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.
Accused Of Being An Illegal, With No Probe
For seven years, Ali said, he lived in constant anxiety and fear that he might be picked up by the police again, and accused of being a foreigner.
Life went on—he could neither afford to let his worries about the future affect daily work nor did he know how to seek legal help to prove his citizenship. Through 2021, the Bengali-speaking Muslim attended roughly 10 to 12 hearings at the FT in Guwahati’s Hedayatpur.
Ali is one of thousands who had to make rounds of the FT despite being included in the NRC list.
Apart from room rent, shared with four other rickshaw pullers in Guwahati’s Lakhtokiya area, Ali also owes a daily Rs 70 to the rickshaw owner—this hand-to-mouth sustenance was severely hampered during his hearings.
“I was so worried wondering how to fight a case,” Ali told Article 14. A nephew who works at the Mangaldai court told him of a few lawyers who do not charge for representing clients at FT procedures.
This was a team of lawyers from Assam that has provided legal representation, pro bono, in more than 200 cases in Gauhati high court and 25 to 30 cases in the FTs, individually and as a part of the trust Justice And Liberty Initiative (JLI), which began functioning in 2019.
“Asmat Ali’s story is similar to almost every other such case where marginalised people are randomly picked up by the police without any investigation and are accused of being illegal immigrants,” said Aman Wadud, founder and member of JLI.
Wadud and his team have led several cases similar to Ali’s. While they take on non-citizenship related cases too, the citizenship matters are all handled pro bono.
Their motto is to provide legal assistance that would otherwise not have been available for poor, illiterate and marginalised families lacking the resources needed to clear their names at FTs or to appeal in higher courts.
Wadud said people whose citizenship has been stripped off by the FTs are not at fault. “These people have lost their citizenship because the State has targeted them,” he said. “And this process is so arbitrary, so unfair and unconstitutional that I believe that every person who believes in the values of the Constitution should defend the rights of these people.”
“I Would Have Left Everything To God”
Picked up by policemen while passing by Guwahati’s Panbazar station with his rickshaw during the winter of 2013, Ali had almost no idea of what awaited him.
Ali’s case was later transferred to Latasil police station in Guwahati, whose jurisdiction his rented residence was located in.
“They said ‘Stop Stop Stop!’ How could I say no to people who are a part of law and order? I had to go,” Ali said, recalling the day. “At the station policemen told me that I am an illegal citizen and that I am a Bangladeshi.”
There were 8-10 other rickshaw pullers in the room. Ali displayed his Election Commission of India-issued voter identification card, his licence to pull a rickshaw and his PAN card. “But they said I must have made fake ones.” He said the policemen would not listen to him.
Officers made him give a complete set of fingerprints though he showed them his documents. They asked him to submit proof of his permanent address, which was in Nangli Char No.5. According to Ali, they told him his name would be included in a list of illegal Bangladeshis.
One policeman allegedly said Ali could pay Rs 5,000 to skip giving the fingerprints. “I won’t lie, I was so scared that I told him I would give him whatever I had.” But he only had about Rs 1,000 and the man wanted “five thousand or nothing”.
A case was registered in the FT in 2015 under case number 1221, and a notice was eventually sent to the village headman of Nangli in December 2020. Ali was asked to appear at the FT to prove his citizenship in February 2021. The notice read that Ali had illegally entered the country from erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, without any legal document.
His wife was so worried that she cried every day, Ali said. “But I didn’t lie about anything,” he continued. “My father is from here. I was born here and had proof of even attending primary school here.”
Wadud, also a Fulbright Fellow who practises in Gauhati high court, said he has studied cases of statelessness across the world. “Not even one country can be said to have dealt with this issue as grossly and arbitrarily as when it comes to our own country,” he said. “Unlike other countries, India is rendering its own citizens stateless.”
When Ali was asked what he would have done had he not found people to help him fight his case without charging him, he said, “I would have left everything to God.”
What Pro Bono Legal Representation Achieved
Lawyer Zakir Hussain, a lawyer for 22 years and a trustee of JLI, handled Ali’s case without charging a fee.
Hussain said while it seemed to be a difficult case at first, he was certain that Ali was not a foreigner. Belonging to Mangaldai himself, he said he had seen how difficult life is on the chars.
“I couldn’t leave it to incompetent hands who would have probably charged him a lot and yet may have not succeeded in proving his innocence,” said Hussain.
Hussain had a tricky case to work with, as both of Ali’s parents were dead, as were other relatives from their generation whose testimony may have proved instrumental. However, an official summoning of Ali’s primary school headmaster as a witness and his elder brothers’ testimonies helped, and a verdict emerged in their favour.
The lawyer was not hoping for a smooth run, especially in the initial stage, he said. “But it was a genuine case and we were not defending a foreigner.”
Wadud said Ali’s was one of the lucky cases, for he found the right help at the right time. “Oftentimes people in such situations end up with lawyers who charge a lot and are also not sincere with their work,” said Wadud.
