Quote Posted on
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”.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Quote Posted on Updated on
On 8 March, the KAAC officials, police officers and paramilitary personnel returned to the Hojai-Karbi Anglong eviction site for a third round of evictions. But the eviction was halted by the intervention of the Gauhati high court, which issued an order that day, taking note of Borgohain’s letters and instructing the chief secretary to “stop the eviction drive before final boundary demarcation is done.”
The high court’s order did not prevent police excesses at the eviction site, where a group of residents were protesting against the drive. In the afternoon, while I was visiting Kulsuma Begum at the hospital, Ain Uddin, a 29-year-old resident of the area, called me to inform me that the police was lathi charging the protestors. In the background, I could hear people screaming and praying. A short while later, he sent me several photographs of the police assault—one image showed a traumatised-looking old man with a white beard, standing with the support of two young men. Uddin had added the caption, “Police has broken his leg.”
The BJP had begun the practice of evictions soon after forming the government. On 6 February 2017, Pallab Lochan Das, the state’s revenue minister, informed the assembly that the government had evicted 3,481 families from 17 districts across Assam within the first six months of coming to power. Since then, the state government has continued to conduct large-scale eviction operations across the state, but it has not provided any data concerning the drives. Bhabesh Kalita, the minister of state in the revenue and disaster management department, told me he did not have updated data because the evictions drives were still ongoing. Though precise demographic statistics are unavailable, most of the evictions have taken place in Muslim-dominated areas, and have also led to the displacement of Adivasi communities in some cases.
My colleagues and I have been visiting the eviction sites to document as much as is possible. Over the last three years, I have visited at least ten eviction sites across Assam. A clear pattern emerges from studying these evictions—the Muslims residents of an area are described as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, an eviction drive is carried out without prior notice or compliance with such procedural requirements, and it is marked by the use of brute force and impunity for those responsible. This modus operandi was visible in the BJP-led state government’s first eviction operation, in September 2016, near Kaziranga National Park, in central Assam’s Nagaon district.
On 19 September, following an October 2015 Gauhati high court order, the state government conducted an eviction drive in three villages—Bandardubi, Deosursang and Palkhuwa—located on the periphery of the Kaziranga National Park. During the drive, the government destroyed the houses of nearly two hundred families—all but seven of these belonged to Muslims. The police shot two people dead, including a 12-year-old girl; several were injured in police firing and lathi charges. Soon after the eviction drive was conducted, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the state finance minister, posted a tweet congratulating the district administration and declaring that the BJP government would “never compromise on JATI, MATI & BHETI.”
Around two weeks later, I went to the eviction site as part of a fact-finding team of academicians and activists. At the office of a farmers’ collective near Kaziranga, one of the farmers showed me his land documents and said, “We are neither encroachers nor illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, we were evicted from our patta land”—referring to the official land-holding document. Even government records reveal that Bandardubi and Deosursang villages were given the patta in 1961, whereas Kaziranga was declared a national park only in 1974. In fact, Abdul Hamid, one of the victims of the eviction violence, gave me certified copies of land records that clearly stated that the land does not fall within the national park’s demarcated area. He also gave me a copy of a six-month old revenue receipt and said, “I have been paying the revenue regularly, how could the government evict me without resettlement?”
None of the mainstream Assamese media houses reported on the apparent illegality of the eviction. Instead, the media largely portrayed the victims as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who encroached upon the land of the indigenous Assamese. After the Hojai-Karbi Anglong eviction too, the media continued the same narrative. I spoke to a journalist who covered the eviction for one of the oldest and most widely circulated English dailies in Assam, whose story framed the victims as “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.” When I asked him how he was certain that they were Bangladeshi nationals, he argued that he has to call them “Bangladeshi” because the politicians and the people in position of power have identified them as such. The journalist requested not to be identified out of fear for his safety.
The next morning, I experienced the reach and might of the Assam government first-hand, during my attempt to carry out a fact-finding mission at the eviction site. Upon reaching Lanka railway station in Hojai district, I got a call from a police officer summoning me to the Lanka police station. I informed the police officer that I was waiting for a colleague and that we would come to the station together. But over the next ten minutes, the police called me not less than ten times. At the police station, at least five officers, including a deputy and additional superintendent of police as well as an officer of the special branch, questioned us for almost seven hours.
