The fate of lakhs of people in Assam hinges on the final NRC that will be out on August 31. As politics over the list builds up, Abhishek Saha visits Hojai, the district with the highest exclusion rate according to government data from the draft NRC, and Tora Agarwala visits Dhubri, the Muslim-majority border district with the lowest exclusion rate, to tell stories of what it is to be a name on a list — or off it .
Hojai – 32.99% people out of draft NRC
Will I now have to drag my old mother to the foreigners’ tribunal? Or will she be sent to a detention camp? Isn’t it better to poison her instead?” asks an agitated Manoj Das, 40, a businessman of automobile parts in Assam’s Hojai town.
His mother Kamala Das, soon to turn 70, is among 40 lakh people in the state who did not make it to the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) that was published in July last year and who now wait in nervous anticipation for the final list that is to be released on August 31, the date mandated by the Supreme Court.
On this list hinge several potent political questions — who is a citizen, who isn’t; what is home, what is away; who is an outsider, who is a son of the soil. Yet, the NRC process, which seeks to establish Indian citizenship of persons living in Assam primarily through decades-old tattered documents and oral evidence, has struggled to untangle this citizenship mesh.
Holding a laminated paper, yellow and torn at the edges, Das says it was all his mother had to prove her citizenship – a certificate from 1948 declaring her father, Bisweswar Das, as a refugee migrating into India from East Pakistan. But the authorities had said it wasn’t good enough as a legacy document and Kamala Das’s name was not on the draft list. She is the only one in the Das family to not make it — Das, his father, wife and children are in.
Das says his mother had a chance when her claim came up for appeal — Kamala Das had studied up to Class 1 in a school in Sivasagar district of Assam and Das could get a document to prove that. “But the school had no documents from that long ago. So I could not submit any new document during a hearing in 2018. If my mother’s name does not appear in the final NRC, then what?” worries Das.
He claims his mother’s relatives — a sister and the son of a dead brother — managed to establish their linkage to Bisweswar Das and have made it to the draft list.
Around 20 km away, in Doboka town of Hojai district, Abdul Matin, a 33-year-old businessman, is perturbed. His wife Naseema Begum, 24, has not made it to the draft — he says a certificate by a gram panchayat linking her to her family was rejected. During the claims round, he submitted their nikah nama and is now hoping she will make it to the final list when it is released on August 31.
“The tension does not go away — it is affecting work and life. We both keep talking about what will happen next. If she has to go the tribunal, then what? And if the tribunal rules against her, how do we ensure she does not end up at a detention camp,” says Matin.
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On August 1, the Assam government revealed in the Assembly district-wise figures of people left out from the draft NRC and, while making a case for reverification of names in the final draft, said that in Karimganj, Dhubri and South Salmara, the three Muslim-majority districts bordering Bangladesh, the exclusion percentage was lower, while in districts “where indigenous people live… where sons of the soil have been living for ages”, the exclusion rate is high. According to the government data, Hojai registered the highest exclusion rate at 32.99% — which meant that one in every three persons in the district could not make it to the draft NRC.
But that’s where it becomes difficult to tag Hojai, a landlocked district in Central Assam, with any particular identifier — of language or religion. Its demography has been shaped by Partition on the one hand and, on the other, by the migration of communities who settled from across the state and beyond several decades ago.
The district, which was carved out of Nagaon district in 2015, is home to large numbers of Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims, Assamese speakers and indigenous tribes, making it a confluence of identities, religions and communities. According to the 2011 Census data on religion collated from Hojai, Lanka and Doboka – the three regions of Nagaon that were made part of Hojai — the district has 45.5% Hindus and 53.6% Muslims, with Doboka being Muslim-majority and the other two predominantly Hindu.
While Hojai is part of the largely Assamese-speaking Brahmaputra Valley, it has a significant Bengali-speaking population. According to the 2011 Census data on language, over 52% people in the district registered Bengali as their mother tongue, with Assamese speakers at a little above 33%.
