The sole remaining photograph of Hibaz Ali is a grainy image of his face squeezed into a framed collage with a caption calling him a martyr. When the All Assam Minority Students’ Association (AAMSU) presented this college to Ali’s aging parents, Kaleshan and Lal Bano, they told them their son’s sacrifice would not go in vain.
That was in July 2010, when Ali was one of four people who died when the police opened fire on protestors demonstrating against the updation of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state’s Barpeta district. Soon after Ali’s death, a Congress Member of Parliament named Himanta Biswa Sarma visited the family and promised a government job for a family member.
Nine years later this weekend, on August 20 2019, the final version of the NRC was published — leaving 19 lakh of the state’s residents off the rolls. Congressman Sarma has switched parties and now a state finance minister with the BJP and has demanded a “re-verification” of the NRC claiming too many Hindus of Bengali ethnicity have been left out. Ali’s father, Kaleshan and most of the family have made it onto the NRC, but are still waiting to learn the fate of Kaleshan’s daughter and daughter-in-law.
In sum, the process appears to have achieved little beyond demonising so-called foreigners, and further marginalising many of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
The Home Ministry has declared that those left off the NRC will have 120 days to appeal their cases before the foreigner’s tribunal. But for Kaleshan, who has had to contend with the grief of losing a child, and the uncertainty of a daughter losing her citizenship, the NRC has brought only misery.
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“Poor people like us, who have nothing, are going mad with fear,” he told HuffPost India. “What will they do, where will they go? Nobody remembered my dead son.”
ECONOMIC BURDEN ON ASSAM’S POOR
Assam’s obsessions with so-called “outsiders” has set up an entire ecosystem of lawyers who have significantly upped their fees for cases related to the NRC and the foreigner tribunal processes. These are two separate processes, but going forward those left off the NRC will need to appeal to foreigner tribunals.
Suhas Chakma, director of Delhi-based Rights and Risk Analysis Group, surveyed 62 people in Assam’s Goalpara, Baksa and Kamrup districts prior to the publication of the NRC and estimated that each family had spent Rs 19,000 in an average for just NRC hearings.
From selling off auto-rickshaws, livestock and orchards, to mortgaging land, most families have lost their livelihoods in the process. Almost all families had to take loans. Chakma pointed out that in comparison, the foreigner tribunal process will be way more complicated and expensive, with these poor, uneducated people having to hire lawyers till the process is over. And there is no guarantee when it will be over.
Activist Matiur Rahman, who filed a petition in the Supreme Court questioning the NRC, said that though the Assam government has assured help through the state legal aid services, realistically, it will only be available to people with connections with people in government services.
“How many people of the 19 lakh people will they cater to? The legal aid authorities have 15-20 lawyers registered with them in each district on a voluntary basis, which means they can choose not to take up these cases if they wished to,” Rahman said.
Senior lawyer Zakir Hussein agreed that unless the government came up with a rewarding fee structure for the legal services volunteers, they were least likely to be helpful. “They are not salaried employees. What will their motivation be to look at these cases?” he said.
CYCLE OF EXPLOITATION AND CHEAP LABOUR
Weeks before the NRC was published, HuffPost India met families of men and women who had been declared foreigners by tribunals and sent to detention camps, across Darrang, Barpeta and Morigaon districts of Assam. Daily wage labourers with no land to call their own, most of these families took loans to pay for legal fees and promised to work for free for the moneylenders till they could repay the debts.
Chakma pointed out that the point of NRC, realistically, could not be deportation but severe economic disenfranchisement. “If these people can’t fight their appeals in tribunals, the government can’t send that many people back to Bangladesh. So what will they do? They will strip them of land rights, cut them out of government schemes and snatch their right to vote,” he said. It will create, what he said, ‘second class citizens’ ready to be exploited for ‘cheap labour’.
In fact, he added, even if some of these poor families men even managed to fight their cases prove they are valid citizens, they would be so severely ‘pauperized’ that they will have no option to compromise on their rights while getting underpaying jobs to feed their families. The evidence of this can be seen all over Assam.
A lawyer HuffPost India spoke to said that in the past few years, several legal professionals they knew working in the Guwahati High Court have turned the foreigner tribunal work into thriving businesses.
“Some of them cater exclusively to these poor people and have even made new houses in the past couple of years, they do not even hear you for anything less than Rs 50,000,” the person said.
Hussein agreed that there were some ‘unscrupulous’ people in the profession who’d demand Rs 20,000-Rs 30,000 even before looking at the demands of the case.
