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My vote, my only identity — migrants’ plight

Nearly 40,000 Assamese migrants live in Uttar Pradesh in deplorable conditions. Their biggest grouse is that despite carrying valid ID cards, they are still being labelled as Bangladeshis. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt
The Hindu

Nearly 40,000 Assamese migrants live in Uttar Pradesh in deplorable conditions. Their biggest grouse is that despite carrying valid ID cards, they are still being labelled as Bangladeshis. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Fear of being struck off voters’ lists and branded Bangladeshis haunts the poverty-stricken migrants.

Ismael left the Brahmaputra plains for Lucknow around 15 years ago hoping for a better livelihood. Back home in Assam’s Barpeta district, he had to struggle as a farm labourer on abysmally low wages.

In the Uttar Pradesh capital, following the path of other Assamese migrants, Ismael took to rag-picking for a living. Though in Lucknow he is assured of a relatively stable income, even if low, and is safe from the violence of the ethnic Bodo movement, he has to subsist in deplorable conditions.

However, hundreds of kilometres away from home, far from the economic considerations that led to his initial migration, his biggest concern is the fear of losing his Indian citizenship. It is this threat of “identity crisis” and State persecution that drives him to vote in every election. And in a few days time, Ismael, along with hundreds of other Assamese migrants living in Lucknow’s slums, will make a 36-hour train journey passing through Kokrajhar — the district notorious for Bodo violence — to cast his vote in the upcoming Assam Assembly elections.

“If I do not vote, they will strike my name off the voter’s list (in Assam) and term me a defaulter. I will be branded a Bangladeshi and all chaos will descend upon my life,” says Ismael, who is in his mid-thirties.

Bottom of the pile

Poverty, unemployment and the destruction caused by floods have forced thousands of Assamese to flee the State over the past three decades. The migration peaked with the violence of the Bodoland movement. NGO Vigyan Foundation estimates that 50,000-60,000 Assamese migrants live in Lucknow.

Once cut-off from the electoral list, getting re-enrolled is a painful exercise, says Mohammad Qasim, who once sold jute products in Assam.

“‘Where were you during the time of voting — Bangladesh?’ This is how they taunt us if we are absent. We have to spend a lot of money and make many trips to get our names re-enlisted. If we do not have a valid ID, we are harassed as Bangladeshis, and sometimes even picked up as terrorists,” says Mr. Qasim.

Iddis Ali (21), who hails from Bongaigon district, adjoining Kokrajhar, is one of the few who has managed to go to college. An art student at the DAV college, he hopes to secure a stable job some day, away from the shambles of rag-picking.

With the BJP intensifying its campaign against “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” in the Assam elections, these migrants are more determined to make the journey home this time.

However, the trip is not only tedious — besides that Bodo militants have been known to sabotage trains — but also dents the pocket of the impoverished migrants.

Worry over displacement

One migrant Hazrat Ali, 35, recently sold his trolley to fund his two-way journey. “The threat of being de-franchised is our major concern. But it is also our responsibility to vote,” said Iddis, who will vote in his first State election. He favours Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, which also sent aid to the slum when it was ravaged by a fire last November. While administrative conditions hinder the transfer of their voter cards to Lucknow, most are unwilling to adopt the local identity as they fear an impending displacement, that would rob them of their roots. Many of their families live back in Assam.

“If I am removed from my roots, I will lost my identity as everywhere else I would be looked upon as a Bangladeshi,” said Iddis. In UP, Assamese migrants are also found in Jhansi, Kanpur, Meerut, Ghaziabad and Gorakhpur. Not only do their physical and linguistic resemblance to Bangladeshis make them easy targets of police harassment, the politics over their identity also restricts their entitlements as citizens, experts say. Sandeep Khare, Vigyan Foundation secretary, and Magsaysay awardee Sandeep Pandey, who have both worked for the improvement of the migrants’ conditions, concur that by terming these migrants as “Bangladeshis”, the administration abdicates all responsibilities of giving them entitlements of a citizen. In contrast, the migrants play a major role in keeping the city clean. Mr. Khare estimates that these migrants contribute around 60 percent of the garbage cleaning in Lucknow but are themselves subjected to wretched conditions and little official protection. “Most of them are bound to thekedars, who have 10-15 rag pickers under them. Some families may work independently most are dependent on the thekedars, who exploit them through un-repaid loans—it works in the frame of bonded labour,” Mr. Khare said.

Mr. Pandey says the Bangladeshi tag gives the administration a “convenient excuse” to take their hands-off from these migrants.http://www.thehindu.com/elections/assam2016/assam-assembly-elections-2016-my-vote-my-only-identity-migrants-plight/article8357556.ece?homepage=true

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