Women Without Parents: An NRC Ground Report

Travels into the heart of Assam reveal the heartbreaking anomalies and legal loopholes that have left a subset of Muslim married women stuck with no recourse.

Goroimari (Kamrup Rural District, Assam):  The road is as rutted as it was when I first travelled down it in 2017. Each time our car hit a pothole, the driver gave me a sharp glance, as if wanting to ask if we would not have been better off just avoiding this trip after all.

We would not. Goroimari revenue circle, in Assam’s Kamrup Rural district, has been a ‘must visit’ every time I came to my state to report on the update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). For the last two years, I have been visiting some of the villages within Goroimari, several of which are populated only by Muslims of Bengali descent.

Situated not too far from Guwahati, these villages are surrounded by those with a mixed population. Residents of those villages belong to Bodo and Assamese communities and live side by side with the Muslims, who are identified locally as Miya Mussalmans.  

However, my area of particular interest in the Muslim dominated villages has been the married women, who seem to take up the bottommost level even within their community when it comes to literacy and a general awareness about their rights — both within and outside their homes.

The partial draft of the updated NRC, published in December 2017, had left out 29 lakh married women across the state as they had ‘failed’ to establish blood links with their paternal families through relevant documents. Most from that consolidated figure had been married Miya Musssalman women. Almost all the women from the Goraimari area were in it.

From a choice of at least 12 documents that an applicant could choose from to furnish to NRC authorities in order to claim her Indian identity and family legacy, these women could present none.

Even though some of them had had their father or grandfather’s names mentioned in the 1951 NRC or in the electoral rolls before March 24, 1971 (the exclusive citizenship cut-off date for Assam), they had nothing in terms of documents to officially establish their links.

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

All they could attach to their applications was a certificate issued by the local panchayat general secretary and endorsed by the block development officer to officially state that they were their father’s daughters and had been married in a particular village. Several in the Goraimari area (like elsewhere) also submitted only a certificate by the gaon burrah (village head), thinking it would be counted as the gram panchayat general secretary’s certificate. However, the gaon burrah’s letter had never been in the list of documents accepted as proof of link. 

Since the gram panchayat general secretary’s certificate was only a supporting document (in List B) and is allowed for married woman only on the condition that they should be able to back it with one of the List A documents, there was palpable worry among Muslim womenfolk when I visited the circle just days prior to the publication of the final draft in July 2018.

A day after the final NRC was published, I was in some villages of Goroimari to find out what eventually happened to the women from the community. Familiar faces surrounded me again. From a roadside tea shop in Bhalukabari village, word spread about my visit in no time and the women collected in groups.

Thrusting sheaves of papers at me, they began to tell their stories.

Most of them, when asked at length about their documents would either look at their sons or husbands for assistance or asked me to comprehend the papers myself. This has happened before and happens primarily because they cannot read a word of the documents on the basis of which their citizenship would eventually be decided. 

One such woman is Shoburi Jaan Nessa. I met her in 2018 too. I had never asked her her age although if I had to guess, I would say that she was in her early 50s. In the course of my career, I have realised that asking such women their age and name often leave them nervous because they have, by now, learnt the hard way that they can no longer be casual about such details. An age casually thrown about, not exactly the same as mentioned in an official document can cost them dearly. As can a name not spelt exactly the same way it is in the NRC applications or in the electoral rolls. 

Also watch: ‘NRC Breaches Citizenship Act and Is Unconstitutional’

Such anomalies which may have emerged during cross-examinations in Foreigners’ Tribunals have pushed people into detention centres.  

All Shoburi could tell me on September 1 was, “My father’s name is in the 1951 NRC. My brother used the same legacy data of my father and is in the final NRC but I am out. I was married in the same village and submitted the gaon burrah certificate which was rejected. My name was also not in the final draft. When I was called for re-verification, I gave my paternal family’s ration card where I am mentioned as my father’s daughter. Yet, I am out of the NRC.”

The ration card had been the only official document to establish Shoburi’s connection with her father.

There was silence around Shoburi until someone from the crowd – a man – piped up, “She must have not given a digital version of the ration card. The traditional ration cards don’t explicitly establish the connect between a father and a child but the digital one does. So there is a provision in the NRC Seva Kendra (NSK) to acquire one. The traditional one is not accepted.” 

Shoburi had no answer to that. Grabbing her papers, he quickly ran his eyes over them, and triumphantly pointed out that he was correct.