Hojai has been a nerve-centre for Bengali politics in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley — perfume baron, AIUDF leader and Dhubri MP Badruddin Ajmal hails from Hojai and firebrand Bengali politician, Shiladitya Dev of the BJP, is MLA of Hojai. The district is also a prominent centre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Assam, with its Geeta Ashram hosting regular camps and training sessions.
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In the 1980s, Hojai was one of the hotbeds of the Assam agitation — with the movement characterised more by its opposition to Bengali Hindus rather than Muslims — while the 1990s saw an active presence in the district of the militant United Liberation Front of Assam.
Outside an NRC Seva Kendra in Doboka, sisters Nisha, 50, and Niyati Acharjee, 47, wait to appear before officials to get their documents verified. Their names were not in the draft NRC because of a “mistake” in their father Gyanendra Acharjee’s name.
“My forefathers had come from East Pakistan to India to seek refuge. This is our only home. Where will we go?” asks Nisha, a domestic help, as she shows a document with a 42-year-old Gyanendra’s name in the 1971 voter list.
Among those excluded are Assamese speakers too. Ratul Saikia, 45, his wife Bichitra, 38, and his two sons — one 21 and the other 12 — have been left out of the draft NRC. A livid Saikia says, “They say the exclusion is due to some technical reason which will be sorted out. We hope that happens. But we are not happy at all about this. If the indigenous are left out, who will be in? This rush to publish the NRC, discarding the state government’s demands for re-verification, could lead to an NRC with errors.”
Also among those missing from the list are people from other Northeastern communities — like the Hajongs and Manipuris.
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At his home in Dherapathar, a remote village in Hojai, former Sashastra Seema Bal jawan Subimal Hajong, 52, sits with a sheaf of documents and a photo of him in uniform. Hajong, who was posted in Srinagar during the Kargil war, is not in the draft NRC. Neither are his wife Kadoli and mother Durgamoni.
Hajong says his father Parimal Hajong had migrated from then East Pakistan in 1960 into what is now Meghalaya, where he entered the government service. Those days, he was Parimal ‘Adhikary’ — a name, Hajong says, Parimal took on after a visit to a Uttar Pradesh-based guru at the age of 12. But in 1978, his father gave up his ‘Adhikary’ surname and went back to being Hajong — and asked his son to do so too. “The mismatch in my father’s name, of ‘Adhikary’ and ‘Hajong’, was one of the reasons for my exclusion,” says the retired jawan. He has filed his claims and now awaits the August 31 list.
His mother Durgamoni was a native of Garo Hills of Meghalaya and the panchayat certificate they submitted as proof of her identity was “not accepted”. He is more hopeful of Kandoli making it to the final list, having fixed a “minor error” in her legacy documents.
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“It has become a huge headache for me. I am not scared of being taken to a detention camp, but what will people say if my name is not in the NRC? They will say, look, Subimal worked as a jawan but has no documents to prove he is Indian,” says Hajong.
In Hojai, everyone has a sense of rootlessness, says historian Ankur Tamuli Phukan, who is from Lanka town in the district.
“Hojai is a district of migrants, whether Assamese or Bengali or Muslims or other indigenous communities like the Manipuris. The district has a complex, interesting history, and the NRC updation process, with its aim of ascertaining citizenship with the help of documents, fails to make sense of that. Personally, I don’t think there has been any wide-scale migration post 1971 into the district,” he says, adding that the migration of Assamese people into the district in the late 1940s and 1950s is linked to ecological reasons such as floods and earthquake in other parts of Assam.
“In Lanka, there are a number of Assamese-speaking families who migrated in the 1950s from what is now Bangladesh. Then, in the late 1940s and 50s, refugees from Bangladesh and communities from Barak Valley of Assam settled here,” he adds.
The penetration of the railways and establishment of the Lumding railway division in the 1950s also brought in workers who stayed on, says Phukan.
