Give back our voting rights: ‘D’ voters in Assam

Give back our voting rights: ‘D’ voters in Assam

Bishnu Khatriyo in Bonda refugee camp. Photo by Sumir Karmakar

Elections turn Bishnu Khatriyo sad. This Lok Sabha election is no different as the 65-year-old carpenter has been barred from casting his vote since he was declared a 'D' (doubtful) voter by Election Commission in 1997.

"Can we vote this time?" Bishnu asked DH reporter as he sat near his bamboo thatched house here. "I voted twice here after we were shifted from Mayong in Morigaon district about 40 years ago," he said. 

Bishnu is among nearly 600 'D' voters of the nearly 1,200 people living in this refugee colony. Most of them claim that they or their parents had fled their ancestral homes in neighbouring Bangladesh in 1964 due to "religious persecution" and were provided shelters by Jawaharlal Nehru-government in Goalpara and Kamrup districts in eastern Assam. "We were provided land here by the government during Indira Gandhi's time. How can the government deny us citizenship and right to vote after so many years? Please tell the government to give our voting rights back," Khatriyo said.

The ‘D’ voter like Khatriyo have been barred from casting their votes till their cases to prove their Indian citizenship are cleared by the foreigner tribunals.

Chief electoral officer, Assam Mukesh Kumar Sahu said on March 18 that there are 1.20 lakh D voters, who would not be able to exercise their franchise till their names are cleared by the tribunals. "The number has come down, compared to last year as some cases have been disposed off by tribunals," he said.

Narayan Hajong, another D voter was in a hurry for the hearing in a tribunal. "Since pre-1971 document is required to prove Indian citizenship in Assam, I submitted the refugee registration card issued in 1964 in my father's name. I also submitted my school certificate to prove my linkage with my father. Today the court has summoned the government official, who issued the certificate for verification," Narayan, father of two children said before rushing out to the tribunal in Guwahati. "We are spending lots of money too. It feels really bad during every election. Because, people suspect us to be illegal migrants," he said. 

Most of the residents here belong to Hajong, Koch Rajbongshi, Rabha and Hindu Bengali community. The Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), an NGO recently said most of these people are financially weak and are unable to bear the financial burden. The HRLN is providing free legal aid to some of the D voters.  

Ninety of the 112 similar families living in Bamungaon in Kamrup district, about 70-km west from here too are suffering similarly. 

The border branch of Assam police register cases against suspected illegal migrants--either based on complaints or on suspicion and are referred to foreigner tribunals if they fail to satisfy the queries with documents and prove their Indian citizenship. There are 100 foreigner tribunals in Assam, which are dealing with cases of suspected illegal migrants. 

The D voters have also been barred from enrolment in the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is being updated only in Assam to solve the state's long foreigner problem.