In May 2019, after over 3 years of being wrongly held in a detention centre as a foreigner, Rehat Ali was released as a confirmed Indian citizen. Rehat is a senior citizen who had dropped out of primary school over 60 years ago and didn’t realise that the age on his voter ID was recorded as 55 when he orally declared himself to be 66 years old at a Foreign Tribunal which are the special courts in Assam who decide if someone is an immigrant. This discrepancy was enough ‘proof’ to justify locking him up for over three years. During that time, his wife went into delirium, became unstable and was unable to recognize him after his release. His sons had to mortgage their house, sell their commercial vehicle and 8 cows to get the Rs. 7 lakh that was spent fighting his case.
When he was released, Rehat said he was worried about the 25 more people who had been brought to the camps the day he left. “How can they fit in five rooms, that are overcrowded with 70-80 people each?” he wondered.
Mohendra Das is a daily wage worker from Tarapur who hasn’t made it to the final NRC list which was released on August 30, 2019. He says he doesn’t know what the NRC is but he has heard of the detention camps. “I believe they might take me there, now let us see what happens.”
Dilip Biswas , an ethnic Bengali, was arrested as a foreigner in 2009. His wife and two daughters, who were 5 and 8 years old at that time were also arrested and taken to a women’s detention centre where they were held for the next nine years. “I didn’t meet my father for nine years. Still they kept us there, separated,” cried Kalpana, who is now 17, after the state’s high court admitted that the Foreign Tribunal had made a mistake in putting Dilip’s wife and children on trail and for rejecting the paperwork he had provided as proof of residence in India.
Kargil war veteran Mohammad Sanaullah was discharged by the Assam police from his position of Sub-Inspector of the State police’s Border wing after he was declared a foreigner and sent to the Goalpara detention camp on May 23, 2019. Remarkably, all three witnesses have filed a case against the police, accusing them of fabricating their statements and forging the signatures that were used to declare Sanaullah a foreigner. “Is this the reward for giving 30 years of his life to the Army defending the country, including fighting in the Kargil War?” asked his cousin Mohammed Ajmal Houque.
The family of Ziauddin Ali Ahmed, who is the nephew of India’s fifth President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, could not apply to be included in the citizenship register. The rules of the NRC require citizens to prove that their ancestors lived in India before the midnight of March 24, 1971 and Ziauddin was unable to prove this because none of his ancestors, not even the late President, were recorded in the 1951 NRC.
Rashmina Begum was three months pregnant when she was put in a detention camp because her legal documents had minor discrepancies. “I had to leave my 4-year-old daughter behind.” Her primary school certificate showed her being born in 1987 whereas her high school certificate showed her being born in 1983 and the 2005 voter list states that she was born in 1990. Rashmina was arrested on September 9, 2016 and taken to Kokhrajhar detention camp where she spent seven months before she was released on humanitarian grounds after her daughter Nafisa was born. “It is painful to not get recognized as an Indian and be able to vote,” she said in April 2019 when India was having its general elections. She claimed that the Kokhrajhar camps held 136 people, which was way over its holding capacity and most of the people detained were senior citizens and people who couldn’t afford legal aid, especially since once detained, the person is not allowed to work and doesn’t have an income anymore.
84-year-old Ashraf Ali’s family claims he drank pesticide and killed himself over the possibility of being declared a foreigner and sent to a detention camp. His name was included in the NRC but then someone filed an objection against this. This is not uncommon- according to reports, over 2.5 lakh objections were filed against people who were initially added in the NRC after which many of the objectors didn’t show up in court, entangling the mostly poor and illiterate civilians in a complicated legal procedure most of them could neither understand nor afford. When Ashraf’s entire family reached the court for the hearing and the objector didn’t show up, Ashraf became worried that his name was no longer included in the citizenship register and despite the police claiming there were no clear signs, the family insists he committed suicide.
According to Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a human rights organization, at least 57 cases of suicides relating to citizenship have been reported in Assam since 2016. The youngest among them was 14-year-old Noor Nehar Begum from a village called Rawmari Chapari. Her father Abdul Kalam is a daily wage worker who thought the additional exclusion list was the final draft and didn’t realize there was a possibility of her name being added later on, “I went there and found that her name was not included. When I informed her about it, she got very frightened.”
There can be no doubt that stripping someone of their very identity, forcibly disconnecting them with the only land most of these people have ever called home would have a detrimental effect on their mental health. Being rendered stateless is a matter that’s crucial enough to drive someone into an existential crisis. A lot of people are not informed well enough about the procedures and as they see their neighbors and friends being dragged off to detention centers, there is a sense of panic and uncertainty about what will happen.