Women in Bhalukabari village in Assam’s Kamrup (rural) district. Photo: By special arrangement

In a matter of minutes, that man’s claim was punctured. A young Nurjahan Begum, who also found herself out of the final NRC, had submitted a digitised copy of her father’s ration card to establish her link to her paternal family. She also submitted a gram panchayat general secretary’s certificate, and indeed not one by a gaon burrah as Shoburi had done.

“Tell me, why I am out then?” she confronted him.

Janu kiyo? (Now what do I know?),” he backed off. 

As per rules, both the ration card and the panchayat general secretary’s certificate are supporting documents, basically of little use if one of the documents from List A is not attached with it. Among the List A documents are birth certificates, school board or university certificates, or land and tenancy papers. 

“Forget before 1971, most births in our community still take place at home, so the concept of having a birth certificate is hardly there. Births are not typically registered as most do not go to hospital for child births. Isn’t this also true for all poor people in this country?” asked Akram Hussain, a local social activist who helped out villagers in filling up applications, responding to claims and appearing for the re-verification process.

Pahali Miyah, a village elder, also added, “Traditionally, our land is not given to a daughter till after the father’s death. Even then, the daughter often tells the brothers, ‘you give me a certain amount of money and keep the land’ because she knows that the land is also used for agriculture by her paternal family. It is source of income. So, most of our girls have never been owners of land. So, that demand from List A (which requires you to submit land deeds) is not applicable to our women.”

Also read: Don’t Panic If Name Excluded From Final NRC: Sonowal to Assam Residents

Several women and their husbands also repeated a claim they had made to me before — that they were “advised” by the circle officer then that even a gaon burrah certificate would suffice for married women, particularly for those who had married within the same village. 

“Maybe he also didn’t know the rules then. We believed it because a gaon burrah certificate is considered a legal document in some cases. However, in the confusion, these women lost the opportunity to furnish a certificate issued by the panchayat general secretary, which is why most were left out of the final draft,” insisted Akram.  

Facing Pahali Miyah stood Monuwara Begum, a young married woman from the village. She has been an object of envy to the rest of the womenfolk since the morning of August 31. “Her name was on the list, even though like us, it had not beenon the final draft,” said one Nurjahan. Monuwara smiled, “It didn’t come in the final draft because I also gave the gaon burrah certificate. It was rejected. During re-verification, I submitted my school certificate which got accepted,” she said.

Arijon Nessa, her neighbour, was agitated. “Baidew (sister), my case was the same. I also gave a school certificate during re-verification but it was not accepted. The same NSK handled both the cases. Why? I also gave my pan card and my marriage certificate. Nothing helped,” she said.

People stand in a queue to check their names on the final list of the NRC outside a Gaon Panchayat office in Pavakati village, Morigoan. Photo: PTI

The selfsame village elder Pahali Miyah is distraught as the final NRC does not have his name, even though he had submitted his family’s land documents going back to the 1920s to claim citizenship. In the moment, however, he consoled Arijon. “The FT (Foreigners’ Tribunals) court will accept it. How can it not? It is in the rules,” he said.

“Where do I get the money to go to the FT court?” Arijon asked back. 

The state government has announced free legal aid to all applicants left out of the final NRC. But Arijon is not convinced. Aamak dibo janu help (Will we be able to avail ourselves of that help)?” indirectly stating that a BJP-led government might only help out its voter base.

Someone in the crowd said that the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) has been taking up the cases of the Muslim community of east Bengal origin in the state since the anti-foreigner agitation began would help out the needy. “We can’t trust anyone. Who came to our rescue when we had to organise so much money in a day’s time to travel hundreds of kilometres in the Upper Assam districts for re-verification of our documents few weeks ago?” another person mumbled from the crowd.

Monuwara and Arijon might be on either side of this citizenship test post August 31 but together, they were exceptions in the crowd. None of the other women in the congregation, across varying age groups, had never entered a classroom. Also, almost all of these women were married before the legal age of 18. This is the reason they couldn’t vote in their paternal home and entered their names in the electoral rolls only as someone’s wife. However, the NRC update process requires that the husband and the wife claim their right to be a resident of the state by dint of their respective fathers’ legacies. Thus their lack of formal schooling, also made it difficult for them to submit paperwork to establish the link with their parents.

On being asked about it, a local school teacher related, “Even though child marriage is not allowed, it is unfortunately an established custom within our community, among the poor lot. Girls of 12-13 years are clandestinely married off. By 18, they are mothers of two.”

He also said, “This is done with the help of lawyers, who, for a sum, help parents get a legal affidavit that says that only when a boy would be 21 and a girl 18, would they start living together. But with that legal document in hand, the boy and the girl are made to live together even before attaining that age. Nobody in the village complains because most are complicit in it.”