The officers were polite and served us snacks, but they were relentless. They asked me why I was interested in knowing about the situation, about my background, about where I work and for whom I write, and about the international news organisations for which I have written or given an interview. The police officers were particularly suspicious about my connection with Al Jazeera, the news website for which I was reporting on the evictions at the time, treating it not as an international media platform, but almost as an outlawed organisation.
Eventually, the police refused to let us visit the eviction site or meet the deputy commissioner Borgohain. The deputy commissioner later told me over phone that the police had prevented us from visiting the site “in fear that our visit would escalate tensions in the area.” He evaded questions about why the state administration had proceeded with the eviction drive despite his letters. I tried contacting Alok Kumar, the chief secretary of Assam, and Mahananda Hazarika, the principal secretary of the KAAC, to ask why they did not take heed of the deputy commissioners concerns about the eviction. Hazarika asked me to visit the KAAC office, but did not respond to messages or calls seeking a phone interview. Kumar did not respond to multiple calls and messages.
Over the last few months, the BJP’s popularity in Assam has been on a downward spiral. The disaffection with the party began with the BJP’s introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, in 2016, which sought to give citizenship to all the immigrants except Muslims, whereas even the BJP’s Assamese allies are opposed to the Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh. While the BJP appears to have brokered peace with its allies ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, in Assam’s tribal areas such as the Karbi Anglong, the disillusionment is compounded by allegations of rampant corruption in handling the funds allocated to the autonomous council and the KAAC’s proposal to allot land in the area for a Patanjali herbal and food park to the business tycoon Ramdev. The Hojai-based activist Rahman, who is the president of the Hojai unit of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti—a peasants-rights organisation in Assam—said that the BJP was losing ground in the Diphu Lok Sabha constituency, which consists of the autonomous districts Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong.
“The BJP was in desperate need of a situation through which they could consolidate the tribal vote before the general election,” Rahman said. “What could be more appropriate than orchestrating an eviction drive against the Muslims, that too, through which the BJP can claim that they got back the council’s land, which was never under their possession.” Prafulla Nath, an assistant professor with the centre for tribal studies at Assam University’s Diphu campus, said that the BJP government could exploit the situation by portraying the situation as an encroachment of tribal land by the Muslims residents. “The government knew that if the eviction is done by the Hojai district, there would be lots of hue and cry,” Nath said. “As it is done by Karbi Anglong administration, they can use the tribal card.”
In the wake of the Citizenship Amendment Bill protests, ministers in the Assam government resorted to spreading communal and polarising rhetoric, terming the state’s Muslims as illegal immigrants who snatched land and resources from the indigenous Assamese people. For instance, in 2016, the finance minister Sarma began spreading misinformation that Muslim residents had encroached upon the land belonging to a satra—socio-religious monasteries established by Srimanta Sankardev, the architect of modern Assamese society.
For the Assamese, the satras are an emotive part of their state and culture, and Sarma sought to invoke their pride in order to exploit it and target the Muslims. “Does secularism mean that the satras have to move out of their original places?” Sarma asked in a November 2016 press conference. “Does secularism mean some people will snatch away land belonging to Batadrava satra? Does secularism mean some people will encroach upon land in Kaziranga and Pobitora?” But Sarma’s inflammatory rhetoric was defeated when Kalita placed government records before the state assembly, which revealed that the satra land was not encroached by the so-called Bangladeshi Muslims, but that it was eroded by the Brahmaputra river, and that the government had failed to protect it.
In present-day Assam, no one questions the government—not even the human-rights organisations. Once in January 2017, when I was talking to a senior officer of an international child-rights organisation, my friend sent me a photograph of the dead body of a three-day-old infant, who had died in a resettlement camp a few days after an eviction drive in Sipajhar town, in Assam’s Darrang district. I showed him the photograph and requested to do something for the evicted children. “Officially I cannot do anything, Abdul,” he replied. “This is a different government. But if you ask me personally, I would be happy to donate something.”
During the Kaziranga fact-finding mission, one experience was particularly telling of the fearful conditions prevailing at the resettlement camps. At one of the camps, I saw a young boy curiously looking at us. When I opened the lens of my camera to take a picture of him, the boy cried out loud and his mother rushed out from her shelter and immediately took him into her lap. The mother explained that since the eviction, her son lives in fears of the “khaki dress and anything that resembles a gun.” The incident brought to mind a disturbing parallel—the viral photo of a Syrian girl who surrendered to a camera, mistaking it to be a gun.