As Hojai’s unique character means almost no community has been spared the NRC axe, the BJP, sources in the party say, will have a problem on its hands if a large number of Bengali Hindus, its core vote-bank in Assam, remains out of the final NRC. It’s this worry that has prompted a softening of its approach on NRC.
Dev, the BJP’s Hojai MLA, says he is just back from a visit to the house of Madan Mullick, one of the 855 ‘martyrs’ of the six-year-long Assam Movement of the 1980s. His wife has received a notice from a foreigners’ tribunal and she and her son are unlikely to be in the NRC.
“You can well imagine that if this is the fate of a martyr, what might befall a common man, a Bengali of migrant origin. The country was divided on the basis of religion. Therefore, there needs to be a mechanism to ensure that Hindus who have come seeking refuge are not excluded from the NRC. Everything cannot be dictated by clauses and rules. There also needs to be some wisdom on the part of those making decisions. That’s my only appeal,” he says.
BJP leaders in Assam now hope that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, will come to the rescue of non-Muslims excluded from the NRC. The Bill relaxes the eligibility rules for immigrants belonging to six minority (non-Muslim) religions — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians – from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan.
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Speaking over the phone, Jamunamukh MLA and Badruddin Ajmal’s son Abdur Rahim Ajmal says the worry is that “genuine Indians” will be left out.
“Families have attended so many hearings, and yet it is not clear whether their names will be included or not. During the NRC updation process, people travelled from far-off places to attend hearings. Now we have full faith in the Supreme Court that no genuine Indian will be left out of the NRC,” he says.
Dhubri – 8.26% people out of draft NRC
It was in Chalakura char, one of the many sandy islands in Assam’s Dhubri district, that Arman Sikdar’s great grandfather was born. Though 61-year-old Sikdar doesn’t remember much of the man, days before the final NRC is out, it is these fuzzy memories that help assuage his fears. Last July, Sikdar’s family — five brothers and their children spread over three chars — found their names missing from the final NRC draft. It was more of a shock because around him, people seemed to have made it.
Over the past year, the farmer has appeared for so many hearings that he feels he has become a “hearing expert”. And if, on August 31, his name fails to make it, he’s ready to attend more. “I will be there, with all my documents. I am not afraid,” he says.
Long dismissed as havens for Bangladeshis immigrants, Lower Assam’s Dhubri district is filled with hundreds of char, or riverine islands, many that lie metres away from the Bangladesh border. Sikdar’s char is further away, nearly 20 km from the border. “Yet when we villagers go from one char to another with our cows, the Border Security Force checks us multiple times, asks us for IDs and sometimes beats us up for no reason,” says Sikdar.
Over the years, for char inhabitants, this treatment has become routine — where they are questioned by authorities, ignored by politicians and derided by the greater Assamese society.
So, when last July, the final NRC draft was released, and majority of the district’s residents made it, they felt relieved. “We showed them,” says 49-year-old Ainul Hoque, also a resident of Chalakura.
The euphoria, however, was short-lived. On August 1, the Assam government, released a confidential document with district-wise exclusion figures across the state. The government questioned the low exclusion rate in minority-dominated border districts — Dhubri, among others — and asked for an NRC re-verification on those grounds. Dhubri had an exclusion rate of 8.26 per cent — low compared to the state average of 12.15%.
With the Supreme Court rejecting the plea for re-verification, the government is looking for ways to get round the problem. On August 19, Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal hinted at a possible legislative path to deal with those wrongfully included in the NRC.
“How can border districts, especially known for sudden and abrupt population growth, have exclusion rates less than the state average? Aren’t these the very districts where the border police catch the most infiltrators? Our plea for re-verification has nothing to do with minority or majority. It was based on logic,” BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma tells The Sunday Express.
