Assam NRC: ‘A Journey to Find Out if I am an Indian’
(This story was first published on 28 August 2018 and has been reposted from The Quint's archives in the context of the observation by the Supreme Court of India regarding the delay in the completion of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam.)
Additional Reporting: Anjana Dutta
Cameraperson: Tridip K Mandal, Anjana Dutta
Multimedia Producer and Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia
This was the only question on my mind when I flew out of New Delhi airport on 29 July, 2018. And I was not alone, 3.29 crore people of in the Indian state of Assam, who had applied for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) had the same question.
The NRC aims to detect illegal foreigners living in Assam. Like me every applicant has to prove that they or their ancestors (father, mother, grandfather), were living in Assam on 24 March, 1971. To prove our family tree we submitted documents like legacy record from 1951, electoral rolls from 1965, birth certificates, school mark sheets.
NRC: A Necessary Evil?
30 July, 2018
It was a jam packed press room at the NRC headquarters in Guwahati, the so called National media (it includes me as well), which normally gives a damn about what happens in the northeast, was in full attendance. Sharp at 10 am the completed draft NRC was released.
It was indeed unprecedented, only 2.89 crore people made it to the NRC, 40 lakh people were left out. Though they were not declared illegal foreigners yet, still they were at a risk of becoming stateless. Many allege that it this maze of documentation that resulted in the exclusion of these 40 lakh people, many of them could be genuine Indians. But before anyone sniffs a conspiracy theory to target innocent citizens, here are some startling data that clearly shows that Assam does have a serious problem of illegal foreigners.
Why Are We Not in the NRC?
You get the drift now. This piece will pose more questions, answers will be few. Hopefully in the end I can at least answer the question for which I set out on this journey, I am an Indian or not?
In Barpeta district’s Balukuri NC I met Samsul Ahmed Haque, a retired sergeant from the Indian Air Force. He, his wife and two children were left out of the NRC, this after serving 35 years in the air force.
When I returned home in 2014 after retiring from the IndianAir Force, I came to know that I have been declared a D-voter. In 2016 the Foreigners’ Tribunal declared that I am not a foreigner, I am an Indian. Jai Hind. My younger brothers are in the NRC. But my name is not there. My father’s name is in the 1951 NRC.Samsul Ahmed Haque, Retd Sergeant,Indian Air Force
In Gamariguri village, 21-year-old Shahnaz Khatoon mostly cried through the interview and I just sat watching this young girl feeling helpless and desperate to see her father out of the detention camp. Her father Mohd Shah Ali was declared a D or Doubtful voter in 1997. Since 2016 he has been in a detention camp.
Land records dating back to the 1940s, legacy record of 1951 and rupees 8 lakh spent in court cases were just not enough to prove that Shah Ali is not a ‘D’ voter.
The Horror May Repeat Itself
On 18 February 1983 more than 1800 Bengali-speaking-Muslims were killed in Nellie in central Assam. Today not many people want to talk about the massacre that happened in the past, what matters to them is the NRC that will decide their future.
24-year-old Mohd Nabi tells me that he has heard about the massacre.
My elder sister was 8-years-old, the other two siblings were just babies when they were killed in 1983. Today not a single person from our family is in the NRC. They have said that they won’t include the names of those whose parents are ‘D’ voters. I have made peace with what happened in the past. But now the same horror may repeat itself. In spite of having all the documents if we have to leave this country, it is better to die in such a situation.Mohd Nabi, Resident, Nellie, Assam.
A Battle of Identity, Language and Nationality
In Assam, more than religion, it is the linguistic politics that has created a bigger rift between indigenous Assamese and Bengali speaking people. Most Bengalis are suspected to be from Bangladesh. This intolerance gave rise to the ‘Bongal Kheda’ or ‘Chase out the Bengalis’ metaphor.
I am also a Bengali, me and my family are Indians. My grandfather was in the 1951 NRC yet I was not sure whether I’ll make it to the NRC when I reached the NRC Seva Kendra in my village in Nagaon district.
The draft NRC had some good news. Me, my mom and daughter had made it to the NRC. We were bona fide Indians now. But my wife was one of the 40 lakh applicants who were left out. So our NRC saga continues. Maybe it will take another trip back home, another video blog by me, this time as a journalist and a husband fighting for his wife’s citizenship.
(Special thanks to ‘Strangers of the Mist’, a book by Sanjoy Hazarika.)