NEW DELHI: Aytara Begum, of Bhaluka Bari village in the Kamrup district of Assam, is a distraught woman these days. She does not have any official papers — just a certificate issued by the village head — to prove that she is an Indian. If, by Dec. 15, she fails to provide any other evidence, the chances are high that she will be declared stateless or a foreigner.
Thousands of people in the northeastern state of Assam are living with constant anxiety as they bid to prove their nationality.
“I never thought the day would come in my life where my loyalty and my association with the land of my forefathers would be questioned,” says 35-year-old Begum, a mother of two.
On July 30 this year, the Assam government released a final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which saw 30.3 million people included and 4.7 million left out. Those who were left out have been given an opportunity to file claims for inclusion by Dec. 15.
The Supreme Court-monitored NRC is meant to weed out illegal immigrants from Assam, which shares a nearly 270 km border with Bangladesh.
To file a claim for inclusion in the NRC, the government formulated a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which was supposed to be transparent and help the genuine Indian nationals left out to file a claim of inclusion.
However, with only a few days remaining before the deadline, only 700,000 people have been able to file a claim.
“There are harsh clauses in the SOP, like the linkage document should be issued no later than Aug. 31, 2015,” Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer based in Assam, told Arab News.
“The NRC requires some other documents besides the one produced in the beginning to claim the inclusion. There are many people who don’t have any other document issued before August 2015. These stringent requirements are making many people highly anxious and worried.
“Large numbers of people have been dropped because of the linkage document. Most people have only one document and, if your only document is rejected, where will you find other documents from prior to Aug. 31, 2015? Legally admissible recent documents should have been allowed to prove linkage with ancestors,” added the young lawyer, who has been offering legal help to many people in this regard.
Begum faces the same problem. She came to Bhaluka Bari village after marriage, but the illiterate woman does not have any proof of her citizenship other than the letter issued by the village head.
“The problem is that I cannot show the proof of my native village where my father lives. Who in the village bothers about papers and other things? Besides, I could not understand for a long time what the NRC is and its implications,” Begum told Arab News.
Wadud says that another major problem with the SOP is the “legacy of person” clause. It means that, if a person has submitted an incorrect legacy, either by mistake or intentionally, he cannot now change it.
Akram Hussain, the head of Bhaluka Bari, says that about 4,000 of the village’s 16,000 residents could not find their names on the draft NRC. Of these, only 600 have since been able to file claims for inclusion.
“The reason is simple. People who have lived here for generations are struggling to find documents to prove their nationality. Most of the victims are women, who are really suffering,” Hussain told Arab News.
“It feels sad that poor people who struggle to meet their daily chores are running here and there to procure documents. They are selling their livestock and whatever little they have to travel to their ancestral place or locate their origin.”
Assam-based social activist Abdul Kalam Azad says that, if the Supreme Court does not extend the deadline and does not change the SOP, then a large number of genuine Indian citizens will remain outside the NRC. They will become stateless and will have to go the Foreigners Tribunal to prove their citizenship, which is very tough.
However, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam insisted nothing was amiss.
“The names of genuine Indians are included in the final draft of the NRC list and we do not need to worry,” Ranjit Kumar Das, president of the BJP’s Assam unit, told Arab News.
Arab News also tried to talk to NRC officials but they refused to comment on the issue, citing the restrictions imposed on them by the Supreme Court.
“Already the NRC has created chaos in Assam, but there has been no violent retaliation as such because people are so marginalized and victimized that fear and anxiety have minimized the anger, but enhanced trauma is causing many people to commit suicide,” said Azad, who has been researching the NRC issue for some time.
“In Assam, the people who are driving the campaign to make these people stateless are not religiously communal but are driven by Assamese chauvinism. The victims are not only Muslims but also Hindus and local indigenous people.”