Later, Akram told me, “You can call me an exception in my village. Most of my school mates married before the age of 21. By the time I finished my college, they were fathers of two, while I was yet to get married. My daughter is in school now but their daughters are already married. From my own experience, I can say that those families will have an extra generation than mine.”

Also read: In the Idea of an ‘All India NRC’, Echoes of Reich Citizenship Law

In the light of the NRC release, state BJP leaders like Himanta Biswa Sarma have been citing the rise in the number of Muslim majority villages from six in the 2001 census to nine in the 2011 census to claim that there have been rampant ‘illegal migration’ from Bangladesh. Therefore, the Assamese (a majority of whom are Hindus) must identify the ‘enemy’ and embrace the Bengali Hindus (usually considered a BJP voter base) residing in the state, and also support the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, it is implied.

The BJP has been hoping to draw a Hindu political axis in the state. However, some Assamese intellectuals and senior editors have been calling for a more detailed study of the demographic change in the state to factor details like what Akram had pointed out to me.

Later in the day, in front of the panchayat office in Hatishala Bazaar, I met yet another crowd of women.  Their travails were the same. During re-verification, all they could hand over was the ration card of their paternal family, which listed them as children of those families.

However, I did come across a handful of women who were in the list because they could establish their link with their fathers and brothers during the re-verification process through the ‘family tree option’ where a brother or other family members had convincingly identified them before NRC authorities as their own. But all of them said their husband and children had not made it to the list. One such woman was Jahanara Khatun from Hatipara. 

As a measure of how jarring the contrast is, Phulmara Khatun from Tukura Para village said both her and her husband’s names featured in the final NRC but not those of their four children. “How?” she asked me. I wondered too, considering that if both parents were Indian citizens, children automatically should be so as per an amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955.  

Then there was Shabjan, a widow and a mother of two teenage sons. “My husband died 12-13 years ago. So we don’t have his papers. The children, therefore, gave my legacy. I am in the list because I could establish my link with my father but they are out because they couldn’t. What to do now?” she asked. I had no answer to that.

A man (in green shirt) checks villagers’ names in the NRC final list in Hatishala Bazaar for Rs 10 each. Photo: By special arrangement

A little distance away, the lone chemist shop in the area flaunted a computer. The shop owner had been busy since the morning of August 31, making brisk business – Rs 10 to check whether a villager’s name was in or out of the final NRC. He was also making a list of his own, categorically stating – “accept” or “reject” beside each name.  

“That way, I will know our local data,” he told me.

Later in the day, a local civil society group would hold a meeting for those left out of the final NRC to guide them about the next phase of action. Seeing me leafing through the papers of the womenfolk, some of the men walked forward. Each had a file of documents; each was anxious. They began to speak at once. The stories varied.They were in, their wives were not; both husband and wife were in but their children were out. In some instances, while the father and the children were in the list, only the wives were out. Confusion was added by what seemed like lack of uniformity of rules even when applied to similar cases.

Abdul Majid. Photo: By special arrangement

Abdul Majid is a teacher in a village primary school run by the state government and can relate. “The names of my family and my brothers’ family were there in the final draft but in the final NRC, we are not there. During the application process, we attached not just our names in the 1971 electoral rolls but also our grandfather’s land documents dating back to 1927. Based on these, we were in. So on what basis are we out now?”  

Majid’s entire family had been kept out because of an objection filed by someone against their inclusion in the final draft. He doesn’t know who did it. Around 2.5 lakh such objections, most of them anonymously filed, were submitted across the state against people whose names were included in the final draft.

“We were called twice for re-verification where we showed our papers. Why were they not accepted?  The only option we have is that the entire family go to the Tribunal. We are poor, each case needs at least Rs 25,000 to 30,000, we may have to sell our land,” he added.

Majid’s additional worry was that he anyway had only a few years left before retirement. “While I was preparing for retirement, this problem is making me wonder if I would be able to keep my government job at all and get the retirement benefits. Without it, how will I look after my wife and myself?”   

At the end of the day, I could not help thinking that even though the primary reason behind my visit to the area was to know only the fate of the women whose stories I had been closely following, what I would also take back with me were instances of a variety of cases of purported anomalies being reported in the media, which certainly highlight systemic irregularities in the update process.

As I got up to leave, Akram, standing by my side, addressed the women, saying, “I say it every time to you, will say this today too. Your ma-baba (parents) committed paap (sin) by marrying you off early. Now you are suffering; you can’t prove that that they are your parents, you can’t use their legacy data. Don’t do this to your daughters. Bujshsish na? (Understood, I hope?).”

Some nodded at him; some smiled; some others broke out of the group, silently.