Chakma, during his survey, found that lawyers in Assam have charged up to Rs 25,000 as one-time fees to just check NRC documents of people and tell them what they needed and from where.
The people regularly summoned by the foreigners tribunals — also a demographic comprising the majority left out of the NRC — are illiterate. They mostly depend on village headmasters and the police to explain summons from the tribunals, and in some cases, as HuffPost India witnessed, are taken for a ride by the lawyers they have hired.
Intaz Ali, a mason, whose brother has to make rounds of a foreigner tribunal in Jorhat, 260 kilometres from their home in Darrang district, said they spent a few lakhs on a ‘popular’ lawyer known to take ‘foreigner’ cases till they realised the man barely spoke at the tribunals.
“I went to see one day when my brother’s case was on. The tribunal judge kept saying things and the lawyer kept nodding. When I questioned him, he shushed me,” Ali said. Ali, who can read and write Assamese, Bengali and even some English later figured that the ploy was to ‘lose’ the case at the tribunal and then demand big money once the case had to be re-appealed at High Court. Ali pointed out that though word has spread about his modus operandi, most of his clients are not educated enough to challenge him or get another lawyer.
The desperation in the face of lawyers, is hinged around the fact that once a person is arrested, expenses of the families trebles — they have to visit lawyers, then courts and also their incarcerated loved ones in far away jails.
Following a recent Supreme Court order, the Assam government declared that they will release ‘foreigners’ who have spent 3 years in detention camps if they can provide two sureties worth Rs 1 lakh each (amounting to a total of Rs 2lakh) and a verifiable address.
A one-time payment of Rs 2lakh is often beyond their means of these families.
“Imagine, Salman Khan was released on a bail of Rs 50,000 in a criminal case. And these poor labourers have to shell out Rs 2 lakh to get out without having committed a heinous crime,” Chakma said.
“It’s a free for all situation in Assam.”
MARTYRS IN VAIN?
Right from the first ‘martyrs’, the NRC process has disproportionately affected Assam’s poor. If you run a search for articles on the four people who died in the police firing in July 2010, you may not find their names and most of the articles identify them as student activists. However, the four people who died were daily wage labourers with little or no education.
Hibaz operated a pull-cart and lugged heavy goods around for as little as Rs 50 at times. In the days that led up to July 21, when he was killed, word went around that a new government scheme called NRC will force them to sell off their land and go to Bangladesh.
“A tempo making the rounds of villages loudly declared that we will be driven away from here. If we want to stay, we must protest,” Kaleshan told HuffPost India.
So on July 21, Kaleshan and his five sons walked over 20 kilometres from their village, with other men to Barpeta town where All Assam Minority Students Association (AAMSU) had organised a protest. Once in the crowd, the men got separated.
After a few hours Kaleshan saw plumes of smoke engulfing the front half of the rally and then heard loud gun shots ring out. “I ran behind the nearest shop and prayed hard that my sons were fine,” he said. Through the smoke of the tear gas shells, Hibaz’ elder saw him helping a man who was shot in the leg move to the side of the road to safety. He felt relieved and ran to find cover. Later, the men found their way back to their house that evening, except Hibaz.
“We did not have phones then to call and check,’ the brother said. When they switched on the small TV in their bamboo and asbestos hut, they saw bodies of injured and dead men being lugged around in stretchers. And then Lal Bano screamed — one of the bodies in a stretcher was her son’s.
“Everyone’s fighting for their land and country, why should I stay back,” Lal Bano was told by Hibaz when she tried to stop him that day because he was unwell. Hibaz’ family is desperately poor, his brothers work in slaughterhouses in towns and when he can, Kaleshan works as a farm labourer.
A few dozen kilometres away, Maidul Islam’s mother breaks down at the mention of her son. On 21 July, 2010, 25-year-old Maidul, who worked in a tiny shop he had set up with his brothers to grind whole grains and spices, had declared valiantly that he will be ‘in front of everyone’ in the rally to make sure poor people like them don’t suffer injustice in the NRC process. He also worked as a farm labour on the side.
“We had heard that none of the documents we have will work to prove we are Indians. We are illiterate, how will we know if someone is taking us for a ride, how will we afford lawyers?” his brother explained, saying this fear spurred them to go to the protest.
After he was shot, a man from Maidul’s village took him to the hospital in an ambulance. “My brother was gasping for breath and there was no oxygen in the ambulance. He died on the way.”
Maidul’s mother pointed out, what is son feared was exactly what was happening now. “Poor people are having to go to far off places and sell everything they have to prove they are Indians.”