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Mangaldoi: The administrative headquarters of Darrang district in Assam, Mangaldoi, has 80 functioning NRC Seva Kendras to review cases of the approximately 3,18,412 people from the district who did not find their names in the second National Register of Citizens (NRC) draft published on 30 July, 2018. Across the state, nearly 40 lakh people who claim to have been born and living in Assam for decades, have been excluded from the Complete NRC Draft that currently lists 2.89 crore citizens.
Among them are the two sons of 70-year-old Ashraf Ali, a resident of Gasbari village, who had come of Mangaldoi to attend the hearings on verification of documents for inclusion in the NRC.
Sitting cross-legged in the crowd with his sons and nephews, Ali looked perplexed as his name was on the list, but his sons were excluded. "My father Javed Ali moved from Barpeta to Gasbari long before the Assam Movement," said Ali.
People await their turn to file NRC claims at Sipajhar NRC Seva Kendra. Bidisha Barman
"Along with my father and my elder brother, I have regularly voted in Mangaldoi when we came of age and were eligible to vote," he informs.
Ali, and many others like him, don’t understand what exactly is going wrong. "If the parents are proven to be Indians, can the children be Bangladeshis?" he asks.
Another election, four decades ago
The NRC process was accelerated by the orders of the Supreme Court and completed in 2018, but its roots are decades-old and Mangaldoi was an important flashpoint during the Assam Movement. The indigenous people of Assam have long anguished over the massive infiltration of outsiders, both Indian and foreign, and feared that it was taking a serious toll on the state’s economy.
It was the number of voters released by the Government of India ahead of the 1977 General Elections to Lok Sabha that raised serious doubts regarding the inclusion of supposed foreigners in the electoral list.
In March 1979, Prafulla Mahanta was elected as president and Bhrigu Phukan as general secretary of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and they pledged to launch a statewide movement against the influx of foreigners in Assam. The 3Ds — detection, deletion (from electoral rolls) and deportation — became the rallying cry of the Assam Movement.
Then on 28 March, 1979, the death of the sitting MP of Mangaldoi constituency, Hiralal Patowari called for a by-election. It was after the revision of electoral rolls of this constituency in the by-polls of 1979 that the biggest mass movement in Assam gained momentum, which claimed 855 lives and finally led to the signing of the Assam Accord on 15 August, 1985, which directs the creation of a National Citizens Registry of those who can prove they have been residents of Assam since before 25 March, 1971.
In his book, Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement, former professor of statistics at Gauhati University, Abdul Mannan makes an astounding revelation about how the Assam Movement spurred after the revision of Mangaldoi electoral rolls in 1979.
Drawing references from the chronicle written by Premakanta Mahanta, a former SP of Border Police, Mannan talks about how Mahanta and Hiranya Kumar Bhattacharya, then Deputy Inspector General, played an important role in the identification of nearly 47,000 names of probable migrant voters and maliciously got most of these names struck off the voter list.
Mahanta mentions in his memoir that he and Bhattacharya met the union leaders of the organisations involved in the movement and thus mobilised the collective population to shift the objective of the entire movement towards expulsion of Bangladeshi infiltrators identified from the electoral rolls, which wasn’t but a part of the 21 charter of demands raised by AASU previously.
The looming cloud of disenfranchisement
Lakhs of women and young children haven't been able to get their names included in either of the two published NRC drafts. Joyphul Khatoon, a woman in her early 20s, sits on a cemented slab outside the Mangaldoi district library NSK, with her husband and two-year-old daughter. While her husband and his parents are in the list, Joyphul and her children are still presenting themselves for the hearings and the verification process.
"We came early morning from Tirakata Gaon and this is our second hearing in Mangaldoi. I have already submitted all the documents but still couldn’t get my name on the list. As for my daughter, she only has her birth certificate," says Joyphul, adding, "If that fails to get her citizenship we don’t know where to go. More than me, we are worried about her future."
Joyphul has only completed her primary education and therefore do not have a High School Leaving Certificate, which is an essential document for the NRC process. Quite similar is the story of Anita Mandal from Mangaldoi. Except for Anita and her mother, everybody in her family made it to the second NRC draft.
Ashraf Ali, whose sons names are missing from the NRC second draft. Bidisha Barman
Most applicants filing claims in the Mangaldoi, Kharupetia and Sipajhar NRC Seva Kendras (NSKs) are women like Joyphul from villages in the Char or riverine areas, who are the worst hit as they do not possess formal-legal documents.
