Monday, Jun 05, 2023

The Lives Of Bengali Muslims In Assam Post-NRC

Political Overlap

The Lives Of Bengali Muslims In Assam Post-NRC

The harassment of the marginalised in Assam is a modus operandi of the xenophobic and patriarchal nature of the state since its inception

In or Out: Morigaon disrict of Assam, August 2019: a man checks for his name in the final published list of the NRC
In or Out: Morigaon disrict of Assam, August 2019: a man checks for his name in the final published list of the NRC Photo: Getty Images

Minara Begum was born in Lathigram in Cachar district of Assam. She lost her father, Usman Ali, at a very young age. When she grew up, she was married to Rahimuddin who is a daily wage labourer. In the third week of July of 2009, she gave birth to a daughter, Shahanara Begum and on August 8, 2009, she was declared an illegal foreigner and deported to the Kokrajhar detention camp, along with her new-born child, who was barely 15 days old.

Shahanara grew up in the prison with her mother. Minara’s father and grandfather were residents of Thaligram; her grandfather had been living there since 1946 and they have the documents to prove it. Despite having all the documents like land deed and legacy data, she still couldn’t produce them on time, neither did she have the necessary documents to prove that she was Usman Ali’s daughter.

Since Minara’s marriage to Rahimuddin, she is known by her husband’s identity, and prior to her marriage, she doesn’t have any document that connects her to Usman Ali, her father. One of the key documents used in such cases is the school leaving certificate or birth certificate (which many people born in the 70s, or prior, may not have. Birth certification in Assam was only introduced in 1978) but Minara, like many women in this country, never finished formal education. Therefore, she doesn’t have a school-leaving certificate that states she is Usman Ali’s daughter, resulting in her and her daughter having spent over a decade in prison. At the Kokrajhar detention camp, Minara’s husband could afford to go see her only once; he didn’t have the finances to visit her regularly, or the time. Her case was eventually taken to the High Court through the District Legal Services Authority, Kokrajhar. But Minara’s family couldn’t carry on with the case due to a lack of money. It was impossible to manage the cost of travelling to and from Guwahati for appearances in court. Eventually, after multiple attempts, Shahanara Begum, now a 10-year-old child and her mother, Minara Begum, were both released on April 21, 2020, on bail. The case to prove their citizenship is still going on but at least they are out of prison. In the last 11-12 years, the landscape of Minara’s personal life has changed completely, yet she is somewhat free due to the efforts of various civil society organisations.

Long before the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process was launched in India and people became anxious about the register or their fate as citizens of India, Assam was already many steps ahead.  There are hundreds of cases which are not dissimilar to Minara Begum’s, especially pertaining to women whose identities are in flux depending on which men they ‘belonged to’ at that point.  While there can be many documents in a woman’s arsenal like PAN Card, Voter ID, even Aadhaar, what proves that one belongs to the state of Assam ‘as a woman’ are documents that can prove lineage, i.e., who is the father, was he a legal resident of Assam etc. The documents mentioned earlier are those that women generally possess when they are older, are adults, earning members or people who can vote. But, in Assam, like the rest of India, many women get married very young, and once married, their husbands’ names and identities become their identities, cutting them off from their parents. Many of these documents bear the husband’s name—not the father’s—making it difficult to prove that they are indeed their fathers’ daughters.

As a Bengali woman who has grown up in Assam, the question of belonging is something that has plagued me, like it has all Bengali women, to varying degrees, depending on where we belong in society, how close or away from the margins we are located and, of course, what our religions are. My activist work and research are mostly centred on the incarceration of people that happened in 1997 (using the D-Voter List) and after the implementation of NRC in Assam and concentrated in the Barak Valley region, where I grew up.

Long before the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process was launched in India and people became anxious about the register or their fate as citizens of India, Assam was already many steps ahead.

As the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)-NRC debate and implementation erupted after the current ruling party came into power, the anxieties of Bengalis in Assam, especially Bengali Muslims, is higher than before. While the Partition of India remains in the collective memory of Indians as a partition of eastern and western corridors, we often forget how Assam also went through a partition, bringing with it questions of which parts would remain with Assam, which parts would not and how people identified themselves and others with regard to one’s cultural and linguistic identities. The ‘Assamese’ have been claiming to be ‘native’ to the state, but they are not, just like most of the communities residing in Assam are not. Assamese culture and language have been imposed on most people of Assam and people have lost their own identities and resorted to calling themselves Assamese. The Assamese of the Brahmaputra valley have been grappling with the resistance of the Barak Valley who have held on to their official language and culture since 1961.

The anxiety of citizenship had a stronger chokehold on Bengali Muslims in Assam because the question of citizenship was not new. The newness lay in how ridiculous the bureaucratic process had become. New foreign tribunals were set up and the terms of the people presiding on cases started depending on how many cases they can declare to be illegal in and sent to detention. The overall effect was to criminalise people, detain them, incarcerate them, make them lose livelihoods (not just of individuals but of entire families) and break them.