Originally published at https://caravanmagazine.in/religion/bjp-weaponised-evictions-tool-assam-muslim-residents
Quote Posted on Updated on
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 a 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.
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.
Quote Posted on Updated on
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.
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
Quote Posted on Updated on
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am following the ongoing NRC (National Register of Citizen) updation process not only because of its long term political implications in the state; but also, it is emotionally very close to me. On July 21, 2010 my nephew Mydul Mullah (25) was one among the lakhs of marginalized Muslims of Barpeta district who were demonstrating in front of Deputy Commissioner’s office at district headquarter demanding error free fresh NRC. Eventually, police brutally cracked down on the picketers, police fired upon the democratically demonstrating people without any provocation. Mydul Mullah along with his three comrades Khandakar Matleb (20), Siraj Ali (27) and Majam Ali (55) were killed in police firing. Tarun Gogoi government was forced to suspend the faulty NRC pilot project due unprecedented public outrage.
The illegal migration issue has been one of the most significant topics in the political atmosphere of Assam since 30s of last century. Six years long Assam Movement was claimed to be a secular, nonviolent new social movement to drive out the illegal foreigners. But the analysis of scholars and social scientist reveal that as soon as the Assam movement accommodated right wing RSS workers into its leadership, the whole movement turned against the Bengal origin Muslims of the state. Most brutal massacres like Nellie, Chaolkhuwa, Nagabandha etc were put into action, in broad day light thousands of people were killed. After six years of deadlock, the movement culminated through signing off ‘Assam Accord’ in 1985. The accord says that the immigrants, who came to Assam after 25th of March, 1971 will be detected and deported from Assam. Updating the 1951 National Register of Citizen was one of the mandates of the accord to identify the so called large scale migrants in Assam. Subsequent political history is known to every once, the agitators took over the state power. Newly formed Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) ruled the state for 10 long years but couldn’t identify large scale Bangladeshi, they miserably failed to implement the accord.
After nearly three decades, now the NRC updation process is progressing under direct supervision of honorable Supreme Court of India. The community which is being branded as illegal Bangladeshi cordially welcomed the process. It is really a matter of delight that most of the civil society organizations and community leaders belonging to Bengal origin Muslims are wholeheartedly working to make the NRC the updation process successful. Many of them are working day and night to create awareness among the masses. The community leaders are organizing hundreds of meetings and workshops to educate people about the nuances of NRC updation process even without any support from the government. It seems that the community which has been always branded as illegal Bangladeshi immigrant has pledged to end the shame for once and all at any cost.
But the self proclaimed custodians of Assamese nationalism, who were suffering from so called identity crisis, soon realized that the NRC updation will eventually dry up the prospects of being professional protester. Some of the organization already approached the apex court demanding amendment of Citizenship Act and to stop the ongoing NRC updation process. On the other hand the both print and electronic media have started propagating against the process. On every other day they are publishing opinion and editorials questioning the NRC updation process. The leading English newspaper of Assam ‘The Assam Tribune’ published an article “The migration imbroglio and NE” which directly propagates that the ongoing NRC updation will legitimize the illegal Bangaldeshi as Indian nationals! Veteran journalist Dhirendra Nath Chakravarty, a known right wing admirer, said that Bengal origin Muslims can be Indian but not Assamese. He didn’t even hesitate to suggest seceding of certain Muslim dominated area from Assam. Though historically, Bengal origin Muslims have officially adopted Assamese as their mother tongue way back in 1951 and have been working to promote and preserve Assamese language since 19th century. During language movement and medium movement in Assam, the community fought for Assamese language and succeeded. Without their support, Assamese language would have been a language of minority in Assam.
Secondly, right wing groups continued their effort to polarize the Assamese society in religious line to halt the NRC updation process. Communal hate mongers like Prabin Togaria and Subramanian Swami started spreading venom in Assam. Swami in his consecutive two visits to Assam gave controversial statements which are enough to incite communal tension. Once he asked the Bangladeshi Muslims to accept Hinduism if they want to stay in Assam and on another occasion he suggested to destroy the mosque. But Assamese society outrageously rejected those statements.
