Gulbahar Begum, 29, a home-maker residing in Borkhal village in Nellie of Morigaon district, around 70 km east of Guwahati, will not be in the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) published on August 31 because her father is an ‘illegal foreigner’ declared so by a Foreigners Tribunal (FT). She belongs to an indigenous Assamese-speaking Muslim family of Nellie.
On the other side of the National Highway from Gulbahar’s village, in a refugee settlement colony, Mantosh Trivedi, 45, a Hindu Bengali, is equally anxious over his mother and wife’s inclusion in the list. And like Gulbahar, Trivedi — who runs a small store selling items used in religious rituals — is uncertain whether he can meet expenses for FT lawyers if he has to go with the two women.
Despite assurances by the Home Ministry that those excluded will not become a “foreigner” immediately, many are unaware what to do on September 1. The ministry has clarified such people would get “full opportunity” to appeal before an FT for inclusion into the NRC.
On August 19, Home Minister Amit Shah chaired a review meeting, attended by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and top state bureaucrats, to deliberate upon issues regarding the publication of the final NRC. A government press statement said only FTs are empowered to declare persons as “foreigners”. Sonowal also hinted his government could later enact a legislation if questions are raised over NRC updation — although he had not specified exactly what the law would contain to deal with the NRC aftermath.
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Gulbahar’s 69-year old father Gul Mohammad, earlier a daily-wage earner — who has his name as a one-year-old child in the NRC of 1951 — was declared a foreigner by an FT in 2009 and has been in a detention camp for “illegal foreigners” for the last 18 months. As per NRC updation rules, “declared foreigners” and their descendants will not be included in the NRC.
Gulbahar’s husband is a driver in the village. Her mother, Junaki Begum, sells paan at a small stall by the highway. Begum’s elder sister is married to a mechanic. Such is the financial crunch in the family that they have not been able to hire a lawyer to appeal against Gul Mohammad’s detention at the High Court.
“I do not know why the system is so complicated. My father is himself in NRC 1951. The order by FT No. 1 of Morigaon district goes by the state’s allegations that he was born in Bangladesh in 1956 and migrated illegally into Assam after 1971,” Gulbahar said. “We are very worried. My sister’s and my name won’t come. We do not know what to do next. Will we be sent to detention like our father?We are too poor to engage lawyers and attend court hearings,” she added.
The ‘refugee registration’ certificate of 1955 of Trivedi’s mother Anjali, 72, was “not accepted” by NRC officials while his wife Santoshi has a faint chance of inclusion because officials had “doubted” her father’s matriculation certificate from 1971. Both the women were out of the draft NRC.
“It is most likely both of them will not be in the final NRC. I hope there are clear guidelines as to what we have to do post the publication of the NRC. What will the government do with those excluded? We are Indians who had migrated due to religious persecution from now Bangladesh. There is no clarity what’s going to happen,” says Trivedi.
Ajit Talukdar, 48, another Bengali Hindu and Trivedi’s friend, says his name did not appear in the draft NRC while his three children — aged 15, 13 and five years — were omitted in the additional exclusion list published on June 26. “In my father’s documents, there is a mismatch between Bhushan ‘Talukdar’ and ‘Das’ — hence the problem. My and my children’s name will not come probably. Do I have to queue up at a Foreigners Tribunal with my children? Will they disenfranchise me?” Talukdar asks.
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Abdul Hamid, 70, witnessed his father’s killing and mother and sister getting wounded in 1983 when over 2,000 persons —mostly Bengali Muslims — were slaughtered in Nellie. Then there were cases registered against him and his wife at FT No. 1 in Morigaon which they won. But his name did not appear in the draft NRC.
“I work at a brick kiln. I have spent thousands of rupees fighting these cases at the FT by taking loans from the owner and then working to repay it. On August 31, if my family members’ names do not come, I do not know what next ,” said Hamid.
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The FTs — 100 across the state and 200 more to be functional by September 1 — are quasi-judicial bodies meant to “furnish opinion on the question whether a person is or is not a foreigner within the meaning of Foreigner’s Act, 1946”.
According to state government data presented in an affidavit to the Supreme Court and in the Assembly this year, FTs
declared 1,03,764 persons foreigners between 1985 and August 2018.