It has been more than a year since my three-year-old son started attending preschool. Like many other parents, I was nervous on his first day—I was worried that he might not be able to get along with his classmates—but as he spent more time without us, I slowly felt pride, and then happiness. That first day, when he came out through the preschool’s narrow gate, his eyes were teary and he looked frightened. I hugged him. His tears disappeared soon, and he began telling me about his day.
He has settled down now. He has many friends. Every day, he has a new story to tell. In the living room of our rented house he often plays with our landlord’s young daughter. They sometimes sing together: “bilote halise dhunia podumi phool”—In the pond a lotus sways. I never had the flawless Assamese pronunciation that he has already acquired in the first three years of his life. Listening to him, I feel immensely proud.
But when I look at him, I also feel immense fear.
I am reminded of my own childhood. My father never told me that the world outside his warmth and protection would be hostile to me. This only became apparent to me when I first visited Guwahati. It was here that I first realised that I have another identity, a subordinate identity—I was a miya, a Bengali-origin Muslim, seen in Assam as an outsider, a suspected Bangladeshi.
Every year, a large number of people from my native place in Barpeta district of western Assam migrate seasonally to Guwahati to work in various unorganised sectors. When I was 14 years old, I went to see the city and write a homework essay on how I spent my summer break. Late one afternoon, my uncle Sirajul Haque and I were waiting to cross a busy road in Guwahati’s Lalganesh area. My uncle, who was then in his forties, had not been keeping well for two days, and had been unable to ply his rickshaw.
A group of young men stood nearby. They asked him to help push start a vehicle. My uncle began telling them about his health. The words had barely left his mouth when the young men began cursing at him. They called him “Kela Miya” and “Bangladeshi” while kicking him. My middle-aged uncle pleaded for mercy with folded hands, but the young men did not relent. I was scared and fled the scene. I ran down a dark lane and disappeared, reaching the rented tenement where we were staying. Uncle also returned after a while. He didn’t go to the pharmacy. As my other relatives prepared the evening meal, he lay in one corner and would not speak to anyone. He could not eat properly. I also kept quiet, did not tell anyone about the incident. I could not sleep that night. Whenever I closed my eyes, the image of my uncle played again and again, like a motion picture.
I came back to my village with a heavy heart. I could not write that essay. For some reason, I resolved that day that I would continue to study, at any cost. I wanted to be Assamese—a better Axomiya then anyone else, whose identity cannot be questioned by anyone. I learned the language. I imbibed the cuisine. I immersed myself in the tunes of Bihu songs. I did not realise when this became my life’s biggest mission—from my classroom to my workplace, from my emotions to my imagination, my focus was to be Axomiya.
But every so often, I would be reminded that my efforts to be Axomiya were not enough. My accent was not pure—I was reminded that the dialect I spoke at home was filthy. I was warned that my lungi could not be a part of Axomiya identity. I was reminded that my ancestors were not the sons and daughters of this soil.
Sometimes these warnings were violent—either verbal or physical—but sometimes, they were devoid of any action. I studied law for a few years at Assam University in Silchar, although I was unable to complete the course due to financial constraints. Silchar, a town in the Barak Valley, is known as the heartland for Bengali nationalism in Assam. One day, I met an Assamese senior in the hostel. We introduced ourselves. When I told him where I lived—an address in the Barpeta district—he nonchalantly replied, “Oh, tumi Miya?”—You’re a Miya? When I said yes, he silently walked away down the stairs, as if uninterested in talking to a Miya. I could not move for a few moments. I never had the courage to talk to him again.
I often wonder what makes him—and others like him—so powerful, and me so vulnerable. I ask myself why I felt subordinate in the first place. Why did I not revolt against the young men who punched my uncle? Why didn’t I kick them back? What made me think the quality of their Assamese accent, the language and culture they possess is superior? What compelled me to think that without imitating their way of life, I could not be a dignified Assamese? Why can’t my accent, my dialect, my costume and culture be the part of the greater Assamese identity?
The answer lies in the century-long histories of oppression, persecution and production of unlimited fear. Miya Muslims like me are not part of the Assamese vision, which begins and ends with the indigenous Axomiyas. Though we have been living and working on this land for centuries—often for the so-called indigenous Axomiyas—we are not to be allowed in. This xenophobia has been formalised in the National Register of Citizens, which threatens to delegitimise any person who cannot prove their credentials to the satisfaction of the Axomiya state. It has weaponised all aspects of our identity, using them to keep us out of our own state and nation.
