On December 1, the NRC Sewa Kendra under which this village falls sent Anowar Hussain a notice asking him to furnish a proper birth certificate for his 9-year-old daughter, Jahanara Khatun. Family members say the 37-year-old daily wager felt hapless. He had no idea how to get a birth certificate, and the local primary school asked him to get back with details as his daughter had stopped attending classes about four years ago.
Two days after he had got the notice, Hussain was found dead, with a pesticide bottle next to him.
“I told him not to panic. We have documents showing my late father Abed Ali’s name in the 1966 electoral rolls. But he thought the girl would be deported to Bangladesh,” Anowar’s father Tohuruddin (60) says, weeping at the loss of his eldest son. “For two days, he kept repeating that Jahanara would be sent to Bangladesh,” Anowar’s wife Karimon Nessa recalls. Jahanara is the fourth of their seven children. Anowar didn’t have any child from his second wife, Khateja Khatun.
Almost all the adult members of the family work as domestic helps, and Anowar too often worked at the home of local AIUDF MLA Sahab Uddin Ahmed, when not running errands at a local tea stall.
All the other children have certificates from school attesting their date of birth; while the adults have papers showing they are related to Tohuruddin — making them eligible for inclusion in the NRC, or the National Register of Citizens, a mammoth exercise underway in Assam to make a list of the state’s citizens. The list was last made in 1951, and an agreement to update it was reached back in 2005. The former Congress government finally began the exercise in 2015. But it is only now, under the BJP-led government, which won with illegal immigration as a major election plank, that the NRC has got a push.
A little over 3.27 crore people belonging to about 68.21 lakh families have submitted applications so far for inclusion in the NRC. Since September 1, 2015, the authorities claim to have verified applications of 2.13 crore people. With the Supreme Court fixing December 31 as the deadline for a draft NRC, the NRC team led by state coordinator Prateek Hajela is expected to go through papers of 2.52 crore names within the next 20 days. Given the work still left, the Centre pleaded for an extension of seven months, but was turned down.
Around 38 lakh of the 2.52 crore people, like 9-year-old Jahanara, fall in the “verifiable” category.
“We have engaged a little over 6,500 verification teams to look at those in whose case doubts have arisen,” Hajela says. “Careful examination of every document is important. We can neither leave out any Indian citizen, nor can we enrol even one illegal migrant.”
It is these two exacting requirements that have raised apprehensions among families like Anwar’s. While the AASU, BJP and AGP, among others, believe the purpose should be not to include “even one Bangladeshi”, the Congress, AIUDF, AAMSU (All Assam Minorities Students’ Union) and Jamiat assert that no genuine Indian should be left out. In 2010, alleging that Muslims were being excluded in the name of going after Bangladeshis, the AAMSU had got the NRC pilot project in Barpeta scuttled.
On Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s urging, the Centre has sent 50 companies of paramilitary forces anticipating trouble ahead of the December 31 deadline. Telling The Indian Express that they would follow the Supreme Court orders, Chief Secretary V K Pipersenia says, “It is true that there is fear that some people may try to create trouble by inciting groups. But the state government is fully prepared.”
In the past few days, the NRC authorities have also started a campaign, ‘Our NRC, Fair NRC’, to assuage fears. Advertisements in newspapers and on social media assure that the NRC list would have “no categorisation as original inhabitant”. And that “all genuine citizens as per date of March 24th, 1971 (midnight)” will find a place.
But Anwar’s family isn’t the only one “clueless”. On December 2, Siddeque Ahmed, an Assam minister between 2011 and 2016, was served a notice. “I was asked for (details) of my father whose name had appeared in the NRC of 1951. I called up the Deputy Commissioner of Karimganj district. He came along with the local Circle Officer, and verified my papers. If I can feel shocked, I am sure illiterate and poor people will panic,” says Ahmed.
Earlier, in July, Md Azmal Haque, 49, who retired as a JCO in the Army, was served a notice by the ‘Foreigners Tribunal’ of Kamrup district after an SP (Border) lodged a complaint that he had illegally entered Assam after March 1971. “Had I not gone to the media, I would have probably been sent to a detention camp and then pushed out to Bangladesh,” says Haque. Assam DGP Mukesh Sahay later clarified that it was a case of mistaken identity.
The detention camps, six in all, were set up by the previous Congress government in 2008, inside regular jails. Two categories of people are sent to such camps — those declared foreigners (or illegal migrants) by Foreigners Tribunals, either after trial or after ex-parte orders, when people don’t show up despite notices; and persons arrested after failing to show valid documents and admitting they are foreigners. That covers both cases such as Haque’s and, possibly, Jahanara’s.
Currently, 830 persons are officially in the detention camps, of whom 596 have addresses in Assam. The number of suspected Bangladeshis in Assam varies between 50 and 55 lakh. Officials say in 2017, Assam handed over around 20 Bangladeshis to the neighbouring country.
Guwahati-based lawyer Aman Wadud says many people in detention camps were held after ex-parte orders “without giving any opportunity to be heard”. On November 19, The Sunday Express had written about two such people, Ashraf Ali and Kismat Ali of Sonajuli, who spent two and a half years in detention camps before being released.
Anowar Hussain had got a notice from the NRC Sewa Kendra (NSK) at Katarihara, which covers 12 revenue villages. It had received applications from 3,206 households, and last week served notices to 837 people, including Anowar.
Hanifuddin Talukdar, the centre’s Local Registrar of Citizen Registration, says most of the notices concern “minor” issues. “Of children not having appropriate birth certificates, or where photocopies are illegible… Photocopies are a big problem,” he says. Among the papers being checked are documents issued by anganwadi centres, schools, hospitals at the time of delivery, and immunisation cards.
Anowar’s daughter Jahanara’s case too, Talukdar adds, could have been “easily” verified on the basis of the family’s link to the 1966 electoral rolls and local “witnesses” like the ASHA worker.
Hurmuz Ali, the headmaster of Katarihari LP School where Jahanara studied, says he has issued papers for other children to help them get a birth certificate. “Eleven since December 1” alone, when Anowar came running to him, Ali says.
Goalpara SP Amitabh Sinha says they are treating Anowar’s case as “unnatural death”.
Meanwhile, Jahanara continues to stay with the family of Jahanur Hussain, the brother-in-law of MLA Ahmed, in Goalpara, over 70 km away. “She cleans the house, washes utensils and looks after a child there,” says Jahanara’s mother Karimon Nessa.
MLA Ahmed denies the 9-year-old, staying at Hussain’s home for the past four years, is a domestic help. “Anowar asked my brother-in-law to look after her,” the MLA insists.