NRC Updating: Plight of Women in Assam

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National Register of Citizens – Why are the people of Assam, particularly women, marked as Doubtful Voters? No identification documents or no proper linkage means no citizenship?

photo: NeNow

T

he video of Anna Bala Ray being dragged to detention camps left many disturbed. Belonging to the indigenous Koch Rajbongshi tribe, Ray has furnished adequate documents. But even then, she was declared a foreigner and taken to the much dreaded detention camps. It was only after widespread protest and objection, that she was let go. Unlike Anna Bala Ray, many continue to languish in the detention camps. Their ordeal knows no bounds. They are the victims of a rigid procedure which has successfully reduced their identity to paper trails. And in this quest for a paper trail, the women of Assam have had the worst possible deal.

“It is to be noted that a majority of D-voters or Doubtful Voters are women. They are denied of voting and other government benefits. They have been marked D voters due to some inconsistency in their documents.”

In a patriarchal society, women have been systematically kept out of many things – be it education, job or the right to inheritance. In India, a large number of women have never set foot in schools, as a result, they are left with no admit card, school certificate etc. Married often before reaching the age of eighteen, their names are not entered in the voters’ list along with their fathers. In such a case, proving linkage to one’s father becomes difficult. These women are often denied any inheritance and as a result have no land documents in their name. Married women have to submit certificates issued by Gaon Panchayats to National Register of Citizens (NRC) kendras to prove linkage to their fathers. And it was these women’s names which were left out from the first draft of NRC published on December 31, 2017. The number was a whopping 29 lakh.

Guwahati High Court questioned the very credibility of the General Practitioner (GP) certificates, while Supreme Court stated that they are admissible subject to further scrutiny. This did not provide much respite to the women as in many places, women are being asked to submit supporting documents. Despite that women had to depend on GP certificates because they did not have any alternative documents. In such a case, asking women to provide documents issued prior to December, 2015 will leave out a large number of women. GP certificates will be accepted if the verifying officer is satisfied. Too much discretionary power to bureaucrats is worrisome as prejudice on the part of officials is not unheard of.

The woe of women in Assam is not only limited to the GP certificates. It has become commonplace that for small inconsistencies in the spellings of names and discrepancies in age, people are declared D voters. While the mistake lies with the enumerators who input the data, it is the common people, often an illiterate poor person, who bears the brunt. In case of Muslim women, this discrepancy in name is a big problem. Sahida Khatun is ‘Khatun’ before marriage, after marriage her name might be incorporated as Sahida ‘Bibi’ and after she is widowed, she will become Sahida ‘Bewa’. These small discrepancies have created a lot of trouble. Illiterate women often have no say at how her name is written down.

Ilias Rahman, a social activist, has closely followed the cases of many women D voters. In a conversation, he mentions that there are a large number of women who have been harassed for no fault of their own.

A woman, Momta Begum got a notice from the Foreign Tribunal (FT). But there, her name was written as Mumtaz Begum. When she approached the FT, she was told that she need not worry as the notice was not in her name. But a few years later, it seems she has been declared a foreigner in an ex-parte case.”

Another woman from Dhubri’s Airkata got her name cleared from the FT in 2007. But few days back, she was again served notice to prove her citizenship. Elderly women with documents prior to 1971 in their own name are struggling to prove their citizenship. The cases are way too many to dismiss.

Women from prominent families have been marked D-voters. Be it the legendary Goalpariya singer Pratima Barua Pandey and actor Adil Hussain’s relative or the family members of litterateurs like Syed Abdul Malik or Padma Shri Eli Ahmed. This randomness does put question to the procedure followed in marking someone a D voter. There are families which have had one or two D voters while others were considered Indians and their citizenship was never questioned.

Assam’s migrant labour force is composed of a large number of women. The state is marred regularly by floods and severe land erosion leading to massive internal migration. Commenting on these women, Ashraful Islam, working President of Satro Mukti Songram Samiti said that many women marry on the construction sites where they work. After a few years, they come back with children and are often not in touch with the men they marry. But NRC requires family tree data and many women are lost as to what they should do.

Further some women are being castigated by their own families. An NRC verification officer on the condition of anonymity shares about such a case. A girl whose parents died was adopted by the village headman. He brought her up like his own and married her off. But the sons of the village headman did not give her name in family tree. She lost her parents too young and could not prove her linkage. There are largely many women who for one reason or another could not prove any linkage.

The fear of detention and deportation has also led to a number of suicides. In the last few days, around five people committed suicide. In some cases, women committed suicide and in others, men committed suicide leaving additional burden on the women in their family. Jayanti Das in her 50s along with her two sons is running from pillar to post to prove their citizenship. Her husband Gopal Das had his name mentioned in 1966 Voters’ List but was still marked a D voter. He could not take the pressure and committed suicide.

Such cases show a grim picture. Are we to believe that a person who cannot prove citizenship on paper are illegal immigrants? How do we explain people whose entire lives have been spent here, who have served in Indian Army, Indian Air Force being marked D voters?

“Who is responsible for wrong input of data? In voters’ list, a person’s average age is put instead of date of birth. As a result, there are many inconsistencies.”

But instead of taking corrective measures, it seems, the machinery is hell bent on matching the magic number of lakhs and lakhs of foreigners in Assam.

Women in detention centres have another tragic saga to tell. Not only many have been wrongly confined, some have been separated from their young children. Cases of sexual abuse in the centres have also surfaced. In such a scenario, there seems to be no respite for women D voters. The gendered aspect of NRC updating is important. If a system is negatively biased towards women, procedural lapses need to be looked into. Unless it is done, an updated NRC may still leave out a large number of women. This is a classic case of double marginalisation – whereby a patriarchal society have systematically exploited and discriminated against women and another exercise is castigating them for this very exploitation. But the voice of these women continues to be missing from the dominant discourse on citizenship woes.