Son is a poll official, mother can’t vote: Assam election lays bare absurdity and tragedy of NRC

The exercise is in limbo as the governing BJP has refused to accept the updated register in its existing form.

ByAyan Sharma
Son is a poll official, mother can’t vote: Assam election lays bare absurdity and tragedy of NRC
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For the past one month, Jahidul Islam Mirdha, 38, a government high school teacher from Chunbari village in Assam’s Baksa district, has been particularly busy. Apart from teaching, Jahidul has trained as an electoral officer for the ongoing assembly election. He has been roped in, like many other government officials, for the third phase on April 6 when 40 constituencies will vote across 11 districts in western Assam.

Jahidul will be stationed in the Jania constituency. “I have already undergone three rounds of training in Barpeta, the district headquarters,” he told Newslaundry.

While Jahidul has a ringside view of the electoral process, his mother Jarina Khatun, 59, has been left out of it for more than two decades. According to the state, she is a “D voter”. D means doubtful, a label attached to her in 1997. As a result, Jarina has been unable to cast her vote in any election since.

Doubtful voters are those persons who were identified during electoral roll revision as D voters, cases of which are pending with the Foreigners Tribunals, or FT, or declared as foreigners by a tribunal. The process, highly controversial for allegedly targeting genuine Indian citizens as well, began in Assam during the revision of electoral rolls in 1997 by the Election Commission of India. Currently, Assam has 1.08 lakh D voters who are barred from exercising their franchise.

Jarina’s ineligibility as a voter is only one among the family’s many troubles. Because of her D voter status, she could not find her name in the National Register of Citizens, or NRC, published in Assam on August 31, 2019. Consequently, Jahidul and his two sons were left out of the register as well. Of his four siblings, three similarly failed to make the cut.

Jahidul Islam Mirdha along with his two sons.

Jahidul Islam Mirdha along with his two sons.

A total of 3,11,21,004 people were found eligible for inclusion in the final NRC, leaving out 19,06,657 applicants. However, barring the D voters, others have been allowed by the Election Commission to cast their votes in the ongoing election if their names are on the electoral rolls.

The Mirdha family’s rejections were due to a single factor, Jahidul explained: the NRC authority considered all of them “descendants of D voter”. But the exclusion of Jahidul and his sons exposed the anomalies of the NRC upgradation process in the state.

To be included in the register, an individual primarily needed to submit two documents – first, to show their or an ancestor’s presence in India before March 24, 1971, the cut-off date for Indian citizenship in Assam; second, to show linkage between themselves and the ancestor under whose name the first document was submitted.

Jahidul presented data from the Assam NRC of 1951 where his father Nurul Islam had appeared as an 18-year-old. To show his connection to Nurul, Jahidul presented his voter identity card. Yet, his application was rejected on the ground of his mother being a D voter, meaning her citizenship was subject to scrutiny.

But according to the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2003, or CAA, anyone born on or after 26 January, 1950, and before 1 July, 1987, shall be an Indian citizen by birth. Ironically, one of Jahidul’s sisters, Nehar Khatun, 30, was included in the NRC on the basis of the same legacy data.

Moreover, even Jarina’s tag of being a D voter was erroneous, Jahidul said. The NRC of 1951 had contained her father’s name, he informed, and all his maternal uncles were included in the updated register using that legacy data.

Confident of the merit in his papers, Jahidul believes his family would get included in the NRC similarly.

“But for that to happen, the government has to start the tribunal hearing process as promised at the time of publishing the register. We have been living with anxiety for one and a half years now.”

According to the standard operating procedure, soon after the final list came out in August 2019, the NRC authorities were to issue rejection slips to each of the excluded persons for them to appeal to a FT within 120 days of receiving the notice. The quasi-judicial tribunals would then have to verify documents for declaring the appellant either as an Indian or a foreigner.

But the exercise has been in a limbo as the governing Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam remains unwilling to accept the register in its existing form. At the time, senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told the Indian Express that the list was “erroneous” as “more illegal migrants should have been excluded” and BJP and the state government would approach the Supreme Court again for “re-verification” of the citizenship in the border districts.

“NRC has become a political khichdi, a mess,” Jahidul said. When the draft of the register was published in July 2018, it left nearly 40 lakh people excluded. According to him, this made the BJP and some other jatiyatabadi, sub-nationalist organisations happy.

“They all saw this as a validation of their claims of Assam being flooded by illegal foreigners. So, they tried to take credit.” But once the figure dwindled by more than half in the final list, he continued, the same entities called it “flawed” and demanded a reverification. Also, according to Jahidul, the BJP’s hesitation stemmed from the fact that NRC had excluded lakhs of Bengali Hindus, a result contrary to its expectations.

