting either at Barpeta town or at Howly so that they don’t have to face any trouble to reach, around 40 kilometres in southern side from national highway at Sorbhog. But they advised me to go to Mazidbhita char directly and they would reach by their own. I waited for them near the Janata Baazar, close to char.

They came by a white car, Sukra da was seating in the front seat. It didn’t take a moment to recognize him. During winter to spring, the stream of river Beki which flows through the northern part of the char gets dried up. They decided to drive the car through the sandy river bed. I was riding my scooter while the car followed me. The river bed was so sandy that sometimes, because of blown-up dust, I couldn’t see the car on rear view mirror of my scooter. After travelling about one and half kilometre we reached the campus of Jhai Foundation where the ‘Parag Kumar Das Char Library’ is situated.

After getting off the car, Sukra da panned his eyes across the char. I could see in eyes, he was impressed by the greenery of the char surrounded by river Beki, a tributary of mighty Brahmaputra. But his focus was not on the greenery only also on those people who toiled under the sun to turn the flood-ravaged char into greenery once again. The first reaction he gave ‘how beautiful place and such hardworking people!’

Within a very short time, we spoke on various issues including flood, erosion, language, nationalism and of course about theatre. He told me “Abdul, theatre doesn’t need anything extraordinary, it’s not something different. The entire universe it part of it. You saw those people working in the paddy field? They are the best actors. Theatre is way of life”. I could hardly grasp his philosophical teaching but his lively and compassionate chain of words brought a beautiful motion picture into my imagination.

In his unique annual theatre festival “Under the Sal Tree” (Theatre in Nature), he conceptualized theatre in such a way that the life of an ordinary man or woman can be reflected amidst of nature and the wider sections of audience can relate with. ‘Under the Sal Tree’ as a festival, celebrating nature through theatre without using artificial lights and sounds not only got acceptance among the local tribal people but also attracted huge attention across the globe.

I sought his suggestions and guidance to form a theatre group in the char. I thought he would be busy and for him it might not be much productive to come to char once again to teach us basic things about theatre. So, I requested him to send some actors from his group to train us. Surprisingly, Sukra da told me “Don’t worry, Abdul, I will come back and we will work together. Next time when I come, I will come for few days, preferably during flood”. We exchanged telephone numbers for future communications. But who knew that the ‘future’ would turn into ‘history’ so quickly!

Sukra da wanted to have a walk around the char. He along with Rahul bhindeo, Pankaj da and my colleagues Kazi and Zahedul visited the farmers in their field, talked to them about crops, experience of flood, erosion, displacement, and politics among others. They went to individual households of char dwellers to understand their lives more closely. While coming back, Sukra da saw few plastic packets nearby our campus. The person who was so nice to me didn’t hesitate to warn to me to be respectful towards the nature and asked me clean the plastic packets as soon as possible. His honesty and conviction to the cause he believes, earned respect from core of my heart.

While having lunch in an open space, another round of discussion took place. This time Pankaj da took lead and started finding out how we could bridge the growing gaps between the communities. Sukra da showed the ways and means how we could work together among the marginalized groups including char dwellers to minimize this gap. I remember, along with the proposal of starting a theatre group, one of their suggestions to me was to develop a handbook on char-chapori dweller and invite members from other communities and train them on culture, tradition, food habit as well as dialects to make them familiar with the people living in char-chapori areas of Assam.

Sukra da has been one of the few individuals who have given me such radical and original ideas to bring the conflict-torn-estranged-communities of Assam together. In his short visit, Sukra da has given me so much of tasks and made me feel how much challenges has he headed on. But didn’t allow me to think for moment that he would leave me alone to complete all those challenging tasks and he would leave for heavenly abode.