Facing the wrath of the annual floods, thousands of families including Ali's have been forced from one place to another, leaving their farm lands and ancestral home behind. It was only a few years since Ali’s family had relocated in Nangli Char No.5 from Magurmari Char after losing their previous home to soil erosion.
Ali being declared an illegal citizen and forced to win his citizenship rights through a lengthy legal process was a definitive blow to the family.
Ali returned to working as a rickshaw puller in Guwahati, while also working as a part-time labourer in the fields back home in periods when his primary income source doesn’t bring in enough money.
Asked how he felt after being acquitted at the FT, Ali smiled and said he was relieved, but years of constant fear had left their mark.
A Labourer’s Ordeal To Prove Citizenship
On a hot summer morning in September, Rafik Kazi, 60, described his ordeal to prove his Indian citizenship. “Moi toh labour manuh (I am a labourer),” Kazi told Article 14, seated outside his tin-roofed hut in Bamuntari village of Barpeta district, about 90 km northwest of Guwahati city, in western Assam.
Early in 2021, Kazi received a notice from the border police. It alleged that Kazi was not an Indian citizen and had entered Assam illegally from Bangladesh. The notice asked Kazi to prove his citizenship and appear at the Hedayetpur FT in Guwahati.
Through relatives, Kazi heard about the Samvidhan Kendra (translated as constitution centre) and the Hamdard Foundation, both grassroots organisations. The Hamdard Foundation is located in the Kalgachia town of Barpeta district and has a network of volunteers helping those who are embroiled in citizenship-related disputes or are trying to prove their identities in foreigner’s tribunals and courts in Assam.
The Samvidhan Kendra, on the other hand, is Wadud’s “dream”, a set of legal aid centres through which he hopes to create awareness about the Constitution, and an “ecosystem that can protect the Constitution in the future”.
He said they are trying to establish libraries within these centres, to inculcate the habit of reading among young people, to help them understand their rights and duties.
Both organisations forwarded Kazi’s case to Wadud in Guwahati. Kazi’s case was later handled by advocate Zakir Hussain. Within a period of six months, the 60-year-old was declared an Indian.
‘Had It Been Investigated Properly, There Would Be No Case’
While Kazi received the notice asking him to prove his citizenship in 2021, the case was registered against him about 15 years ago.
Kazi suspected that an incident from 15 years ago might have led to the case being registered against him. He used to work at a construction site in the Bamunimaidam area of Guwahati, where the site manager kept a record of workers’ names, addresses, etc, ostensibly so that the company could provide assistance in getting their ration cards made.
No ration card ever came their way, said Kazi, who later began to believe that his details recorded by the site manager were used to register a case against him at a foreigner’s tribunal. “That’s my doubt,” he said.
In early 2021, members of the border police sent a notice to Kazi’s house in Bamuntari village of Barpeta district and asked him to appear before the FT in Hedayatpur, Guwahati.
“I know his family personally. Their family is one of the oldest in our village,” Lutfar Rahman Khan, a local businessman from Bamuntari and a member of Hamdard Foundation, said. “They have documents from before 1947—his father had land records that date back prior to 1947.” According to Khan, the court decided his case expeditiously because it was a “straightforward” one.
Kazi’s father was a farmer and lived in a char village in Barpeta district.
According to the Socio Economic Survey of 2003-04, Assam’s chars accommodate 2.4 million people. These chars or congested villages are socially and economically backward. Every year, poor Muslim farmers on the chars are victims of floods and silt deposits from the river. Kazi’s father, too, lost land due to land erosion.
Rahman said many Bengali Muslims who live in the chars have never been to school and cannot speak good Assamese. “So, when they go out for work to Guwahati and other areas, they are referred to as ‘Bangladeshis’,” he said, “and they accept that as their reality.”
The current generation of Bengali Muslims, however, is learning Assamese in schools, said Rahman, and can not only speak but also write in Assamese.
Kazi began to work at a very young age—as far back as he can remember, he said.
He has worked in Guwahati, and in Meghalaya’s capital Shillong as well. He recalled how when he started working most of Guwahati was either barren or forested. In Guwahati, he worked as a rickshaw puller for a few years before shifting to daily wage work.
His family’s finances improved over the years, especially after all three of his sons began to work in Guwahati, setting up a waste collecting business. The lawyers did not charge a fee, he said, while transportation and other logistics cost him around Rs 17,000.
Advocate Hussain referred to the Moslem Mondol case of 2010, in which the high court ordered that authorities should inquire about alleged migrants by visiting their villages or meeting elderly persons in their localities, including the gaon burha (village headman).
In Kazi’s case, this wasn’t done. His case was registered in Guwahati while he was working there as a labourer. “In Guwahati itself, the border police prepared his case and forwarded it to the tribunal without a proper investigation,” Hussain said.
“It wasn’t a complicated case at all,” the lawyer said. Kazi had adequate documentary evidence and there was also a witness who certified his bonafide status. “Had the police investigated this case properly, then this situation would not have arisen at all.”
(Hrishita Rajbangshi is an independent researcher and teaches History as guest faculty in Mangaldai College, Assam. Sanskrita Bharadwaj is an independent journalist from Assam.)