Pointing towards a government school, 58-year-old Shanti Nag says in despair, “This is the school where I studied till the eighth standard, with my two other siblings. There were not too many buildings in this area back then. These were mostly barren lands and I used to play here as a kid. I have spent my entire childhood here, and now the government says I am not Indian, while my siblings are.”
Assam has been the site of contestations over citizenship for several decades. While most countries in contemporary times detain undocumented migrants immediately after their arrival, what sets the case of Assam apart is that the alleged foreigners are detected not on the borders, but rather in their houses. There have been different tools and mechanisms put in place to detect undocumented immigrants. The Doubtful voter tag is one such mechanism that renders innumerable people stateless and pushes them to the verge of precarious citizenship.
In 1997, the Election Commission of India categorised and disenfranchised more than 1,00,000 people as D-voters, under the suspicion of them being undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh. The state of being neither an Indian nor a foreigner pushed them to the periphery of rightlessness.
The experience of being a D-voter is different for every individual, as it affects people to varying degrees. While the linguistic and religious minority group of Bengali Muslims are more susceptible to being marked as doubtful voters, the experience also becomes especially challenging for the economically marginalised.
Their financial precarity coupled with other factors such as lack of education, a limited amount of information, and absence of documents make their path toward claiming citizenship exceptionally difficult. This article aims to explore the ways in which the economic incapacity among the D-voters pushes them further into poverty.
Field interviews conducted in the town of Silchar in the Cachar district by the Centre for New Economics Studies’ Azaad Awaaz Team are used as shreds of evidence to highlight the different ways in which the legal battle proves to be expensive and the ways in which the D-voters manage their finances. It is to be noted that pseudonyms have been used to maintain the confidentiality of the informants.
‘Eating fish or meat is only a distant dream for us’
Rubesa Begum was told that she had been categorised as a D-voter when she went to cast her vote in 2017. Owing to illiteracy, she as well as her family did not understand the case and left the responsibility to a local lawyer in the initial few months. Begum’s husband, Ibadur Mia, then reached out to a lawyer in the Guwahati high court after the local lawyer could not prove her citizenship. They recount how both the lawyers were of no help and charged high fees.
Ibadur Mia sold a cow he had for Rs 9,000 to pay the fees of one of the lawyers. Approximately Rs 60,000 was spent in the process, and the total expense involved fees paid to the lawyers and money spent on travelling as well as managing the documents. Ibadur Mia, who is a daily wage labourer, took loans from various sources that charged high interest rates. The family could barely manage their expenses, and the D-voter notice made things worse.
Rubesa Begum’s case is currently being fought by a lawyer who does not charge any fee. However, the family is under a huge debt and continues to experience financial burdens as they are still required to pay off the loans they took a few years back. Her 16-year-old daughter has dropped out of school because of financial reasons. Moreover, Ibadur Mia’s health condition does not allow him to work, but he cannot afford treatment and is bound to work to sustain his family and pay off the loans. Towards the end of the conversation, when asked if there are good quality fish sold in the area, teary-eyed Rubesa Begum said “There are. But eating fish or meat is only a distant dream for us. We can not afford them.”
‘He is paralysed, but we can not afford quality treatment’
Jitendra Das has been fighting the case for more than two decades. Das continues to live in a liminal state, where he is neither an Indian nor a foreigner, primarily because of the lack of documents. His house caught fire years ago and he lost all the documents. The only document he has is the land document, which is, however, not considered an acceptable document by the Foreigners’ Tribunal.
In 2021, Das experienced a stroke that left the left part of his body paralysed. Since then, he has not been able to meet the lawyers or go to the Foreigners’ Tribunal for hearings. His son, Bijoy Das, and daughter-in-law, Rita, have taken up the responsibility. They have to meet the lawyer at least once a month and make payments to the lawyer. Given that Bijoy Das does not have a stable source of income, the family is finding the long-drawn legal battle agonising.
The D-voter tag of Jitendra Das has had other financial consequences for the family as well. Apart from being disenfranchised, the doubtful voters are also devoid of accessing substantive rights that the state offers. The family is no longer eligible to purchase food items at subsidised rates, because of Das’ doubtful citizenship. Moreover, the family is not a beneficiary of the Arunodoi Scheme, a government scheme that provides monetary assistance to low-income families.
The D-voter status not only pushes Das’ family to spend money on the legal case but also restrains them from availing any of the benefits the state offers, thus making the situation worse. The financial burden has further caused the inability on the part of the family to access quality medical facilities for Jitendra Das’ critical health condition.
This has been captured in the statement made by Rita, “He is paralysed, but we can not afford quality treatment.” One of the ways in which the finances are managed is the self-help groups. Rita is a part of an informal association, formed by a few women from similar economic backgrounds. In times of crisis, Rita borrows money from the collective fund.
The financial incapacity of individuals has led to the process of claiming citizenship being arduous. “This is India. Anybody who has the money and power to manage the documents is an Indian. It does not matter whether you and your family have been living in India for 200 years. If you do not have documents, you are then a foreigner,” says human rights activist Kamal Chakraborty. Even if one member is marked a D-voter, the process has financial consequences for the entire family.
While in some cases, people sell livestock, and assets such as phones or mortgage their houses to meet the financial requirements, in other cases, they take loans from external sources or self-help groups. Stressing on the financial aspect, Salah Punathil, assistant professor at the University of Hyderabad says, “Financial support is very important to fight a legal battle. And this has been the plight of the D-voters for a long time.” The financial burden upon the D-voters is, therefore, much worse than has ever been brought to light, and demands urgent attention.
This field commentary has been written as a summative analysis from the recent edition of Azaad Awaaz, Centre for New Economics Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University. Azaad Awaaz, an initiative of the Centre for New Economics Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University, works on issues of social exclusion, marginalisation, and discrimination experienced by vulnerable, precarious communities across India. To review its work and patrika (magazine), please see here. You can also access the edition here. Write to the team at [email protected] with comments or feedback.