Prove Your Identity

This “prove your identity” is one sign on one barricade in Karimganj, on the Assam-Bangladesh border. In Assam, this is a demand being made everywhere as a bruising NRC exercise coincides with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, that has prised open a Barak Valley-Brahmaputra Valley split. So is being Assamese about language, religion, ethinicity, or citizenship?

The day after monsoon hit the Northeast, Nyuti Roy, her brother Gourango Das and mother Adarmani Das sit at their teashop in South Assam’s Borai Basti village. As Adarmani (85), suffering from a chronic nerve disorder, crawls on all fours to disappear indoors, Nyuti gathers a sheaf of documents in a folder.

“It was raining when we got the notice from the (Foreigners’) Tribunal too,” Nyuti recalls, “That’s why we missed the dates. Once, because we did not understand what they wanted. Twice, because we had no way to go. And thrice, because my father was in too much pain.” As a result, in April, Nyuti’s father, the 101-year-old Chandrahar Das, landed up in Silchar Central Jail, “a declared foreigner” by the Foreigners’ Tribunal, one of 100 in Assam under the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964, for not having valid documents.

On June 28, after spending three months in detention, the ailing Das finally made it home, with instructions to appear before the Tribunal next on July 4.

Nyuti fails to understand why this is happening to them. “My father came to India because of the killings in Bangladesh. He crossed over to Tripura sometime in the 1950s,” she says.

Das’s family falls under the ambit of the “persecuted Hindu Bengali minority” community from Bangladesh — whom the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, introduced by the Modi government, is aiming to protect. The controversial Bill is an amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955, and proposes to grant citizenship rights to all “persecuted” religious minorities (barring Muslims) from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

However, the Bill comes at a time when the state’s same Bengali-speaking population (including Hindus, perceived as Bangladeshis and hence outsiders) is on tenterhooks over an ongoing process to put together a National Register of Citizens(NRC).

In a state cleaved along religious, linguistic lines, and bruised by the long-drawn NRC process, the citizenship Bill has drawn another line in sands bloodied by the region’s history. In Assam’s larger battle to retain its identity, it has now prised open the divide between its Bengali-majority Barak Valley and its Assamese-majority Brahmaputra Valley.

Das’s village of Borai Basti is about 30 km — but nearly 2 hours — from Silchar, the unofficial entry point into the Barak Valley from the Brahmaputra side. But it’s not the citizenship Bill that their family lawyer, Soumen Choudhury, is banking on. He hopes Das will benefit from “notifications” made to two other laws — Foreigners Act and Passport (Entry of India) Act.

Befuddled by all these legislations that apply to one 101-year-old, the Das family says they have never heard of the citizenship Bill, and are surprised that the final NRC list may come out soon. Nyuti says she doesn’t know what to tell her father. “He was tossed around from jail to hospital to jail, and asks what is happening. I do not have answers.”

About the NRC, she adds, “I didn’t know what it meant until my father was picked up. Now I know you become an Indian citizen if you are in the NRC.”

What does being an Indian citizen mean to Nyuti? “Maybe it means they will give us an Aadhaar card,” she says.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in July 2018. Full article here.