Trapped in the NRC legalese
Jyotsna Sammanit and Halima Khatoon do not know each other and live hundreds of kilometres apart. But when it comes to their citizenship status, they are in the same boat.
Sammanit, 65, was a teenager when her parents fled their ancestral home in erstwhile East Pakistan’s Mymensingh district. The Hindu refugee family settled down in Salmara-Dumaria village in Assam’s Baksa district. Sammanit got married at 14 to Niranjan, whose family had also fled religious persecution in Bangladesh, and spent the next 50 years building a house and a family.
When the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process was announced four years ago, Sammanit did not worry too much. She had a voter identity card made on the basis of citizenship certificates given to her husband and father at their respective refugee camps, and procured an additional document from her local panchayat certifying her lineage and marriage.
But Sammanit’s chances were torpedoed by a case filed against her and Niranjan in 2003 of being suspected illegal immigrants. A school drop-out, who only speaks in broken Bengali, Sammanit said she never knew she had a case against her. She does not now know how to procure relevant papers because her husband died in 2004.
“Why did they never tell us? If I knew this day would come, I would have learnt all about the papers and kept them safely,” she rued. Her name did not figure on the final NRC list on Saturday. Nearly two million people have been left off the list.
Khatoon’s case is dire. Married off as a teenager to a man as his second wife, she found herself on the wrong side of the law in 2008 when the Assam police’s border organisation marked her as suspected illegal immigrant and a tribunal declared her a foreigner ex parte. The next year, she was sent to Nagaon jail and later a detention centre at the Kokrajhar central jail.
The foreigners’ tribunal rejected her documents – primary among which was a certificate from her village headman saying she is Nagaon-resident Abu Kasem’s daughter. There was also a spelling mistake in her first name in her marriage certificate.
Kasem, his wife, and four other children are all in the NRC. So are Khatoon’s five children and husband, Isamuddin, who died of cancer a month ago. Only Khatoon finds herself struck off the citizenship rolls. She is likely to be released on bail this week following a Supreme Court order directing conditional release of people who have spent three years or more in detention.
Sammanit and Khatoon’s cases underline the unique challenges faced by many women during the four-year-long NRC exercise that experts linked to social inequality, lack of education and restricted access to documentation.
“This has not been a uniform and equal exercise and the gaps and flaws show themselves more emphatically in the case of women,” said Rakhee Kalita Moral, an associate professor at Guwahati’s Cotton University.
Driven by local resentment against waves of illegal migration threatening indigenous culture and language, the NRC process has spanned decades in incubation and is notionally gender neutral. Whether married or unmarried, women draw their lineage and identity documents, mostly from their paternal family. This means that a married woman, who lives with her husband and children, has to prove that either she, or her ancestors, were in Assam before March 25, 1971 – and prove their lineage to the ancestor in question.
But activists and experts caution that the process does not take into account the social realities of women, especially from marginalised and poor communities, and the practical hurdles of procuring documentation has seen many women excluded from the final NRC list published last week.
The first problem lay in procuring documents. Moral points out that women in rural areas found it difficult to find relevant papers because of lack of education and problems in travelling large distances to paternal homes, especially when they are often shouldering responsibilities of their households. “Women who were orphans or widowed also were left to their own devices,” she added.
The second problem lay in the documents they could get their hands on. NRC required an applicant to submit a so-called Type A document to prove that they, or their ancestors, were present in Assam before the cut-off date, and a Type B document to draw a linkage to the ancestor.
But many women are forced to drop out of school. This robs them of school-leaving certificates. Property documents rarely feature the names of women. This meant that many women were forced to rely on certificates given by panchayats, which NRC authorities dubbed as weak documents that attracted greater scrutiny and were rejected in many cases, said lawyer Aman Wadud.
“It is important to note that women have little decision-making ability or access to money. Social attitudes towards women also shaped their experience with the NRC,” said feminist activist Banamallika Choudhury.
The third hurdle lay with women born outside the state or in refugee camps and were married in Assam. Many of these women were dependent on refugee certificates of their fathers or husbands. They were not accepted in many cases because the NRC authorities said they were not verifiable because the issuing authorities had shut down. In other cases, women born outside the state procured documents from West Bengal, Meghalaya or Tripura but said the documents were never verified by the respective state administrations.
For example, Sujata Ray, a 24-year-old woman from the Koch-Rajnbongshi ethnic group, was born in Cooch Behar in North Bengal and married J C Ray from Assam’s Chirang district in 2011. While her husband and two children made it to the NRC, Ray did not make the cut despite providing court and land documents, her father’s ration card and voter card.
“For example, a large number of indigenous women got excluded because they were married to men in Assam while being from Meghalaya or Arunachal Pradesh,” Moral added.
NRC authorities are not allowed to speak to the media. But a deputy commissioner from a lower Assam district said that a clear pattern of exclusions would only emerge once the data was public. “One will have to see the age profiles of the women who have been excluded, whether it is only the women in a family who have been excluded or if the whole family is out and so on. There could be multiple reasons like it is in other cases including legacy data problems or inability to provide link documents,” he added.
Women form roughly 48.7% of Assam’s 31.2 million population, as counted in the 2011 census. Of the 15.9 million women, an overwhelming 86% live in rural areas, 61% identify as Hindu and 34% as Muslim.
The literacy level of women is around 56% -- lower than the overall literacy figure of the state at 61%. Just 13% clear primary school and a further 4% clear school. A 2015 paper by Purushottam Nayak and Bidisha Mahanta from the North Eastern Hill University found that women in Assam enjoy a better status than their counterparts in other states when it came to decision making capacity but the reverse was true in the case of financial autonomy.
Choudhury argued that such socioeconomic conditions were important to understand the experience of women, who were affected not just by their genders but also the ethnic, social and religious communities they were a part of. “The process needed to take into consideration what happens in women’s lives. Women are not given their own identities, which comes in association with other men,” she added.
There are no firm figures available for the number of women excluded from the NRC but anecdotes and activist groups point out that women across communities faced problems.
In Dewaguri village of Udalguri district, Kavita Barman, is the only person in her family to be excluded from the NRC. The 40-year-old woman belongs to the indigenous tribal Barman Kachari community. “They called me for a hearing two times. I gave all the documents I had, my voter card, school leaving certificate, parents’ documents of 1951 and 1971. Yet, they have excluded me,” she said.
Moral and Choudhury agree that the problems faced by women from marginal communities were more. “The problems get compounded if you are woman, poor, Muslim or indigenous without equal rights or provisions and safeguards,” Moral added.
The way ahead is likely to be difficult for many of these women, especially in juggling their household duties, lawyers fees and appearing for hearing in foreigners’ tribunals that will adjudicate on their citizenship status. The problems of inadequate documentation that hobbled their NRC application is expected to dog their appeals process too – and possibly worsen because many people like Barman do not even know what to do. She has taken to alternating between asking every visitor whether they know what papers to submit to prove herself Indian, and blaming herself for not keeping the documents safe. “Women were always considered second-class citizens and the NRC has confirmed that,” said Choudhury.