In the grip of social, communal tension

Saimon Nessa, wife of Jabbar Ali, who died in a detention camp in Tezpur on October 4.

Entry of any unknown car raises a quick alarm in Dhansiri Khuti village, situated about 3 km from NH-54 that connects central Assam’s Udalguri district with Arunachal Pradesh.

“What will happen to us, Sir?” 50-year-old Nekbar Ali asked while referring to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is being updated in Assam to identify foreigners. Ali, a Bengali-speaking Muslim farmer with three children, was tagged a D (doubtful) voter in 1997 by the Election Commission and was thus barred from casting his vote and apply for the NRC, which began in 2015. Ali is among 1.25 lakh D voters in Assam, mainly Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus, who continue to visit the 100 foreigners’ tribunals to prove their Indian citizenship and be eligible to apply for the NRC.

Ali said, like him at least 10 D voter families at Dhansiri Khuti village with nearly 300 families, all Bengali-speaking Muslims, are living in constant fear of being declared foreigners and sent to the detention centres meant for declared foreigners in the six Assam jails.

Victims of apathy

Ali is more scared as he witnessed how his immediate neighbour, Jabbar Ali, 70, died on October 4, inside a detention centre in Tezpur in the neighbouring Sonitpur district. He was lodged there for more than three years after being declared a foreigner by a tribunal. He also saw how Ali’s wife Saimon Nessa spent nearly Rs 4 lakh by working as a daily wager to pay her lawyers to get his D voter tag removed. She had even mortgaged the plot of her home but all efforts went in vain.

“Two jeeps of police stormed into our house around 3 am and took him away. After 11 months in the Goalpara detention centre, he was shifted to Tezpur. I visited him once a month with the food he loved. Two months ago, we were informed that he died inside the jail. He was fine when I visited him last and how can he die without any ailment?” Ali’s wife asks. The family did not lodge an FIR after the district administration officials assured to probe his death and compensation to the family. “No one even comes now, forget the compensation,” she said.

Saimon Nessa claimed that Ali had submitted the 1966 electoral roll containing the name of his father, Sotku Sheikh, but still he was declared a foreigner. She claimed Sotku had migrated to this village from Kasomari Nepaligaon, a village about 10 km towards east, after their house was eroded by a river. “Many villages have been eroded in this area due to which they lost land papers and other documents. He would not have been declared a foreigner if we had land documents of his ancestral home,” she claimed. 

River erosion is a serious issue in Assam and according to an official estimate, the state lost about 4 lakh hectares of land due to erosion since 1950. Migrant Muslims live mostly on the river banks and sandbars and hence they bear the maximum brunt. But local organisations claim that erosion is cited as an excuse by the ‘illegal migrants’ to be included in the list.

Sakina Khatun and Anuwara Begum, two other neighbours, said many villagers could not submit proper documents as the village was burnt down by rioters in 2008. Clashes between rioters belonging to the indigenous Bodo community and the ‘migrant’ Muslims had left over 50 dead and over 70,000 displaced in Udalguri and Darrang districts. “We spent nine months in a relief camp about 10 km away. When we came back, there was nothing left, our houses were burnt, cattle taken away and thus we lost all the documents. My father-in-law Solomon Munshi was hit by an arrow and died in the riot,” Anowara told DH.

Udalguri is among the four districts that fall under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), an autonomous council set up in 2003 under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, following the violent Bodo Movement. Groups representing indigenous communities under the BTC claim that illegal migrants had occupied government land and those meant for the tribals.

With their land ‘occupied by the locals,’ Muslim residents like Ali’s two sons Johar and Shajahan work as daily wagers in farms and construction sites. “We were born here, our forefathers lived here. How can we be foreigners?” asked Anowara.

Aman Wadud, a lawyer based in Guwahati blamed hate mongering by some leaders of the ruling BJP and local organisations for the tide of fear and anxiety among linguistic and religious minorities in the state.“Hate-mongers don’t want a free and fair NRC. Their political career, which they had built on the edifice of hatred and polarisation, will be destroyed if a free and fair NRC is published,” he said.

But organisations representing indigenous communities claim that illegal migrants from Bangladesh had not just entered their names in the voters list with the help of politicians but also encroached upon government lands and captured the rural economy. “They have dominated jobs like rickshaw-pulling, fish and meat selling, construction work, vegetable cultivation and even in contracts. Many have also migrated to Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala and Gujarat. But the indigenous people are struggling to get jobs and this erupts into violence like we saw in BTC area,” said Bhaben Handique of Swaraj Asom, a local organisation.

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In the grip of social, communal tension

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