ASSAM, India: What would you do if your country asks you to provide proof of citizenship, or to produce documents that could construct your family tree and then prove your link to that tree?

What if your proof falls short, even though the only reality you know is that you were born in the land that now calls you a foreigner?

Imagine further that you live in India and belong to the impoverished, illiterate and marginalised sections of society that are document-poor. They could become the most disadvantaged if the burden of documentary proof of citizenship is on them.

If it is hard to imagine, here is the fact: Around 33 million people in the north-eastern state of Assam participated in a four-year exercise to find a place in the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

It has resulted in nearly 1.9 million people, predominantly poor, being rendered stateless for lack of documentation. And the programme Insight saw first-hand the humanitarian crisis now unfolding following the government’s crackdown on illegal immigration. (Watch the episode here.)

FAMILIES SPLIT DOWN THE MIDDLE

For example, 32-year-old Anara Khatun claims that her family have never lived anywhere but in India. Yet, the NRC exercise has left her husband, Kadam Ali, stateless.

Anara Khatun (right) with her mother-in-law, Kamala Khatun.

Three years ago, the police arrested him and sent him away to a detention centre. Following this, Anara became the sole breadwinner and now takes care of her in-laws and four children.

With Kadam’s return remaining uncertain, she worries about her children’s future. As a daily-wage labourer, she struggles to make ends meet.

Her 70-year-old father-in-law, Usman Ali, tries to pitch in and brings in some money by working on a farm and selling vegetables.

“My father was Indian, I’m Indian, my family’s Indian, my daughter-in-law’s Indian. We have our voter ID cards, PAN card (issued by the income tax department), everything. Why’s the government doing this injustice?” asks Usman.

Three years ago, the police arrested Kadam Ali and sent him away to a detention centre in Assam.

Kadam Ali.

In 1997, because of an alleged lack of documentation, Kadam was marked out as a doubtful or D-voter in Assam, someone who the Foreigners’ Tribunals has determined is a non-citizen and is thus disenfranchised — removed from the electoral roll.

In 2016, his family received an official notice from the tribunals, when the family had already submitted the documents required by the NRC.

With the notice in hand, they went to the district court for a trial that lasted eight months, after which he was declared a foreigner and sent to a detention centre.

“It’s ludicrous what’s happened,” says senior journalist and author Sagarika Ghose.

“The husband’s been declared a foreigner, the wife’s been declared a citizen. Or a son’s been declared a citizen, the mother’s been declared a foreigner. So families have split down the middle because of the documentation that’s required.”

The family’s only hope now is to apply for Kadam’s bail, as he will soon complete three years in detention.

According to a Supreme Court decree, those who have been detained for three years can apply for bail. But there is a hitch: Two people must stand surety for Kadam and put up a bail amount of 200,000 rupees (S$3,900).

It is a tall order, as the family live a hand-to-mouth existence. They had to sell the land they owned to pay for various expenses on court hearings. They cannot now afford to foot the costs of more court proceedings.

They have requested some neighbours who are landowners to pledge their property to stand bail for Kadam, but it has been hard to convince them.

For the family, there is no hope yet for a better tomorrow. As his mother says sadly, “We can neither live nor die. We’re caught in between. We’re the living dead.”

NATIONAL REGISTER OF CITIZENS

CNA travelled across Assam and spoke to many such families who have been devastated by the NRC exercise.

People had dedicated months to searching for legacy documents to ensure their inclusion in the register, instead of focusing on their daily labour, their only means of livelihood.

People had to search for legacy documents to get included in the National Register of Citizens.

The exercise in Assam was one of India’s largest, maybe the most expensive, designed to detect illegal immigrants — to get rid of “infiltrators” and “termites” sucking the nation’s resources dry, as described by Indian Home Minister Amit Shah.

At a cost of 12.2 billion rupees (S$238 million), around 55,000 officials were tasked with examining the citizenship credentials of the state’s residents.

After the exercise was rolled out in 2015, applicants had to prove that they had come to India by March 24, 1971, just before neighbouring Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan.

The 32.9 million people who applied for inclusion in the register had to furnish evidence such as grandparents’ and parents’ birth and marriage certificates, any land documents dating back several decades, documented proof of their lineage and of any name change.

In the first two drafts of the register, the exclusions came down from 13.9 million to four million.

The final draft was released in August, and to put into perspective the 1.9 million people who were rendered stateless overnight, this is equivalent to 6 per cent of Assam’s population, or almost half of the population of Los Angeles, or nearly twice the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

There are whole families excluded from the register. Grassroots activist Shajahan Ali Ahmad has his great-grandfather’s land records dating back to 1934 as well as documents establishing his relationship to his grandfather. Still, he and 30 members of his extended family have been excluded.

Shajahan Ali Ahmad and 30 members of his family were excluded from the National Register of Citizens

Shajahan Ali Ahmad (centre) with family members.

EXCLUSION OF CHILDREN

In a state that had for decades been plagued by ethnic tensions, violence and armed insurgencies, the NRC was seen as a panacea for illegal immigration.

However, it has not only excluded many legitimate citizens, but also an estimated 400,000 children. One of them is 12 year-old Muzammil Haque, the only member of his family excluded from the final list.

“The names of my father, mother and sister are on the list, not mine. People have been arrested because the officials say they’re ‘Bangladeshis’. So, I was scared,” he says.

