Citizens or Aliens? Assam’s Muslim Women Hang by a Gossamer Thread
For nearly two years, 50-year-old Manowara Bewa has remained incarcerated at Kokrajhar illegal immigrants’ detention centre, one of six across Assam, which is caught up in controversy over the detection of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi immigrants suspected to have settled across the state.
Jahanara Hussein, who grew up with Manowara in Khagrabari in Dhubri district on the India-Bangladesh border, emphatically tells The Quint:
“The living conditions at the Kokrajhar detention centre are sub-human, and when I last met her, Manowara hardly spoke, mumbling only about the case (in the Supreme Court) which will decide whether she will continue to live in India or face deportation,” Jahanara told The Quint over the telephone.
The other detention centres are in Goalpara, Tezpur, Dibrugarh, Silchar and Guwahati.
The bench is also seized of the allied issue of the Assam government’s endeavour to complete the controversial and politically charged issue of the National Register of Citizens, which the BJP regime of Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had promised to expedite as part of their pre-election campaign.
Identity Crisis: Those Who Belong & Those Who Don’t
Bengali-speaking Jahanara herself was a suspected illegal immigrant and like Manowara, had to submit documents before the Foreigners’ Tribunal to prove her Indian citizenship. The childhood friends are among an estimated 47 lakh married Muslim women who are entangled in the raging controversy over who is an “original inhabitant” and who is an illegal immigrant in Assam.
At the heart of the larger controversy are three “verticals”:
1) A petition challenging Section 6A of the Citizenship Act and seeking directions as to whether the cut-off date for declaring a person an immigrant should be 1951 or 25 March 1971;
2) Monitoring of the NRC process, which the Supreme Court had earlier directed to be completed by 31 December 1971;
3) Whether a “link certificate” (or residency certificate) issued by the head of a gram panchayat is a valid document
Over 80,000 ‘Foreigners’ Before 2016
Manowara’s SLP in the Supreme Court relates to her production of a residency certificate as a document to prove her Indian citizenship. The Gauhati High Court (28 February 2017) and earlier (17 March 2016) the Foreigners’ Tribunal in Dhubri had summarily rejected this document, even though she had submitted records showing “her father’s name recorded in the 1951 NRC and voter list of 1966”.
In the pre-2016 period, only 80,194 persons were detected as foreigners. Over the last year or so, about 9,000 additional persons have been found to be foreigners (read: Bangladeshis) with approximately 1,000 being added every month.
Of Lost Identities
Wadud told The Quint over the phone from Guwahati, that Manowara, who was put in the “D (doubtful) voters list”, had also “submitted land documents of the year 1965 where her father’s name has been recorded, a school-leaving certificate and a certificate issued by the gaon bura (village headman)”.
When Wadud appealed to the Gauhati High Court, a division bench held that the certificate issued by the gaon panchayat secretary and counter-signed by the revenue officer of Assam, certifying the residential status of married women in his area of jurisdiction, only as a “supporting document” which had “no statutory sanctity” and which could “at best be a private document”.
A Fear of Deportation
Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi, a Supreme Court advocate who has taken up the case of the All Assam Muslim Students’ Union (AAMSU), says:
Ayyubi contends that the officials who are responsible for preparing the NRC will not consider the citizenship status of the estimated 47 lakh women and a “separate list” of these individuals will be prepared.
When contacted, Prateek Hajela, the state coordinator of the NRC, refused to disclose the results of completing the NRC exercise which seeks to identify and weed out illegal immigrants from Assam.
“It will not be proper on my part to disclose the total number of illegal immigrants who have so far been identified. I will also not hazard an estimate at this point in time,” Hajela said.
Hopes for a ‘Favourable Judgment’
While Hajela had earlier submitted before the Supreme Court Bench that only 17 lakh Muslims in Assam were “original inhabitants” and that the NRC authorities were satisfied with the citizenship status of this group, there was no consensus among political parties and social organisations about the definition of “original inhabitants”.
When contacted, AAMSU President Azizur Rahman said he was “hopeful that the Supreme Court will deliver a favourable judgment and give us relief”. But he was reluctant to disclose his organisation’s programme in the event of a judgment that could push 48 lakh Muslim women a step closer to being declared illegal immigrants and deported from India.
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