“My wife Sita Devi’s name is not on the list. Her legacy papers have to come from her father. But, he is not alive. Earlier, no one would have birth or death certificates. My son’s and daughter-in-law’s names are there on the list,” says a wistful 60-year-old Rahendra Hajong, who lives in a hutment in Camp Bazaar. They have papers from 1966 and all of them settled in the area before 1966. He lives
Camp Bazaar is one of the refugee camps in Goalpara and several indigenous communities- Hajong, Koch, Banai and Garo – live here. Most of them had migrated from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1964.
Sita’s is not an isolated case in the area. The women in most families have been excluded. “Most of us are poor. We have not studied much or gone to school. How do we get the documents that they require? We had a few papers and we submitted that. But, it looks like the officials don’t want to acknowledge those,” explains Sita Devi’s husband.
The process followed by the National Register of Citizens is especially exclusionary and discriminatory towards women. This draconian law which is being used to ‘cleanse’ Assam of foreigners is in reality creating a crisis of human suffering within families as many of them find their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters excluded from the list. There is no gender balance or justice in the process of identifying the so-called ‘foreigners’. It puts the already disadvantaged women through a completely arbitrary process.
Till a couple of decades ago, child marriage was not an anomaly in Assam. Women who get married before 18 won’t find their names on the voter list and the only linkage they have is that of their husband. But, the NRC process doesn’t recognise those documents. The NRC process is breaking up a number of families and creating a nation of disenfranchised women citizens against whom the system and processes are stacked. In a patriarchal society like India’s, the identity of most women is entwined with that their husbands, but the NRC process is blind to it. Even if a small percentage of them had gone to primary schools, those documents are not valid under the NRC guidelines.
“This is one of the problems with the process. Several women, especially from poorer backgrounds, have been excluded because most of them do not have documents. It was not compulsory in Assam to register birth or deaths until 1985. The NRC process does not recognise this. Several women were married off they turned 18, so their name will not be on the voter list along with their parents. Now, any of them have found that their names are not on the list,” explained Debabrat Saikia, Congress leader of Opposition in the Assam Legislative Assembly.
Saikia went to add that he knows of several Marwari women who have been excluded from the list. “They are unlikely to talk about it as in most conservative Marwari families, the women are married off before they tun 18. Now, several of them have been excluded from the list. What documents will they give? They are all citizens,” underscored Saikia.
The pain of gendered exclusion is across communities. “My mother’s name is not on the list. Our grandparents are moved to Silchar in 1950s from east Pakistan when my parents were young. My mother was married to my father before she turned 18. She doesn’t have a birth certificate. When my grandparents moved here, they only had a few documents and a refugee document that was given. We have given all the documents that we could at the foreigner tribunal. We will have to try again. This is especially harrowing for my mother, who is worried that she will be taken to a detention centre. She will fall ill worrying. My parents don’t want me to talk about it either,” highlights Rimi Choudhury, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. She is from a Bengali Hindu family who has been living Silchar since 1959 and they have legacy documents from 1966.
Inclusion of women is one of demands of the leaders of the Gorkha community in Assam. “Several of our women who are poor and uneducated have not been included in the NRC. I come from an upper middle-class family and even in my family by grandmother was married off to my grandfather when she was quite young. We were able to provide documents, but several such women have not been able to. At least 10,000 of those 80,000 excluded from the Gorkha community are women,” pointed out Prem Tamang, the president of the All Assam Gorkha Student Union.
“This is one of our demands to the state government. They must find a process to include such the poor and uneducated women. How can you call them foreigners when they have lived all their lives here. These are not women who can afford to go to the foreign tribunal several times as they are too poor. We are helping a few of them. We want the government to set up District Magistrate Investigating Team (DMIT), which will help update the documents of such women. This was one of the steps recommended by the Supreme Court. But, the state did it only for a month for the sake of doing it. We want them to re-start it. We are planning to go on a protest if the state government doesn’t acknowledge our demands,” underscored Tamang.
As for Rahendra Hajong and his wife Sita Devi, they are waiting for a copy of the notice to understand why she was excluded. They remain clueless as to what their next course of action will be. Rahendra wonders if he will be without his wife soon. “Doesn’t the government understand that most of those excluded are the poor. How many times will be go to foreign tribunals and we don’t have so much money,” ends Hajong on a doleful note.