The Bengali speaking community in Assam is seemingly lost in the labyrinth of 3-D — ‘D’ voter, Detention Camp and Declared Foreigner. The woes began during the AGP regime in 1997. The Election Commission classified voters in Assam with ‘D’ without any prior investigation during the revision of electoral roll. Suddenly about 3.5 lakh people, most of them are Bengali, discovered the ‘D’ tag before their names in the voter list. ‘D’ means dubious’ or ‘doubtful’ voters.
Assam is sandwiched between two countries – Bhutan to the North and Bangladesh to the South-east. Influx from Bangladesh has always been a contentious issue that sparked violence periodically. The Bengali community has significant contribution towards Assamese language and literature, culture, politics and economy. However, chauvinistic forces always look at the Bengali speaking community as a threat to their political, social, economic and cultural rights. The reason – a sizeable number of population shares a common language with that of Bangladesh.
Whether it is Congress or BJP or any other political party the discrimination and sustained negative campaign against Bengali people by terming them as ‘Bangladeshi’ continues to insult the community under the patronage of political leaders and divisive forces.
Interestingly, the Citizenship Act 1955 or the Citizenship Rules, 2003 never defines ‘doubtful voters’ or ‘doubtful citizenship’. There is no mention on what ground a person will be considered as ‘D’ voter. The onus to prove citizenship lies on the individual tagged with ‘D’. The responsibility of finding out ‘doubtful citizen’ lies on the border police. Examples are galore where local officers have misused the power. On April 4, 2004, the Gauhati High Court ordered that the ‘D’ voters to be sent to detention camps till their cases were disposed off.
There are numerous instances where ‘D’ voter notice was issued in the name of individual and stuck on the tree, light posts etc. In many cases, the individual issued with the notice, had no clue at all. They came to know about the notice only when picked up by the police and thrown to jail. The FT had already passed ex-parte judgment against them. In some cases, even a simple error in the document was the reason for languishing in the detention camps. On February 4, 2019, Assam parliamentary affairs minister Chandra Mohan Patowary admitted before the Assembly that 88% of ‘D’ cases were ‘found to be Indian who suffered a lot due to arbitrary action of Border Police.’ In 2018, the member of the Foreigners Tribunal No 3 in Morigaon district passed an order stating that ‘Foreigners case at this juncture has assumed the form of industry’ to mint money.
In July, 2019, Patowary informed the Assembly that a total of 1,13,738 persons were marked as ‘D’ voters till February. He also informed that the Assam government had sent proposal to the Centre for establishing 1,000 new FTs. The centre had sanctioned 400 out of 1,000 proposed FTs. At present the state has 200 FTs. Till October, 2019, a total of 4.68 lakh cases were referred to Foreigners Tribunals in Assam.
As per data, Barpeta district in Assam has the highest numbers of ‘D’ voters (17,227) followed by Sonitpur (16,437) and Nagaon (9,824). Till date 30 persons lost their lives in detention camps.
Before the publication of National Register of Citizens (NRC), the citizenship issue was handled through FTs. But last year when the government published the NRC to determine the number of immigrants in the state, a total of 1.9 million people found themselves stateless. Among them around four lakh people did not apply for the second time. There were plenty of errors in the government database. An amount of Rs 1243.53 Cr was spent to prepare the NRC.
During the 34 years time frame from 1985 to March 2019, 200 tribunals disposed of 2,29,437 cases at an average of 6748 cases per year. And if this rate of disposal is taken into account then 90 years will be required to dispose of 15 lakh cases by 500 tribunals at an average of 16,870 cases per year. It is as if the citizens are being stripped of their citizenship by their own country. There is no way that another country will take them. They are born and brought up in India and have no other country to go. The government cannot even deport them which will lead to their statelessness. They will have to wait for their turn in the court again to prove that they are Indians.
( Manas is a freelance journalist in Assam contributing to Easternlink)