As the Registrar General of India readies to publish the “part draft” of the National Register of Citizens to identify migrants who have illegally entered Assam from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971, The Sunday Standard travelled through areas worst hit by the migration and found that many are in the grip of fear.
GOALPARA (ASSAM): Abdul Awal has no doubt that his name will figure in the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC), the “first draft” or “part draft” of which will be published on December 31. However, most others in his Moilapathar village, some 165 km west of Guwahati, in Goalpara district are not sure about theirs.
Awal (25), who is a Bengali-speaking Muslim and runs a printing outlet at the Moilapathar Bazar, claims that he, his father and grandfather were born in Goalpara and as such, he is not worried. But he admits that panic has set in among a large section of the Bengali-speaking Muslims in the district that they could miss the NRC bus.
“People are not speaking up for fear of a backlash, but I tell you there is widespread panic among our people that they could be targeted by the BJP government through the updation of NRC. Even while it is being updated, the BLO (booth level officer, who is a representative of the Election Commission), often visits the houses of locals and asks them to keep documents ready to be furnished before the court of foreigners’ tribunals as their nationality is under a cloud. They have their names in the voters’ lists and have documents to prove they are genuine Indian citizens, yet they are being harassed,” Awal tells The Sunday Standard.
The villagers fear the government could resort to “manipulation” and “tricks” to target the community. They say notices have been served to people twice and even thrice by a foreigners’ tribunal despite their winning cases the first time their nationality was questioned.
The foreigners’ tribunals deal with the cases of doubtful citizens. Once a person is pronounced an illegal immigrant by a foreigners’ tribunal, he or she will be sent to a detention centre, which is a separate cell at a conventional jail. There are cases of people, declared foreigners, winning their cases in a court after cooling their heels at detention centres.
Sonabhan Nessa, 55, attributes her return to sanity from insanity to the judiciary. In four years, her family has seen it all – her arrest, incarceration, journey to the India-Bangladesh border for deportation, her slipping into insanity to returning to sanity and her freedom from jail.
Majibar Rahman, 58, is better off, for he did not have to face imprisonment. Both were suspected to be illegal Bangladeshi immigrants by the court of foreigners’ tribunal (FT court) in Assam’s Goalpara.
Sonabhan was arrested by the border police in 2010 for failing to depose before the FT court, which had sent her three notices on the suspicion that she was an illegal immigrant. However, her family claims they received only the third notice and that too, after her arrest.
Her husband, Rashid Ali, said the family was given just six days to prove her Indian citizenship. After they failed to do so, she was taken to the Assam-Bangladesh border at Mancachar for deportation. But the decision was stayed at the eleventh hour by an order issued by Gauhati High Court.
There are two kinds of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The law says those who entered the state after March 24, 1971, are to be deported but those who came between 1966 and 1971 are to register themselves with the Foreigners Regional Registration authorities.
For some reason, the FT court had ordered Sonabhan’s deportation. But the Gauhati HC pointed out that in the notice served on her by the border police, it was mentioned that she had entered Assam between 1966 and 1971. The stay order had made the police bring her back to Goalpara and put her in jail. By the time she was released on a Gauhati HC order declaring her an Indian, she had spent nearly four years in jail.
“She was kept at a police station at Mancachar and was to be deported. It was then that the copy of the Gauhati HC order was faxed to authorities there. Following this, she was brought back to Goalpara and kept in the jail. After spending about two years here, she was shifted to the Kokrajhar jail where she spent another about two years. When she was released, she failed to recognise any of us,” Sonabhan’s husband, a daily wage earner, said. The family hails from Dekdhwa village in Goalpara.
Sonabhan has thanked the judiciary for “giving me a new life”.
“We were told she had lost her mental balance since being arrested. We took her to doctors and it took months for her to recover,” Aran Ali, Sonabhan’s younger brother who is from the same village, said.
“She was married to a man just 500 meters away from our house. My father, Sonaullah, has his name in the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC). So, how can she be an illegal immigrant?” Aran Ali argued. His 68-year-old chacha, Sukur Ali, who is a farmer, promptly added, “Even I have my name in the 1951 NRC. I was a two-year-old kid then”.
Majibar Rahman, who hails from Moriom Nagar in the district, too had to run from pillar to post to prove that he is an Indian. He was served a notice by the FT court in 2010 on the suspicion that all his family members – numbering 16, which include his grandsons and granddaughters – were illegal immigrants. Two years later though, the court declared all of them as Indians. But joy for the family was short-lived, for it was served a similar notice barely a year later in 2013 and then, yet another this year.
“When the second notice was served, I had approached the border police and told them that I was cleared of the suspicion only a year ago. They then apologised for the mistake. However, I received one more notice in November this year wherein I was asked to depose before the FT court on December 18. It heard my case and declared that we all in my family are Indians,” Majibar said.
He said he would not be surprised if he was served a notice again. “I spent around `95,000 fighting the case after being served the first notice. To generate the money, I had to sell off my cows. It was a waste of cash but I had to spend it because it was a matter of life and death for all of us in the family,” Majibar said.
Despite their ordeal, the families of both Majibar and Sonabhan are confident their names will figure in the draft NRC.
Why is the National Register of Citizens being updated in Assam?
It is being updated in line with the 1985 Assam Accord signed between the then Rajiv Gandhi government and the leaders of the Assam movement
What does the Assam Accord mandate?
That Bangladeshi immigrants who entered Assam after the midnight of March 24, 1971, will be seen as ‘illegal’ and have to be deported
What occasioned it?
A six-year anti-foreigner agitation in the early Eighties spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union. Updation of the NRC has been one of AASU’s long-standing demands
When did the demand gain momentum?
In 2005, after AASU’s tripartite meeting with the Centre and the state government. The matter then reached the Registrar General of India, following which a decision was taken by the Centre to update the NRC. However, there was a long debate on whether 1951 or 1971 should be the cut-off date to decide the legality of immigrants. The Supreme Court pitched in after various organisations filed petitions
Is the cut-off date for all immigrants the same?
Yes. Midnight of March 24, 1971
Is the updation being monitored?
Yes. Directly by the Supreme Court
What is the SC deadline for publication of the draft NRC?
It will be done in three phases. The deadline for Phase I, called Part NRC, is December 31, 2017. This phase will not cover some 30 lakh applicants, mostly Muslim women, who had submitted residency certificates issued by panchayats
What is the issue with residency certificates?
The SC has made it clear that the residency certificates will be of limited use in establishing the ‘linkage’ of a person and can be relied on only after proper verification
What does ‘linkage’ mean? Why is it important?
A person’s linkage with his/her father and forefathers is necessary to prove that he/she or his/her family has been living in India from before the cut-off date
What will be done in Phase II of the updation?
Phase II, called Complete NRC, will cover everyone, including the 30 lakh people who submitted residency certificates
What happens after Phase II?
People will be able to file claims and objections with NRC authorities within 30 days of publication of the list. After that, the Final NRC will be published
How many people have applied for enrolment in the NRC?
An estimated 68 lakh families (about 3.28 crore people) have submitted applications. But a “significant” amount of the work is yet to be finished, according to Union Home Secretary Rajeev Gauba
Will there be trouble?
Some fear so. The Assam government has deployed 50 companies of central forces in
10 districts to maintain law and order