My uncle, who was abused by the so-called sons of the soil, has lost his soil to the erosion of the river Beki, one of the ferocious tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra. Every year in Assam, thousands of people living on the chars—riverine islands—and along river banks, mostly Miya Muslims, get uprooted because of erosion. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries swell during the rains, swallowing parts of the chars and leaving their residents with no choice but to move inland. In any other part of the country, the victims of such erosion would be likely to receive compensation and rehabilitation from the government, or at least ask for it. In 1995, my uncle lost his land to the river and shifted to our village, hardly three kilometres from his previous home. Instead of a rehabilitation grant, he was served a notice by the Foreigners Tribunal, asking him to prove his Indian nationality.
He was not the only person in the family whose identity fell under suspicion after they moved inland. His elder brother, who also settled in our village along with him, was marked a D-voter—a “doubtful” voter, suspected of being an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant and required to prove his identity before the tribunal as well. Though our village is hardly seven kilometres from the district headquarters, it still does not have access to all-weather roads. Throughout the summer and monsoon months, our houses remain surrounded by water. Often, my uncle would call out my name in his loud voice, telling me to come to his house, or he would sail his banana raft across the water to come to ours. We would discuss the progress of their cases. In these conversations, he would appear confident in his ability to prove his Indian nationality. But I could see the fear and anxiety on his face.
One Monday, both my uncles went to the Foreigners Tribunal at the district headquarters to face trial. While they were on their way back, the elder brother suddenly collapsed from a stroke. He died before he could be taken to the hospital.
This is the cost my uncle paid to defend his Indian citizenship—the life of his elder brother, then five bighas of land, which he sold to cover the court expenses. After his brother’s death, my uncle also became responsible for four more family members. He risked the abuse of being called a Bangladeshi once again, and went back to Guwahati to pull a rickshaw so that he could feed his family.
My uncles are not my only relatives to be labelled D-voters. In 1997, nearly four lakh people across the state—mostly Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus—were marked D-voters. Two members of my extended family made this list—a widowed aunt, and another uncle. My aunt became a widow at a very early age. She had a tough time looking after her five minor children. Being designated a D-voter increased her vulnerability, but her indomitable courage and resilience helped to look after the family with her meagre income from labouring in the fields. My “doubtful” uncle has a master’s degree in economics from Gauhati University and teaches in a government school. During elections, he would perform the duty of a presiding officer, even though he was barred from exercising his voting rights for almost two decades.
“D” is not the only category that haunts my family members and me. A few years ago, personnel from the Assam Police’s border unit—which has over four thousand members, who have the power to ask anyone to prove their identity as Indians, and to refer any citizens to a tribunal—raided a rented house in Guwahati’s Dhirenpara neighbourhood, where residents of my village, who had travelled there to work in the informal sector, were staying. The police asked for their citizenship documents, noted down their names and addresses, and took impressions of their fingerprints on blank papers. After almost a year, they started receiving notices from the Foreigners Tribunal, asking them to prove their citizenship. Among those who received these summons were two of my uncles, and one cousin, who sells jhaalmuri—a type of rice puff—on the streets in Guwahati. My relatives were able to successfully defend their citizenship, but I cannot forget the looks of fear on their faces when they first received the notices.
Compared to many others, my family members were fortunate. Even aside from the D-voters, nearly 2.5 lakh people in the state—most of them poor like my uncles and cousin—have been referred to the Foreigners Tribunals under suspicion of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. There are cases where government officials, including those from the army, the air force, the border security forces and the police, as well as schoolteachers, have been suspected and referred to the tribunal. There are cases where one person has been referred to the tribunal several times, even after the same tribunal declared them an Indian citizen. The border police is never held accountable for such errors, or for inflicting this burden on citizens—it does this work with absolute impunity, guaranteed under the draconian Foreigners Act of 1946.
The tribunals themselves have become houses of horror for Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus. The institution is supposed to deliver justice, but has in reality worked like a slaughterhouse, snatching the citizenship and rights of rightful residents of Assam. Like the border police, the tribunals are a one-of-a-kind system, plying only in Assam. The quasi-judicial body hears the cases of people whose citizenship is doubted by the state. The cases are decided not by judicial officers, but by mostly lawyers appointed as members of the tribunal on a contractual basis. There are a hundred such tribunals operating across the state. Their members are appointed by the government, remunerated by the government, appraised by the government, and if found unsatisfactory, shown the door by the government. In 2017, 19 members of the tribunals were removed from office. It has been reported thatthese members were removed in part because they did not declare enough people “foreigners,” as the border police that referred these cases had claimed they were.
