Panic and Uncertainty in Assam's Maloibari as Refugee Certificates Fail to Prove Citizenship

Several descendants of the refugees who escaped from East Pakistan in the ’60s have been left out of the NRC.

Maloibari: The descendants of refugees living in Maloibari, located on the fringes of Kamrup (metro) district in Assam, had their hopes pinned on refugee certificates for their inclusion in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The certificate proves that the holder’s father escaped from erstwhile East Pakistan and rehabilitated in India. However, it failed to get the descendants included in the final NRC published on August 31.

Several escaped from East Pakistan in the ’60s when persecution against Hindus created an unfit atmosphere for the religious minorities, compelling many to leave their ancestral villages and properties behind. The refugee certificates detail their route of escape to India, the villages they once hailed from and left on account of fear and panic and the camps they were interred in while arriving in the country. The Congress-led government under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru allotted them land and other provisions for living.

Maloibari, around 45 kilometres from Guwahati city, is home to around 150 such refugee families. In the ’60s, around 106 refugee families were given land here and in the nearby Pub-Maloibari. The village is encompassed within Sonapur block and falls under the Dispur legislative assembly constituency.

Poor, semi-literate and now at the crossroads of a citizenship crisis, the descendants claim that the same refugee certificates which were issued by the government back in the 60s were accepted by NRC authority in other places.

Hemandra Nandi, who arrived in Assam in 1964 with his father from Sylhet, has found himself in a similar predicament. He had submitted his father’s refugee certificate for the NRC. But the names of his entire family, barring the name of a nephew settled elsewhere, were not on the list.

“I gave the same certificate as my nephew Ratna Nandi did. His name was included but not of my family. How this can happen?” the 68-year-old wage labourer lamented.

Also read | Why Is No One In Assam Happy With the Final NRC?

Once a Congress bastion and predominantly Hindu-dominated, Maloibari and its adjoining villages shifted their allegiance to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when the 2014 Modi wave hit the region. Then, in 2016, hordes voted for the BJP during the assembly elections when former student leader Sarbananda Sonowal became Assam’s chief minister.

A refugee certificate. Photo: Gaurav Das

Post-publication of the final NRC, there is anger brewing among the people as any BJP leader is yet to pay a visit to talk to the descendants of refugees and others who have been excluded from the list. They are uncertain about their future and say they have no other evidence to prove their citizenship.

Among them was 70-year-old Tarini Barman. He had his refugee certificate renewed last year at Silchar in Barak Valley at the revenue department under Cachar district office. Barman was 12 when he along with six family members, led by his father Dagu Ram Barman, left the village of Dubi in East Pakistan’s Mymensingh. The family first arrived in the Barak Valley via the Kaliganj route.

The certificate mentions ‘October 24, 1964’ as the date of registration and ‘panic’ as the reason for leaving East Pakistan. Other details include the value of property left behind in East Pakistan – amounting to Rs 2,000. Cultivation and fishing with a monthly income of Rs 200 are mentioned under the categories of profession and monthly income.

“We left one home on account of fear, panic and threat to our lives to arrive in another. But now, the new home is stating that we are not of this land as well. Our early existence in India was about survival and not papers. The refugee certificate was my only hope for my family. But it seems this was not enough to declare ourselves as Indians. All my family members have been left out from the NRC. And now we are waiting for the notices to arrive to attend trials at the tribunals to prove that we are Indians,” Barman told The Wire.

Non-refugee families in Assam. Photo: Gaurav Das

Similarly, Chandala Sarkar, whose husband Santosh Sarkar escaped his ancestral village of Tahirpur in East Pakistan’s Sylhet district with his family, found her name in the NRC. But her three children were left out. They had used the 1964 refugee certificate which was issued by the office of the deputy commissioner, United Khasi and Jaintia Hills (Relief and Rehabilitation Branch).

“Is it fate or irony, I simply cannot fathom. But one thing I am sure of is that for the next few years, I will be running from pillar to post to prove that my children are Indians,” Sarkar said.

Also read | Women Without Parents: An NRC Ground Report

Academician Gorky Chakraborty of the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, commented, “Wherever the refugees were in camps, the certificate became their only document as if it was their historical draft. The NRC process in Assam failed to stipulate a uniform process regarding documents of proof. Reports suggest that in some districts, the certificate was accepted while in others it wasn’t. Our journey to citizenship is still contentious and the state, by maintaining a duality regarding the acceptance of such certificates, have failed to transform the refugees into citizens.”

On September 6, 2018, NRC state coordinator Prateek Hajela, in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, had suggested dropping refugee registration certificate and four other documents from the total 15 documents that were listed as valid proofs to support citizenship. The apex court asked all stakeholders to submit their thoughts on the suggestion. However, two months later, the apex court reversed the move put by Hajela.

Mangala Bala Kar, who arrived in India as a 14-year-old bride with husband Indra Chandra Kar from Sylhet district, told this correspondent, “It was of great concern when the only valid document that we have in our possession was considered by Hajela to be not valid to support citizenship. But the court reversed the move. We thought everything would be okay. But this wasn’t the case. I am a regular voter. And I voted during April’s general election too. But my family’s name is not featured in the NRC.”

Gaurav Das is a Guwahati-based freelance journalist.