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Sunday, Nov 17, 2019

In Assam, uncertainty over citizenship status grips Bengali colonies

This year, Bikash Saha and Dilip Kumar Basak were planning to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their neighbourhood puja with a Rs 10 lakh replica of Gujarat’s imposing Somnath temple as the pandal.

india Updated: Sep 02, 2019 06:02 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti and Sadiq Naqvi
Dhrubo Jyoti and Sadiq Naqvi
Barpeta/Guwahati
Several members of the Arja family have been excluded from NRC.
Several members of the Arja family have been excluded from NRC.(HT Photo)
         

Durga Puja is barely a month away, but the festive mood has been punctured by the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the Bengali-dominated village of Khairabari in lower Assam’s Barpeta district.

This year, Bikash Saha and Dilip Kumar Basak were planning to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their neighbourhood puja with a Rs 10 lakh replica of Gujarat’s imposing Somnath temple as the pandal. The families of neither have made it to the final citizen’s register.

“It seems like they are determined to not accept many of us Bengalis,” said Basak, who runs an iron welding shop. He had submitted his father Narayan Chandra Basak’s citizenship certificate given at a refugee camp in Coochbehar in 1956.

Watch| Day after final Assam NRC list, Centre says excluded people ‘not state-less’

 

Saha, who lives in a small two-bedroom house inside a slum, has bigger problems. He was dubbed a D or doubtful voter five years back. Border police and election officials can mark anyone a D voter if they suspect he or she to be an illegal migrant.

Saha has since been fighting a case against his designation as D voter in the Barpeta foreigners tribunal. His dubious citizenship status has meant that his two children have also been struck off the citizenship rolls.

“We are not sure what to do now,” said Saha’s wife, Padma. “What do we have to fear? We have papers. We will appeal,” she said, waving a sheaf of photocopied documents.

Not everyone is as upbeat. Across Khairabari, where many Hindu Bengali-speaking families settled down after fleeing riots and religious persecution in erstwhile East Pakistan, the exclusion from the NRC has fomented resentment and suffering. Planning finances for trips to the foreigner tribunal for appeals have replaced holiday plan buzz at neighbourhood pan shops.

Hari Arja, for example, had to pawn his wife’s gold earrings for Rs 7,000 to attend a hearing on his NRC status in August. He had submitted documents that showed his grandfather Mahadev Das, who fled to India from then East Pakistan, was on the 1970 voter list, but failed to finally prove that he was indeed the grandson – a consequence of the family taking to the Arya Samaj faith and changing their surname.

“We gave our refugee card, our voter ID and our PAN card. We do not know if they want to throw out all Bengalis. Maybe they do not want us here,” he said. His neighbours, all Bengali-speaking Hindus and supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), nodded.

HT found similar expressions of exclusion and worry throughout Bengali Hindu settlements in Barpeta, Guwahati, Hojai, and Silchar. “We have lived through worse times but now this is a new devil,” said Arja’s neighbour, Biswanath Das.

Guwahati’s Panbazar area is a world away from the slushy mud roads of Khairabari, but surgeon Paromita Chakraborty is as worried as Saha.

Chakraborty hails from a respected caste Hindu family. But on the draft list released in June last year, she found that she and her sisters’ names were missing. In addition, her husband, Pinaki Bhattacharjee, and their son were also out of the NRC.

“We thought it was a clerical error. My husband’s grandfather sold land to the then chief minister Gopinath Bordoloi in 1951, and their family draws lineage from the chief priests of the Kamakhya temple. I utterly fail to understand what happened,” she said.

On Saturday, she was relieved to see that she, her husband and son had made it. But her elderly mother, 75-year-old Sulekha Chakraborty, had not. Sulekha, who hails from Tezpur, had submitted her matriculation certificate from 1962 and her a document showing her father’s name on the 1971 voter roll.

“She went for a hearing three times. We are not worried about the appeal because we have the documents but this is humiliating, and nothing but harassment,” she added.

Harassment is also how Sanjay Sammanit, a resident of Salmara-Dumuria in Assam’s Baksa district, described the process that excluded his family from the NRC. Sammanit’s father, Satyendra, had left then East Pakistan in 1964 and possessed a so-called citizenship card, which Sammanit submitted. But to his dismay, he realised that his father’s name is spelled slightly differently, without the Y, in his school-leaving certificate, which he had submitted to prove his lineage.

