Between the 5th and 10th of November 2019, a nine person team comprising of members of Women against Sexual Violence and State repression (WSS) visited the state of Assam in order to understand the implications of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC), particularly for the most marginalised people of Assam. The team travelled to the Barak Valley region, home to several Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims, to the Char and Chapori villages (the river islands and villages on the banks of the Brahmaputra), home to some of the most vulnerable groups of people – largely the landless Miyah Muslim peasants. The team also visited villages in the districts of Jorhat, Sivasagar and Hojai, home to those who fled erstwhile East Pakistan in 1964 and tea plantations on which migrant workers from Jharkhand and the Chhota Nagpur plateau toil. The team met with workers, peasants, activists, academics and members of civil society in all of these regions.
RATIONALE FOR THE VISIT
The NRC came into being in 1951 with the first Census exercise in India and was made specifically for Assam to identify “illegal” immigrants or foreigners in the area.1.9 million people of Assam were were excluded in the final list declared on August 31, 2019. Seen together with the dominant narrative that demonizes certain social and religious identities and the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019, it reveals the dangerous ways in which such an exercise can be used to further the agenda of the Hindu right, serving to target particular communities in violent ways. It also points to a history of how the State chooses to count and categorise its people and therefore also how it chooses to exclude. Both the colonial and the post-colonial state have used this to periodically pit one community against another. While there is a wide spectrum of scholarship and literature on the NRC that situates it historically while also seeking to analyse and critique the current exercise, much of this is directed at the problems of its implementation and assumes an objective neutrality to its intent. However, under the current government which not only dedicatedly serves the interests of capital and the ruling class, but which also proudly relies on technocracy and continuously invokes a rabid religious nationalism to decide who is excluded, we are compelled to ask what an exercise to determine citizenship would mean for women, people of other marginal genders, religious minorities such as the Muslims, people of oppressed castes, and those rendered most vulnerable by the intersection of such identities. It is with this understanding that WSS planned its fact-finding visit.
FINDINGS OF THE VISIT
Proving citizenship under the NRC relies largely on land, lineage, education and the availability of documents pertaining to these. In a patriarchal society, women in general, and women from marginal and oppressed communities in particular, have historically and traditionally been excluded from entitlements to land and access to education and have almost no documentation to prove their existence as citizens. In a caste ridden society, and also one characterised by extreme class inequality, access to the lettered world – especially of formal education – also means that most people from these communities find themselves in extremely precarious situations with respect to the necessary documentation. By, the process of updating the NRC became a conscious attempt at exclusion. The need to secure documents proved more urgent and also more expensive for the poorest and vulnerable, and thus the process of updating the NRC has consequences far beyond the challenges of temporarily grappling with bureaucracy.
- Targeted Randomness and Conscious Exclusion: Exclusion from the list had an apparent arbitrariness to it – for example, there were many cases where everyone in the family had made the list but one minor child had been left out; several others where a husband found himself on the list while the wife to whom he has been married to for over three decades did not; and others still where three siblings made the list while two others with the same documentation of lineage were rejected. This seeming randomness however had everything to do with the dominant narrative of the “outsider” and “illegal immigrant” that has been built over decades and granted almost sacred sanction under the current political climate. It also largely depended on the attitude of the functionaries (at all levels) of the NRC towards language, gender, religion, caste and class. On the last date for filing objections, in a span of 12 hours there were as many as 2.5 lakh objections filed against the inclusion of names. Almost all the names against which objections were filed were names of Muslims and other marginalized communities. And almost all the objectors were unknown to those to whom they had objected against. We even met two 2-year-olds and one 9-year-old who had objections filed against them, while their parents had secured a place on the final list. This targeted randomness allowed the entire process to become one of conscious exclusion – on one hand, the burden of proving citizenship was placed entirely on people themselves and requirements were made stringent to the point of being almost unattainable. On the other, mechanisms were instituted which didn’t allow any room for correcting errors in documents submitted – if there was a problem with the documents of the legacy person, or if one got wrongly linked to a legacy person having the same name in the village, it meant that revised documentation would not be accepted because one’s legacy, once submitted is ‘frozen’. Exclusion was further exacerbated by the fact that many NRC officials themselves had little knowledge about what constituted valid legacy and link documentation, and there were many cases where the same documents were accepted by one NRC officer but rejected by another.
