India File

A home-bred alien!

Poornima Joshi | Updated on September 24, 2018 Published on September 24, 2018

Indian identity Najima Khatun with her little girl waits outside an NRC verification centre to check her documents in Morigaon district of Assam Ritu Raj Konwar   -  THE HINDU

Piya, her mother Sanjukta and brother Pitam

Retired Army officer Haque

A political farce is being enacted in Assam with the final process of inclusion in the NRC starting today. Poornima Joshi reports

A family went about its business, lahe lahe (slowly, in the demotic), that sleepy afternoon in the run-down suburb of Jyotikuchi, Dhupoli, Guwahati. Twenty-one-year old Piya can’t quite remember where she was when she heard the roar of a motorcycle in the neighbourhood. What she does distinctly remember is the unease, the sense of foreboding from the moment a policeman, Indrajit Dutta who was riding the bike, halted outside their small courtyard.

“He said he wanted Baba to go with him, to just sign some papers,” Piya recalls. That was August 23, 2017. It has been over a year and Sujit Bala, 46, Piya’s father, has still not come home.

Piya, her mother Sanjukta and her little brother Pitam waited for Sujit to come home with increasing alarm. “He called late in the evening. He said if I could put together ₹300, the police might let him go,” the young girl, who has since found a job to support her family, narrates. Piya collected the money and begged a neighbour to come along to Fatasil Ambari police station, in Binowa Nagar, Kala Pahar, where her father was hoping to be let off for a bribe.

They didn’t let him off despite the ₹300 the young girl had collected. He would stay that night in the police station and the following year in a foreigners’ detention centre in Goalpara. Since they took him away, Piya is trying to gather her wits around and now knows her father has been declared as a ‘foreigner’ by the Foreign Tribunal Court, Ulubari. Her mother is from Silchar and knows little Assamese — the family speaks Bengali at home. Sanjukta does odd jobs around the neighbourhood but the family is resigned to the fact that they will not be able to afford a lawyer to challenge the tribunal order.

Piya does what she can, a local NGO helping her intermittently. She has been able to register as a citizen in the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) along with her mother and brother. But her father is a declared foreigner and the family is bracing for a long detention. Inclusion in the NRC is the least of the family’s concerns as the fear of deportation hangs like a shadow.

“They will release him, won’t they?,” asks Sanjukta, worry writ large on her weather-beaten face. They try and meet Sujit at least once a month in the Goalpara detention centre. “But we couldn’t go this month. It’s difficult to manage,” says Sanjukta. She misses her husband. “I still have the children and my home... The kitchen roof came down this monsoon. He would have repaired it in no time. Piya is struggling alone. How can she manage all this?,” she says.

Sujit is among the 253 people detained in Goalpara detention centre because they have been declared foreigners or, in a few cases, the police suspect them of being foreigners. Besides Goalpara, there are five other detention centres for people like Sujit, in Tezpur, Jorhat, Silchar, Kokrajhar and Dibrugarh where they are kept with convicted criminals as the centres are housed inside jails.

According to the latest statistics tabled by the Transport Minister of Assam, Chandramohan Patowary, in the State Assembly on March 26, there are a total 951 “foreigners” like Sujit. Since 1985, according to the State government, 29,738 foreigners have been “pushed back”, mostly into Bangladesh but also into Myanmar.

‘Foreigner’, 50 years later

But being deported is still a distant prospect. The immediate worry is that they would spend years in prison, like the 100-year-old Chandradhar Das, who crossed over from Dhaka in 1955 along with 20 other families from what was then East Pakistan. But after over half-a-century of living in India, he was suddenly declared a foreigner ex parte by a tribunal and sent to Silchar detention centre.

Das was released on bail in June this year but because the case against him, of being a suspected foreigner, has not yet been disposed of, the centenarian is still not recognised an Indian citizen and is out of the final draft of the NRC. And because the father who came in 1955 is now a declared foreigner, the daughter Niyuti Roy and son too do not find their names in the NRC, because descendants of declared foreigners are not meant to be included in the NRC. If Sujit Bala’s family members find themselves in, it is just because the process itself is cruel, arbitrary and absurd.

‘Detected foreigners’ under the special provision for recognising citizenship of persons covered by the Assam Accord in 6-A of the Citizenship Act, 1955, is among the surest grounds for exclusion by the NRC. There are 951 detenus in the six detention centres under section 3 (3) e of the foreigners act, 1946 and para 11 (2) of the foreigners order, 1948. Then there are, according to State government estimates, 90,206 people who have been “declared foreigners” by the tribunals although they have not been kept in the detention centres. Additionally, there are over 2,45,057 cases pending before the foreigners’ tribunals.

None of these “suspected” or “declared” foreigners should be included in the NRC, according to the guidelines. Nor can the 66,986 “Doubtful” voters identified by the Election Commission be included in the NRC because Doubtful or “D” Voters is also a criterion for exclusion from the NRC. A total of 2.48 lakh people have been “put on hold” for inclusion in the NRC because of these two criteria.

What has been unfolding in Assam is a Kafkaesque nightmare where people with no agency, no money and no support systems are left for recognition as Indian citizens at the mercy of a bureaucracy not particularly famous for its efficiency. The final draft of the NRC for Assam released this July contains 2.9 crore names out of the total 3.29 crore applicants. Come September 25, the NRC will start examining the claims of 40.07 lakh applicants who did not find a place in the document, to be considered for citizenship once again.

