Transitory Citizenship and the Plight of the 'Illegal' Immigrant in Assam

During the process to update the National Registry of Citizens, numerous people have ended up in state detention centres, often charged under an Act that no longer exists.

Indian soldiers patrolling the India-Bangladesh border. Credit: Reuters

Indian soldiers patrolling the India-Bangladesh border. Credit: Reuters

One of the first statements that Sarbananda Sonowal, the chief minister of Assam issued, even before his swearing-in ceremony, was that the entire Indo-Bangladesh border passing through Assam would be sealed within two years time.

The rush to announce this was not unexpected. The major electoral plank for the BJP in the recent Assam state elections was the completion of the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) process and to seal the border with Bangladesh to stop the ‘illegal immigration’ from that country into Assam. One of the largest international borders in the world, India shares a 4,096-km border with Bangladesh, of which 264 km is along Assam.

By the first week of June, the BJP-led central government ordered the complete sealing of Assam’s border with Bangladesh by June 2017. The Times of India reported that “Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh issued the order at a high-level meeting attended by top Home Ministry officials”. Although around 224 km of the border has already been fenced, around 60.7 km is yet to be fenced because of the riverine topography. This is not surprising, since the Brahmaputra river cuts across Assam before entering Bangladesh. The BJP governments at both the Centre and the state proposed technology to seal the border, “which would include high resolution cameras, radars, unattended ground sensors, optical fibres, infra red sensors, aerostats, hand-held thermal imagers etc. and the integration of these with command and control architecture”.

Sonowal, a product of the protracted Assam Movement of the 1980s, also talked about the tourist economy that the new fenced border promises. “When the final draft of the (ongoing) updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is published, it will be clear who are the citizens and infiltrators will get identified. The problem will get solved and action will then be taken against infiltrators as per existing law. Like the Wagah border in Punjab with Pakistan, we will also have a similar ceremony in Assam along the Indo-Bangladesh border. We will make it into a tourist spot where people can come and watch the ceremony. This will also stop infiltration,” Indian Express quoted him as saying.

In Assam, the vexing question about who is a citizen has been hotly debated for several decades, especially since the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, better known as the Bangladesh liberation war, which saw the creation of present-day Bangladesh. The border areas of India and Bangladesh, including Assam and West Bengal, saw massive immigration of Bangladeshi citizens during this period. This is in addition to the people that came to India during partition, especially in the northern and eastern parts of India.

Creating a new list

The government of India instituted the process of the NRC in 1951 to determine who was an Indian citizen and who was not. It is remarkable and emblematic of the nature of citizenship in the country that the Supreme Court, in a directive to the Assam government in 2014, ordered for an updated NRC to be completed in the state at the earliest. This updating of the citizens registry is happening for the first time post-1951 in any part of the country. It will be updated to include names of those persons (or descendants) whose names appear in the NRC of 1951 and those in any electoral rolls or legally admissible documents issued upto the midnight of March 24, 1971. Anyone who has documents dated after this date will be considered a non-citizen and is liable to be expunged from the country.

One of the major tools for the NRC process has been the method of determining citizenship through ‘legacy data’. The legacy data has been divided into two lists of documents, which contains the NRC of 1951 and electoral rolls up to midnight of March 24, 1971 in List A and documents such as birth certificate, land documents, board/university certificates, bank/LIC/PO documents, circle officer/GP secretary certificates, ration cards and any other legally accepted document in List B.

So for instance, my father will have to prove his linkage to his father, whose name appeared in the NRC of 1951, through a series of documents from List B, and I will have to prove my linkage to my father through my own set of documents. The rigorous amount of documentation that is required to prove one’s citizenship becomes an arduous process for communities who have a nomadic existence such as the Mishings, a riverine community indigeneous to Assam. There may even be difficulties for other communities, such Bengali-speaking Muslims who live on the riverine islands which are locally known as char-saporis.

Prateek Hajela, the IAS officer who is the state coordinator for the NRC in Assam, said, “It is my duty to note that no genuine citizen, that is, someone from an indigeneuous community is labeled as a D-Voter or a Doubtful Voter. I have personally tried to ensure that no such errors creep up in our listing process”.

