Politics of identity: Assam voters who can’t prove citizenship
For a quarter century Shahjahan Kazi, 55, has been doing election duty, screening hundreds of voters on polling days. But once again Kazi will not get to vote in the assembly elections in Assam on April 11 because he is a D-voter. D-voters (D for doubtful) are people who can’t prove Indian citizenship and are barred from voting.
“Every election, I check and verify voters’ identity, when my own identity is being questioned by the government,” says Kazi, who teaches social science at a government school in Barpeta.
During their poll campaigns here, senior BJP leaders including PM Narendra Modi raised the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh to target the ruling Congress government. D-voters are assumed to be Bangladeshis.
Though estimates vary, D-voters are concentrated in Sonitpur, Barpeta, Nagaon and Dhubri districts. The Election Commission identified 3.7 lakh D-voters in 1997 electoral roll revision, but only 1.99 lakh were referred to the Foreigners’ Tribunals to decide their fate. The state puts the current figure of D-voters at 1,36,448.
There are 100 tribunals across the state. After being declared a foreigner, the ‘guilty’ are sent to detention centres or camps in district jails, located in Goalpara, Kokrajhar and Silchar.
Anna Rani Ghosh of Krishnai town near Goalpara fears being sent to a detention camp. Her husband, Shyamal Ghosh, was declared a foreigner and sent to the Goalpara camp three months ago.
“I don’t go out much fearing arrest. They’ve (police) already taken away my husband; if they arrest me too, then how will my children survive,” she pleads.
Goalpara district jail authorities told HT that the prison houses 526 inmates although capacity is 200. Of these, 197 are “foreigners” sent by the tribunals. Another 200-odd are lodged in Kokrajhar and Silchar detention camps.
It’s the Assam police’s border branch that picks “suspects” and refers them to the tribunals. But the verification process is often complicated and can lead to wrong verdicts.
“If you get a notice and stop appearing after one or two hearings, the judge declares you a foreigner. You are also marked if you fail to receive the notice several times in a row or if you fail to turn up during evidence determination. Of course, if you can’t produce valid documents, you are doomed,” says a Goalpara tribunal official, not wanting to be named.
Given the long-winding process, locals allege harassment. Take Moinal Mollah, whose case has reached the Supreme Court. A resident of Barpeta district, Mollah’s tin-roofed tenement near the Brahmaputra is occupied by his aging parents, his wife and three children. His father, Ashan, and mother, Manowara Khatoon – once D-voters – were declared Indian citizens by a tribunal, but the same tribunal, and later the Gauhati High Court, refused to clear Moinal’s status.
“The tribunal declared Mollah a foreigner because he didn’t appear in court on the wrong advice of his lawyers,” says Aman Wadud, a lawyer with MY-FACTS, an organisation that took Mollah’s case to the apex court.
Corruption creeps into the process also, and often D-voters pay a price to clear their names. Lawyers charge between Rs 200 and Rs 600 per hearing. “I’ve spent nearly Rs 80,000 trying to get my name out of the D-voter list,” says Anna Ghosh. Similarly, Mutallib Ali, 55, of the Hapachara camp, claims spending Rs 30,000 over two years.
Politics over identity has plagued Assam for over three-decades and is exploited every election. The Asom Gana Parishad seized power in 1985 with its anti-“foreigner” agitation. The Congress government set up tribunals and the National Register of Citizens to verify identity. And perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front promises to safeguard the rights of ‘outsiders’.
The BJP, this time, assures relief to jailed Hindu Bengalis. “They came here because of religious persecution,” says Rupam Goswami, state BJP spokesperson.
What about the Bengali-speaking Muslims? “Muslims didn’t come here because of religious persecution, they came here for a political vote bank,” he says.