According to government records, over ninety thousand people have been declared foreigners, of which more than twenty-six thousand cases were decided by ex-parte decree in the absence of the respondents. Nearly a thousand of them are being held in six makeshift detention centres, housed inside jails across the state.
I visited several of these jails. I went to the detention centres as part of a research contingent—in January this year, the activist and writer Harsh Mander, then the special monitor of the National Human Rights Commission, invited me to join an NHRC Mission to examine the due process through which a person is sent to a detention centre, study the centres, and assess the human-rights situation of the detainees.
Over these visits, the little hope I had remaining turned into despair. The detention centres are nothing but sections within district jails that have been cordoned off to house those who have been declared foreigners. The detainees are not allowed any formal communication with their relatives. The detainees do not have access to legal recourse such as appeals—the tribunals do not hear appeals, so the detainees can only file cost-intensive writs in the high court or the Supreme Court. Inside the detention camps, they live as convicted criminals.
At a camp in Kokrajhar, I met an elderly woman detainee, who couldn’t stand straight. With her half-bent body, she crawled towards me, and tried to touch my feet. I stepped back. She rolled on the floor of the camp and began howling, with what seemed like all the might of her skinny body. She begged me for death—a mercy death.
I met a woman whose four-year-old son lives in the camp with her. She told me that when she was brought to the detention centre, he was 14 days old. Since then, the boy hasn’t seen the world outside the four walls of jail.
In the Goalpara detention centre, there were more than fifty actual Bangladeshis. Their circumstances showed how little concern the state has for those it deems foreigners. Some of the people we met had been there for nearly a decade, with little or no contact with the outside world. One of the detainees showed me a torn piece of paper with a Bangladeshi phone number. He had memorised the number five years earlier when he was first brought to the centre, and had now scrawled it on the paper, in the hope that he would one day get to call his family and inform them of his whereabouts. While my community is abused as illegal Bangladeshi on a daily basis, while lakhs of us are stripped of our citizenship rights, thousands arbitrarily declared foreigners and hundreds detained, actual Bangladeshis are dying to go back to their country. The government is taking no steps to make this happen.
After I returned from the detention centre, the innocent face of the boy continued to haunt me for a long time. Even now, I imagine my son in his place. The very thought sends a shiver down my spine.
I tried thinking of my visit as a privilege. After all, I had a firsthand experience of the horrors that people from my state were being subjected to. I became hopeful. I worked to document every important detail, so that when the report went to National Human Rights Commission and subsequently to my government, it could result in some positive change. My confidence was bolstered by various details that I was privy to—for instance, the mother of the four-year-old child was neither a Miya nor a Bengali Hindu, she belongs to the so-called indigenous Muslim community, a khati—pure—Axomiya. I was sure that my chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, who has built his political career on the campaign platform of protecting the rights of indigenous Assamese, would not tolerate this gross violation of their human rights.
But I was wrong again. Mander submitted the report to the NHRC, detailing the inhuman conditions of detainees and the procedural drawbacks of the process, as well as suggesting remedies. The NHRC—the highest quasi-judicial body in the country, which is mandated to protect the human rights of every individual, especially disadvantaged groups such as women, children and minorities—did not respond even after repeated follow-ups. This forced Mander to resign from the position of special monitor. He wrote a compassionate essay calling the detention centres “the dark side of humanity and legality.”
In June, four special rapporteurs of United Nations Human Right Council wrote a letter to the ministry of external affairs, expressing its alarm and concern at complaints it had received about the exclusionary measures being taken by the NRC authority and the Election Commission. The measures, it feared, would exacerbate the discrimination faced by Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus, “who may wrongfully be declared as ‘foreigners’ and consequently rendered stateless” or deprived “of the right to political participation and representation.”
The letter cast the national spotlight on the NRC process. National and international media, which had so far paid little attention to the issues and concerns of Miya Muslims such as myself, began giving us coverage. No doubt there were issues—a community, many members of which have lived in Assam for generations and have done everything within their power to assimilate into Assamese society and culture, was referred to simply as “Bengali,” either Muslim or Hindu. Nevertheless, these stories highlighted the plight of the Assamese speaking Miya Muslims, especially the role of foreigners tribunaland border police, or the pathetic conditions of people living in the chars of Assam.
