The Assam woman who fought to win back her Indian citizenship

The Assam woman who fought to win back her Indian citizenship

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A seven-year-long fight by a woman in India’s north eastern state of Assam to regain her citizenship has left her with debt and fear. BBC Hindi’s Dilip Kumar Sharma reports.

Sefali Rani Das, 42, was used to feeling scared when she saw the police.

For years, they visited her home in Cachar district, which borders Bangladesh – to serve notices that asked her to provide proof that she was an Indian citizen.

She won’t need to hide anymore in January, after years of attending court hearings, she received an order that declared she was a legal resident of India.

But the price was high the family is now struggling to pay back the money they borrowed to fight the case. They also have to pursue another case to prove that her husband is an Indian citizen too.

What my family and my children have gone through in the past few years, I don’t think there can be bigger hardships than that, Ms Das says.

Ms Das is among hundreds of thousands of people in Assam who have been declared illegal migrants over the past few decades they are asked to prove their citizenship, which involves an arduous process that could end in detention or even deportation if unsuccessful.

It is a burning issue in Assam. In 1951, the state began recording details of its residents in the National Register of Citizens its purpose was to determine who was born in the state and was Indian, and who might be a migrant from East Pakistan, as neighbouring Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country, was known then.

I was born here and I studied here. Then how did I become a Bangladeshi all of a sudden? This question kept haunting me, Ms Das said.

Under a 1985 agreement between the federal government and leaders of a movement against illegal immigrants in Assam, anyone who could prove they entered the state before 1 January 1966 would be granted citizenship.

Those who entered between 1 January 1966 and 24 March 1971 the day before Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan – would have to register themselves with the government. And those who entered the state after 24 March 1971 can be declared foreigners and deported.

Since the late 1980s, special courts called Foreigners Tribunals have been hearing cases of alleged illegal migrants, usually reported by the border police.

The issue gained international attention in 2019, when the was updated, leaving 1.9 million people stateless and at the mercy of the tribunals. The tribunals function as a quasi-judicial system in the state and are often accused of bias and inconsistencies in their rulings.

Labelled a foreigner
Ms Das’s ordeal began in 2012, when police registered a case against her through a now-scrapped law casting doubt on her citizenship. The burden of proving the case was on the police, which meant frequent visits.

Once, Ms Das says, she saw them coming and escaped through the back door of her house. She hid in a Muslim family’s house far away from her village for the whole day.

In 2015, the case was sent to a tribunal, which put the onus of proof on the accused.

A lawyer helped Ms Das get her papers in order, but she still needed money to appear for the hearings in another town.

Her husband, who had retired from his job as a school attendant, carried bricks while Ms Das did domestic work and cleaned houses to earn a living. There were many days, she says, when they didn’t have even a rupee.

She appeared for a few hearings with her documents, which showed that her grandfather lived in Assam before the cut-off date of 1 January 1966, as well as papers proving she was related to him.

But it soon became hard to scrape up money for travelling and legal fees.

In 2017, after she missed some hearings, the tribunal declared her an illegal migrant – it ordered her name to be removed from the voters’ list, and said she had no right to stay in India anymore. The day Ms Das got the official notice declaring her a foreigner, no one in her family ate anything.

She then approached Mohitosh Das, a lawyer who was fighting close to 50 cases like hers.

He helped her obtain a stay from the high court in 2017 which meant she was safe from detention.

The case then came up for hearing only in 2021 the court then said there was no wilful negligence on Ms Das’s part and ordered the tribunal to decide the case again on merit rather than by way of default.

Over the past few months, Assam’s high court has overturned several tribunal decisions where a person was declared a foreigner without being present in court.

When the tribunal heard Ms Das’s case again, it struck down its previous order after examining all her documents. Finally, on 17 January 2022, she was declared an Indian citizen.

Parimal Suklabaidya, the local legislator from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party BJP, said Ms Das’s fight for justice was particularly commendable as she came from a remote area where even survival was a struggle.

The fight continues
Now Ms Das says they have to focus on proving her husband Prabhod Ranjan Das’s citizenship.

He had been declared a streamline foreigner a person who came to Assam between 1 January 1966 and 24 March 1971. Streamline foreigners are not detained or deported but their citizenship is cancelled for 10 years this means they can’t vote or avail government benefits.

Mr Das, 62, says he also has documents that prove his ancestors were in Assam before 1966, but they have been unable to pursue the case due to lack of funds.

People from 15 other families in their Hindu-majority village are also dealing with ongoing citizenship cases.

Mr Suklabaidya, a two-time state minister, says he is aware some tribunal decisions could be completely wrong.

His party, he says, is actively trying to help people who had been wrongfully declared illegal.

He also claimed that these problems would be fixed once the government implemented the Citizenship Amendment Act CAA, a law which allows religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to seek citizenship in India.

But critics say that the law, along with the NRC, will be used to marginalise Muslims in India.

The seven-year struggle has left Ms Das – who says her family voted for the BJP because they thought Prime Minister Narendra Modi would solve their problems – emotionally scarred.

I will not forget this pain for the rest of my life, she says.