When these attempts miserably failed to serve their purpose, they find out another way to create a political storm in the state which is going to poll next year. They found speaker of Assam Legislative Assembly Mr. Pranab Gogoi as messiah of indigenous Assamese people who are facing so called threat of being minority in their own state. It is worthy to mention here that in one of my earlier article I have mentioned his perception about the Muslims of Assam as well as his respect towards democratic values and ethics. When a group of MLAs from main opposition party asked the government to clear its stand on the issues of rehabilitating thousands of conflict induced internally displaced persons of lower Assam, who are living in relief camps for more than two decades, Mr. Gogoi compared the legislators with crow and expelled them from the house. This time also, violating the parliamentary norms he initiated a discussion at his individual capacity with the civil society groups of the state to come up with a definition of ‘Assamese’.
The question arises, why the definition of Assamese is required when NRC updation process is undergoing under direct supervision of honorable Supreme Court of India? The clause six of Assam Accord talks of providing constitutional safeguard to the Assamese people. This is a known fact that Assam as a state has been deprived by the central government throughout the post colonial history. The natural resources of the state have been harshly exploited by the central government. The development data says that in post colonial era Assam is on downward spiral. Hence, Assamese people need extra attention and constitutional safeguard. This safeguard or positive discrimination described in the accord is obviously meant for the Assamese people not for the outsiders for foreigners. And the accord also says that the person, who immigrated to Assam after 25th March, 1971 will be detected and deported. It is important to clarify here that the accord didn’t talk about providing constitutional safeguard to ‘indigenous Assamese people’ but to ‘Assamese people’, which includes all the communities irrespective of caste, creed, language or origin except those who entered the state illegally after 25th of March, 1971. As per the provisions of the accord honorable Supreme Court of India has given directive to the state government to prepare the modalities to update the NRC. It is now clear that this orchestrated debate over definition of Assamese is an attempt to nullify the importance of a fresh updated NRC to solve the long standing illegal migrant issue of Assam. This is also an attempt to vilify the Assam accord which is the result of six years long agitation and at the cost of thousands of innocent lives including the victims of infamous Nellie massacre.
We will conclude our discussion by analyzing the definition provided by speaker Pranab Gogoi and its political implications. Mr. Gogoi said in his report that he has held discussion with civil society organizations including CSOs belong to Bengal origin Muslim community. He defined indigenous Assamese people by taking 1951 as the base year. However, his definition goes against the basic tenets of Assam Accord, as the accord didn’t incorporated the term ‘indigenous’ while prescribing constitutional safeguard for the Assamese People. Secondly, Mr. Gogoi couldn’t address the questions raised by many organizations which strongly oppose his divisive definition of ‘Assamese’. There are some practical problems with this definition – i) Assam government has informed the assembly on record that the 1951 NRC is not available for all the districts of Assam, some of the districts have partially. Census report says that in 1951 census many areas were not included in the census due to poor transportation and connectivity. Moreover, it is almost impossible to retrieve any other supporting documents like school certificate, land records, employment etc considering the socio-economic conditions of that era. ii) As per government record 53000 Muslim families fled to the than East Pakistan in 1950 due to communal violence in Assam, out of which 41000 came back under Nehru-Liyaqat pact. Naturally, those families are not figured in 1951 NRC as well as 1951 census. Hence, speaker Pranab Gogoi’s definition is impractical ab initio.
The pick moment of this orchestrated drama was very interesting to follow. Mr. Gogoi read his report before the house in the state assembly and intended to submit it to the government officially and asked the government to implement his definition to provide constitutional safeguard. The ruling Congress party rejected his definition and the government refused to receive the report at his official capacity, as it doesn’t come under the ambit of speaker’s role, whereas BJP MLAs supported the speaker. Later on Mr. Gogoi submitted the report to the government on his individual capacity. The analysts read the development as a golden opportunity for the speaker to get closure to BJP as he has developed a bad blood with the chief minister Tarun Gogoi as well as other members of the cabinet. One of the minister openly said before the media that a section with vested interest has already started pressurizing the government to halt the NRC updation process.
This time Bengal origin Muslims are really working hard to get rid of the menace called illegal Bangladeshi immigrant. On the other hand, those individuals and organizations which have been shouting for decades demanding NRC updation are now opposing it. However, role of the state government is also not beyond doubt. Why it didn’t take step to stop this divisive project by speaker? Why chief minister Tarun Gogoi is not taking action against him? Meanwhile, Supreme Court of India has slammed the state government for submitting poor affidavit on the progress of NRC updation work.
