Parvin Ahmed was quick to hand over her Aadhaar and voter cards to me. I had come to Assam from Delhi to recruit young Muslim women for a livelihood and leadership training programme. I said I don’t need it and filling a simple application form will do. Ahmed, keen to join the training, did not look convinced: “Please go through my documents. I will make you a photocopy of these”.
Ahmed, a mother of a three-year-old girl, is from Sonitpur district. It has been almost two months since she has found out that her name figures in the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) that was released in Assam. But the whole experience has left her and many others I met during my recent trip to the north-eastern state so nervous about their identity that they pull out their documents even before one can ask them their names.
This is the legacy the NRC and the now-lapsed Citizenship bill has left among Muslim women I met: nervously clutching their documentation and determined to vote in the upcoming 2019 elections at all costs to prove that they belong.
Our team was particularly keen to have the 41-year-old Shameera Begum on board. Though not “young” by the requirements of our programme, she was promising. In her village in Kokrajhar district, she had intervened in cases of domestic violence, child marriage, and had successfully mobilised women to procure schemes from local government agencies.
But the moment she got to know that the two-month training, beginning in mid-March, would mean her staying away from Assam during the Lok Sabha elections, it was no decision to make. She couldn’t even think about being away from home on election day.
Shameera identifies herself as an indigenous Assamese Muslim, who had owned some land and a house in Kokrajhar. When the violence broke out between indigenous Bodos and Bangladeshi Muslims in 2014, her house was set ablaze and she had to flee to Bangladesh to save her life. When she came back after the situation got better, she was treated as a Bangladeshi migrant, and not as a displaced Assamese. The situation remains tense and she has not been able to re-build her house in anticipation of another riot. Now, the onus on her is to prove her citizenship before the state and the 2019 general election is an occasion for that.
The decision of every woman in Assam to back out of the training exposed how politically vulnerable they are.
Despite her father’s insistence that she should go to Ahmedabad for the training, Najma Khatun, 25-year old woman from Barpeta district, opted out, fearing the consequences of not voting.
I asked her why she is overtly particular about voting when there are hundreds of girls who are unable to grab an opportunity like the one we’re offering because they don’t have a supportive father like she does. She said she’s very nervous because she has heard many stories of people getting marked as a ‘doubtful-voter’ by the Election Commission and being sent to detention centers.
Doubtful voters, or D-voters, are people who have been disenfranchised during electoral roll revision for their alleged lack of proper citizenship credentials. Those marked as 'D' lose their citizenship rights and are barred from casting a vote until cleared by special tribunals — a process that would cost them a whole lot of money.
In Khatun's case, it is less likely that she will get tagged as a 'D' voter considering that her name is included in the NRC. When I tried to reason with her along these lines, she replied, "You can't be certain about anything that's happening here.”
I returned to Delhi without any recruits but with a lesson on voting motivations. The voter turnout recorded in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was the highest ever, and it is projected that the 2019 elections may surpass this. It might be hailed as a sign of a vibrant democracy, where citizens are excited to choose a government, motivated by the belief that their vote will make a difference to the outcome.
But the turnout figures will also include women like Parvin, Shameera and Najma, who will vote not as empowered citizens but out of fear of being deported. To them, the vote will be a vital tool for validating their existence.
(Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.)
(Sahla Nechiyil worked as a reporter at the New Indian Express and Newslaundry. She currently works as project coordinator of the NGO Muslim Women's Forum. She tweets at @sahlanechiyil. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)