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My first vote:‘I am from Assam... but will I be on NRC?’

18 million people between 18 and 23 are estimated to cast their ballot for the first time in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. What do they want?

india Updated: Apr 03, 2019 16:33 IST
Sadiq Naqvi and Snigdha Poonam
Sadiq Naqvi and Snigdha Poonam
Barpeta Road (Assam)
vote,assam,NRC
Ahmed, 19, worries about his future, he fears he won’t be eligible for a govt job.

Abu Sayeed Ahmed pulls out an official document for every question you ask him: Voter card for name, birth certificate for age, high-school certificate for education. Born and brought up in Assam’s Barpeta district, the 19-year-old’s life revolves around ID cards and acronyms. This election season he is mainly a DDV, or Descendent of a Doubtful Voter. His father, Abu Bakar Siddiq, has been a “doubtful voter” since 1997. He only learnt it at the time of the 2001 assembly elections. “I was told that by the election officer at the voting booth. I was surprised. I had been voting for so many years,” Siddiq said.

EXCLUSIONS

The campaign against illegal immigration from Bangladesh peaked with the Assam Agitation in 1979 and led to the Assam Accord in 1985 between protestors led by the All Assam Students Union and the Rajiv Gandhi-led Union government. Since then, multiple processes of citizenship determination have created a mess of sorts in the state.

Siddiq, Ahmed’s father, was declared a “doubtful voter” or a D Voter as a result of the Election Commission conducting a process of identification of suspected illegal immigrants in the late 1990s. D Voters cannot vote till they prove their Indian citizenship in one of Assam’s 100 tribunals. However, almost two decades on, Siddiq is still waiting to get a notice from the tribunal asking him to prove that he is an Indian citizen.

According to Assam government records of 2017, out of around 125,000 D Voters across 126 assembly segments, the highest (over 7,100) live in Sorbhog, which includes Barpeta Road. “They target Ali, Kuli, Nepali, Bengali,” said Siddiq, arguing that this identification of suspected foreigners is arbitrary.

Being the descendent of a D Voter, Ahmed, who qualifies to be an Indian citizen by birth, is excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an ongoing parallel exercise to identify those who have been in Assam before March 25, 1971. Prateek Hajela, the state coordinator of NRC, said last year the process does not provide for it.

According to a senior NRC official, who asked not to be named, there are at least 7,000 people— including D Voters and those declared foreigners by tribunals — who made through the multiple verification process to the final draft of the NRC published on July 30, 2018. But their names will be dropped on the ground that their cases are pending at the foreigner tribunals. Siddiq and his family made it to the first draft of NRC, but were subsequently excluded. “My father’s name is there in the 1951 NRC,” Siddiq said.

“The pronouncement by the foreigners tribunals is a judicial process and will take precedence over NRC, which is an administrative exercise,” said Ashutosh Agnihotri, commissioner and secretary of Assam’s home and political department. “That they were included in the NRC shows that they have proper documents. It is evidence that the D Voters’ identification process was faulty,” said Shahjahan Ali Ahmed, an activist who has been helping the local community with NRC appeals. Over 3.6 million of the 4,007,707 persons who were left out of the complete draft of NRC published last year have filed claims for inclusion in the final list.

“At its peak in November-December 2018, I was receiving 180 calls a day from people left out,” he said. “I was only able to talk to 37% of them.”

WILL I MAKE IT

Born in 1967 in Ghoramara, Siddiq left the village in 1997 after his family was allegedly attacked by a group of Bodos. “They fired shots, and burnt our house after we fled,” said Siddiq. The family has lived in the same house in Barpeta Road for 21 years. For years, Siddiq made a living as a public works contractor. At present the family’s earnings depend on poultry and livestock that Siddiq looks after. The money hardly covers their needs. Last year, Ahmed dropped out of a local college after six months of attending classes to help out his family. He currently works as a shop assistant at his brother-in-law’s pharmacy in the local market. As the government mulls the rights that should and shouldn’t be given to people who are identified as “foreigners” Ahmed worries about his prospects. He fears he won’t be eligible for a government job if his name is kept out of NRC.

“He may not be able to write entrance exams for government engineering and medical colleges or get a driving license or a license to set up his shop,” Shahnawaz said. In his ideal future, Ahmed will be settled in Barpeta and running his own pharmacy or “some kind of business around medicine” but right now all he worries about is “NRC hoga ki nahin hoga [whether I will make it to NRC or not].”

ELECTION PROMISES

The Lok Sabha constituency where Abu Ahmed is hoping to cast his first vote, Kokrajhar, comprises 10 assembly segments of which some fall under the Bodo Territorial Administrative Districts. Bodos form roughly 30% of Kokrajhar’s electorate while the rest includes Bengali and Assamese speaking Hindus and Muslims, Adivasis or the tea tribe communities. In 2014, the Lok Sabha seat was won by Naba Kumar Sarania, a former commander of the insurgent outfit ULFA who fought as an independent candidate and polled over 355,000 lakh votes more than his nearest rival.

Sarania’s win in 2014 was the first time in history that a non-Bodo was elected from this constituency. The last central elections were held in the backdrop of ghastly clashes between the dominant Bodos and the minority Muslims in 2012 which left more than 100 dead and around 400,000 displaced. Barely a week after the voting ended in Assam in 2014, non-Bodos were again targeted, with 40 Bengali-speaking Muslims allegedly gunned down by Bodo militants in Narayunguri. “No communities ever target each other,” said Biswajit Daimary, leader of the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and a Rajya Sabha MP. “The region has had presence of extremist groups and it is them who initiate violence,” he said.

Since 2015, the region has been mostly calm. However, the BJP recently promised Scheduled Tribe status to six communities in Assam, sparking off fear among Bodos that it will eat into their share of reservation. Contesting the 2019 polls in alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the BPF, the BJP has also promised to deport all “ghuspethiye” or illegal infiltrators, and vowed to bring back Citizenship (Amendment) Bill to help the non-Muslim “refugees” from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. To assuage the angry Assamese, who see it as an attack on their identity, and to keep intact its alliance with the AGP, the BJP has said it will implement provisions of the Assam Accord. The Congress’s electoral position is no less conflicted. It supports the NRC while attacking the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill for being anti-constitutional and for violating the Assam Accord. The party is fielding a non-Bodo candidate from Kokrajhar. The BPF has fielded its own Lok Sabha candidate here while being in alliance with the BJP in the state government. Who will Abu Ahmed vote for if he isn’t stopped at the booth like his father was in 2001? Not the BJP, he says. “See the condition of the road. They have not built it just because it is a Muslim area,” Ahmed said, pointing to the unpaved road that leads to his house. He isn’t comfortable with voting for the AIUDF either.

“Badruddin Ajmal is fine as a politician. But it is seen as a Muslim party. If we vote for them then the Hindus would consolidate behind BJP. It will lead to a communally divided election and perhaps even riots,” Ahmed said. The AIUDF isn’t putting up its candidate in Kokrajhar to “stop division of secular vote”. Ahmed’s options are limited to a single party. “I like Rahul Gandhi. The Congress is good. They don’t manufacture riots,” Ahmed said.

ASSAMESE FIRST

He thinks it’s unfortunate that no political party is offering to tackle his “personal problem” and “end all this citizenship issue” but he knows he has a long wait ahead. No matter how the state sees Ahmed, he sees himself as one thing alone: Assamese.

“It’s what I am according to my birth certificate; it’s the language in which I studied; it’s who my friends are; it’s what I speak,” he said.

First Published: Apr 01, 2019 06:14 IST