I expected that this would help bring some justice to the people fighting the biased tribunal and languishing in detention centres across the state. But the Assamese nationalists had a different plan. A counter-campaign soon ensued in Assamese media, accusing an imaginary vested interest group of acting against the interests of the state, and attacking human-rights workers such as Mander for attempting to throw a spanner into the works of the NRC.
An error-free NRC is not the demand of only the so-called Assamese nationalists, but also for a Miya like me, whose Assamese identity has always been under question. In July 2010, along with three others, my wife’s nephew was killed in police firing. They were protesting against the pilot project of the NRC being conducted. One of the columns in the form led to much anger as it asked for the country of origin. They were demanding an error-free NRC. My community viewed the NRC—a document that would officially grant us our identities—as a weapon to fight the humiliation and persecution we faced.
This belief was systematically destroyed as dozens of exclusionary filters were put into the updating process, including the clause of the so-called “Original Inhabitants” to exclude Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus. The issue of D-voters could have been solved along with the NRC updating process, but excluding the descendants of people deemed foreigners by the tribunals has created more problems.
When someone raises these questions against these exclusionary and discriminatory processes, they become anti-Assamese even in the eyes of the so-called liberal Assamese intellectuals. My liberal Assamese friends accuse me of not being sensitive to the “threat” they are facing from the supposed large-scale migration from Bangladesh. I almost want to feel this threat, but when I look back at my life, I realise that this threat is me—a Miya.
I think of my mission to be called Axomiya. If I lay claim to Srimanta Sankardev, the architect of modern Assamese society, if I prefer organising Bihu over an Eid mehfil—we stopped celebrating the Bengali New Year over a century ago—if I feel proud when my son sings the songs of the revolutionary Assamese cultural icon Bishnu Rabha, then what threat do I carry? Why do the Assamese chauvinists question my identity despite me having a history of five generations living in this land?
I realise that my Axomiya qualities do not matter. What matters is that I am not them. They are not concerned about deporting illegal immigrants. The “threat” is not about a threat to the Assamese language or the culture—Miya Muslims like me are a threat to their privilege and supremacy.
I do not know how to explain to them how I feel when I see my mainstream Assamese friends and their children being included in the NRC without having to produce so much as a document, while our credentials are examined thoroughly. If the NRC process is a test and everybody consented to participate, why is there not a level playing field?
Even our supposed allies appear not to understand. During the Assam Agitation in the 1980s, when the demand to update the NRC became a point of fierce contention, Hiren Gohain was one of the few intellectuals who described the agitation as hollow. An outspoken public intellectual, Gohain is also a fierce critic of the BJP’s majoritarian rule. But even he couches his descriptions of the suffering of Assam’s Muslims with the terms “seems” and “maybe.”
Although he said in an interview with Al Jazeera that everyone who came to Assam before 1971 should be termed natives of this land, Gohain clarified many things for the people of Assam, especially Miya Muslims, in a recent Assamese-language article. He gave us a suggestion, saying that Miya Muslims “should not forget that seeking safety from platoons of police and CRPFs is delusional. Their safety and the preservation of their basic day to day life is chiefly dependent on the trust and goodwill of the indigenous people.”
If I understand him correctly, I must console myself that my self-respect, my pride of being Assamese, or even my mere existence in this part of the world, is not only dependent on the trust and goodwill of the indigenous Assamese people but also on their kindness and grace. If the indigenous people do not trust us, Gohain appears to be saying that the world’s largest democracy cannot provide us security or protection. Gohain is not just another intellectual— for our community, he was the epitome of courage and struggle. When he suggests that we not seek protection and justice from the state and surrender before the supremacy of indigenous people, I understand why thousands of my community members massacred in Nellie, Nagabanda, Chaolkhuwa, Bahbari, and Khagrabari did not get justice.
Gohain’s words, though hurtful, have a kernel of truth—I no longer trust the state to accept that I am Axomiya, to protect my rights. But I will survive. Swallowing abuse and humiliation has made me resilient. I have learnt how to live like a second-grade Axomiya. I only wonder how to prepare my three-year old son.
Abdul Kalam Azad is an independent researcher, formerly with Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati.