In Assam’s Mohatoli, victims of a road accident en route to hearing excluded from NRC

Sukur Ali and his family are residents of Lakhipur village, located on a river island in Assam's Kamrup district. Almost the entire village, including Ali and his family, were excluded from the final National Register of Citizens. Sagar for The Caravan
12 October, 2019

On the evening of 4 August, Meherunissa was travelling in a bus with over fifty others—all of them residents of the Mohatoli and Selosuti villages, in Assam’s Kamrup district—to attend a hearing that would determine her identity as an Indian citizen. The previous day, the residents of the two villages had received notices from the National Register of Citizens authorities that summoned them for a hearing in Jorhat district, around 400 kilometres away. On their way to Jorhat, a truck carrying hot tar and gravel hit the bus. There were no fatalities, but several passengers, including Meherunissa and her son, suffered severe burn injuries because the hot construction material poured into the bus through its windows. None of the passengers were able to appear for their hearings scheduled for the next day. On 31 August, when the final NRC was published, the entire group had been excluded.

Meherunissa’s husband, Shahidul Islam, and their two daughters, Salma and Shamima, had received reverification notices as well. On the day of the accident, Islam recalled, he was traveling with his daughters in a different bus to a NRC centre in Koliabari town, around seventy kilometres from Mohatoli. When Islam heard of the accident, he and his daughters rushed to the local hospital where the passengers had been admitted. Family members of several others did the same and all of them missed their hearings as a result. They, too, were excluded from the final NRC, barring a few who had somehow been included—consistent with the arbitrariness that has marred the updation process.

The NRC is a list of Assam’s Indian citizens that was first published in 1951. Since 2012, the Supreme Court has been monitoring an updation of the register. Individuals seeking inclusion in the NRC are required to show that they or their ancestors were residents of Assam, either listed in the 1951 register or the state’s electoral rolls from before 25 March 1971—the cut-off date stated in the Citizenship Act, 1955. The rules governing the updation process empower the NRC officials to conduct a “verification of names of such persons considered necessary.” They do not prescribe specific guidelines on who can be subject to such verification, leaving it to the discretion of the local NRC officials. Moreover, the standard operating procedure guiding the NRC stipulates that applicants must be given at least 15 days notice for a hearing, but the residents of Mohatoli and Selosuti were given less than 48 hours.

In late September, I visited Mohatoli and witnessed the horrific consequences of the accident. Several residents were still suffering from the burn injuries and had pus-filled bubbles all over their bodies. “Some of them got soaked in the hot road-building material and appeared like frozen black mannequins,” Erayul Haque Bhuyan, a 25-year-old resident of the village who was in the bus, told me. The victims were admitted at the nearby hospital for a week after the accident. Multiple people told me that the wounds continued to cause them immense pain and itching. They were devastated that they were excluded from the NRC and depressed about their appearance.

Most of the residents I met possessed the necessary documents to prove their citizenship under the NRC structure and several had even been included in the draft register published in July 2018. But a majority of them were illiterate and did not understand the various stages of the updation process. Those summoned for reverification were predominantly women and children. The notices they received did not mention why they had to appear for the reverification exercise, and they did not know how to challenge their exclusion from the final register. Though the central and state governments have not yet indicated the consequences of NRC exclusion, Mohatoli’s residents were gripped by fear and anxiety over the possibility of being sent to the state’s detention centres.

Mohatoli is one of 60 villages in the Chamaria circle of Assam’s Kamrup district, with 598 families and a population of 3,323—only 41 percent of them are literate, according to the 2011 census of India. Chamaria is predominantly comprised of members of the Muslim community, constituting around eighty four percent of the circle’s population, and most of its villages are located on the banks of the Brahmaputra River.

The villagers told me that one week after the accident, a hearing was held at a local NRC centre—known as an NRC Seva Kendra, or NSK—to assist those who missed their reverification hearing because of the accident. The official NRC website states that there are 2,500 NSKs setup across Assam and these operate as help desks that assist individuals in searching for their legacy data—tracing their ancestry to the accepted pre-1971 documents. The NSK hearing following the accident took place at a centre situated in Mohatoli—it is unclear why the reverification hearing could not be conducted here too.