But the state government’s demand for reverification made little sense, he told Newslaundry, as the Supreme Court and the Registrar General of India had only asked to start the 120-day claim window at tribunals for the rejected on the basis of the published NRC. “A random reverification will lead to unnecessary chaos and delay,” he said, before adding that many families had already been to several rounds of hearing ahead of the final NRC publication.

The Mirdhas themselves had gone to five hearings to plea for their inclusion in the register, Jahidul informed. Two of those were in Jalah for document verification and the other three in Mushalpur for witness testimony to verify the family tree. According to him, every round proved to be “a physical, mental, and economic harassment” as they had to travel to distant towns on a hired vehicle and spend the entire day in the process.

But Jahidul’s anger is not limited to the BJP government. The Congress, he believed, could have completed the entire exercise during their tenure as it was their “brainchild”. “It got nearly three years to do so,” he said, before pointing out that the issue has “surprisingly” not made it to the party’s manifesto this election.

Only on March 31, Assam Congress president Ripun Bora said in a public rally that his party, if voted to power, would accept and formally notify the NRC and issue identity cards to every citizen of the state. Further, it would ensure that the hearings of the appeals by the 19.06 lakh excluded from the final list began at the earliest and the genuine Indian citizens’ names were enrolled without further delay. The BJP, on the other hand, has promised correction and redressal of grievances in NRC in its manifesto, without specifying whether it will be through the 120-day claim process or a random reverification.

As political parties offer varied stances over the crucial issue, families like the Mirdhas have faced serious difficulties. Anxiety and fear apart, Jahidul has not been able to procure an Aadhar card for himself and link it to his Permanent Account Number, or PAN, card. This is because his fingerprints were recorded in one of the NRC hearings as per the procedure for claimants.

As he is yet to be counted in the citizens register, his Aadhar card application nine months ago got rejected. “The receipt copy showed ‘duplicate entry’ as the reason. I applied again about two months later but the result was the same.”

While the Mirdha family’s fate got entangled in the citizenship register because of an uncleared D voter tag, there are others who could get rid of the baggage but failed to get an entry.

Mahesh Banuary, 72, a retired government school teacher from Santi Nagar in Barpeta Road, had been confirmed as an Indian citizen by an FT on July 22, 2019. The Banuarys belong to the Bodo community, the largest tribe in the plains of Assam.

The verdict, however, did not get updated in the government’s record and he was excluded from the citizens register a month later. As a result, his son and two grandsons who live in Jharkhand could not get included either. Mahesh, like Jarina, got the D voter’s tag in 1997 because of which he hasn’t been able to vote all these years.

As many others, Mahesh’s disenfranchisement was not due to lack of documents to prove his presence in the state before 1971. It was probably because of a “whimsical” government officer who had randomly targeted his name on the electoral roll, according to him. “Sometimes what happens is that if you do not vote in an election or two, the authorities see it as a case of a doubtful voter. But in my opinion, this is only an excuse to forcefully increase the number of illegal foreigners in the state.”

At the time of applying for the NRC in 2015, Mahesh presented legacy data from the 1951 NRC which had featured his own name. His son used his high-school-leaving certificate and the grandsons' birth certificates to show linkage to their respective fathers. Yet, these proved insufficient for them to be counted as Indian citizens in the final register.

The result has left Mahesh worried, especially for his grandsons – one in class IX and the other in class VI. “They have their entire life in front of them. What if they fail to secure government jobs only because of this?”

Also, like Jahidul, Mahesh has not been able to get an Aadhaar card because of pending biometrics with the government. He only has his PAN card for identification purposes, he said, and uses his pension passbook for banking needs.

What surprised Mahesh further was that his wife, Nirala Konwar Banuary, 67, had made it to the citizens register but still got counted as a D voter in the electoral roll from last year. As a consequence, the couple is not sure whether they will be able to cast votes on the polling day on April 6.

Mahesh Banuary and his wife Nirala Konwar Banuary are from the Bodo community.

Mahesh Banuary and his wife Nirala Konwar Banuary are from the Bodo community.

The irregularities in the citizenship documentation process have frustrated both Mahesh and Nirala. In his opinion, Mahesh said, the NRC exercise was unnecessary on grounds of humanity. “As Bhupen Hazarika sang, if a man doesn’t care for a fellow man, who will?” he asked.

After more than two decades, the Banuarys are hoping to cast their votes this time. About two months back, they applied for inclusion on the electoral roll with a copy of the tribunal judgement for Mahesh and the updated NRC for Nirala at the Sarbhog circle office. It was yet to be confirmed with a little more than a week left for polling, Mahesh said.