Manned by a total workforce of over a 49,000 dedicated personnel which includes contractual workers, data operators and government officials, the NRC is in the final stages of verifying the documents. The draft NRC will be rolled out within the next couple of months.

“Those who have been found as non-citizens in the first phase will be given time to prove their citizenship. And if they are unable to do so, they will be deported to the country of their origin,” Hajela added.


But the situation is far from as simple as it appears on paper. There are already six detention centres for the D-Voters in Assam located at Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Silchar, Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Tezpur. These are basically state-run prisons in which certain barracks have been allotted to these ‘dubious citizens’. Just after the elections in April and even before the results were announced, the incumbent Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government gave the nod for setting up a ‘full-fledged foreigners’ detention centre in the state for those facing deportation to their respective countries. The state government has already allotted 20 bighas (or around 125 acres) of land in the Goalpara district of Lower Assam for the first ever detention camp of the declared foreigners.

A report in Assam Tribune pegs the total number of detainees at 489, out of which apparently 310 have been identified as belonging to Bangladesh and are ignorant of their place of origin. Another report in the same newspaper says that the detainees also include 28 convicted Afghan nationals.

In the last 15 months, only one Bangladeshi citizen has been deported to the country from Assam. The process is complicated by the fact that India and Bangladesh are yet to sign any extradition treaty regarding the Bangladeshi citizens “illegally” living in India, especially Assam. Some of the “illegal” immigrants also purportedly belong to Myanmar. The report further explained that there is no clear-cut policy as of now from either the Indian government or the state government on how to handle “immigrants” who have no knowledge about their place of origin. For instance, some of the detainees came to Assam as toddlers or children with their parents/guardians who may have died by now. There is no clarity on what the state ought to do with such cases. Due to the lack of any treaty, there have been cases when the Bangladesh government has refused to accept detained persons.

The highest number of detainees in these camps are at the Goalpara centre, which houses 197 such D-Voters, followed by Kokrajhar which has 105 detainees. Civilian entry into these camps is strictly prohibited and no journalist or researcher is allowed any kind of access or to interact with any of the detainees.

“We have Gorkhas, Bengali Muslims, Bengali Hindus etc. in these camps. But there is no definite figure as yet till now on community or ethnic lines on these detainees as we are concerned with only marking out who is a non-citizen. After the process is over, probably we will look into such statistics,” Hajela answered, on being asked about the ethnic and religious constituency of the detainees in these camps.

Over a 100 km away from Guwahati lies the village of Nanke Darranga in Baksa District in the Bodoland Territorial Area District area of Assam. This restive region was carved out in 2003 after decades of strife by the Bodo militants who demanded a separate state for themselves. Nanke Darranga, or NK Darranga as the locals call it, is adjacent to the famous Darranga Mela village is known for its bustling border market and sex trade. The village, which falls along the Indo-Bhutan border area, has been known for decades as an escape route for various “ultras” into the mountains of neighbouring Bhutan.

Consisting of around 3,000 inhabitants of mixed ethnicities, it was on a September day in 2015 that the police swooped down and arrested 11 individuals as D-voters and ferried them off to the detention centres. Among the detainees were Bengali speaking Muslims and Hindus, largely women. What is not mentioned in the news reports is that the camps have been segregated for men and women. The women from this village were taken to the Kokrajhar camp and the men were taken to the Goalpara camp. Out of the 11 detained, eight were released in December 2015.

The (erstwhile) Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act

The D-Voters are currently prosecuted under various sections of the Foreigners Act and Passport Entry Into India Act. However, it is interesting to note that all the 11 people prosecuted from this village have been booked under the erstwhile Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, popularly known as the IM(DT) Act. This Act came into force in 1983 as one of the key demands of the Assam Movement and was repealed by the Supreme Court of India in 2005. Almost all the inhabitants of this village live in abject poverty and work as daily wage labourers in different parts of Assam, including Guwahati. Some of the men go to nearby Bhutan as construction workers, while many others have moved to Chennai to work on construction sites.

The case of 41-year-old Majiran Bibi points to the many contradictions that the citizenship question gives rise to. A resident of Nanke Darranga and mother of seven children, Majiran was picked up along with the rest in September and taken to the Kokrajhar camp. Though news reports suggest that children are also housed in the camp, the villagers allege that Majiran was not allowed to carry her youngest son, who was one and half years old at that time and who she was still nursing, into the camp. Majiran has many documents to certify her ‘Indian citizen’ status including a marriage certificate, voter ID and others. She also presented as proof her father’s name in the electoral roll of 1966, which is much earlier than the cut-off date of March 24, 1971.

The case of 86-year-old Snehalata Datta, who belongs to one of the five Hindu Bengali families in the village, is even more complicated. The bed-ridden and semi-paralysed Datta was also incarcerated in the camp for almost three months, before finally being granted relief by the Gauhati high court. Cases against Datta, Majiran and the rest of the doubtful voters were filed under the IM(DT) Act in 2002.

“We probably received notices for the cases, but since we are mostly uneducated here, a lot of times, such things escape notice. Only this time when the police came down and picked her up we realised there is something very serious going on,” explained Mukul Dey, Datta’s 57-year-old son-in-law in perfect Assamese.

This is not the first time that the family has faced such allegations, although this is the first case of incarceration. “My mother-in-law came to Assam during partition and was settled in the Barpeta region of Lower Assam. The then central government under Nehru in fact gave her and families like hers land and also some money to start afresh,” Dey said. “But due to erosion when most of the land was eaten away by the Brahmaputra, a lot of people shifted to other areas and that is how my wife’s family also came to settle presently in this village.”

Dey has also been served notice under the IM(DT) Act twice, once in 1985 and again in 1992. “I spent five years trying to get my name cleared as a foreigner and was cleared by the courts in 1990. But again, I don’t know how, I was served another notice in 1992 and this time in another district.” The second case is still continuing.

A close scrutiny of the documents pertaining to these cases pose serious questions to the surveillance state on the dialectics of legality, authenticity and legitimacy. Though most of these doubtful voters have legitimate documents, on what basis are they thought of as illegal immigrants? Are there doubts on the authenticity of the documents or do even legitimate documents not save an individual once marked by the state as being an “alien”? The magistrate’s orders of 1990 in the Mukul Dey case clearly state that he is “an Indian citizen”, so why is he then being asked after a few years to prove his nationality again?

Certainly we have to wonder why it is that some people have to constantly prove their legitimacy of being citizens in the country. Some anomalies in these documents are too glaring to be missed. In Snehalata Datta’s case, which was filed in 2002, her age is listed as 52 years old and one of the witness to her case is listed as Purna Bahadur Biswa Karma, a neighbour from her village. Cases such as these are filed on the basis of statements given by two-three witnesses who have known the individual in question. This has to then also be signed by the gaon burah or the village headman, which is a civil post.

Datta’s family was not aware of Karma being named as a witness till the author read it out. Dey shouted out in surprise and exclaimed that it was next to impossible. He in fact invited Karma over to attest this improbability. Karma denied ever having given any testimony to any official of Datta being an illegal immigrant. Documents that were shown have the witness statements, but there are no signatures attested to the statements or even thumb prints.

But the conundrum over citizenship is set to get murkier, with the proposal by the Central government to grant citizenship to all Hindu immigrants from neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh. One of the major electoral promises by Narendra Modi in the 2014 general elections was the promise to provide citizenship to Hindu migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The proposal is set to create more conflicts in Assam as the All Assam Students Union, the flagbearer of the Assam Movement and from where Sonowal began his political career, is threatening to hit the streets in protest.

“Many know that the name Assam has come from the Ahoms, but it is also a derivative of the Axomiya word ‘Axoman’ or uneven. Assam has always been heterogeneous and it shares a history of migration. It is physically impossible to seal borders anywhere in this world a 100%. Perhaps what the ruling dispensation, if it indeed cares about its people, needs to seek is for dual citizenship ideals or work permits that eases out this constant flow of migration. Such a system also lays to rest the anxieties of the local indigenous peoples and also leads to a systematic method of regulating migration,” said Mriganka Madhukaillya, one of India’s well known contemporary artists associated with the Desire Machine Collective, based out of Guwahati.

On the other hand, Hajela seems optimistic that the NRC is a foolproof method to determine citizenship and if successful, the model can and may be replicated in other parts of the country.

Shaheen Ahmed is a PhD research scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.