During the NSK hearing, the residents explained why they were unable to appear for the reverification hearing and produced their medical prescriptions. “I was hopeful when they called us for hearing at the local center after one week,” Kadar Ali, a landless labourer who was also in the bus, told me. “I thought they would believe our wounds and medical certificate. But as usual, without asking anything from us, they just collected our documents again. We did not find our name in final list.”

Even those who attended the reverification hearings found themselves excluded from the final NRC. For instance, Rejaul Haque, a resident of Mohatoli who appeared to be in his late twenties, told me that 30 members of his brother Zakir Hussain’s family were excluded. Hussain said he had hired a vehicle for Rs 32,000 to travel to Jorhat for the hearing. Haque recounted the proceedings on that day: “Seven officials were sitting behind a long table,” he told me. “One after another, we were asked to face them and they would ask us for different documents. All of them spoke simultaneously and asked for documents at the same time.” Haque drives a transport vehicle for a livelihood and had to stop his job for three days to complete the NRC process. He was ultimately denied citizenship.

Of the 598 families in Mohatoli, less than a dozen were non-Muslims. Among them, three were from the Dalit community and most of their members worked as cobblers or latrine cleaners in the village. Members of two Dalit households told me that almost their entire families were excluded from the list. Krishna Harijan, a cobbler who was seated under a tree when I visited the village, said that in his family of 19 people, only his wife’s name appeared in the final NRC.

The 2011 census data indicated that up to 89 percent of the village population was engaged in cultivation, agricultural labour and household industries. Those denied citizenship came from a wide range of occupational backgrounds. They included barbers, landless farmers, sanitation workers, masons, brick kiln labourers, watchmen, paan-shop owners, fish workers and dozens of women who were housewives. According to the locals, at least two hundred families of Mohatoli were excluded.

Fatima Khatoon, a resident of Mohatoli, was among those in the bus on their way to a reverification hearing. She was excluded from the final NRC published on 31 August. Sagar for The Caravan

After the list was out, a local village head, who is an unelected representative known as the gaonbura, had personally asked those who had been excluded to collect a certificate from him, which would help them in their appeals before the state’s Foreigners Tribunals. The tribunals are quasi-judicial bodies that draw their power from the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order of 1964, and exercise jurisdiction over the appeals arising from the exclusions.

The NRC appeal process grants individuals a period of 120 days to challenge their exclusion from the final register. Before the appeal period commences, the NRC authorities are required to issue rejection orders detailing the reasons for their exclusion. The state NRC authorities are yet to issue the rejection orders for the excluded Mohatoli residents. According to a September report in one of Assam’s English dailies The Sentinel, the NRC authorities are unlikely to issue the rejection orders before November this year. In fact, neither the central nor the state governments have notified the formal procedure to be followed in the appeals process. As a result, nobody in Mohatoli knew why the majority had been left out of the NRC or the process that was to be followed to seek their inclusion.

In July 2019, Prateek Hajela, an Indian Administrative Services officer appointed by the Supreme Court as the state NRC coordinator in Assam, submitted to the court that 27 percent of the inclusions had been reverified. This was part of a confidential report he submitted to the court in a sealed envelope in response to petitions by the central and state governments that month. The petitions sought partial reverification of the NRC before its final publication to take care of any wrongful inclusions and exclusions. Relying on Hajela’s statement, the Supreme Court had ruled that no further reverification was necessary. On 1 August, the Assam government argued for further reverification in the state assembly, citing confidential district-wise data on exclusion which indicated that the proportion of exclusions in Hindu-majority areas was higher than those in the Muslim-dominated border areas. Two days later, despite the Supreme Court’s order declining the request for further reverification, thousands of people across Assam received notices similar to the residents of Mohatoli.

The NRC process provides little remedy for people who could not attend a hearing due to extraneous circumstances such as an accident—or even paralysis. In December 2018, the Gauhati High Court upheld an ex-parte order of a Foreigners Tribunal that declared Azizul Hoque, a paralysed resident of Assam’s Nagaon district, a foreigner. Hoque had been included in the draft NRC released in July 2018, but was subsequently declared a foreigner because he did not appear for a hearing before the Foreigners Tribunal. As a result, in June this year, he was put in the additional exclusion list of over one lakh residents. In July, Hoque petitioned the Supreme Court noting that he could not appear before the tribunal due to his lower-limb paralysis. The court subsequently sought the response from the central and state government, and listed the matter for November 2019.

