Indian journalist Abhishek Saha's non-fiction account of the country's two controversial laws is written with clinical precision, pointing out the flaws in a process that has ruined the future of thousands of people.
Abhishek Saha’s book, No Land’s People, starts on a personal note. His grandmother, Alata Rani, entered the state of Assam holding her father’s hand in 1949. After living in that state her entire life, she was labeled a ‘Doubtful Voter’ (D Voter) and her name was not included in the final National Register of Citizens (NRC), an official record that contains the names of all Indian citizens the state considers legal. Saha’s grandmother, however, is not the only one. Almost 1.9 million people have been left out of the final NRC, putting their citizenship in limbo. Saha’s book extensively deals with this saga of systematic exclusion.
The Northeastern region of India has been through tumultuous decades of political upheaval. Continued immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh and erstwhile East Pakistan has been a bone of contention. This problem, that often seems almost impossible to solve, has been used politically to score brownie points. The Illegal Migrants (Detention by Tribunal) Act (IMDT), which was seen as providing safeguards to immigrants, was scrapped by the Supreme Court in 2005. In the absence of a proper mechanism to locate illegal immigrants, upgrading the 1951 NRC seemed the only plausible solution.
With this in mind, in 2015 the state of Assam embarked on the ambitious task of preparing a register of Indian citizens. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was first implemented in Assam in 1951, and it was turned into a pan-India exercise after the rightwing government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came into power in 2014. This was the result of cross-border migration and a tumultuous post-independence history. The politics of Northeastern states after independence have largely been shaped by concerns of alleged illegal immigration across the border. Successive governments have failed to provide an effective solution to the problem, and Civil Society Organisations in Assam have also demanded a lasting solution. Amid these concerns, the process of updating the NRC was initiated.
D for doubtful
Abhishek Saha’s book covers this process extensively. The mammoth task was completed in four years, and the final NRC was published on August 31, 2019. While the process has offered some hard numbers regarding the problem of immigration, it has failed to satisfy the multiple stakeholders. The final document left out 19 lakh names of applicants whose citizenship now has to be decided upon by the Foreigners’ Tribunals.
Saha’s book deals with multiple aspects of the issue. While on the one hand he provides a historical background of the process, he also elaborates the legal and technical procedure of getting one’s name included in the NRC. Most importantly, No Land’s People also covers the humanitarian crisis that has resulted due to the update. The entire exercise was carried out under the supervision of NRC state coordinator Prateek Hajela, a 1995 batch Indian Administrative Service Officer. A system was implemented through which people had to prove their relationships to family members who were residents of Assam before 1971. To ensure accessibility to these records, a huge amount of old documents had to be digitised. The process was a challenge. To avoid duplication and ensure cross-checking, family trees were created, which required huge amounts of manpower working meticulously to finish the task at hand.
The NRC left out D Voters and their family members. In the book, Saha deals with the process of how a person is marked as a D Voter and points out the rampant anomalies. The process of marking citizens as ‘D’ - or Doubtful - is carried out by the Border Police as well as the Election Office. Interestingly, a person is marked ‘D’ only on the basis of BP field reports stating that the person concerned could not prove his citizenship beyond doubt. In many cases the field reports read as works of fiction, and the field visits have never actually taken place. This became clear in the case of a man named Sanaullah, who, after serving in the Indian Army for 15, years took a job at the Police Department. He was later picked up and sent to the infamous Detention Centre for allegedly being unable to prove his citizenship beyond doubt.
The case received much attention because the person concerned was ex-military. It seems that the field report filed against Sanaullah stated that he was an illiterate labourer. While Sanaullah got bail within a week, there was no such respite for many others who continued to languish in jails for years. Saha covered some of the other cases with similar anomalies. The case of Moinal Mollah, a Bengali Muslim from Barpetta. While Moinal Mollah’s parents were recognized as Indian, he was declared a foreigner in an ex parte case and detained.
Cases of wrongful identification resulted in people losing years in captivity while the state machinery continued with impunity. One example is Madhubala Mondal, who was detained for three years. This error was the result of mistaken identity, as the case was actually against another man, Madhubala Das. To make matters worse, Mondal could not even challenge the order due to his extreme poverty. A closer look at many cases made one thing clear – minute differences in names or spellings led to the detaining of people. While the majority of such people are illiterate, their immigration status depends on the discretion of enumerators. However, there is no system in place to hold enumerators accountable for their mistakes. There have been instances when the same person has been summoned again and again to Foreigners’ Tribunals even after his/her name has been cleared.
This highly bureaucratic process of identifying immigrants was often justified by citing the supervision of the Supreme Court and the dependence on documentary evidence. Allegations of terminating FT members for not designating a certain number of people as foreigners have been made, which gives insight into the larger politics at play.
Even corrective measures were misused. A window of time for claims and objections, whereby concerned citizens can raise objections against the inclusion of suspicious individuals, showed such misuse. What we witnessed were spurious objections numbering in the lakhs that were made in the last two days of the allotted period. Similar harassment was evident when, for reverification, people were asked on short notice to travel hundreds of kilometres. The chaos that followed caused road mishaps and accidents.
The process has also left a trail of death. Loss of life across social classes has revealed the helplessness in many communities. Reports show that around 60 people committed suicide for fear of being left out of the NRC.
Moreover, hierarchical categories of citizens have emerged after some communities were included as Original Inhabitants (OI) of the state. This further complicates the issue of citizenship by creating a kind of hybrid citizenship — one is Indian but has to trace his/her origins to Assam before a certain cut-off date. The discretionary power of officials to create such categories has called into question the oft-cited impartiality of the process.
Despite its limitations, updating the 1951 NRC has seen overwhelming support from people across the state. The reason for this is that the update was supposed to provide some semblance of a solution to the long-standing issue of alleged illegal immigration in Assam. This process has for the first time framed the issue in terms of hard numbers. However, recent talks of reverification of the entire record to specifically target border districts is problematic. It encourages one to dismiss the entire exercise as nothing more than political maneuvering by certain groups who have a vested interest in using the boogeyman issue of illegal Bangladeshis to further their agenda.