Many of his schoolmates, around five to six students per class, have been excluded as well. During recess, the children huddle to discuss what the exclusion means for them and their future.

“If they catch me,” Muzammil says sadly, “they’d send me to Bangladesh. Or they might put me in jail here.”

Muzammil Haque, 12, is the only one in his family excluded from the National Register of Citizens.

Muzammil Haque.

He fears the worst, even as he wonders how he can be declared a foreigner when his parents are Indian citizens.

The case of Muzammil points to the arbitrariness of the NRC exercise. Experts have said that the officers in these tribunals are not qualified judges and that many of their decisions are arbitrary.

According to Shajahan, the judges are contractually employed by the government and are given a target to declare “a certain number of cases or people as foreigners”.

“That’s the main reason behind these tribunals declaring a large chunk of people to be illegal immigrants,” he says.

WHY THE NEED TO PROVE ‘I’M INDIAN’?

University lecturer Shahi Meghna, daughter of an Assamese folk singer and granddaughter of one of Assam’s famed filmmakers, Pramathesh Barua, was one of those excluded from the first draft.

Shahi Meghna was excluded from the first draft of the National Register of Citizens.

Shahi Meghna.

She fought her case over several months and managed to get her name included in the final draft. But the humiliation of having to prove her nationality stays with her.

“There’s always tension inside you till the time you’re proven to be Indian,” she says.

“Why do I need to prove I’m Indian? Everyone said that I’d get included in the list. But someone saying it and me feeling it are two different things. What if, despite being Indian, I was to be sent to a detention camp? That was traumatic.”

That process has pushed some over the brink; more than 40 people are reported to have committed suicide for fear of being sent to detention camps.

The Indian government has said that those excluded can appeal to the various Foreigners’ Tribunals set up in Assam, but that comes at a minimum cost of 40,000 to 50,000 rupees per person.

But at the same time, those whom the tribunals declare to be foreigners, like Kadam, cannot be deported to Bangladesh if there is no substantive proof that the detainees are Bangladeshis or that they entered India illegally.

Human rights lawyer Aman Wadud points out why deportation is not an option.

He says: “When you declare your own citizens to be foreigners, you can’t deport (them) because, for deportation, the country of origin should confirm the nationality. How will Bangladesh confirm the nationality of an Indian citizen?”

DETENTION CAMPS

According to the Home Ministry, Assam’s tribunals have declared 129,000 people to be foreigners as of October. Some 1,000 of them are in detention centres, with 29 deaths reported so far.

A detention centre in Goalpara, situated 130 kilometres west of Assam’s largest city, Guwahati, is where Kadam is locked up. It is a jail within a jail, with a visiting gallery open to view from the road.

This way to the detention centre in Goalpara, 130 kilometres west of Assam’s largest city, Guwahati.

According to former National Human Rights Commission special monitor Harsh Mander, the tenets of international law pertaining to human rights are being violated because living conditions inside the centres are poor, and detainees are not granted even a day’s parole.

He also says international law generally stipulates three months as the maximum detention for those with contested citizenship, whereas here, they could be kept indefinitely — as is the case with Kadam in the absence of a bail bond.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, has denied that there were any detention centres in India or that Muslims would be sent to such centres.

In an attack on the opposition at a rally on Dec 22, he said these “rumours” were being “spread to destroy the country” and were “lies, lies and lies”.

Yet, at this moment, India’s largest detention centre is being built in Matia, Assam. It is a 30-minute drive from Goalpara jail and is slated to house 3,000 people.

India’s largest detention centre is being built in Matia, Assam. It is slated to house 3,000 people.

The new detention centre being built.

Colin Gonsalves, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court of India, calls these centres “hell on earth” with “terrible conditions, food, stay, toilets, roughness (and) torture inside”. He adds: “I think it’s going to be Guantanamo Bay, India’s Guantanamo Bay.”

MILLIONS OF MUSLIMS AT RISK?

Amid the controversy over the NRC’s exclusion of 1.9 million people, there is now a question whether India is on the verge of a statelessness crisis.

On Dec 11, the Bharatiya Janata Party government passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Parliament, keeping an election promise.

The Act will fast-track citizenship for the members of the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities who fled from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan and who entered India by Dec 31, 2014.

The Act, perceived to be anti-Muslim, has led to protests across the country. And 144 petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court, mostly challenging the constitutional validity of the law.

Demonstrators seen through the Indian flag at a protest in Mumbai against the new citizenship law.

Demonstrators seen through the Indian flag at a protest in Mumbai last month, organised by Muslim group Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind against the citizenship law. (Photo: Reuters/Prashant Waydande)

The court declined to suspend the law but has asked the Modi government to respond.

Meanwhile, the protests are not dying down. The longest ongoing one is a 24/7 sit-in that has achieved iconic status. It started on Dec 15 and is led solely by women in Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood in Delhi.

Many people believe that the NRC — seen in conjunction with the Act — can leave millions, mostly Muslims, potentially stateless.

This worries Kadam’s mother, Kamala Khatun, even more. “Kadam is Indian. How did they label him Bangladeshi?” she questions. “My neighbours say that now (with the new law), they’ll bring Hindus from Bangladesh and give them Indian citizenship.”

She thinks her son is just unlucky. As things stand, he may never return home.

Watch the episode here. The programme Insight is telecast on Thursdays at 9pm.

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