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.