2.4 million people who live mostly on the 2,251 sand bars that dot the entire river system in Assam, are living at the mercy of nature for long, and are now fighting another battle to keep their Indian identity alive.
Kamal Khan’s life is as fragile as the char (sandbar) on which he lives. Unlike many char-dwellers, who shift to the riverbank or beyond when the river Brahmaputra erodes their land, Kamal moved to Balartari from Chenimari char along the river bank.
“In Chenimari, land erosion had started in the early 1980s, and by 1996, the whole char was eroded. Many families had been shifted to Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar and Darrang district since late 1990s. A few families settled in Barpeta road area but had no option to go further away after losing ten bighas (1.6 hectares) of agricultural land,” he recalls.
Around 3,000 people belonging to 760 families currently live in Balartari village, but they still identify themselves as villagers of Chenimari.
Char-dwellers like Kamal are living a nomadic life in Assam, shifting from one eroded char to another that could possibly submerge in the near future. Since independence, around 75 chars have been eroded by the might of Brahmaputra in south-east part of Assam’s Barpeta district.
Land Tax, But No Land
Even worse is faced by the Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers of these chars. They have been paying the annual taxes regularly for their lands that have been eroded by the violent tides. Mainul Khan, another displaced char-dweller of Chenimari said: “For the past 30 years, we have not been able to grow a single grain on our land, but have kept paying the khajna (land revenue) regularly as the land documents and the updated tax receipts are the most important proofs of our Indian citizenship.”
During the mid-eighteenth century, the colonial British government encouraged Muslim cultivators from East Bengal to migrate and cultivate these chars in an attempt to extract revenues from the wastelands of Assam. Cultivators from East Bengal’s districts of Mymensingh, Pabna, Bogra and, Rangpur began to migrate in small numbers. But as the century progressed, the migration took the form of a large-scale influx into the Brahmaputra valley.
The generations that have grown up there speak a Bengali dialect as well as Assamese. Ashraful Hossain, a social activist from Barpeta, alleged that the Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers have been targeted for a long time, while being treated as “outsiders” in Assam.
“Government is arbitrarily striking off our names from the National Register of Citizens (NRC). On one hand, we are fighting with land erosion and floods, and on the other, the government questions our citizenship without considering the socio-economic background of the community.”Ashraful Hossain, a social activist from Barpeta to The Quint
An Obsolete Land Record System Continues To Haunt
The NRC was first prepared in 1951 soon after the Census was conducted. The NRC is now being updated in Assam to include the names of those people (and their descendants) who appear in the 1951NRC, or in any of the Electoral Rolls up to the midnight of 24 March 1971.
Many char-dwellers in Barpeta district found their forefather’s name to be missing from, or misspelled, in the 1951 NRC list.
Subsequently, they couldn’t prove their ancestry despite being born and having lived in Assam. For these villagers, land record is one of the most important proofs of citizenship.
4 million people were excluded from the NRC draft list. Dr Walter Fernandes, Senior Research Fellow at North Eastern Social Research Centre (NESRC) claimed, “Half of these numbers lack proper documents. Genuine citizens have been left out because they could not produce documents.”
“The land record system is weak in Assam because it still follows pre-British rules. People think they might be evicted from their current settlement and still pay taxes for the eroded land.”Dr. Walter Fernandes
BJP-Led Assam State Govt Hasn’t Kept Promise of Granting ‘Land Pattas’
On 4 July, in response to a question by the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) chief and Lok Sabha MP, Badaruddin Ajmal, the Union Minister of State for Water Resources, Social Justice and Empowerment, Rattan Lal Kataria, told the Parliament that 27,111 people have become landless, as per the government records in the state of Assam.
Quoting figures provided by the state’s Revenue and Disaster Management Department, the minister said that the area of land eroded till date has been the highest in Majuli, followed by Barpeta district with 19346.17 hectares of land.
“Villagers living in the chars have been constantly losing their lands, but the government is not aware of how much land has been eroded in the state in the past decades. Simultaneously, 95 percent char-dwellers lack land documents, as the government has failed to do the land survey since the 1960s,” said Sherman Ali Ahmed, MLA of Baghbar constituency.
He added, “The BJP-led Assam government that came to power in 2016, assured to grant land pattas to these communities. However, two and a half years have passed, with only a few families in certain districts getting the allotted land pattas. Thousands of applications are still lying with the departments for various reasons.”
Gripping Anxiety Ahead Of Final NRC List
Latifa Begum, a 55-years-old woman of Habi Radhakuchi village in Barpeta district, never went to school. She was married off at the age of 12. She neither has any school certificate nor a marriage registration.
“I submitted a claim with a panchayat certificate in 2015, but my name didn’t appear in the draft list. I applied with my PAN card in 2018 but the application was rejected again. Finally, I managed a piece of paper from my brother that mentioned my share in the hundred bighas land that my father had gifted to his nine children including me,” Latifa Begum told The Quint.
“I submitted the land deed to the NRC office and the officer assured me that my name should appear this time.”
Latifa Begum is hopeful that her name will appear in the final NRC list, but there are thousands of others who still live with such anxiety.
Saleha Bibi of Barpeta’s Fulbari village attended hearings at the NRC office six times. Despite that, she failed to prove her citizenship.
Her husband, Forman Khan, a tailor by profession, said, “My son’s and my name appeared in the NRC draft list but my wife, despite submitting all the documents including PAN card and marriage certificate, has failed to prove her legacy. Even two of her brothers came here to prove her legacy in Assam, but they asked for land documents that were not available at that moment.”
NRC Woes: “Govt Expects Records When Records Don’t Exist”
“Women, particularly from the char areas of Assam, are directly at the receiving end of the NRC update process. Recently, I came across a case where a woman from Barpeta district failed to prove her legacy in the state. She had submitted land documents of her father who lived in Morigaon district. Land documents have an important role in proving one’s legacy claim in the NRC process, but most char-dwellers lack the land patta itself,” said Guwahati-based lawyer, Kishore Kalita.
The final list is to be published by 31 July. The eyes of thousands of char-dwellers tell that they still nurture the hope that life will take a new turn someday.
Dr Fernandes of NESRC, while questioning the NRC implementation process across the state said, “The unfortunate part of the whole NRC process is that the government expects records when the records don’t exist. People are supposed to present registration certificate in a place where birth, marriage, and death are not registered. India doesn’t have a mandatory registration policy. How can I present registration documents?”
(Tanmoy Bhaduri, an independent photojournalist and writer based in Kolkata. He is recipient of Impact Journalism Grant 2019 and this story was developed as a part of the fellowship. He tweets @tanmoy_pj.)