In May 2019, Hajela had informed the Supreme Court that several applicants who had filed claims against their exclusion from the draft NRC had not appeared on the fixed dates of hearing to prove their citizenship. In response, the court asked the state coordinator to “be brave and follow the law,” before adding that “a fair discretion in accordance with the law may be applied in determining the fate of those conspicuous by their absence.” Following the publication of the draft register, NRC officials disposed over thirty six lakh claims against the exclusions and around 1.87 lakh objections against the inclusions, according to a press release issued along with the final NRC. A total of 3,11,21,004 applicants were included in the NRC, and 19,06,657 individuals were left out.

Many lawyers fighting the cases of citizens who were declared or suspected of being foreigners told me that the entire NRC process had sidelined the humanitarian consequences of the project. “There could be genuine citizens who do not have documents,” Sauradeep Dey, a lawyer working with the Human Rights Law Network, a non-profit that has been providing free legal aid at the Foreigners Tribunals, told me. “Maybe they were careless, but that does not make them foreigners. And now more than 19 lakh have to go to the tribunals, where till now people with documents are getting declared foreigners.”

The tribunal proceedings have been marred by numerous cases of individuals who were declared foreigners merely because of minor differences in the spellings of their names or their age in different documents. For instance, in some of the exclusion cases from Mohatoli, the enrolment applications carried the spelling “Mohammad” though their documents only stated “Md.” In many other cases, the residents did not know how their names would be spelt differently in Assamese and in English, and such applications were rejected for the mismatch in different documents.

“The writers of these documents are government officials and not the citizen themselves,” Abdul Rahman Sikdar, a Gauhati High Court lawyer who has also been providing legal aid at the tribunals, told me. “It’s the fault of the issuing authorities and not the people to whom they were issued,” Sikdar said. He added that the court would not punish the issuing authorities in such cases, and that the excluded individual has had to face the consequence. Dey was concerned about the lack of clarity surrounding the appeals process. “More than 19 lakh have to file appeals within a span of 120 days,” he said. “There is no precedent as to what these appeals are to be like. What does one do if one makes a mistake?”

Following the publication of the final NRC, the excluded villagers of Mohatoli have been scrambling in panic to collect the necessary documents. Even though they have 120 days to appeal their exclusion, their prior experience with the NRC authorities did not appear to inspire any confidence. “First, tell me, when I have all the documents, when half of my family is in the list, why am I and half of my family not in that list?” Shah Jehan Ali asked.

The uncertainty about the appeal process prevailed in the neighbouring villages as well. At a short distance from the edge of Mohatoli lies another Muslim-majority village called Lakhipur—a river island that could only be accessed by boat. Almost the entire village, comprising around five hundred families, had been excluded from the NRC, according to the locals. Sukur Ali, a fisherman in his forties and a resident of the village, told me that the villagers had learnt about the NRC through their extended families living in the mainland villages in the Chamaria circle. “Lakhipur’s residents had applied to the NRC in 2015, but none of them were included in the final list,” he said. None of them knew how to challenge their exclusion.

Lutfur Rahman, a resident of Mohatoli who writes columns in the local newspapers, told me that at least fifty people from his village visit his house daily to seek his guidance on how to get their details corrected in all their documents. Rahman is among the few graduates in the village, and knew how to read and speak English. Their difficulties are compounded by the fact that it is not enough for the NRC applicants to possess the original copies of their documents. The applicants are required to produce certified copies of each of their documents to demonstrate that there is no discrepancy with the information in the government records.

The office of each district’s deputy commissioner issues the certified copies of the documents. According to Islam, Mohatoli’s villagers find it difficult to approach the DC’s office to obtain the certified copies, which compelled them to approach lawyers for assistance. The lawyers, he told me, usually charged around Rs 700–800 per certified copy. Left with no alternative, the villagers had been spending all their money to obtain the necessary documents. Since the official appeals process has not yet been notified, the villagers did not even know which tribunal they would need to approach.

Yet, residents such as Kadar Ali and Sukur Ali Bhuyan, who worked as a mason, had not yet gotten the certified copies from the DC’s office. Bhuyan told me he could not afford to get certified copies of his documents. “I will have to go to a lawyer,” he said. “But I have no money.”