Last week, I attended a two-day people’s tribunal on the issue of contested citizenship in Assam. Presentations by activists and lawyers on the issue of the National Register of Citizens
(NRC) were heard by a jury of eminent judges and academics. But what grabbed my attention were the testimonies of people excluded from the NRC.
Initially, when Masuma Begum of Lakhimpur found her name missing from the register, she wasn’t worried. She reasoned her parents’ names were there and her family had lived in Assam for generations. The only issue was that she was working in Guwahati, 400 km from her village, and her father had to make several trips to furnish her legacy documents, school certificates etc. When even the second list didn’t include her name, she became worried. “I wondered what I’d do if I were declared a foreigner in my own country,” she said. A post-graduate and B.Ed, she could find herself homeless, jobless and separated from her family. Worse, she could spend years to prove an identity she’d taken for granted. Finally, her name appeared on an amended list released this month, leaving her unsettled.
She’s comparatively better off than Shahjahan Ali Ahmed (35) from Baksa district in Assam, whose name hasn’t appeared even on the latest NRC
list. “My brother’s and my name was on the first list, then were mysteriously removed from the second,” he told me. “This despite that we’d submitted a legacy document that proved that our grandfather’s name was on the National Register of Citizens, 1951.”
Today, only three out of his 33 family members’ names are on the list. Ahmed now has no option but to reapply for citizenship but has lost faith in a system that he believes is inefficient, overworked and worse. “I’m so angry at the system that has turned Indians into foreigners,” he said. “It’s as if the years of discrimination against Muslims in Assam has now found a legal sanction.”
The notes of disaffection and disappointment in Ahmed’s voice were echoed in the voices of others at the tribunal. They worried me more than the arguments, which the activists and lawyers made to the jury. For the testimonies of Begum, Ahmed and others represent the grave human cost incurred when ill-conceived government policies are poorly implemented. “I’m well educated and was able to furnish all the necessary documents to get my name back on the NRC,” said Begum. “But what about others whose names have been excluded and who are illiterate or simply don’t have the paperwork,” she adds.
As the jury later emphasised, citizenship or the right to have rights, is one of the most basic human rights in modern societies. But the embittered lines on Ahmed’s face tell another story — citizenship and nationality are as much matters of politics as they are of the heart and the soul. It is likely that some of the 1.9 million odd people identified as ‘non’ citizens by the NRC, are actually illegal immigrants or displaced people. However, the flawed implementation of the NRC
has ensured that those excluded from it might now question what it means to be Indian in their hearts. And that’s one place no law can reach.