“They want to throw us out. I do not trust these tribunals for appeal. I have heard they are biased,” he added.

Four hundred kilometres away in Hailakandi, pan shop owner Raghunath Das would have nodded in agreement. The 55-year-old was born to parents, who fled violence in East Pakistan and was the fourth of five brothers and a sister. His parents spent most of their life travelling across the state with the eldest brother, Chunilal, who was in the border force. As a result, they never got any documents made or stayed at a place for long enough to be included on the voter rolls.

“I do not think they ever thought we will need documents this badly. When the NRC process began in 2015, I had no papers of my own,” said Das. He ultimately submitted his school-admission certificate from 1969 and his brother’s service record certificate, but still found himself out of the NRC. “I do not know how to appeal or what more I can get,” he said.

Bengali-speaking Hindu communities comprise over 6 million people across Assam. They dominate the Barak Valley and many of them carry the scars of violence from East Pakistan towns and villages where clashes erupted even before Partition.

The University of Delhi sociologist Nabanipa Bhattacharjee said the migration into Assam was spurred on by the inclusion of Sylhet in East Pakistan and further ballooned in the aftermath of communal riots in 1950.

“Particularly in erstwhile Cachar, the refugee relief and rehabilitation measures were shoddy and dismal, to say the least,” she said.

The Barak Valley – comprising the Muslim-majority districts of Hailakandi and Karimganj and the Hindu-majority district of Cachar – was an early hunting ground for the BJP. An overwhelming majority of the seats it won in the state in the early 90s came from the region.

Political commentator Sushanta Talukdar said the refusal of mainstream parties to deal with the citizenship anxieties of the local population in Barak left an opening for the BJP. Over time, the party expanded its base to other pockets in the state. Though Talukdar is careful to mention that this support may be temporary and that other parties such as the Congress continue to have some traction among Bengali speakers.

“These communities were suffering on the question of voting rights or citizenship. In this context, the BJP brought up the citizenship amendment bill and found takers especially among those who migrated because of religious persecution,” he added. The bill promises citizenship to non-Muslim refugees, who have come to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

But after Saturday’s final NRC list, a perception has taken hold that large numbers of Bengali-speaking Hindu people have been excluded. This perception has been fuelled by comments made by senior BJP leaders themselves, such as state unit chief Ranjeet Kumar Dass. Dass said many refugees, who came to India before 1971, were not included and people with surnames such as “names like Saha, Ganguly, Biswas etc. were intentionally excluded”.

There appeared to be three big reasons for the exclusion. One, that many such families only had their so-called citizenship cards, issued at refugee camps, to show as proof of their presence in Assam before March 25, 1971 – the cutoff date for citizenship.

“But the authorities did not accept the citizenship certificates and the refugee cards in many places,” said Santanu Naik, advisor to the North East Linguistic and Ethnic Coordination Committee.

In a report to the Supreme Court in 2016, state NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela cited many reasons for not accepting citizenship certificates and refugee registration certificates, key among them being that the issuing authority’s offices had closed down, making verification impossible. These documents were also found prone to forgery. The top court allowed the certificate to be used, but after greater scrutiny.

“The claims made on the basis of Refugee Ration Cards, Migration Document or Citizenship Registration Certificates were mostly rejected. This is the reason behind the large exclusion of Bengali Hindu people from NRC this time,” said Taniya Laskar, a Silchar-based activist.

Many Bengali speaking women from West Bengal and Tripura, who live in Assam, also complained that their documents from the two states were not accepted. Bengali-speaking Hindus also form a sizeable number of the three categories of people who were automatically excluded: declared foreigners, those marked doubtful voters and those with cases pending before a foreigners tribunal.

“Based on perception, it seems like a large section of Bengali Hindus may have been excluded. The BJP may be worried because of its electoral support base among them,” said Talukdar.

The BJP appears to be aware of this. Dilip Paul, a BJP legislator from Silchar said the NRC final list was a “flop show” and admitted that the party was under some pressure after many Bengali Hindus found themselves excluded from the NRC. “We will bring the CAB. Just wait and watch. It is a matter of time,” added Rajdeep Ray, the Silchar MP.

“Since the beginning, the BJP has been promising to protect the interests of Bengali-speaking Hindus and bring the citizenship amendment bill but it has betrayed these people. They used the bill only for polarisation and votes,” said Ripun Bora, state Congress chief.