- Violation of Children’s Rights: On August 13 this year, the Supreme Court ruled that children born after December 3, 2004 were not eligible to be included in the NRC if any of the child’s parents was a Doubtful voter, a declared foreigner or someone with cases pending before a Foreigners’ Tribunal. This denial of citizenship to children born after 2004 is a clear violation of Article 7 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which India is supposedly committed. What’s more, as per the Citizenship Act, anyone born in India before June 30, 1987 is in fact a citizen. In the process of updating the NRC, even such persons were required to submit legacy data to establish citizenship, which stands in violation of the provisions of this Act. Ironically, it is this very Act that is invoked to deny citizenship to children born after 2004. Further, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 is applicable to all children, irrespective of whether their parents are declared foreigners or D-voters. Despite this, there is neither any legal provision that exempts children left out of the NRC from standing trial in the tribunals nor any mechanisms to ensure that these children are provided the care and protection granted to them by this Act. Applications of children who do not have parents and/or are residing with distant relatives have not even been submitted.
- Discrepancies in Names – a result of disregard, ignorance and unfamiliarity: Minor discrepancies in names cost many a place on the list. Several people testified to the struggle of Hindu officials to get their names right while filling forms for voter IDs, panchayat certificates and the rest. Sometimes an additional suffix related to social identity like a Munshi randomly added by an official decades ago became the price for exclusion. Although it is common practice for women who would sign off as Khatun to become Begum once they are married, this customary change in name caused many rejections. We even learnt of a case where someone working at one of the NRC Seva Kendras (NSKs) themselves filed an objection on the grounds that someone with a suffix of Hussain cannot be a blood brother to someone with a suffix of Ali, when this is in fact most possible. Similar mistakes were found with names of those belonging to Scheduled Castes and Tribes, thereby allowing cultural biases born of structural inequality that normalises discrimination against oppressed communities to serve as grounds to legally brand them foreigners.
- Data and Security: There has been complete opacity with regards to the security of the massive amounts of sensitive data the NRC process has generated. While the Supreme Court ordered that NRC authorities must enact a security regime akin to the one provided for the Aadhar scheme, it remains unclear what precise mechanisms make the private companies responsible for handling the reams of data accountable to the people of Assam. Questions pertaining to the ownership and use of data, and whether permission for use will be taken or not also remain unanswered. WIPRO, the company responsible for the system integration of the NRC project, has been taken to court by the office of the Labour Commissioner of Assam for violating the Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act of 1970 while operating the digital part of the NRC. Several data-operators employed by WIPRO alleged that they were being paid less than half the amount sanctioned by the government to them as salaries. How is it that a firm which blatantly indulges in illegal practice and rampant exploitation can be trusted with the private data of millions of Indian citizens?
- Women Battle the Legacy of Patriarchy: Since entitlements relating to land and lineage have historically been denied to them, the burden of producing documentation was that much harder for women. Legacies centred around birth-ties meant that women, even those who have been married for decades, were required to provide ‘legacy data’ from their paternal families. In Assam where women are often married off before the age of 18, and many don’t complete school (even as of 2001, female literacy in Assam was only around 50%) voter IDs and school certificates are also not common. The widespread practice of giving birth at home till very recently meant that documentation in the form of birth certificates too is rare. Marriage certificates are rarer still, creating a problem for women who have had to change their surnames after marriage to once again establish paternal legacy. It has been reported that not a single woman belonging to any other state in the country who moved to Assam after marriage, has been included in the register. Apart from documentation, the NRC made use of the patriarchy that characterises Assamese society to render the position of women all the more precarious. The inherent gender bias in the entire process is reflected in the fact that people were encouraged to state their patrilineal legacy even when their mother’s legacy met all the documentation requirements. Assumed to be incapable of defending their own citizenship, officials at hearing centres would only speak to the men accompanying women, making it near impossible for women to attend hearings without male relatives. Often, husband and wife were summoned for hearings at two completely different hearing centres on the exact same date. Women who have almost never been allowed to leave the house had to travel hundreds of kilometres alone or with their paternal families to attend hearings. Here, they were expected to use a language that is neither their own, nor one they were ever allowed to learn to read, and testify to a lineage that they have been disinherited from, only to secure a place on a family ‘tree’ that cements the patriarchal family all over again. There was a whispered fear in many homes, wondering if a place on the family tree would mean women could assert their legal right over family property. In some cases this fear meant families were hesitant to take responsibility of documentation and travel to hearing centres for daughters who had been married off. Those who do not fall within the purview of the institution of marriage and family – such as single women, widows, abandoned women and children and anyone who has asserted independence in terms of defining their gender or way of life – have an even slimmer chance of claiming citizenship. Members of the transgender community remain almost entirely unlisted. The inherent preoccupation with homogenising the family has meant that those whose choices allow a refreshing diversity in social relations such as those who have had inter-caste or inter-faith marriages have also invariably suffered, in addition to the brutal violence they are subjected to by right-wing groups and caste-society.
