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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

‘Will they take me away?’

As the narrative moves on to CAA and a possible nation-wide NRC, the Assam list hangs in a limbo. So does the fate of children out of it. The Centre has assured the Supreme Court, Parliament that such children, whose parents are on the list, won’t be taken to detention centres. But that hasn’t lessened their dread, of being sent away to “a place called Bangladesh”.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Bongaigaon, Morigaon (assam) | Updated: February 16, 2020 1:03:12 pm
'Will they take me away?' On January 6, Attorney General of India K K Venugopal assured the Supreme Court that children excluded from the Assam NRC will not be sent to detention centres for now if their parents feature in the list. (Illustration: Mithun Chakraborty)

Gaari, gaas gujali, fuler bagan (Cars, trees and flower gardens)!” says Fatima, 12, her face lighting up at the memory. That morning, more than a year ago, her 15-member family hired three autos for a trip to Boitamari. It was Fatima’s first time outside her village. The furthest she had ever ventured was her school, a 3-km walk from the family’s small thatched house in Borpara village, in Assam’s Bongaigaon district. Sitting by her side was her niece, neighbour and best friend, Narzina, and they watched paddy fields fly past the window over a 30-km journey that took nearly two hours.

The evening before, the girls had been told by their elders to answer every question clearly. “What if they catch you there itself? Don’t make mistakes,” they were warned.

Narzina and Fatima giggle at “the great time” they had at the National Register of Citizens (NRC) hearing. The grim purpose of their visit — to prove Narzina is Indian — hasn’t registered, though the 10-year-old is acutely aware of the value of the plastic folder holding her “nothi potro (documents)”.

On January 6, Attorney General of India K K Venugopal assured the Supreme Court that children excluded from the Assam NRC will not be sent to detention centres for now if their parents feature in the list.

EXPLAINED

NRC in play: Rules vs reality

Under the rules, parents who are in the NRC need to only give “oral/written” testimonies for children under 14. In reality, an unspecified number — a case in the Supreme Court says 61 — children find themselves out of the NRC. Amidst conflicting voices on the list, as well as talk of a new survey for Assam’s ethnic Muslims now, they and their parents say they don’t know whom to believe.

This month, answering a question in the Lok Sabha on the status of such children, Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai said they would “not be separated from their parents and sent to detention centres pending decision of their application”. Rai also mentioned that the Supreme Court had directed the government to file a reply. “The next date of the hearing is not fixed,” he said.

To Narzina’s parents, such assurances mean little. The final draft of the Assam NRC came out more than a year and a half ago, and included Narzina’s parents, grandparents, but not her and her younger brother, 7. The family attended four hearings in four different towns. At each, officials assured them “it will be okay” — rules say parents who are in the NRC need to only give “oral/written” testimonies for children under 14. But Narzina or her brother didn’t figure in the final NRC list, published on August 31, 2019.

Narzina’s mother recalls that night of August, Narzina waking her up. “Will they take me away?” she sobbed. Her mother, who is in her mid-20s, says she did not know what to say. “I just hugged her and we slept.”

***

Nearly five months later, the narrative has moved on to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and a possible nation-wide NRC, even as the fate of the Assam list lies tangled in politics.

In Borpara too, the NRC has been pushed away into an uneasy corner. The village is one of 146 in Boitamari Revenue Circle, 70 per cent of whose population is minority. Borpora’s 150 households are equally divided between Muslim and Hindu families, with the Muslims mostly Bengali-speakers, the group most vulnerable to the NRC exercise.

“Most people in our village are in, but those out worry,” says Ahmed Toweb, 29, an engineering graduate who is out of the NRC too. The NRC Seva Kendra in Chalantapara (2.5 km away) has been shut since August 31, Tawab adds. “No one from our village has been sent to detention but 5 km away, in Jogighopa and Kochudola, there are several.”