"Muslim women living in the Char areas fall prey to social evils like the practice of child marriage. They leave their father’s home at an early age without any legal document and hence face problem in establishing their legacy as someone’s daughter, which is mandatory for the NRC process. This is why even children find their name missing when either of the parent's names is missing,” said Mannan adding, "These women are either uneducated or leave school before Matriculation and thereby cannot produce any certificate provided by the State or Central Boards of Education.”
Cases have also been encountered where, in the absence of any document, many women along with their kids are unable to file their claims, in spite of being born in India. They have left their fates to be decided by God or the government.
From 1951 to 2011, Assam has witnessed a surge in population, particularly among Muslims. This population explosion is often attributed to infiltration of lakhs of Bangladeshis every year. Mannan, however, disproves this theory using statistics in his book. He says that the population explosion among the Muslims has child marriage, illiteracy and economic neglect at its root, contrary to the common belief.
"Where other Assamese communities might have three generations since 1971, the Muslim community has been found to have 4.5 generations. A survey can prove that not every problem in Assam is because of infiltration, but because of the government’s inability to uplift certain deprived communities of the society,” says Mannan.
The apathy of officials
Adding to the people’s woes is the often-biased and indifferent attitude of officials conducting the verification process. The Kharupetia NSK was packed with people from Baksa, Dalgaon, Moirabari and a few neighbouring villages.
Alepuddin, president of All Assam Minorities Students Union, Darrang District, who helps applicants in filing claims or objections in and around Mangaldoi is hopeful of a fair and inclusive NRC but has major concerns about the officials carrying out the process.
NRC Seva Kendra near Mangaldai Natya Mandir. Bidisha Barman
"When an applicant whose name is not in the list files claim for an explanation, he/she is provided with due reasons. But there are many cases where these people have been asked to get a clarification document from the Foreigners’ Tribunal. This is a tedious process for an Indian national who has names of his parents and relatives in the electoral rolls. Also, women who have submitted Panchayat documents for verification are asked to get substitute documents but at times, those are rejected citing various reasons," says Alepuddin while believing that the main hindrance towards a fair and complete NRC is nothing but the biases and pre-conceived notions of the officials towards a particular section of the people as being Bangladeshis (Hindu or Muslim).
Accusations of bias gained credibility when on 20 August, 2018, a bunch of NRC verification documents were recovered by local people from a ditch behind a Seva Kendra attached to the Ondolajhar GP office in Dalgaon circle (part of the Mangaldoi Parliamentary Constituency). It was that time when the second NRC draft was released and the process of filing claims and objections was about to start.
Local people alleged that some important documents related to the verification of legacy data, including reports of the District Magistrate Investigating Team (DMIT) with the seal and signature of the authorised officer of District Registrar of Citizen Registration (DRCR) were recovered inside a plastic carry bag from the ditch.
"The structural design, the guidelines and modalities set for the NRC updation stands as brilliant and if done flawlessly, this can bring relief to so many people suffering and disturbed with the question of citizenship and basic rights. But, when the officials working under the government, act on prejudices and take decisions swayed by popular opinions, as in few cases I have heard about and personally encountered, then the fairness and genuineness of the entire procedure is under question," says Mannan.
“This kind of behaviour and attitude may render many rightful citizens, stateless,” he adds.
Election of 2019
As elections draw near, the general feeling of those thronging the NRC Seva Kendras is that the current BJP government is not treating Muslims fairly. Baharul Islam, a resident of Daipangpara village in Dalgaon and his sister had come with their mother after learning from the NRC portal that they had been called again for verification at the Kharupetia NSK.
Baharul had to quit his job in Bengaluru and return to Assam to help the members of his family, including his wife, mother and sisters-in-law who failed to get their names included in the final NRC Draft.
“We are left with no peace and certainty of life and property, but whatever happens, all members of my family will definitely vote," said Baharul, proudly flashing his voter card.
The NRC process, say people in Mangaldoi, is sure to influence the upcoming Lok Sabha election. Saffron flags and flyers of BJP leaders flutter across the town and electric poles around the town are painted with the letters ABVP.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court in a hearing on 13 March, 2019, admonished the Assam government for its inaction against the detected illegal migrants and those in detention centres.
There is immense fear and anxiety among those who did not make it to both the drafts as uncertainty looms over their future. But there are people like Alepuddin who continue to lend them strength and hope in such difficult times. He tells them that in case they do not make it to the final NRC list, they can again file complaints at the court and judicially prove their citizenship.
“Even after all these processes, if anyone is left, we will request the Government of India to provide those people with some identity cards and allow them to work here, even if they lose their rights as citizens,” said a sanguine Alepuddin.
Mangaldoi goes to polls on 18 April.
The author is a Pune-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters