3 No. Baladmari Char, Goalpara (Assam): Sipping tea between mouthfuls of muri (puffed rice), Hussain Ahmad Madani prodded his mother to respond to my queries. She interjected with “What more do I say? What is there to say?”
Some silence, a faint smile – and then she mumbled to me, “We can only wait till July 30 and see what happens.”
July 30 is an important day not just for Hussain’s mother Shorbhanu Nessa, but for many other women from the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of Assam, particularly those belonging to the Bengali Muslim community. On that day, the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is being updated in the state since 2015 following a Supreme Court order, will have its final draft ready. The NRC is being updated by the Registrar General of India as per the citizenship cut-off date of March 25, 1971, exclusive to the state, agreed by the Centre in its Accord with the students’ body All Assam Students Union to end a six-year-long anti-immigration agitation in 1985.
These women are in a peculiar situation. They are rather a reflection of the position that a large section of poor women in not just Assam but in many parts of the country find themselves in, thanks to the social injustice and inequality handed out to them by a patriarchal society.
Shorbhanu, mother of five grown-up children, never went to school, never owned any property, never had a bank account; she was married off before she turned 18. “Everything is with my husband,” she said.
That her identity got entwined with that of her husband of 30 years is not good enough now, at least not to be a part of the final draft NRC.
“Because she never voted in her maiden home, she had no way to prove now that she was her father’s daughter. Her father’s legacy data is there, but she has no document to establish her linkage to him. There is no school certificate which would have mentioned his name. Her family settled in this char (a sand bar by a river in Assamese) when she was one-and-a-half years old after their char (Majarlega Char) was swallowed by the Brahmaputra. She was married off to my father in this same char. Though her father passed away, everyone in the neighbourhood knew whose daughter she was; trouble began when documentary evidence was sought by the NRC authorities to prove who her father was,” said Hussain, a sparkly young man, the first and the only one from his family to have a bachelor’s degree from a local college in Goalpara town, a few kilometres from Baladmari Char.
Sitting close to Shorbhanu was her neighbour Ahatun Nessa with a tense face and fidgety fingers. She studied till Class IX in her maiden home in Sopatola in West Goalpara before she was married off in Baladmari Char. “I felt good that I could study till Class IX, unlike some women in our village but I have now realised that it is of no use as the minimum education that the NRC authorities accept is the Class X Board exam which has the date of birth and the father’s name. I don’t have it,” she related.
Ahatun wanted to study further but her parents decided to marry her off, as is widely the norm in her community. Hussain added, “In her time, the voting right was granted at the age of 21, not 18 as it is now (it was lowered in 1988). In most of our families, forget 21, if a daughter is not married off before 18, she is considered old. Even today, our community has a huge problem of child marriage. So, most of the Bengali Muslim women had never voted before marriage and are now finding it very difficult to prove their maiden identity based on documents.”
Among the 14 documents that the NRC sought from the state’s 3.29 crore applicants, married women like Shorbhanu and Ahatun could present only one – a certificate from the general secretary of the village panchayat identifying whose daughters they were. These certificates are countersigned by the local circle officer or the Block Development Officer (BDO). As per news reports, there are over 29 lakh such women.
After a Gauhati high court ruling invalidated the Gaon Panchayat general secretary certificate in early 2017, the Supreme Court, in December 2017, set it aside, stating, “If the document and its content is to be subjected to a thorough search and probe, we do not see why the certificate should have been interdicted by the high court, particularly, in the context of the facts surrounding the enumeration and inclusion of the documents mentioned in the illustrative list of documents.” So at best, the panchayat certificate is a supporting document and the NRC authorities would need to study each case closely to establish the link to the legacy these women have claimed to be part of.
However, many married women complained that they were asked to furnish additional documents when they had to present themselves at the local NRC Seva Kendras beginning this April, besides following the procedure as per which they can bring either the “legacy person” (meaning the father) or a descendant to record their statements to substantiate their linkage claim. This is leading many to fear that their names might not feature in the final draft and would go into the claims and objections category. A form readied by the NRC authorities for claims and objections would be issued to those whose names don’t feature in the July 30 draft after a week’s break.
Gaon Burah certificates
Off the National Highway 37, linking Goalpara to the state capital Guwahati, is Goroimari village, about 20 km from the bustling Chhaygaon market. The local village panchayat office is filled with a large number of anxious women holding a sheaf of papers each wanting to meet the office bearers to enquire what would happen to them on July 30. Some of them blankly stared at this correspondent, mistaking her for an “NRC official from Guwahati”.