When the world was celebrating the festival of sacrifice “Eid-ul-Azha”, a family at Khandakarpara of Brapeta district of Assam has been mourning the ultimate sacrifice of their young member Mydul Mullah. Soon after the Namaz of Fazr family members and the kith and kin of Mydul Mullah assembled at his graveyard to pray for the eternal peace of his departed soul.
Mydul Mullah, a 25 years old youth was brutality killed by police along with four others in Barpeta on July’21, 2010. They were part of a peace demonstration demanding current modalities for NRC updation. Police fired on the demonstrators violating the police manual. It was reported that the police hadn’t handled the situation carefully and sensitively. If they wanted, the demonstration could be managed peacefully. But the police was hand in glove with the AASU goons to attack the demonstrators. The police opened fire on the picketers without any provocation. It was also alleged that police intentionally shoot the demonstrators on head, chest etc to have maximum casualty. Family member says, a single bullet went straight into the heart of Mydul Mullah, which claimed his life. They also asked, if the police was really trying to only flee the agitators, why they shoot on his heart? Why not on legs (as prescribed in the police manual)?
There are number of such unanswered questions in the mind of the family members. After his death political leaders like Maulana Badaruddin Ajmal, Himanta Biswa Sarma etc visited their house. The politicians condemned the incident and tried to console the family, assured them justice. But nothing materialised. The family is weeping for the last three years. The family, who lost their earning member for a noble cause can’t forget him for a single day. Every festival increases the absence of him badly. Elderly mother cries like anything, while the others go to Idgah to perform special Namaz of Bakri Eid. Perhaps the politicians have forgotten about their promises, but how a mother can!
After three years of the great sacrifice of Mydul Mullah, the family and the neighbours are having a serious doubt. Perhaps his sacrifice will go in vain. Though the government has postponed the NRC updation with the faulty modalities immediately after the incident; but recently government is working under the dictation of AASU (All Assam Student Union) as far as the preparation of the modalities is concern. In fact more dangerous clauses are being incorporated in the modalities to detach the name of the genuine minority Muslim’s name the state from the updated NRC. Provision of house to house enumeration, providing with the facilitators to fill up forms, provision of application for NRC updation of D voters etc are eliminated from the current modalities submitted before the honourable Supreme Court by the state government. The state government, where Himanta Biswa Sarma is a cabinet minister and who visited the family after soon after the incident assured that interest of the genuine Indians will be protected. Same story with the principal opposition of party of the state assembly, the party president Maulana Badaruddin Ajmal, who also visited the family perhaps has forgotten the cause behind the sacrifice the life of those people who lost their life in the street of Barpeta. Indeed, their death was the main force behind the success of his political career. No major initiative has been taken up by the party to uphold the sacrifice of Mydul Mullah and his fellow martyrs. The All Assam Minority Student Union (AAMSU) also not working in the pace as expected. They has become a party in the writ petition filed the Assam Public Works in honourable Supreme Court most recently. Who knows, perhaps they are also trying to erase those painful memories!
But the family members can’t forget his sacrifice. They still hope Mydul Mullah’s sacrifice will not go in vain. One day the poor people of the state will get justice.
On 12 July’ 2013, Jaydeep Shukla, Extra Assistant Commissioner to Government of Assam submitted the additional affidavit in Supreme Court of India on Writ Petition (Civil) No. 274/2009 filed by Assam Public Works, regarding updation of National Register of Citizen (NRC). The additional affidavit is more of dictation by AASU (All Assam Students Union) then any submission of a democratic government of an Indian state. AASU submitted their suggestions on May 21, 2013 opposing the earlier affidavit given by government of Assam and held a meeting with the group of Ministers to discuss the modalities and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) on July 4, 2013. The government accepted the recommendations made by AASU. The modified modalities and SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) have incorporated some perilous clauses and deleted some basic ethics and democratic values.
Surprisingly, no other organizations were invited to the meeting, not even the representatives of AAMSU (All Assam Minority Students Union), whereas they were present in such meeting before preparing the earlier affidavit.
What are in this additional affidavit?
Clause 4(b) of the additional affidavit outlines that there would be no house to house enumeration, only application forms will be distributed house to house though government machinery. This affidavit also deleted the last two lines of introductory para of earlier affidavit “the Citizenship (Registration of Citizen and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rule, 2003 prescribed for house to house enumeration of all the households as done in case of population census or in the intensive revision electoral rule” vide clause 5 (i). The point 7 of SOP submitted earlier “Distribution of forms and house to house enumeration” also deleted by clause 5 (ii) and inserted “Inviting application from the head of the family”. The new modalities outlined that the forms will be available at circle office too.