For Narzina and the others, this means no end to the uncertainty. Any day could bring them rejection slips, making their exclusion official, followed by summons to the overburdened Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs), and maybe even detention camps.

The NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), whose petition led to the government assurance in the Supreme Court, listed 61 cases of children across Assam who were out of the NRC even as their parents had made it. There are no confirmed figures regarding how many of the 19 lakh out of the NRC are children. As per an Assembly Question Hour reply, at least one minor, 45-day-old Nazrul Islam, died while in detention (his mother was later held to not be a foreigner).

Assam Chief Secretary Kumar Sanjay Krishna directed all queries on the matter to NRC State Coordinator Hitesh Dev Sarma. Sarma said he had given his response on the CJP petition to both the Central and state governments. “At this point, all I can say is this.” Sarma also claimed that they were in “the final stages” of readying the rejection slips and would issue them soon.

Narzina’s father shrugs when told of the Centre’s promise to the Supreme Court. “Every day someone says something new. I am uneducated, I do not understand this,” he says.

Narzina and Fatima go to government-run lower primary schools nearby and, later in the afternoon, to a madrasa for Arabic lessons. After that, their days are free, to play doura dori (catch) or utha boha (sit-ups).

It is here that Narzina says she is often reminded of the NRC. An elder child may tease, “You and your brother are out. Uthai loi jaabo (They will pick you up).”

Fatima says often Narzina bursts into tears and runs back home. “What if they really do take her away to that place?” she asks.
For the two, “that place” is Bangladesh — wherever that may be. “We have not learned about it in school,” explains Fatima.

***

Across the field, Khadija, 10, is the only member of her family out of the NRC. Last July, when she accompanied her family to a hearing at Jogighopa, 30 km away, the officer asked her her father’s name. She replied confidently. Two more hearings followed, in Abhayapuri (Bongaigaon district) and Baghbar (Barpeta district). But while all the others in the 15-member-family are in the NRC, Khadija isn’t.

Having just returned from school, the Class 5 girl rattles off all she does there. “We go at 8.30 am, we pray, we sing the National Anthem, we study and we come back home,” she smiles.

“Khadija is very smart,” says her proud father, a daily wage labourer and father of two, including a six-year-old son. The 30-year-old suspects that though they have not told her, “from our behaviour, Khadija has guessed something is wrong”.

Now, as he talks about a hearing they attended last year, Khadija suddenly bursts into tears. “They won’t take you away, don’t cry,” he consoles her, putting her in his lap.

Khadija wipes her face with the hem of her red frock, and refuses to speak further.

In a town called Bijni in Chirang district, 55 km away, a 14-year-old is dealing with his and his 10-year-old brother’s exclusion from the NRC by keeping it a secret at school. “They might tease us, say something bad,” says the teenager. The other members of his Hindu family, including his married sister and parents, are in the list.

So far, the plan has worked. At school, they discuss books, cars, music, even the news, but rarely topics like the NRC. Once back, the teenager mostly stays in, painting.

When the list came out, the 14-year-old asked his father a number of questions — “Why is my name not in it? What happens now? What benefits come to those included?”, etc. His father, who works in a nursing home in Siliguri, tried to patiently answer. “I said he was ‘Indian’ by birth and nothing could happen to him,” says the 43-year-old.

While the CAA, which makes citizenship process easier for Hindus, could help his sons, the father admits that doesn’t make his wait less taxing. “How does the CAA work in a secular country like India?” he asks. “And moreover, for my sons, all this has no meaning. All they understand is that they are out of the list while everyone else they know is in.”

***

One of the important documents during the Assam NRC updation exercise was birth certificate, especially in the case of those under 18 who had not gone to school. According to the National Family Health Survey, while one in four children under age 5 in India (166 million) continue to not be registered at birth, Assam has seen an upsurge in numbers.

Still, in many cases, including Khadija’s, the document proved inadequate in proving a child’s lineage to his/her parents.

