On the morning of November 1, 2015, a 37-year-old woman named Sahera Khatoon received a notice calling her to a foreign tribunal. Sahera was living at that time in Sukharjar, a riverside village in the remote Indian state of Assam. After marrying a daily wage laborer named Amir, she had moved from Morbhaj to the place where she was born. Sahera had given birth to five children in Sukharjar and had seen nothing of the world beyond these two villages and the majestic rivers that regularly watered the huts and fields. Yet the summons required her to prove that she was a citizen of India and not an illegal migrant from neighboring Bangladesh. If she fails to appear, the tribunal will declare her a foreigner and arrest her.
On the appointed day, Sahera and her husband traveled for two hours in a crowded tempo to Foreigners Tribunal No. 6 in Barpeta town. It was the first of many such performances. Over the years, with the help of lawyers working for free, Sahera submitted a series of documents including land records, copies of electoral lists and a marriage certificate. She was cross-examined by the officer as the head of the village where she lived.
In June 2018, the tribunal delivered its verdict. On the advice of her lawyer, Sahera stayed away as she could be taken into custody if the verdict goes against her. The tribunal official said she was unable to state when she was born, what age she was married or the age of her parents and grandparents when she first voted. The documents produced by him were considered insufficient and unreliable, as was the testimony of the village headman. The tribunal ordered the police to detain him as an “interney” until he could be deported.
I met Sahera this year in the village where she is now hiding. It is a fertile area about an hour’s drive from the city of Barpeta, with huts made of corrugated tin in green fields brimming with rice, corn, potatoes and garlic. In monsoon, the nearby Brahmaputra River – which rises from Tibet in the north and makes its way into Assam and Bangladesh in the south – floods fields. Tin huts, blazing in the summer months, are easy to destroy if the river rises so high that the embankments are overwatered.
As I was led into a room with a dirt floor, the neighbors began to crowd, their faces taut from war. A folder thicker than papers is lying on a plastic table. Sahera’s counsel had appealed against the tribunal’s decision in the High Court in Guwahati, the seat of government in Assam. But the High Court upheld the tribunal’s decision and the case of Sahera Khatoon v Union of India will now have to be heard in the Supreme Court in New Delhi. Sahera is already a fugitive. If the Supreme Court also decides against him, then no one can say what can happen to him.
While I was talking to Sahera and her husband, the neighbors were waiting outside. Aamir spoke mostly, speaking softly in Bengali. Sahera, her face turned away from me, cried silently under the hood of her sari. Amir, whose own citizenship was not in dispute, told me that he and Sahera knew none other than the country where they lived and where their parents lived before them. They had moved to this village from nearby Sukharjar, because the village where Sahera grew up was destroyed by the Brahmaputra. It was such a common phenomenon that there was a word for it people displaced by the river: and proud, or, literally, “broken by the river.”
Neither Amir nor Sahera had any schooling, and they did not know how to read or write. Amir worked on a pushcart to deliver goods until he fractured his left leg. Now she sold vegetables in a nearby market, worrying for Sahera, who had lost her appetite and was unable to sleep since the tribunal’s notice. I pointed to the documents on the table, the thumbprints of Sahera prominent in the endless text and legal seals. “We don’t understand what’s written there,” he said.
Sahera is one of the nearly 20 lakh people of Assam who have been rendered stateless. Many Bengalis are Muslims, most of them marginal farmers and daily wage workers, who have nonetheless become the center of a relentless campaign of eviction by the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi led by the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, who have been treated as illegal migrants. as depicted. From neighboring Bangladesh, they are embroiled in a Kafkaesque system of charges, prosecutions and imprisonment, which led to a nationwide Citizenship Act that has been compared to the Reich civil law of Nazi Germany.
The Hindu right has long identified border areas such as Kashmir and Assam as places to increase the threat of a Muslim threat. But while Kashmir has often been used to predict the threat of secession, Assam represents, in the rhetoric of Hindu extremists, a more deadly threat – a stagnant, cross-border Hindu of Muslims in itself. Guaranteed to create oppressed minorities. Country. Assam is largely peripheral to historical Indian civilizations as well as modern India – Guwahati is more than 1,000 miles east of Delhi, very close to China and Myanmar. Yet Assam has become the focus of the question of who is entitled to be a citizen in India – and who is not.
