The official presumption that they are foreigners has reduced several million of long-term residents of Assam highly impoverished, mostly rural, powerless and poorly lettered residents to a situation of helplessness and penury.

The concern –

  • They are required to persuade a variety of usually hostile officials that they are citizens, based on vintage documents which even urban, educated, middle-class citizens would find hard to muster.
  • It has been witnessed that the names of many persons were dropped from the draft NRC only because of minor differences in the spelling of Bengali names in English in different documents.
  • Similarly, the rural unlettered are typically vague about their dates of birth. A person could be excluded from citizenship if she told the tribunal that she was 40 when her documents recorded her to be 42.

Woes of women –

  • Women are especially in danger of exclusion as they have no birth certificates, are not sent to school, and are married before they become adults.
  • By the time their names first appear in voters’ lists, these are in the villages where they live after marriage, which are different from those of their parents. They are told that they have no documents to prove that they are indeed the children of the people they claim are their parents.
  • Impoverished migrant workers often travel to other districts of Assam in search of work, as construction workers, road-builders and coal-miners. In the districts to which they migrate, the local police frequently record their names as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The police then mark them out as illegal immigrants.
  • Through a process in the mid-1990s when the then Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan, as a one-time measure, directed officials to identify “doubtful voters” by marking a “D” against their names on the voters’ list. Today, the “D” also debars them from being included in the draft NRC.
  • A third process empowers the Assam Police to identify anyone it suspects to be a ‘foreigner’. Again, all that the police claim in most cases is that the person was unable to show them documents establishing his or her citizenship. People consistently deny that the police even asked them from documents.

Unfair and opaque procedures –

  • All cases referred by the police are heard by Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs). There are now FTs in which not a single person has been declared an Indian citizen over several months. Many allege that both the police and presiding officers in FTs work to fulfil informal targets to declare people foreigners.
  • Even if a person finds her name in the NRC, the police can still refer her case to an FT; an election official can even deem her to be a “D”-voter. Article 20 of the Constitution includes as a fundamental right that “no person shall be prosecuted and punished for the same offence more than once”. But this principle has been waived for FTs.
  • It has been seen that no person in the list was given legal aid by the state, which is bound to deploy lawyers paid by the state to fight their cases in the FTs and higher courts. The large majority of them are poorly educated and very impoverished, doing low-paid work such as drawing rickshaws, or working as domestic work or farm labour.

The final picture –

Trapped at the crossroads of history, their destinies depend on institutions that treat them with undisguised hostility and bias. There are indeed few parallels anywhere in the world of the state itself producing statelessness on the scale and in the manner that it is doing in Assam.

SourceThe Hindu