Meet The Lawyers Helping Poor, Bengali-Speaking Muslims Accused Of Being Foreigners Prove Citizenship (Article14)

Rickshaw puller Asmat Ali and construction worker Rafik Kazi were asked by the Assam government to prove their citizenship in quasi judicial bodies called foreigners’ tribunals. With the help of Guwahati-based lawyers who fought their cases pro bono, Ali and Kazi were declared Indians. Several hundreds still fight to prove their identities.

Asmat Ali and his wife Rup Bhanu

Mangaldai & Barpeta (Assam): On a humid September day, dressed in a loose, white shirt and worn trousers, 48-year-old Asmat Ali waited for the 3  pm boat to take him on a 45-km, two-hour journey home here in India’s far east.

Standing on the banks of the Dhansiri, a branch of the Brahmaputra river, Ali pointed to the faint, shimmering view of shanties on the other bank. “If you can see the houses that seem like ants right now, there is Nangli Char No. 5,” he said. “That’s where my house is.”

Ali hauls a rickshaw for a living for up to 14 hours every day in Assam’s capital Guwahati city, 62 km southwest of Nangli Char No. 5, a village of about 30 tin-roofed mud huts on a sandbank, called char in Assamese, that stays barely above the ever-shifting river—sometimes under it—ceaselessly eroding the land, limiting access to only rickety boats that run on noisy diesel engines.

He visits home once a month with about Rs 3,000 that he saves for his wife, 12-year-old son and 18-year old daughter, who studies in a government-aided residential school in a village called Dhula, 70 km away in the northwestern Assam district of Darrang. Ali’s two elder daughters are married.

The son of a poor farmer who grew mainly rice on 2.5 acres, Ali did not study beyond the fourth standard. He worked on his father’s farm and the fields of neighbours.

One monsoon when he was a young boy, his father’s land was consumed by the river. With no means of making a living when he became an adult, Ali moved to Guwahati and began hauling a rickshaw in 2010.

Life, then, was always hard for Ali. But it got infinitely harder when one day in 2013, the police randomly picked him up from the streets of Guwahati, fingerprinted him and asked for proof of citizenship.

The Price For Being Declared An Indian

In 2015, a case was registered against Ali in a foreigner’s tribunal (FT). In 2020, he received a notice from the tribunal asking him to appear before it in February 2021.

In 2022, the FT finally declared Ali an Indian, but not before the rickshaw puller had paid a dear price, facing penury as he attended hearings at the FT.   

A quasi judicial body peculiar to Assam, the FTs were established to adjudicate on whether a person accused by the police of being an illegal immigrant is an Indian or a foreigner.

The 100 FTs functioning across Assam registered 134,365 cases between 1 April 2021 and 31 March 2022. Of these, 119,164 cases were still pending.

When a Supreme Court-ordered revamped complete draft  of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published in 2019, it left out more than 1.9 million of 33 million applicants. The excluded were deemed to have settled after the cut-off date of 24 March 1971, and faced an indefinite future with their citizenship status in doubt.

Since the publication of the final draft of the NRC in Assam, tens of thousands of Muslims, mostly Bengali-speaking, have been forced to endure years-long procedures at the FTs, forfeiting work and wages, undergoing severe emotional upheavals.

Meanwhile, a small team of lawyers based in Guwahati has emerged as a key lifeline, providing those accused of being illegal immigrants legal advice and representation at the FTs and in Gauhati high court, without charging them a fee.

Several hundreds were declared foreigners and incarcerated in detention camps located in six jails across Assam. Many others whose cases are registered in FTs are yet to be able to prove their citizenship.

A Long Disenfranchisement Continues

Assam’s Bengali Muslims, constantly under scrutiny (here and here), have been at the centre of a fraught debate over citizenship dating back to the 1970s, ruled by the fear that “foreigners” will reduce Assam’s indigenous population to a minority.

While migration into Assam from present-day Bangladesh began in the British-ruled Bengal Presidency era when poor migrant workers were brought in to work as agricultural labourers, after India’s Independence, there were two refugee influxes into Assam from across the border. The first was at the Partition of India in 1947, and then in the run-up to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. 

Chauvinistic fears over this influx triggered the student-led Assam Agitation against ‘infiltration’, led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) between 1979 and 1985. The movement ended  with the signing of the Assam Accord, which fixed 24 March 1971 as the cut-off date for people entering Assam to claim Indian citizenship.

Meanwhile, the NRC authority has approached the Supreme Court seeking a re-verification of the citizens’ list, highlighting “major irregularities” in the process. “There were lots of mistakes and wrong entries in the NRC. A large number of foreigners were entered in the NRC list,” NRC state coordinator Hitesh Dev Sarma has previously said to the media.

This story was originally published in . Read the full story here

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