“In many cases, families submitted a ‘delayed’ certificate — not made within 90 days of birth. Many of these were rejected,” says Guwahati-based activist Abdul Kalam Azad.

For example, Ashrab, a Baksa district-based pharmacist. “When my son was born in 2006, we only picked up a receipt and not the birth certificate. In 2015, when the NRC started, we went to get it, but there was a huge crowd, almost like a stampede. We finally managed to get it in 2018. We submitted that, but still he is out,” says Ashrab.

His son, a Class 6 student who wants to become an engineer, realises this, often worrying too that he will be “taken away”.

Guwahati-based counselling psychologist Dr Sangeeta Goswami warns of the trauma facing children when it comes to the NRC. “It creates insecurity, of what is going to happen, of being separated from parents.” There should be adolescent health care centres at block and district levels manned by trained professionals to deal with such cases, she adds. “But that is not happening.”

Lawyer Aman Wadud says the NRC limbo has made matters worse. “The Home Ministry order states that no one — adult or child — will be sent to detention just because they have been excluded from the NRC… Unless the Court specifically says no child will be sent to the FT, it means nothing,” he argues.

Azad talks of the reverse too, of children being left on their own with parents in detention centres. “In one case, a girl in Class 10 had to give up studies to take care of her three younger siblings, who also ended up dropping out of school.”

Some take to begging or become daily workers at brick kilns to support themselves. “An entire generation has been destroyed,” says Azad.

“Before the NRC execution started, the state should have taken into consideration the children. Has it made special provisions for children going to an FT? Have they made child-friendly courts? Are the judges sensitised or trained in dealing with children?” asks Miguel Das Queah, a child rights activist based in Guwahati. “It is complete callousness on the part of the state. You go to hearings after hearings… you miss school.”

Dr Sunita Changkakoti, Chairperson of the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, says they have not received any complaint with regard to children and the NRC so far. “If there are cases like this, and this comes to our notice, we will definitely take over and try to do something about it,” she says.

In Morigaon district’s Bhurbhanda village, Shoriful, 7, lost his mother a few months after the draft NRC list was published in July 2018. His father, a daily wager, insists his wife died because of “NRC tension”, after their son’s name did not figure in the draft. Shoriful has stopped attending school, and barely talks to anyone. “He was always a quiet child but now he has become paagal (mentally ill),” says the father, as he urges Shoriful, who is clinging to him, to tell his name.

Last year, he took Shoriful to a doctor in Morigaon, he adds. The doctor said the seven-year-old would become “alright” once he grows up.

***

“Isn’t Bangladesh a country like ours? With people like ours?” asks Faruna of Goroimari village in the district. The daughter of a farmer, the 15-year-old wants to become a teacher when she grows up. A few months ago, when her name was dropped from the final NRC, a neighbour told her, “You are a Bangaldeshi, they will take you away to Kokrajhar Jail.”

For three days straight, Faruna says she wept, refusing to eat or talk. Several months later, attending an NRC awareness drive at the Nagabhanda gaon panchayat, the burqa-clad Faruna is reflective. Accompanying her is her 12-year-old brother, who has made it to the NRC. Their father, a daily wager, who would come with her earlier, is now working in Arunachal Pradesh.

Faruna talks about her Class 10 exams in April 2019, where she got a first division, and how she would have performed much better but for the NRC stress.

“My family told me, ‘Dua kora, ahi jabo (Have faith, your name will come in the list)’. But yet, it didn’t… We gave such bhaal certificates (good documents). So how can my name not be there?” she says, tearing up.

Her brother, who barely understands the NRC more than that “if you are on the list, it is good”, tries to console her. “Don’t worry, ahi jaabo (It will come),” says the 12-year-old.

An elderly neighbour, sitting besides them, has better luck with her. “Don’t worry, even mine did not come,” he smiles. “We can go to Bangladesh together.”

Faruna laughs, despite herself.

(The last names have been dropped to protect identity)

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