Anil Das crouched down on the road with his seven-year-old daughter, Archana, outside a Foreigners Tribunal in Guwahati’s Ulubari locality. They had been waiting for over an hour for a hearing to finish. Anil’s wife, Kalpana, was under trial, accused of being an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, and faced the prospect of detention if she failed to establish her citizenship before the tribunal. Anil said he had never bothered himself with concepts such as citizenship until a few months earlier, when a police official came knocking on his door and warned him: “Get your wife’s citizenship cleared from the tribunal as soon as possible, or else we will throw her in jail.”
Anil worked as a daily-wage labourer in Khetri, a village in the city’s outskirts. When I met him in late September, Anil told me that the family had already made several visits to the tribunal, but he had never been allowed inside. As a result, Anil was clueless about the status of the proceedings. According to him, the Election Commission had previously marked Kalpana a “D-voter”—or “doubtful voter,” a resident of Assam under suspicion of being an illegal immigrant—but the family did not know when it happened. The state’s election commission began marking D-voters during an intensive revision of the electoral roll in 1997. The D-voter cases are referred to a special branch within the Assam Police, known as the Border Police, which is responsible for the detection of suspected foreigners in the state.
The Border Police, in turn, is mandated to conduct an investigation into the cases and then refer them to the Foreigners Tribunals if they suspect that the concerned individuals are illegal immigrants. Kalpana, like several other D-voters in the state, did not get an opportunity from the Border Police to present her case. In fact, Anil told me that she learnt that her citizenship was in question only when they received the tribunal’s notice. The family did not know when they could expect a final determination of Kalpana’s citizenship status.
During the 1997 electoral revision, around 370,000 individuals were marked as doubtful voters, and nearly 200,000 among them were referred to Assam’s Foreigners Tribunals. These tribunals are quasi-judicial bodies that draw their power from the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964. On 30 May 2019, the central government amended the 1964 order to allow state governments to constitute their own Foreigners Tribunals, but at present, they continue to be a body unique to only Assam. As of April 2019, according to the home ministry, the state’s tribunals had declared 117,000 thousand individuals as foreigners.