The Assam government released data that confirmed at least 25 persons have died in the detention centres, the youngest being a 45-day old baby ) whose mother was eventually able to prove her citizenship. Among the dead were 14 Muslims, 10 Hindus and one Adivasi person. The government claims that the deaths were all due to natural causes but the families of the deceased have alleged the cause to be neglect and lack of basic facilities in the detention camps.
There are six jails that are being used as detention camps in Assam- Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Silchar, Dibrugagh, Johrat and Tezpur. The detainees are divided into Declared Foreigners (DFs) who have been declared foreigners for lack of proper documentation, and Convicted Foreigners (CFs), who are self-declared foreigners arrested for the lack of travel documents or crimes they may have committed. The living conditions in the detention camps cannot be deemed humane by any measure . There have also been numerous mass hunger strikes with as many as 250 detainees participating. Their demands were for better food and other facilities in 2018 but by February, 2019 they were asking for parole and to be released from the wrongful detainment. The detainees are provided only with one soap a month to wash their clothes other than bedding, a blanket and at Goalpara, a mosquito net. They aren’t given any other toiletries for personal hygiene and since they aren’t allowed to work, they are also unable to buy them.
To add to the situation, Assam has been facing alarming levels of floods for the past two months. According to the Assam State Disaster Management 38.82 lakh people have been affected and 91 people have lost their lives as of August 6. Thousands of houses have been submerged in the waters. But in the midst of this terrible natural disaster, many people are refusing to move to safer areas and many people are risking their lives to go back to the flooded areas to keep their NRC documents safe.
India must be shameful of this situation. Poor, desolate civilians are losing their homes and lives and they don’t even have the privilege to be able to think of escaping it because India cannot even provide the people living here with the security of something as basic as citizenship.
Indians are being robbed of their citizenships in broad daylight and nobody is doing anything to stop it. This is a dangerous show of power by the government, much like the amendment of the UAPA Bill and the abrogation of Article 370, and if gone unchecked will have serious implications for the future of democracy in our country. Genocide Watch, an international organization that works to predict, prevent and stop genocide has issued an ongoing warning for the State of Assam.
According to them, six out of the ten stages of genocide theorized by Gregory Stanton can already be seen in Assam:
Classification: People were divided into ‘us and ‘them’. The people left out of the register are being othered in society, and the shame of being excluded is what has driven some people to suicide.
Symbolization: People are forced to identify themselves. They are made to produce documents from decades ago to prove that they belong or else they are labelled ‘foreigners.
Discrimination: People begin to face systematic discrimination. Those who are able to produce evidence, their evidence is often ignored, or there are anonymous ‘objections’ made to their inclusions, which happened with 2.5 lakh people. Those who are ultimately unable to prove their citizenships are thrown into detention centres with inhumane living conditions.
Dehumanization: Top BJP leaders like Amit Shah have called Muslim immigrants ‘vermins’ and openly calling to “remove every single infiltrator from the country except Budhha, Hindus and Sikhs,” this normalises and even celebrates the hateful narratives being spread, and makes it very easy to justify any misconduct against those who are dehumanized.
Organization: The government created special groups, like the Foreign Tribunals and gave them the power to declare anyone an outsider.
Polarization: The divisive narrative of the BJP is all that the mainstream media propagates. There is nearly no coverage of how the NRC is affecting the lives of actual people.
The situation is so bad that Assam’s chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has requested home minister Amit Shah for “additional security forces” to “maintain law and order after the final NRC” is published. This cannot be seen as anything but an attempt to curb any perceived dissent from those who have been wrongfully left out of the register. Beside the six detention camps that are being used; the government has already started working on building ten more detention centres. This belies the BJP-led government’s claim that they aren’t planning on making more arrests any time soon.
Everyone who has been left out of the NRC has a 120-day window to appeal before the Foreigner’s Tribunals which in turn has six months to dispose off the cases. Nothing can be said about what will happen next, with BJP members who had always supported nationwide implementation of the NRC openly expressing their unhappiness with the final list that excludes over 19 lakh people. “Our BJP’s stand is that Hindus can never be foreigners. We guess that many Hindu names are out of the list,” said Dilip Kumar Paul, BJP MLA.
Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal has made the next steps of the government even harder to predict by saying that legislative measure would be explored to delete the ‘wrongfully’ included names even after August 31.
We don’t lack the evidence to show that what is happening in Assam is unprecedented and puts civilian lives in danger, but we have lost the objectivity among the people for them to see this truth. The Indian population has been swept up in the winds of hyper nationalism in such a way that they are no longer looking for explanations for anything that the government does. People no longer want to see the truth for themselves, they’re happy hearing whatever they’re told as long as the words are presented in a way that fits the jingoistic narrative that they have already accepted.
If we are to do something about the future of our country, we have to stand up for anyone and everyone whose rights are being trampled upon.