- Trauma, Indebtedness, Loss of Lives and Trust: The process has had a deeply damaging impact on the people of Assam leading to many physical, mental and psychosomatic illnesses. The fear of being detained in camps, deported to unknown lands, separated from friends and family, and attacked for being branded as foreigners have come to define everyday life for many in Assam. Over 50 instances of suicides related to the NRC have been reported. There have also been reported deaths at hearing centres caused by extremely high levels of anxiety. There were also a few reported accidents of vehicles that were carrying scores of people to and from hearing centres that occurred in the rush to make it to final hearings. In one accident two sisters, one only 14, a student of class 8, and the other, her older sister and mother of two infants died on the spot. Several of their family members were seriously injured and critically ill. Many have still not regained mobility. In another accident, passengers were burnt by the hot tar on which their bus skid, resulting in many burn injuries of varied intensity. Those who suffered injuries had to spend huge sums of money on treatment. To add to injury, they were not even allowed a fresh date of hearing. Several people have had to sell almost all their belongings, pawn their meagre land holdings and borrow large sums of money just to get their documents in order and reach the many hearings they would be repeatedly called for. The whole exercise has created new cycles of indebtedness especially among the landless poor in the state. Due to anonymity and unaccountability of objector, people are suspicious of every other person, creating an atmosphere of paranoia. The expenses of the exercise then are not restricted to the millions spent on detention centres and hearings – the cost of it all can only be measured in the damage done to lives and severe economic losses. It must be recalled that it is in fact on the rubble of lives itself that the entire process was built – during the first pilot project in Barpeta, over 5000 people gathered to protest against the updating of the NRC on July 21, 2010, and were fired upon by the police. Four people were killed and over 50 injured. The pilot project was never completed, and yet, trampling over these corpses, the process found official sanction.
- The Problem of Foreigner’s Tribunals (FT) and Detention Centres: There is a complete lack of clarity as to the fate of those who have identified as foreigners or declared D-voters. They are expected to seek redressal through Foreigners Tribunals which are only quasi-judicial bodies comprised of members whose qualifications have been relaxed to include lawyers who are 35-years old and above and have been registered with the Bar for a mere seven years, irrespective of their experience. Contracted for a period of a year, with little training and the unchecked power to regulate their own procedures, they are far from competent to take on the serious task of deciding the constitutional rights of citizenship. Once their order (which in many cases is ex-parte) renders a person stateless, as is usually the case, there are no appellate rights other than going through the expensive process of filing a writ petition in High Court. Several people against whom objections had been lodged often are completely unaware of the case made against them. We also met with people who have reference cases that have been slapped against them as far back as 2007, which they continue to try and fight without any access to defence, and while incurring costs far beyond their means, only to be deeply stigmatized. One of the women we met who is fighting such a case, was even sent off to a detention centre a few days after we left because her lawyer couldn’t produce all her papers on time. At present there are very few experienced lawyers to appear for claim cases. Once in a Detention Centre, access to legal redressal is nearly impossible.
