On August 5, 1964, Binoda Bihari Ray, then 39 years old, arrived with his wife and two children in Silchar, in Assam’s border district of Cachar, from Ajmiriganj in then East Pakistan’s Sylhet. The Relief Eligibility Certificate issued to him 15 days later says he had “migrated without documents” because of “atrocities by Muslim goondas”.
The section in the document detailing the “route followed during migration” says — “Habiganj by boat, Sylhet by train, Sutarkandi by bus, Karimganj on foot, Silchar by train.” The four-page yellow document bears the sign and seal of New Migrants Camp, Cachar, dated August 20, 1964.
Fifty-five years later, one of his daughters, Shilu Dey (46), a resident of Udharbond near Silchar, is anxious whether her name will be in the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) to be published on Saturday. It was not there in the draft NRC published July last year because Ray’s certificate was not accepted. She had filed her ‘claim’ against the exclusion and she says officials had accepted the certificate this time.
With other members of her family in the NRC, Dey now waits. “I am a bit worried because I do not know whether our documents will be accepted or not. Our family had come to India to escape violence in East Pakistan,” says the homemaker.
Ray’s situation is not unique. A large number of Bengali Hindus – and a small section of Muslims too, historians point out – had migrated in the 1950s and 60s from neighbouring Sylhet division of today’s Bangladesh to Cachar district of Assam’s Barak Valley region following communal violence that swept the region following partition. And today, many of them are tangled in one or the other process of citizenship determination in Assam.
The exclusion of considerable number of Bengali Hindus in Cachar district is one of the reasons why the state unit of the BJP has been lately anxious and critical of the process to update NRC. According to the state government data on exclusions from draft NRC, Cachar registered 12.91% exclusion. According to Census 2011, Cachar’s population is 17.37 lakh, with 59.83% Hindus and over 75% Bengali-speakers.
And for the migrants, the fight for citizenship involves exhausting multiple rounds. Some of them, even after winning the tribunal orders in their favour, haven’t figured in the NRC list.
In 2015 Ananda Das (60), and a year later his wife Sabita Das (51) won cases registered against them by the police in the Foreigners Tribunal No 3 of Cachar district suspecting them to be “illegal foreigners”. The tribunal order establishes that both their ancestors were partition refugees and relies on Relief Eligibility Certificate and Relief Identity Card and further documents to establish their citizenship. However, the couple and their four children did not find a mention in the draft NRC – in all probability because the tribunal order has not been updated in the NRC system. “We won both the cases. I hope officials take note of it and include our names in the final NRC,” said son Ashutosh (27).
And then there are those migrants whose slip-ups during the NRC application – like choosing father’s namesake and neighbour as legacy person by mistake – snafued their chances.
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Sitting at his two-storied house in Silchar’s Link Road, adorned with photos of Hindu gods, Ajit Das (68), says his father Jatindra Mohan Das had migrated into Assam in the late 1950s. In the draft NRC, Jatindra Mohan’s descendants have mostly been excluded because Das says the family had by mistake used the name of “another Jatindra Mohan”, who was their neighbour. They have filed claims using the correct person’s name and documents, but their chances are slim because the Supreme Court has disallowed applicants from changing legacy person during claims round for fear of fraud.
Prominent Silchar civil society leader Sadhan Purkayastha, who is the secretary general of the Citizens’ Rights Protection Committee, said, “People had come to India, leaving their home and hearth, to seek protection from a threat against their religious and social identity. They could not care less about papers at that point because they were coming ‘home’. But today, they can be made stateless if they do not have the requisite papers”.
Santanu Naik, an advocate in Silchar who is the advisor to the North East Linguistic and Ethnic Coordination Committee (NELECC), and is associated with the BJP, said, “Although, citizenship to Hindu refugees is being promised by the political leadership, on the ground, the situation is a bit different. You will see a large number of Hindu Bengali refugees who had come into India in the 1950s and 60s are still struggling to prove their citizenship.” He said that under the aegis of NELECC at least 100 advocates are ready to provide legal help to people when they have to fight their cases at the tribunals.
Parimal Suklabaidya, Assam’s environment and forest minister, and MLA from Dholai constituency of Cachar district, told The Indian Express, “It is true that many Bengali Hindus who had come in as refugees from East Pakistan are facing problems in establishing their citizenship”.
“On August 31, let’s see how the NRC inclusions and exclusions happen. The excluded will get a chance to file appeals at the FTs, there is a window of 120 days. And for those who are unable to prove their Indian citizenship at the FT in one way or the other, the BJP is ideologically and morally – as all our top leaders have repeatedly said – committed to bringing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. People who were persecuted for being Hindus and hence came into India, are our own people,” he said.
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“We could not bring the CAB last time – because we did not have the majority in the Rajya Sabha, but this time we will pass it,” he said.
While Assam’s Brahmaputra valley witnessed large-scale protests against the citizenship amendment Bill, the Bengali-majority Barak Valley region saw widespread support for it. The Bill provides for granting citizenship to immigrants of six non-Muslim faiths from three countries, including Bangladesh, under comparatively relaxed norms.