‘Harassed, discriminated’: Story of Assam’s Bengali origin people
As Assam counts its citizens, the fate of nearly 250,000 people, whose cases are pending in Tribunals, remains in limbo.
Assam, India – At around midnight of November 29, 2016, Morjina Bibi was woken up by repeated knocks on her door.
“When I opened the door, I saw two female police officers. Within a minute, several other policemen entered my house and asked me go with them,” the 27-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Bibi was thrown into detention centre for being a “Doubtful” or “D” voter – a concept introduced by India’s Election Commission in 1997. Those marked as “D” in electoral rolls are stripped of their citizenship rights.
She walked free on July 17, 2017 after it turned out she was a case of mistaken identity.
Bibi, who is from Fofanga Part I village in Assam’s Goalpara district, had spent nearly nine months in detention.
“I asked them, ‘What was my fault, why are you doing this to me?’ I had not done anything wrong. They ordered me to keep quiet,” she said.
She was sent to Kokrajhar detention centre the next day.
“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. The only thought that came to my mind was, ‘What did I do? Why did they put me in this hell?'” she said, sitting in the courtyard of her hut.
Life inside the detention centre was difficult with poor quality food and crowded cells, she said.
“In one room, there were between 50 and 60 people. People collided with each other while sleeping on the floor.”
She had been mistaken for Merjina Begum, a woman from another village.
Bibi’s case was taken up by All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a party that advocates for people of Bengali origin, who have often complained of harassment at the hands of authorities.
“When we found that another woman of the same name had a case, we filed for her bail,” said Aminul Islam, AIUDF’s general secretary.
was real, but it was amplified by the media”]
Bibi says police have yet to apologise or offer compensation.
Activists say police harassment in the name of detecting so-called foreigners has ripped apart families and instilled fear among the people.
Ruhul Amin, an 18 year old from a village near Assam’s capital, Guwahati, was inconsolable as he narrated the story of his parents, who are currently stuck in separate detention centres.
In 1997, his father and mother Ayub Ali and Rahima Khatun were sent a notice to prove their nationality, which meant they were required to prove their legitimacy in one of the 100 Foreigners Tribunals (FTs), specialised courts to decide on the citizenship of people who are suspected of being foreigners.
After losing their case in Guwahati High Court in 2015, they were taken into custody.
“We sold the shop to fight the case in Supreme Court. Father had already sold the land to fight the case in high court,” said Amin, through tears.
Amin was forced to drop out of school to support his siblings, including his 14 year old brother. His elder sister was married with the financial help from neighbours and relatives.
“Boys of my age are studying. I too had a dream to study and do something good in life but that dream is not going to be fulfilled any more,” he said.
Amin, like many members of the community, is terrified of the police. He fears he could also be declared a foreigner.
“If they arrest me and put in the detention centre what will happen to my younger brother? Who will look after him?”
His hope is now pinned on the Supreme Court. If they lose the case in the top court, the parents will languish behind bars for life.
They are among 899 people who are in six detention centres across Assam – all of which are currently located inside district jails.
The government is planning to build a large detention centre in Goalpara district.
Meanwhile, Assam is carrying out a massive operation and counting its citizens to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – the first since 1951 – aimed at finding out the exact number undocumented immigrants.
But more than 250,000 cases of “D” voters and suspected citizens pending in FT courts have been excluded from the NRC process, which means that their lives will remain in limbo in the years to come.
Their children born after 2003 will also not be eligible to become Indian citizens, putting their future in jeopardy.
Moreover, those who won’t find place in the NRC list, slated to be published end of June, will have to go through the long-drawn and arduous process in the tribunal courts.
“It will take several generations for the cases to be finalised. What will happen to their children? Neither they can study nor can they get jobs,” said Islam, the AIUDF leader.
He called for fast track courts to expedite the cases as India’s judiciary is already burdened with some 30 million backlogged cases.
The state government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came to power in 2016 on an anti-foreigner platform. The right-wing party denounces people of Bengali origin as infiltrators.
Some 15,000 people were declared foreigners last year under the BJP administration. According to government figures nearly 90,000 people were declared as foreigners between 1985 and 2016.
The uncertainty has led many to commit suicide.
Last week Gopal Das, 65, ended his life apparently after he received a notice from the Foreigners Tribunal in Udalguri district. His family, as reported by a local news website, claims his name is included in the 1966 voters list.
Activists say some of the detained were wrongly declared foreigners in judgements where defendants did not turn up in courts.
They also allege that many of the so-called declared foreigners did not receive notice from the court.