- Intimidation, Surveillance, and Targeting of Human Rights Defenders and Activists: There has been a consistent persecution of persons who have raised a critical voice against the arbitrariness and violence of the NRC, both by right-wing groups and the State. Those helping people in these times of need have also been targeted. Registering of false cases, increased surveillance, frequent intimidation and spreading of misinformation with the intent to discredit these persons has become alarmingly commonplace. Activists also spoke of more serious but insidious harassment such as interference with their education and means of livelihood.
CONCLUSIONS AND DEMANDS
The process of updating the NRC structurally reproduces and reinforces existing inequalities by demanding proof of citizenship in the form of documentation that have been systematically denied to certain groups of people because of multiple processes of historical and social marginalisation and oppression. The chilling testimonies of particularly those belonging to the most marginal of communities stands testament to the fact that the updating of the NRC was inherently biased against them, and even more particularly, against the women of these communities. The refrain of being outsiders and the other is not unfamiliar to people of the Muslim community. In the current political context however, it immediately acquires very threatening undertones. With the updating of the NRC, this insecurity becomes even more acute, leaving millions to wonder whether or not they will be allowed to continue to live in a country they have called home ever since they were born or can remember. In collusion with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that the Centre is pushing for, (which seeks to amend the law to facilitate citizenship for non-Muslim refugees from India’s neighbouring countries), and the global sanction of branding a whole community as terrorists, the discrimination against communities based on religion will gain legal sanction, and make Muslims in particular much more vulnerable to becoming stateless.
There is also a complete lack of vision in terms of what the fate of those excluded from the list is to be. Are people going to be indefinitely detained in camps? Where will those branded as foreigner be deported? What will happen to those who cannot bear the expenses of challenging exclusion through legal recourse? What about those who were unable to file their documents as a part of the process of updating the NRC? These are but a few of the myriad questions that remain unanswered by a government which remains unaccountable to its people. Despite the failure of the entire exercise – recognised by people across the political spectrum – and the havoc it has caused for the people of Assam, the Centre continues to push the idea of developing an NRC for all other states in the country. Recent remarks by the Home Minister in Parliament (which imply that it will also be redone in Assam) threateningly warn of the violence that awaits the people of the entire country, particularly those relegated to living on the margins.
Women against Sexual violence and State repression condemns the violence caused by the updating of the NRC in Assam and maintains that the State be accountable to the people of Assam to provide justice and make amends for the havoc it has wreaked.
– That there be no exercise to create an NRC in any other state of India and no repetition of the process in Assam as stated by the Home Minister.
– That the proposed bill to amend the Citizenship Act – which clearly excludes Muslims and those without any professed faith – be withdrawn immediately.
– That people languishing in detention centres and jails on reference cases should be released immediately and all detention centres must be shut down.
– That compensation be given to families of all those who have lost people and to those who have suffered physical and mental trauma due to the process of updating the NRC.
– That action be taken against those who have filed or instigated the filing of false objections to inclusion of names on the NRC.
– Border police should be held responsible for any infiltration that happens and should accountable to citizens and the law for filing reference cases against any individual.
– That there be strict adherence to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 and special protection of children whose parents have been detained and those who themselves face the threat of detention.
– That no person be detained without a clear policy (including a time-frame) on the fate of those declared to be foreigners, and that such a policy be committed to preventing statelessness.
– Immediately stop the intimidation of Human Rights defenders and activists and quash all cases against them.
– That India becomes a signatory to both the UNCHR 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Stateless Persons.
– That justice be granted to all those who have suffered trauma, discrimination, exploitation and loss during the course of the updating of the NRC.
– That everyone who has been excluded from the NRC in Assam be in fact considered citizens and granted all citizenship rights until and unless the State itself can prove otherwise. The burden of proving citizenship should be on the State which claims to protect them, and not its people.
Members of the fact-finding team: Nisha Biswas, Ajita, Swapna, Maheen Mirza, Bondita, Nikita Agarwal, Seema, Sohini and Shreya K.
Conveners, WSS: Nisha Biswas, Ajita Rao, Rinchin, Shalini Gera