Question arises, why AASU is interested to delete the clause ‘house to house enumeration’? Is updation of NRC is not an intensive work? Does not it seem to be seriously important? The affidavit says that forms will be distributed through government machinery. If government machinery can distribute the forms house to house, why can’t enumerate house to house?
Or the house to house distribution will remain in black and white and in practical the citizen will have to collect it from circle office? Imagine, what hurdles will have to face by the people of the char areas, where there are no roads, boot is the only means of communication, where one week’s travelling will be required to collect the form from circle office! Whereas, in case of any other states such updation always done through house to house enumeration.
The expertise of AASU does not end here. The affidavit also clearly mentions that there will be no provision of any facilitator! Where more than half of the population is illiterate and they are being asked to fill up their application forms from their own? Doesn’t it put a serious question mark on AASU’s inner intention?
Clause 4(c) of the additional affidavit says that the ‘D’ voters can apply for inclusion of their name in the updated NRC. But they would be finally included in the NRC, only when they are declared as non foreigner by Foreigners Tribunal. Even though they have sufficient documents to get registered their names in updated NRC. Doesn’t this provision violet the basic tenet of Indian judiciary? They will be treated as guilty until they are proven innocent (not innocent until proven guilty!). If we look at the conviction rate of ‘D’ voters, it is found that the conviction rate is very low. Total 55184 ‘D’ voter cases were registered between 1985 to 2012 (July), out of 55184 only 6590 were declared as foreigners. The conviction rate is 8.37%. That means more than 91% of those ‘D’ voters were genuine Indian citizen and were illegally harassed. And if we link it up to the proposed modalities that more than 91% of ‘D’ voter’s name will not be included in the updated NRC with out their fault! The additional affidavit also clarifies that the pending cases at Foreigners Tribunal will not affect the implementation of NRC updation. Doesn’t it alternatively say that we are not bothered about your sufferings?
Another crucial clause is incorporated in the affidavit, which indicates that if somebody’s name is not included (not satisfied with the outcome), will have to appeal through Foreigners Tribunal only and that also within 60days of such rejection. The option of tagging competent civil court might be there, which by virtue of its competency could direct the government to pay compensation to victim if rejected illegally. But in case of only Foreigners Tribunal, the judge will not hold such power to direct the authority to pay compensation. Interestingly, this appeal process will also not link up to the NRC updation process.
Point (g) of the annexed modalities along with the additional affidavit says, “…However, persons who are originally inhabitants of Assam and their children and descendants, who are citizens of India ab initio, shall be included in the consolidated list if the citizenship of such persons is beyond reasonable doubt and to the full satisfaction of the registering authority.” Doesn’t it summarily mean that the registering authority can add any name if they wish to do so? What is the reason behind this absolute power to authority? Is this represents any of our democratic values?
A legitimate doubt comes to mind, whether AASU really wants to update the NRC or trying to keep the issue alive to keep themselves in the limelight; otherwise why they are providing such dangerous, non viable and peculiar suggestions?
Why Congress government is playing with NRC?
If we closely observe the recent political developments in Assam, it becomes very clear that Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is taking some non conventional decision to be in power in the next term also. After the violence in BTAD and RHAC, the result of the panchayat poll has shown that Congress has lost ground in the minority belt. At the same time AIUDF has been becoming invincible in that belt. On the other hand BJP’s rise in the municipal election has actually threatened Congress. Gogoi is ready to change the role of the game. It seems that his nod to ULFA’s demand to declare Assam as a tribal state or accepting the suggestion of AASU on NRC updation blindly are the part of his greater political plan. He has to prove that he is more pro-nationalist than declining AGP or Sarbananda Sonowal. No doubt his power thrust may bring another bloodshed in Assam.
Why AIUDF is silent spectator?
In recent times, AIUDF is getting a boost politically after every clash or violence with minorities of the state. Be it 2010’s police firing at Barpeta or BTAD violence in 2012. If the NRC updation is preceded with the current modalities another violence can’t be avoided by any means. For a political gain AIUDF’s silence may be quite natural. Otherwise do you see any reason behind this epic silence?