Aman Wadud, who practices at the Guwahati High Court, says the process of identifying undocumented immigrants or “D” voters is “arbitrary”, “random” and done without proper investigation.
You are putting people on trial without an investigation. It's like filing a charge-sheet in a criminal case without investigation
“You are putting people on trial without an investigation. It’s like filing a charge-sheet in a criminal case without investigation,” Wadud said.
The process of proving one’s citizenship takes a heavy financial toll on the people who are summoned, most of whom are poor or marginal farmers, who earn 250 and 350 rupees ($3.6-$5) a day.
“They sell their cattle and lands to pay legal fees, which may go up to 50,000 rupees ($734),” said Wadud, who has successfully fought the cases of wrongfully declared foreigners.
“People are spending their lifetime of income in proving their citizenship as there are few pro bono lawyers or those who charge less,” he said.
In the current environment, genuine Indian citizens are being declared foreigners and people are sent multiple notices.
Genuine citizens harassed
Ajmal Haque, who served in the Indian army for 30 years, was asked to prove his citizenship by border police – a specialised force of more than 4,000 personnel tasked with identifying undocumented immigrants since it was formed in 1962.
He subsequently proved his citizenship.
Though procedures have been laid out, activists and those accused have said it is hardly followed on the ground.
“Election commission can mark ‘D’ voters without hardly any investigation while the border police follow few procedures in identifying suspected citizens,” said Wadud, the lawyer.
Our basic job is to submit the names to the Foreigners Tribunal after proper verification of the papers if any individual is suspected to be illegally staying here
Sanjoy Hazarika, International Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, says due process should be followed in handling “D” voters cases and the NRC process.
“The process must be clearly in accordance with India’s international obligations” he said.
Sajahan Kazi, a government school teacher from Barpeta district, was marked “D” voter in 1997. It took 20 years for him to prove his citizenship, during which he was stripped of voting and other rights.
People of Bengali origin feel discriminated and harassed by police.
Police refute the allegation of harassment
Moinal Mollah of Barpeta district’s Bohri village was detained despite his parents and grandparents declared as Indian citizens with the necessary documents.
He remained in Goalpara detention centre for nearly three years until the Supreme Court ordered his release. A non-profit, MY-FACTS, provided free legal assistance to Mollah.
“My brother took money on interest and spent nearly two lakh rupees ($2,938) while we were fighting the case in the high court. Till today we are repaying the debts,” Mollah told Al Jazeera as his parents sat beside him.
“I didn’t receive any compensation from the government, neither have they apologised to me.”
Assam border police chief Raunak Ali Hazarika refuted the allegation of harassment.
“Legally it’s not possible. Our basic job is to submit the names to the Foreigners Tribunal after proper verification of the papers if any individual is suspected to be illegally staying here,” Hazarika told Al Jazeera.
He denied that linguistic minorities or Bengali-origin Muslims were being harassed.
“No way that’s possible, as the process of enquiry does not have any specific criteria to enquire on religious or linguistic line”.
Indigenous versus the outsiders
Assam is home to 32 million people – one-third of them are Muslim, most of them Bengali origin.
The first arrival of Bengali cultivators began in the 19th century after British colonial rulers took over Assam from the Ahom king in 1826.
Back then, Assam was sparsely populated with dense jungles. In 1855, an English military officer, Major John Butler, called Assam a “dreary and desolate wilderness … devoid of man, beasts, or birds”.
By the early 20th century, millions of Bengali people were settled in Assam, as part of the British policy. The fertile land of Assam attracted people not only from Bengal but also from Bihar and Odisha states.
The policy of bringing more Bengali immigrants by the government of Sayed Mohammad Sadullah in the 1930s as part of its “Grow More Food” programme further polarised Assam’s politics on the issue of indigenous versus the outsiders.
CS Mullan, superintendent of the 1931 Assam Census, likened Bengali immigrants to “an invading, conquering army, to a terrifying birds of prey, and to insects”.
For Mullan, an Indian civil service officer, Bengali immigrants were like “vultures” looking to grab lands.
“The motivation behind such irresponsible and utterings was clear. He wanted the Assamese and the immigrants to be set against each other,” wrote academic Amalendu Guha in his book, “Planter Raj to Swaraj”.
After India’s independence in 1947, more than 200,000 Bengali people were deported to what was then East Pakistan under the Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan scheme.
Author Rizwana Shamshad wrote in her book, “Bangladeshi Migrants in India: Foreigners, Refugees, or Infiltrators?”, that a narrative was built around Bengali origin people as “land grabbers” and “settlers” against ethnic Assamese depicted as “vulnerable”.