A fair and correct NRC will be his key expectation from the new government, he said. “Whichever party comes to power, the stalled process needs to be restarted and completed at the earliest. We want to get rid of the unnecessary burden.”

If the D voter tag is the stumbling block for the Mirdhas and Banuarys in getting citizenship, there is another hurdle that has affected a large number of Bengali women. Many of them had come to Assam post marriage, and got excluded from the NRC due to lack of inter-state coordination among other factors.

For example, Champa Dutta, 40, migrated from Barobhisa village in Alipur district in West Bengal to New Bongaigaon in Assam following her marriage in 2003. While applying for the NRC, she submitted a land document from Bengal in her father’s name dating back to 1953. For showing linkage to her father, she submitted a certificate issued by her village panchayat, a document admissible for married and migrated women as per NRC rules. Yet, in the final NRC of August 2019, she was left out.

According to Champa, this happened because the officials in the NRC authority and the Bengal government failed to cooperate with each other for cross-verification. Also, she believed, linguistic differences were a barrier in the process too as her documents were in Bengali.

“But why should a common person suffer because of lack of communication between government officials? Why should I be deprived of citizenship because of the government’s fault?” she asked angrily.

Champa has been unable to get her Aadhar card made as well. About two weeks ago, she along with her daughter applied for the document. But while her daughter got a confirmation message soon thereafter, Champa did not.

Her worries however went further. “What if I am taken to a detention centre? There have been cases where genuine Indian citizens were taken away to detention centres. You never really know!”

With the assembly elections underway, Champa and her husband Gautam, a businessman, are waiting to see the BJP ousted from power. Not only had the current government put their lives in uncertainty with a stalled NRC, Gautam alleged, it had also been trying to “emotionally blackmail” the Bengali Hindus in Assam through the CAA. They would be assured of CAA only if it promised to provide citizenship to Bengali Hindus like Champa without any terms and conditions, Gautam said.

“My wife cannot prove that she has been a victim of religious persecution, nor can she show any proof of residence in Bangladesh at any point. How will CAA help her then?” Gautam questioned.

Upset by the BJP government, Gautam is contesting from the Bongaigaon constituency as an independent candidate this election. His primary agenda would be to help families left out of the NRC to get included in the register once the process resumed, he said. ‘For that, I want the new government to initiate the claim-making procedure at tribunals without delay.”

As families have been living in anxiety and awaiting the resumption of the NRC exercise, the state government on March 4 sought an additional fund of Rs 3.22 crore per month beyond March 31 to complete the project besides the Rs 1,602.66 crore allocated already. The Registrar General of India however turned the request down on March 23.

The demand has not gone down well with families excluded from the register. “Rs 1600 crore is a huge sum already. Why need more?” asked Shankar Roy, a car mechanic from Jyotikuchi in Guwahati who did not make it to the 2019 list, along with his son and daughter.

This way, argued Shankar, a new government would come and ask for more funds again. “I think these are ways of delaying the process. The current government doesn’t want to start the hearings,” he said.

Shankar, originally from Garegaon village in Kokrajhar district, had applied with his mother’s legacy data from the 1951 NRC. For showing linkage, while Shankar presented his PAN card, his son and daughter submitted birth certificates.

Shankar Roy did not make it to the 2019 list, along with his son and daughter.

Shankar Roy did not make it to the 2019 list, along with his son and daughter.

While their names got included in the draft register of July 2018, the same were struck off in an additional rejection list published in June 2019. They were accused of using the legacy data of one “Shukuru Rai” instead of Shankar’s mother “Suqri Roy”.

This was, according to Shankar, due to a spelling error possibly made by some official while entering the names in the records. And the error proved costly. Shankar and his family had to go to three rounds of hearing for verification and identification – twice in Gossaigaon, nearly 260 kilometres from Guwahati and once in Kokrajhar, about 30 kilometres shorter. To testify for their pre-1971 presence in the village, the Roys were accompanied by the headman and Shankar’s sister in these hearings. His sister could find her name in the updated register using the same legacy data as Shankar.

But nothing came out of the painstaking effort, which had cost the family over Rs 30,000. The rejection was an “insult” to the family, Shankar told Newslaundry, as he belonged to the Rajbongshi community, a group of people believed to be living in his village and the surrounding area for generations.

As a new government is set to assume charge in a month’s time, Shankar, like the others, hoped to see the process restart fast and fairly. Despite the exclusion, Shankar acknowledged the requirement of a correct NRC in Assam. People in the state have been voicing concerns over illegal Bangladeshis for decades, he said. “Why not settle it once and for all?”

***

This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.

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