These are claims of people like Chandradhar Das, Piya’s father Sujit as also lakhs of others who, as per NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela, on no account, can be labelled “infiltrators” because this is a sensitive and exhaustive process.

In its wake is a simmering anger, especially when BJP President Amit Shah underlines that his party is committed to “throwing out these suspicious people (sandhigdh log) and ghuspaithiyas (infiltrators) and proceeds to push the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that seeks to facilitate the citizenship claims of only Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and other minorities who have crossed over to India fleeing religious persecution.

Encouraged by this political line, the party’s more enthusiastic cadre elsewhere, such as BJP MLA in Telangana, T. Raja Singh, have repeatedly asserted that Rohingyas and Bangladeshis need to be “shot dead”. None other than the then Tripura Governor, Tathagata Roy, maintained on his official Twitter account that those who are “howling about exclusion of people” are advised to learn the definition of ‘refugee’ and ‘infiltrator’. His tweets following this stream of consciousness gave details of how the Muslim League in 1946 got Hindus “killed, forcibly converted, women raped, houses torched, cows slaughtered and beef force-fed to owners. The carnage stopped only after reprisals started in Bihar”. “Forget History at your peril,” the Governor warned.

It is not certain whether the central BJP fully comprehends the sense of outrage such a position invokes in Assam, a State that reeled under violent insurgency and students movement for preserving Assamese identity against Bengali infiltration and sense of cultural supremacy. The State of legends such as Bhupen Hazarika, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Jahnu Barua boasts of a proud ethno-centric identity that repels notions of a simplistic Hindu/Muslim communal division politics.

Ajmal Haque, a retired Army officer, who found himself branded a foreigner after 30 years of service in the Army, says: “Who is anyone to question my nationality? What do they know of nationalism and love for the nation? I have given the best years of my life and that is nothing. The Nation deserves much more.”

“But what do politicians know of how ordinary people feel?” asks Haque, says, voice breaking.

Haque retired from the Army in 2016. Within a couple of months, he received a notice from the Foreigners Tribunal No. 2 Boko, Assam, in case number 1082/2016, accusing him of being a foreigner.

The Assam police hurried to correct the blunder after a huge public outcry and the case against him was dropped. Haque’s relief was short-lived. In the final draft of the NRC released on July 30, 2018, he, his daughter Sayeda Easmina Parvin, a student of Army School, Narangi Guwahati and son Elias Haque, a student of the prestigious Rashtriya Military School, Dehradun, have not been included as citizens. However, his wife Mumtaz Khanum’s name figures in the NRC as citizen.

“I am now told that there is another case against me for being a foreigner. I have cross-checked the number of the case (number BFT 1583/2011) that is being cited as my being tried as foreigner by the Boko foreigners’ tribunal. It does not exist. It is a case against someone called Nesa Khatun, wife of Dinesh Ali. But it is being cited to keep me and my children out of India’s citizenship register,” says Haque.

Electoral dividends

The BJP has, nevertheless, pressed ahead with its drive against the “ghuspaithiyas” because regardless of the damage it does in Assam, the party is certain it will pay rich electoral dividends in neighbouring West Bengal. The BJP believes the oppositional space is vacant in West Bengal and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s presumably pro-Muslim policies are preparing the ground for the BJP to polarise the electorate in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Top sources in the BJP told BusinessLine that the Citizenship Bill would be brought in December, during the winter session of Parliament with a view to reassuring Bangladeshi Hindus in Assam and targeting Mamata Banerjee’s minority vote in Bengal. Accordingly, after passing a resolution in its national executive during September 8-9 on the NRC and Citizenship Bill, the BJP has started an enthusiastic “outreach” programme to generate favourable public opinion on the Bill.

The BJP’s alliance partner, AGP, has held public protests against the Citizenship Bill and the more radical sub-nationalists, such as the over-ground United Liberation Front of Assam leader Anup Chetia, warn of another round of militancy sweeping Assam if the ruling party pursues such “cynical, farcical and dangerous policies” to divide the State on communal lines. “They are strengthening the hands of extremists like Paresh Baruah (underground ULFA leader who still believes in armed insurgency for creation of sovereign Assam state).”

The BJP has factored in the opposition of the sub-nationalist elements like Chetia and the opposition offered by the AGP which, the ruling party believes, would be “notional”. The message behind touting NRC as a bogey for pushing out “ghuspaithiyas” is at least 20 Lok Sabha seats the BJP hopes to win by consolidating the Hindu votes on the sentiment the party is building up against Bangladeshi Muslims.

Mamata Banerjee has, on her part, clearly understood the political message behind the “infiltrators will be thrown out” line and has warned of a “bloodbath”. In the immediate aftermath of the NRC final draft, she accused the BJP of creating conditions for a “civil war”. “The NRC is being brought with a political motive. Look at their audacity. It is our motherland. We will not let this happen. They are trying to divide the people. This cannot be tolerated. There will be a civil war, a bloodbath in the country,” she said.

As the date for filing final claims for inclusion in the NRC arrives today, the melting pot in Assam has already begun to stir. In this game of numbers and rhetoric of nationalism, the biggest sufferers will, as usual, be the ones already on the margins.

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Published on September 24, 2018
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