ON SUNDAY, Abu Sama and Abu Bakkar boarded a packed bus with their young children and wives, hoping to make it to a hearing of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Jorhat, over 300 km away, scheduled for Monday. The daily wage labourers were among the hundreds of people in at least two districts of Lower Assam, Kamrup (Rural) and Barpeta, to have received “sudden” notices to appear for NRC hearings in far-off towns within the next few days, starting Monday.
The notices started arriving Saturday night. With the short deadline adding to the panic, and the government tight-lipped, villagers across the two districts hired vehicles to make the long travel, many of them for the first time in their lives.
The bus Sama and Bakkar boarded was hired for Rs 30,000 by those served notices in their village. Other families were seen clambering onto Tata Sumos and pick-up trucks, headed, apart from Jorhat, for towns like Dibrugarh, Sivasagar and Golaghat.
Referring to Sontoli, a local police officer said, “It seems almost every house has received a notice in this area.” A few of his colleagues too had got notices, he added, and had applied for leave.
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In adjoining Goroimari, where many received notices too, there was panic selling to arrange money for travel.
NRC state coordinator Prateek Hajela did not respond to calls or multiple text messages regarding the notices. He had earlier been censured by the Supreme Court, which is monitoring the NRC, for talking to the press.
The notices come three days after the Assam government tabled in the Assembly district-wise data of exclusion from the draft NRC published last year — defying a Supreme Court order against it — to underline that in districts bordering Bangladesh the exclusion percentage was lower than in areas with indigenous populations. The state’s and Centre’s contention is that the names in the NRC should be re-verified, but the Supreme Court has turned down its request, and stuck to the deadline of August 31 for the final list.
Lawyers and activists said the far-off locations for hearings were in contradiction of the Supreme Court’s April 10 order asking the NRC authorities “to ensure that no inconvenience is caused to the persons required to attend the hearing and to see that they are not required to travel long distances, if possible”.
The SOP for the claims and objections round of the NRC approved by the Supreme Court also states that, “The LRCR (Local Registrar of Citizen Registration) will ensure that the applicant is served the notice at least 15 days prior to the date of hearing.”
According to local officials, in Chaomoria Revenue Circle, under which Sontoli falls, at least 25,000 notices had been served.
Sivasagar is one of the districts where scores of families have been told to appear to for hearings. An official who did not want to be identified said he had been told that the “legacy data” used by several families in Kamrup (Rural) for enrolment in the NRC had been found to have been used by some others in Sivasagar district.
Some district officials said they were unclear about the exercise while others said it could be an attempt to clarify cases in which the disposing officer during the “claims and objections” round of the NRC updation process had certain doubts. There was also uncertainty over how many such notices had been served across the state.
Most of the families The Indian Express spoke to said they had no idea why they had got the notices. Sama said, “My name is in the NRC. But for some reason, we have been called. Last night at around 10, we were delivered the notices by the village headman. Jorhat is very far… we have never been there.”
Bakkar said he and his family members too are in the NRC. “People here are in panic. We don’t understand why we are being called.”
A local social worker in Sontoli, who did not want to be named, said 25 vehicles carrying people had left the village already and another three buses were scheduled to leave. He said administration and police officials had helped arrange the vehicles.
Maizan Nessa of neighbouring Goroimari said she had sold her nose ring for Rs 900 Sunday morning to pay for travel to Golaghat, around 400 km away. Her brother Kanchu Miya, who also got a notice to appear in Golaghat, sold his goat for Rs 1,330 and cattle for Rs 3,500. “Do you know what will happen at the hearing?” asked a worried Nessa.
A glance through the notices shows they are of two types — ‘RN 1.1’, which says the mentioned persons will be re-verified, and ‘RN2.1’, which says the legacy data used by the family had to be re-verified and anyone responsible for the family members mentioned had to be present at the hearing.
Many who have got notices said they had earlier attended hearings as part of the “claims and objection” rounds, as witnesses for people who sought inclusion or against whom objections had been received. But others said they had not been called for any hearing earlier.
Ashraful Hussain, a social worker in Lower Assam’s Barpeta, said in the district’s Chenga circle alone around 500 notices had been served. “We are helping people who cannot afford transportation cost by collecting money. We have also arranged for volunteers to travel with them and a few activists will be present at the hearings.”
Hussain added, “People are confused. Most are illiterate and have not travelled outside their village or district. Also floods have ravaged these areas.”
At around midnight on Sunday, one of the buses from Sontoli, travelling to Golaghat, met with an accident near Guwahati as it collided with a truck carrying tar. The injured passengers were rushed to the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH), said a traffic police officer accompanying the wounded from the accident spot to the hospital.
The wounded included children and women, but the police and the hospital staff did not have the exact count of the injured persons at the time of filing this report.
Abdul Kalam Azad, whose three daughters suffered burns, said, “As the vehicles collided, the truck toppled and large amounts of tar fell on us. We were going to Golaghat for the hearing tomorrow morning. I don’t know what will happen to that now. My daughters are screaming because of the wounds.”