Colonial role overlooked
The dominant narrative in Assam has overlooked the colonial role in bringing immigrants to Assam.
Sushanta Talukdar, a senior journalist in Guwahati, said the media helped “perpetuate the stereotype about the community”.
“The fear [of undocumented immigrants] was real, but it was amplified by the media,” he said.
“We cannot deny that there is no problem, but media should have played a responsible role in finding out facts and instead of being carried away by the agenda of the political parties.”
India’s Supreme Court quoted Mullan in its 2003 judgement, when it scrapped a controversial tribunal, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT), set up in 1983 to try suspected foreigners.
Assam politicians had demanded the repeal of the IMDT Act, under which the burden of proof was on the state.
“The SC brought back foreigners Act 1946, a British era law, under which the burden of proof shifted to suspects,” Wadud said, adding that it is against natural justice.
Islam of the AIUDF party says the agenda over who is a foreigner has gradually changed over the years.
“In the 1970s, they said remove outsiders, including Indians from other states. Then they said remove foreigners, including Nepalis and Bangladeshis,” Haque said. “Now they are saying exempt Bengali Hindus and deport Bengali origin Muslims. From outsiders it has come down to just Muslims. It’s a secular state, rules should be applied equally to all.”
The sons of the soil
Among those of Bengali origin, such as Suleman Qasimi from Nellie village, there is a belief that people who have harmed and killed Muslims have enjoyed impunity.
“We are bhumiputra, the son of the soil. Do not call us Bangladeshis, we are Indians,” he said, anger palpable on his face.
His brother was among the nearly 2,000 people massacred in 1983 in his village during the height of anti-Bengali movement.
“[Until now], no one has been charged for the carnage, except for a compensation of 5,000 rupees ($73),” said Qassemi, who is the leader of a local mosque.
We are bhumiputra, the son of the soil. Do not call us Bangladeshis, we are Indians
“Muslims were killed because they voted in defiance of the election boycott called by the protesters. My brother died for democracy,” he said, claiming that those who harassed and killed Muslims during the Assam Movement have been rewarded.
In 2016, the BJP government in the state announced compensation of 500,000 rupees ($7,345) to the more than 800 killed during the anti-Bengali Assam agitation.
But successive Congress governments, Qasimi said, did nothing to provide justice to the victims.
Organisations and political groups such as All Assam Students Union (AASU), which led the Assam agitation between 1979-85, have played on the fear of undocumented immigrants.
“The problem is that the BJP is creating a fear psychosis that Muslim population is growing by leaps and bounds and they are going to swamp the local indigenous population,” Assam Congress leader Prodyut Bordoloi said.
He said that the migration from Bangladesh has “almost stopped in the past 25 to 30 years”.
Muslims have been well represented in the state Assembly with 30 members from the community in the 126-seat state assembly, but they are at the bottom of development indices.
The community suffers from mass illiteracy and poverty while the fear of being branded foreigners persists.
Assimilated into Assamese society
Hafiz Ahmed, a Guwahati-based Bengali-origin Muslim and activist, says that Muslims face discrimination and harassment despite having living in the state for generations.
“My grandfather came to Assam … We do not need any certificate that we are Assamese,” he said. “Muslims have contributed a lot to the Assamese language and culture. And they have always wanted to be assimilated with the greater Assamese nationality.”
The 54-year-old started writing Miya poetry to express the anguish and pain at the way the community has been treated.
“Miyan means gentleman but here it is used in a derogatory manner to refer to Bengali origin people,” he said. “Miya poetry is a voice against injustice and discrimination.
“For the first time we have seen that some young people from the community have come out. They have used literature as a means of protest.”
Kazi Neel is one among the young protesters from the community who has picked up a pen.
The land that makes my father an alien
That kills my brother with bullets
My sister with gang-rape
The land where my mother stokes in heart live burning coals
That land is mine
I am not of that land
The land where limb after limb is chopped and sent afloat the river
Where in 1983, the executioners danced a shameless grisly dance of celebration
That land is mine
I am not of that land
The land where my homes and hearths is uprooted
Where my heritage is negated
Where they conspire to bind me forever in darkness
Where they pour gravel, not gruel on my plate
That land is mine
I am not of that land
The land where my throat cracks with appeals and no one hears
Where my blood flows cheap and no one pays
Where they do politics over my son’s coffin
And gamble with my daughter’s honour
The land where I wander crazy, confused as a beast
That land is mine
I am not of that land
[Poem originally written in Miya dialect by Kazi Neel. Translated into English by Shalom M Hussain]