In July 2018, Assam published a National Register of Citizens, which was intended to be a definitive record of citizenship. Any resident of Assam whose name did not appear on it would have to go to a foreign tribunal to plead their case: they would have to prove that they were born in Assam before 1971, when Bangladesh was separated from Pakistan. Freedom came and there was an influx of refugees. State, or that they were the children of such person. If the Tribunal declared him a foreigner, the only recourse for him was the courts. However, “national” in the NRC is misleading. This only applies to the state’s multiracial population of 33 million, of whom a third are Muslims, though Modi had threatened to create a uniform civil register for the whole of India. When the initial version of the NRC was released, the names of nearly four million people were omitted and their citizenship was questioned. The then BJP President and Modi’s deserving lieutenant Amit Shah announced that this ghuspetiyas – a Hindi word for “infiltrators”, widely considered a derogatory code word for Bengali-speaking Muslims – will be deported to Bangladesh.
As those excluded from the NRC wrestled to prove how they were in Assam, a “final” version of the list was prepared in August 2019, this time excluding 1.9 million people. But the BJP came to know that it was caught in a snag. The process of making the lists was expensive, confusing and painful – people killed themselves after finding out they weren’t on them – and prompted special relatives at the United Nations to question their discriminatory nature. . Of the nearly two million people who were potentially stateless, many were Bengali Hindus as well as Bengali Muslims. This created a problem for the BJP, which considered Bengali Hindus, a significant group in the rest of India and the majority population in the Indian state of West Bengal, essential to its one billion Hindu majority nation.
By December 2019, the BJP had passed a nationwide law to address this problem – the Citizenship Amendment Act. The CAA would allow Hindu, Christian, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh and Parsi migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to claim Indian citizenship and, in theory, allow Bengali Hindus to apply for citizenship. Clearly, the only major religious group in the area excluded by the CAA were Muslims.
State elections were held in Assam this spring, in which the BJP campaigned fiercely to maintain its majority coalition in the state legislature. A victory would mean that even more Bengali Muslims were swept away in the NRC like dragons. Already, the future looks bleak for what has been described as the biggest public suffrage project of the 21st century. The Foreigners’ Tribunal, which declared Sahera an illegal migrant, ordered her to be kept as an “internee” until she could be “deported” or “pushed back” to her designated territory, but Bangladesh refused to accept the mass of newly rejected Bengalis from Assam. as its citizens. He may not be needed in Assam and Modi’s India, but there was no place he could go.
I found out first About the plight of Sahera at the law offices of Aman Wadood in Guwahati. It was February, and at this time, concerns about the coronavirus pandemic had raised a fever pitch of anticipation about the upcoming state elections. A pink and blue bungalow sitting in the back alley by a large, green pond, Vadud’s office exudes the sleepy, relaxed air of old Guwahati, a welcome contrast with the bumper-to-bumper traffic and construction dust that chokes the main is the way. It is here, with some of the idyllic atmosphere of a college dorm, Vadud and his fellow lawyers work on representing stateless people.
In addition to the 1.9 million people left out of the NRC list, around 150,000 people have already been declared illegal migrants by the system of Foreigners Tribunals. Established in 1964 to hear cases of those accused of being undocumented migrants, the tribunals went into overdrive during the years that the NRC list was being prepared. There may be an overlap between those left out from the NRC list and those processed through tribunals, but because the records are different, it is impossible to say. And more than one agency is engaged in accusing people of being foreigners. Since the late 1990s, the Election Commission has been scrutinizing old voter records in Assam and marking individuals as “doubtful” or “D” voters. The names of these D voters are given to the Border Police, who in turn send them to the Tribunal. The Border Police, which has officers in local police stations, is tasked with identifying illegal migrants and conducting their random checks on people. Those who lack sufficient proof of citizenship are summoned to appear in the Tribunal.
The burden of proof is always on the accused, and tribunals, run by government-appointed and well-paid lawyers, are notorious for their hostility towards petitioners. The only point of clarity is that in a state where the dominant language, culture and the majority of the upper bureaucracy is Assamese, the majority of the outcasts are Bengali-speaking, with hostility reserved exclusively for those who are themselves, Like Amir and Vadud, Bengalis are Muslims.
Wadud, who is 35, maintains an intense, scholarly air until he starts talking about cricket. He is also one of the exceptions of a community that was largely poor and uneducated by the British settled in the lower reaches of Assam’s river in the 19th century as farmers. His father was a professor of Arabic, and Wadud himself studied law in Bangalore and was placed under house arrest in Delhi with renowned civil rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan. Yet he remembers being called a traitor, with something between distress and astonishment, while attending high school in Guwahati. He said, ‘I will pray for India’s victory in cricket. “I had an Indian flag drawn on my arm. But for some people, I was still a Bangladeshi, a foreigner.”
The Waduds returned to Assam from Delhi in October 2013 in the wake of conflict between Bengali Muslims and Bodos – one of the dozens of tribes that make up Assam’s multi-ethnic society. More than two months of violence in the summer of 2012 left at least 78 people dead and more than 300,000 moved to relief camps, the largest such displacement in India since Partition. Bengali Muslims in May 2014…