September 15, 2019

Patriarchal Citizenship and Disenfranchisement Of Women in Assam

Archana Prasad

HALIMA Khatun is a middle aged woman, who has been detained at the Kokrajhar Detention Centre in Assam for over 10 years. She has four children who live with her husband in Nagaon district. Except for her, the entire family has been declared as an “Indian” in the NRC process. Similar is the story of Arti Das who is also from Nagaon; she has been lodged in Kokrajhar Detention Centre for the last three years, while her husband is detained at the Tezpur Detention Centre. But their two children are ‘bonafide’ Indian citizens. The third case to be considered is that of Premati Sangma, who came to India as a Refugee in 1964 from Mymensingh district of East Pakistan. She possesses a Refugee Eligibility Certificate and the Assam government also allotted her some land in 1972 as part of an agreement. She was also registered as a citizen and has a Citizenship Registration Certificate. These are all legitimate documents for being included in the final list of the NRC. But despite this, she received a notice from the Foreigners Tribunal in Kamrup in 2018.

There are thousands of cases like the ones described above; the testimonies and documents of which were presented in the Justice A P Shah headed People’s Tribunal on Contested Citizenship in Assam (September 7-8, 2019, New Delhi).The estimates of experts project that women constitute 62 per cent of the total disenfranchised people. In order to understand why this has happened, it is necessary to understand the impact of the process of updating the NRC as not only a “humanitarian crisis”, but as a crisis that results from the deprivation of citizenship rights for millions of women. From the process being followed thus far, it is quite clear that the final consolidated document of the NRC is a result of the validation of legacy documentation, ie, a proof that a person has been generally residing in the state of Assam up to March 25, 1971. As agreed upon in the Assam Accord 1985 (and amendments to the Citizenship Act thereof), such people have to be recognised as citizens even though they may have entered Assam from Bangladesh as “illegal immigrants”. The Amendment to the Citizenship Act in 1985 after the Assam Accord, introduced a new Section 6A where it was recognised that a person could be recognised as a ‘citizen’ if he/she proves that either one of their parents or grandparents was born in undivided India before 1966 and that they had been generally residing in the state between January 1, 1966 and March 25, 1971.

Thus documentation tracing descent is one of the most crucial evidences to be produced by a woman if her name is to be included in the final NRC. The documents admissible have been detailed by the Supreme Court and include electoral rolls, secondary school certificates, birth certificates land records, etc. However the certificate of the secretary of the gram panchayat or circle officer is only admissible if it is accompanied by another valid record proving the legacy of the woman’s family. The Supreme Court judgement of 2017 and the guidelines for submission of documents clearly states that the certificate of the gram panchayat can establish the residence of the woman, but not her claim to citizenship unless her link with her family is proven through relevant documents. Thus a woman has to prove that she is the wife of her husband; a sister to her brother etc.

This two stage complex procedure of verification has created multiple problems for women. For instance, take the case of Hajera Khatun from Goalpara who was called by the local police to the police station and asked to put her thumb impression on some papers. She submitted the NRC 1951, voters list 1966 and 1970 which had the name of her father. In order to establish the linkage, she submitted the certificate of the village panchayat and all documents like PAN card etc. But these documents were rejected without reason and the tribunal declared her to be a foreigner. Similar is the case of Bathunnessa of Goalpara, who was declared a D voter, despite the fact that her father lived in India and that she had produced a school leaving certificate to prove her linkage with her father. There are innumerable cases where valid documents have not been accepted because of mistakes in spellings of names, villages or valid reasons for change of address. Consider the case of Rashminara Begum who was dragged into the Kokrajhar detention centre in 2016 simply because of an error in recording her date of birth. She had no other documents because all her legacy papers were washed away in the Brahmaputra at the time of floods. Her child was born in the detention centre and she was finally released after a year in the camp where she was housed with ordinary criminals. She is quoted as saying that her father was a freedom fighter and her brother has a government job: how can she be a Bangladeshi?

These cases betray a sense of arbitrariness and distrust of people who are being stereotyped as “foreigners” through an official bureaucratic procedure. In almost all cases, the burden to prove “genuine citizenship” lies on the lakhs of people who are alleged to be foreigners by a ruling that is seeking an excuse to push people into detention centres. Women face a special problem since almost none of the documents required to prove legacy are in their names and therefore they almost always have to go through a second stage of verification in order to prove their relationship with their ancestors. In cases where women were married at a very young age or where they did not get school leaving certificates because they were drop outs, the order of difficulty increases. In such instances, the certificate of the village panchayat is one of the only proofs they can use for establishing their links with the family. But the acceptance of this certificate has been subjected to the whims and fancies of a highly biased Foreigners Tribunal.

The crisis of recognition, which as noted above, has been especially faced by women, is accompanied by destitution and abandonment, especially when a woman’s husband or other relatives are declared as foreigners, even though her name may have been recorded in the NRC. Representing her husband Abu Bakkar, Rahima Bibi says that her husband is born in Dhubri district of Assam and went to work in Jorhat district in 2005. One day Jorhat police came to verify his name and took away the documents which proved his residence in village Adabri of Dhubri district. Thereafter he had no contact with the police who sent him a notice to appear before the Foreigners Tribunal in Jorhat in 2015, ie, after a lapse of 10 years. He was declared a foreigner without any due process or enquiry. Since then her husband has been in the Jorhat detention centre and she has spent five lakh rupees fighting his case. There are also cases of sudden deaths within the detention centres. It is reported that no information or explanation is provided to family members who have lost touch with the family members put into these detention camps. There are many recorded cases of women feeling abandoned because their husbands have been declared as ‘foreigners’ all of a sudden.

The cases described above are only the tip of the iceberg; many other violations were also described and recorded in the People’s Tribunal. The evidence presented raised several questions about the flawed NRC process. The cases described provide a window into understanding that the process of verification of documents is heavily loaded against the interests of women since most of the documents required are not available to them. In such a case they have been declared as ‘foreigners’ in their own homes.