On 12 August 2015, at around 1 am, 38-year-old Kismat Ali and six of his family members were asleep in their house, in the Sonajuli village of western Assam’s Udalguri district, when they heard people aggressively banging on their door and calling out, “Kismat! Kismat!” He opened the door to discover that the border police of Assam had surrounded his house. The officers forced Kismat to leave with them for the police station, without answering his questions about why he was being taken away. On their way, the police picked up Ashraf Ali, a 40-year-old resident of the same village. At the Udalguri police station, the police officials wrote a statement and coerced them to sign it. Kismat read the statement: “Main Bangladeshi hun”—I am a Bangladeshi.
“Main Hindustani hun”—I am an Indian, Kismat recalled telling the police. “Mujhe Bangladeshi kyun bana rahe ho”—Why are you making me out to be a Bangladeshi? He said the police threatened Ashraf and Kismat into signing the statement, following which they were taken over 200 kilometres away to the detention centre in Goalpara district—one of six in the state. The detention centres hold those D-voters, or “doubtful voters”—residents of Assam suspected of residing illegally in the state—who have subsequently been declared foreigners by the state’s quasi-judicial Foreigners Tribunals. As of 25 September 2018, a total of 1,037 declared foreigners were being held in detention centres across Assam, according to a recent report by the human rights organisation Amnesty International.
Amnesty released its report, titled, “Between Hate and Fear: Surviving Migration Detention in Assam,” on 23 November this year, in the wake of the approaching deadline for the Supreme Court-mandated project to revise the National Register of Citizens—a list of Assam’s Indian citizens. In the latest draft of the NRC, released on 30 July, around 40 lakh residents of the state were left out. Earlier this month, the apex court extended the deadline for claims and objections against the list for inclusion in the NRC, until 31 December. Those who will be left out are likely to face detention, as seems to be the default in Assam’s NRC project.
Kismat and Ashraf were declared Indian citizens only after intervention by the Supreme Court and a Central Bureau of Investigation enquiry. Their cases are illustrative of how the NRC alienates suspected foreigners—predominantly Assam’s Bengali-origin Muslims, followed by Bengali Hindus—at every stage of the process. These include rigid documentary requirements that create near-insurmountable hurdles for inclusion, discriminatory proceedings before the Foreigners Tribunals that are often concluded ex-parte or without legal assistance, followed by inhuman living conditions in the detention centres. The period of detention, too, is marked by a haunting uncertainty about when, if at all, it will end. It was evident that Kismat’s stint in the detention centre continues to prey on his mind. At several points, he repeated, “Do saal, do mahina, satra din”—Two years, two months, 17 days.
At the release of Amnesty’s report, held at the Press Club of India in Delhi, Asmita Basu, a researcher with Amnesty India, moderated two panel discussions about the NRC project in Assam. In the first panel discussion, Kismat, Ashraf and his wife, Tara Khatun, recounted the ordeals that they had suffered. Recalling the night Ashraf was detained, Khatun said, “Hum logo ko aise ghera jaise hum log aatankwadi ho, jaise hum bahaar se aaye ho”—They surrounded us as if we were terrorists, as if we were foreigners.
After India helped create Bangladesh out of East Pakistan, in 1971, Assam saw an influx of migrants. This amplified the state’s indigenous communities’ disdain for Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus. Muslims who have migrated long ago have also been branded as “Bangladeshis.” Muslim residents such as Kismat and Ashraf also suffer due to the prejudice. Kismat’s parents are from Uttar Pradesh and moved to Assam for work before he was born, while Ashraf moved to Assam from Bihar for work. They both had the necessary documents issued by the state government to prove their citizenship, but were unable to do so because they were declared foreigners in ex-parte proceedings.