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When news of this kind reaches Dhubri, people like Hoque, whose entire family is in the NRC (in both the first and the final drafts), feel angry. “Sometimes I want to break the television when I see these politicians talking. One neta commented that when they come near Dhubri, they feel sad, seeing all the ‘Bangladeshis’,” says Hoque, who worked with Border Security Force from 1987 to 1994. “Last July, I thought the NRC was going to end these doubts against us. But sadly, it has made no difference. NRC or no NRC — we are not safe. I guess it is our faces. We look like Bangladeshis.”
Most chars in Dhubri —as is typical of chars through Assam — disappear and reappear according to the whims of the tempestuous Brahmaputra river, and Chalakura is no exception.
Back in the day when Sikdar’s great grandfather lived in Chalakura, it was so big that it had to be divided into “North” and “South” portions. But 30 years ago, the Brahmaputra swallowed a huge chunk of it. “Now part of the char is under the Brahmaputra,” says Hoque.
Each time a char is submerged, the residents shift to a new one, where life has to be built from scratch. “Since Independence, chars have been like this: no schools, no hospitals, no electricity, no law, no order — one just depends on Allah,” says Nurul Molla, an advocate in Dhubri town.
Molla too grew up in a char in the neighbouring district of South Salmara Mankachar, carved out of Dhubri district in 2016 and which also borders Bangladesh. According to state government figures, 7.22 per cent of the district’s population was excluded from draft NRC.
“I was one of the luckier ones who made it out of the char, straight to Guwahati University,” he says.
But the less fortunate remain in the chars, as farmers and daily wagers. Some cross the river every day to pull rickshaws in Dhubri town. “Things take a turn for the worse every monsoon when chars are completely cut off. Even boats are banned by the government then. They are then just stuck like that for days,” says Molla.
Like Airongjungla char’s Kamala Bibi was for days in her inundated home during the recent wave of Assam floods in July. A month after the waters have receded, the level to which the water rose is still visible as a dull line on the walls of her bamboo hut. “We spent four days on our bed that we tied at a higher level, just waiting for the rains to stop,” she says. That week, Kamala, in her 40s, did not think about the NRC — she is the only member in her family who has not made it to the draft list. “Do we worry about our lives or about the NRC?” she asks.
Most of those who were left out of the draft list in Airongjungla,which falls under the Bhashani char gram panchayat, were women. Married off at a young age, many have no ties with their original families, no documents because they never went to school, but rely on gaon panchayat certificates which are not considered robust enough to assure citizenship.
Kamala’s neighbour Mohiron Bibi is in a fix too — her parents have died, leaving her and her sister (who lives in another char) no documentation to establish links to pre-1971 ancestry, as per NRC pre-requisites. “Most girls study only till high school. Schools have started coming up in chars but they are barely functional. As a result, char residents lag behind in literacy. Some women do not even open their mouths outside the chars. They have been worst-affected,” says Molla.
“Line nai, medical nai (There is no electricity, there is no hospital). And they call this char a ‘town area,” says Mohiron, who is not aware of the August 31 list. On paper, the char is under the PM’s Saubhagya Yojana, a scheme to provide electricity connections to “all households”, but the solar lights are yet to reach Airongjungla. “If we have minor illnesses, we just bear it but when we are seriously ill, we have to go all the way to Dhubri town, where the nearest hospital is — first by boat, then by road,” says Mohiron, “Even if we do get the NRC, does it mean all this will change?” she asks.
Carved out of Goalpara district in 1983, Dhubri is a district steeped in history, and marked by religious syncretism. It has the Gurdwara Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahibji, which many believe Guru Nanak himself visited in 1505 AD. There’s the oldest mosque in Assam, the 17th century Rangamati Mosque or Panbari mosque, located about 25 km east of Dhubri town. The Ramraikuti Satra, a monastery founded by poet-saint Srimanta Sankardeva at Satrasal, is also in the district.