“Their case is the worst. All of them are residents of the Hatishala and Bhalukabari villages that come under our panchayat. When the NRC process began, there was a lot of confusion among people. The local circle officer told us then that those women who have married within the same village panchayat jurisdiction need not give the panchayat general secretary certificate but only the Gaon Burah (village head) certificate. So, these women did that. Though some of them had PAN cards and one or two had bank accounts, yet they didn’t submit those documents along with their forms just because the local authorities said the Gaon Burah certificate was enough. And now, they are being told that the Gaon Burah certificate is not a valid document. And those who want to submit other documents which they have, are not being accepted by the local NSK. So, it is increasingly worrying the,” explained Akram Hussain, the panchayat president.
A village panchayat official pointed out the list of 14 valid documents written on a wall of the local NSK nearby. It included the Gaon Panchayat general secretary certificate as an option for only married women. Nowhere does it mention that an applicant needs to give supplementary document.
If you check their papers, most women have maiden family linkage data going back either to the 1951 NRC or to the 1966 voters’ list. “But how do I prove I belong to this family without the help of the Gaon Burah? My parents are dead. For us, a Gaon Burah is the most important person. Even to open a bank account, our people have to take a letter certifying him as the resident of the village. I am now worried whether his word will be enough to prove my citizenship,” said Bahar Jaan Nessa . Her legacy data names her father as part of the 1951 NRC under Pub Samaria Mauza of Chhaygaon town in what is today the state’s Kamrup Rural district.
Among those waiting at the Panchayat office is Rohitan Nessa. She showed her PAN card, saying, “I could have given this too. It is a valid document. There was lot of confusion then. When the circle officer said the Gaon Panchayat general secretary certificate is not necessary as I married within my village and I need to give only the Gaon Burah certificate, I had no reason to doubt it because he would anyway know more than me.” Yet another woman, Saripurna Nessa, added, “I have a bank account. I went to the local NSK to submit it on learning that the Gaon Burah certificate is not a valid document. But the officials refused to accept it. This uncertainty is killing me.”
Interestingly, some village elders of Goroimari pointed out yet another social reality that is posing a problem for some married women in the area. “Some of the Bengali Muslim villages have a few married women who belong to the Assamese community. They fell in love with these village boys and got married. It led their families to break ties with these women. Many years have passed by and now some of them can’t even make use of their Original Inhabitant (OI) status as they are no longer in touch with their father’s family. In some cases, both parents have passed away. Many have no idea where exactly their father’s vote was. There also lies a problem in many people having the same name in one village. Some names are wrongly spelt. Such women have only the Gaon Panchayat general secretary certificate only to prove their maiden identity.” The larger family of one such Assamese woman, they related, “couldn’t identify her even though she has kept her maiden surname.”
Regarding the misspelling of names in electoral rolls, based on which the family legacy data was created by the NRC authorities, one such elder, Sikdar Ali, said, “Look at my name. I am Sikdar Ali. But one electoral roll named me Sirodar Ali, then I became Thikadar Ali and then Sikandar Ali. There are other such cases. A woman called Sonar Bhanu has become Golden Bhanu. Now how do you find your legacy data without committing mistakes?”
The Panchayat president said, “The other problem with these women is the inability to provide either a birth certificate or a marriage certificate. Forget the earlier days, many children in poor families in Assam are still born at home. These people have no idea that they need to register those marriages and how to go about it. In such a case, how can they produce a birth certificate of themselves or their children which was registered within a year’s time? The other issue is that most of these marriages were solemnised though random maulvis. Therefore, neither were their marriages registered by a proper kazi nor did they bother to go for a court marriage and get a formal certificate. These marriage certificates, otherwise, would have saved them as it would mandatorily need their father’s name.”
Advocate Abdul Latif of Goalpara, who has been representing many D voters in the local Foreigners’ Tribunal, said, “I have a hunch that in the rural areas, most of those who will not find their names in the final draft of NRC would be poor illiterate women simply because they have nothing more to furnish except the Gaon Panchayat certificate. From my experience, I would say that if you do a gender study of the Tribunal verdicts so far, more women would be found declared foreigners than men only because their documentation was weak. Men, however poor, usually have more than one document to show, but poor women have nothing to prove their Indian citizenship except the voter ID card. It is more so among the backward Bengali Muslims of Assam.”
The Goalpara Foreigners’ Tribunal stands facing a serene Brahmaputra. Deep inside the waters is a hillock, seeming like an island from afar. Hussain pointed out, “Look towards the right, can you see that land? That’s our char. When I was a child, the river was about 10 km from my home. It took the turn at that hillock in the middle. Gradually, it changed course, surrounded the hillock and is barely 500 metres away from my home now.”
He then added, “Now look right in front of you. Some years ago, these were villages. People lived there till the waters took away their home. God only knows where these people must be now. What must they be doing to prove their Indian citizenship. The river is now threatening to eat away even the Tribunal. It is barely 50 metres away.”