For example, Kamrul Hussain Laskar, a driver by profession, lived with his wife, Jhuma Begum, and their four children in Udharbond block of Assam’s Cachar district. He was declared a ‘foreigner’, even though the notice he received was for a certain Kamrul ‘Islam’ Laskar. He went through the whole ordeal of facing the tribunal at the end of which he was declared to be an illegal immigrant in Assam. In order to prove his identity, Kamrul’s school leaving certificate was used, where his name, father’s name (Abdul Hussain Laskar), and date of birth were clearly mentioned.

However, the court did not give importance to the details present in the certificate despite it bearing the countersign of the inspector of schools. A member of the Foreigners’ Tribunal wrote that the handwritten statement submitted to the court by Kamrul looked like it had been written by a student of class one or two, arguing that “the writing of a student who has studied till class eight, as Kamrul had, could not be so messy and child-like.” After spending more than 3 years in jail/detention centre, he was eventually released on bail and continues to report to the local police station as per the conditions of his bail.

Similarly, Sukhdev Ree, hailing from the community of tea-garden workers in Assam— a community considered native and indigenous to Assam and is technically a protected community—was sent to a detention camp as he couldn’t prove his identity. After a long battle with various civil bodies, he was released on bail but recently, he passed away without knowing the result of his case. Most detainees were only released due to a Supreme Court order and, even then, under the condition of producing two guarantors who could provide Rs 1 lakh each as bond. The bureaucracy expects poor people to find such guarantors while they are unable to visit their family members or fight the case due to financial issues.

Apart from citizenship, there are various other methods that have been used in Assam for some time now to give space and voice to the Assamese ethno-nationalist agenda, which is xenophobic in nature, starting from the Assam Andolan (1979-1985), the Bongal Kheda (1960s), the Nellie massacre (1983)—the list goes on. Not to mention how various communities have faced successful imposition of Assamese, culture, language and identity on their non-Assamese identities. People who do identify as Assamese are still demarcated as ‘not Assamese’, evident from the recent sealing of the Miya Museum of Goalpara in October, 2022.

While the Partition of India remains in the collective memory of Indians as a partition of eastern and western corridors, we often forget that Assam also went through a partition.

Evictions of various kinds are more and more prevalent these days. The four thousand families displaced and lands “freed from encroachers” so far are to be distributed among various ‘indigenous’ landless people. But very few landless, Bengali-origin Muslims, many of whom have lived in Assam for several generations, have been given such lands.

One of the important eviction drives took place in November 2021 in Hojai, near Lumding Reserve Forest in Barak Valley. More than 500 families of almost all Bengali-origin Muslims were displaced and their houses demolished. Where did these people go? Who is responsible for their lives, livelihoods, and right to exist?

Along with eviction, another important incident is the Dolu Tea Estate incident in May 2022. Here, almost 2000 tea-garden workers were left without jobs because the land was acquired, supposedly for an airport. It is not just the BJP, but all parties and tea union leaders agreed to this, while the actual workers were not notified, informed, or compensated. Most of the tea-garden workers are considered ‘native’ and ‘indigenous’ to Assam and, as noted, are technically a protected community of tea-tribes.

This incident points to the ways in which land and land-related issues and encroachment and evictions are happening in places where there is an overwhelming presence of Bengali Muslim-origin residents. We cannot ignore the history of Assam, and how it has shaped the current politics and will probably carve out the future with regard to resistance to anyone and everyone who is not Assamese. One cannot ignore the Islamophobic agenda of the ruling government but, at the same time, it needs to be understood and discussed in the context of the history of Assam, the language movement, the resistance to Assamese imposition and the Assamese anti-immigrant sentiment.

The methods of harassment and criminalisation are of various kinds. Sometimes, it is using a lack of documents to throw a 15-day-old child and her mother in jail for a decade because the mother couldn’t prove she is her father’s daughter; other times, it can also be the illegible handwriting of a man, a father of four, who left school to earn a living during his teenage years; sometimes generationally providing labour to a tea-garden was not enough to belong to the place; many times, it will be a disruption of living space, demolition, eviction—sometimes, of the whole tea-garden.

The only source of meagre income is taken away without notice and compensation. Lives are pulled inside out through state mechanisms to appease nativist and xenophobic tendencies within the electorate. The NRC discussion may have calmed down in the broader picture and among well-to-do leftists and liberals but poor people are still going through the consequences, paying the price for the lack of papers, still visiting police stations to prove they are still here, waiting to hear from the courts as to where they belong.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Living in Uncertainty")

(Views expressed are personal)

Riya Ghosh Ray is an independent researcher based in Silchar, Assam