“But few are aware of these realities. For most, Dhubri is a place filled with only Bengali-Muslim immigrants. While it is true that it is a minority-dominated district, the demography is very mixed,” says Parvin Sultana, assistant professor at PB College, Dhubri, “Most Muslims are actually deshi Muslims (13th century converts from indigenous communities such as Koch Rajbongshi and Mech), some are Bihari Muslims and the ones in chars are usually Bengali Muslims. Apart from that, there are Biharis, Nepalis, Bengalis and Rajbongshis. This perception of lakhs crossing the border is a misconception — those who do manage to enter are usually a floating population and they return. The BJP’s recent comments are nothing but religious profiling.”
Conversations with NRC workers in Dhubri seem to corroborate her opinion. “Surprisingly, even among those excluded, there are not many Muslims. Most of the excluded are tribals from neighbouring Meghalaya and West Bengal, who don’t have documents,” says an official on condition of anonymity. Sultana says that this is because inhabitants of Dhubri, after years of being considered suspects, are extremely conscious about their Indian identity.
“Many people move out of Dhubri to work and study — but they are back every single election to vote. That is why the voter turnout is invariably high. They keep documents very carefully. This is not a recent phenomena because of the NRC. They have documents from 1951 intact,” she says.
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Another NRC worker, however, feels that the porous riverine border has led to a lot of unfiltered migration. “It is very easy for them to get voter ID cards and other fake cards. You buy a voter ID card for Rs 500. In fact, that is the first thing they arrange for when they come here, in collusion with the locals” he alleges.
Back in Chalakura char, Hoque says, “We don’t even have enough space for our own houses here, why would we want Bangladeshis to encroach on our space?”
Even in the heart of Dhubri town, among those excluded, the general anxieties in the wake of the final deadline hangs heavy. Last week, in Bidyapara No 10 Ward, Ayesha Bewi came across a lawyer for the first time in her life. The man, Advocate Masud Zaman, who happened to be in her neighbourhood — a slum in the heart of Dhubri town — gave her his card. Now Bewi, a 69-year-old widow, has wrapped the card in a piece of cloth, several times over and keeps it pressed between the pages of a ration card booklet. “If they come, this is what I will show them,” says Bewi.
In April, two houses away, a woman committed suicide. Some say she was mentally disturbed but Bewi believes that it was because of the NRC. Bewi’s case is a little different — she never applied to the citizen’s register. “I was too ill when the forms were out and later, the officials told me it was too late,” she says. Now Bewi, confused by all the talks of “D-Voters and detention”, banks on the visiting card from the lawyer and a tattered ration card booklet to save her.
Her neighbours tell her not to be afraid — since most are on the NRC, they feel Bewi will be let off too. But any mention of the register is enough to put residents of the slum on the edge.
“Why are you asking about the NRC? We all have documents. So why are we being questioned,” asks an agitated Saira Bewi, 50.
There are rumours in the neighbourhood of possible rechecks. “I do not understand. Would they have put us on the NRC without any reason?” asks 49-year-old Suratjamal, an auto driver. “Actually the problem is not the NRC. The problem is that this is Dhubri. There can be no solution.”
NRC over the years
1951: NRC is first compiled in Assam, based on Census of that year
2005: Decision to update 1951 NRC is taken at tripartite meeting between the Centre, Assam government and All Assam Students’ Union
2010: A pilot project to update NRC is notified in two revenue circles in Barpeta and Kamrup districts. However, the government temporarily suspends the project after four persons are killed and scores injured in reported police firing on a demonstration taken out to protest alleged anomalies in the process of enumeration
2015: NRC updation process begins in Assam, under direct monitoring of the Supreme Court
August 31, 2015: Last date for submitting applications for inclusion in NRC. 3.29 crore people sign up
December 31, 2017: Partial NRC draft is published, with only 1.9 crore names out of 3.29 crore
July 30, 2018: Final draft is published leaving out over 40 lakh applicants. Consequently, nearly 36 lakh people file their ‘claims’ while ‘objections’ are received against over two lakh among the 2.89 crore included in the final draft
June 26, 2019: An additional exclusion list is published, further dropping over one lakh people included in the final draft
August 31: Final NRC is awaited