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Strangers in Their Own Land
Assam’s Bengali-origin Muslims face disenfranchisement and indignity
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In March 2020, Abubakkar Siddique walked out of Central Jail in Jorhat, a commercial town in eastern Assam, the most populous of the eight states that make up India’s northeastern region. The day he was released, the weather was pleasant—typical of the tail end of the winter season in Assam, before the summer hits and the humidity escalates. But his face didn’t portray the elation that is generally seen among prisoners on the day they are set free.

No one from Siddique’s family in Dhubri district’s Adabari village—located over three hundred miles away in the extreme west of Assam, near the riverine border with Bangladesh—came to receive him. Nor did he first head home to see his parents, his wife, Rohima Khatun, or their three children, the youngest of whom was born just six months before he was incarcerated in November 2016. Instead, he mechanically checked into the residence of Soman Ali, a Jorhat resident from his village who had offered the surety for his bail, which came with the stringent conditions that Siddique report to the Border branch of the local police station every week for the foreseeable future. (Border Police—the Indian version of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement [ICE]—is made up of over four thousand personnel, most of whom are former military officials or members of the Assam Police force.) Failure to report could haul Siddique back to prison where he risked dying of Covid, medical negligence, or an illness arising from overcrowding and low nutritional and hygiene standards inside. “My bedding was right next to one man who was arrested on rape charges and another who was serving a sentence for murder,” he told me when I first met him ten days after his release. “They used to talk to me.”

Siddique first traveled east to Jorhat in 2008 to work as a construction laborer. Then twenty-two years old, he was eager to leave behind his family’s farm for a bigger town. Only after arrival did he realize that this job was extremely taxing and paid no more than the equivalent of four dollars per day without any perks or benefits. Soon, his hands were badly bruised, and after a month, with great frustration, he returned to his village.

While Siddique was able to return, this is not the case for thousands of other laborers from western Assam who migrate east in search of work, and who are predominantly Muslims of Bengali origin. Year after year, they leave home in search of income, mostly working on construction sites and at odd jobs in the state’s largest city, Guwahati, and in larger towns throughout the upper Brahmaputra Valley. Development projects are few and far between in western Assam, which is still predominantly agrarian; as climate change and floods worsen, households can no longer survive solely on kharif (monsoon) crops.

Economic hardship is not the only problem afflicting Assam’s Bengali-origin Muslims. While Muslim peasants from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) have been settling in western Assam since the early twentieth century, in recent decades they have come to be perceived increasingly as bidexis (foreigners) in their own state, accused of “illegally” migrating there from Bangladesh. (The 1985 Assam Accord, a piece of legislation discussed later, declared all of those who arrived in the state after Bangladesh’s independence in March 1971 as “alien.”) Siddique—who, with his dark-skin, rugged face, and lanky build, squarely fits the conventional Assamese caricature of a bidexi—was made aware of this prejudice while working in Jorhat. “In 2008, some people showed up at the residence where I was staying with twelve other laborers,” he told me. “We were at work. But the house cook ended up giving our names to them.” Soon after, some of those laborers and the contractor who had brought them to Jorhat were summoned to provide “proof” of their Indian citizenship at the local police station. Siddique never found out who had notified the police.

Six years later, Siddique received another notice, this time at his home in Dhubri. It summoned him to a Foreigners Tribunal in Jorhat—which is one of a hundred quasi-judicial courts that were established in Assam to identify and deport illegal foreigners—but did not offer any reasons for why his status came under suspicion or doubt. (Siddique, whose ancestors came to India from East Pakistan before independence, has never left Assam.) On November 10, 2016, the tribunal found that he could not satisfactorily prove himself to be Indian and threw him into a detention center pending deportation. Where to, they wouldn’t say.

When Siddique emerged from detention, he learned that his parents had sold off the family possessions—farmland, cattle, his old motorbike—to raise money for his $1,260 bail. Worse still, this process still left him rendered legally stateless. Now, the voter card and a slim notebook where he records his weekly appearances before the Border Police serve as his lifeline. Siddique is one of 143,466 people caught in a catch-22 who, since 1985, have been declared foreigners in Assam and deemed “illegal” by Indian law but have not—and likely will never be—deported elsewhere.

Abubakkar Siddique stands for a portrait near his rented house in Jorhat, Assam, in March 2020. © Prakash Bhuyan.

Rule with Impunity

I first heard about Siddique’s case in 2018 when I was reporting in Dhubri on the struggles of the 1.9 million people who were excluded from the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Originally developed in 1951 as part of independent India’s first census, this misleadingly titled registry is supposed to contain a list of “official”—or “legal”—Indian residents of Assam. In 2019, the Indian Supreme Court completed the NRC’s first update since its inception to detect “doubtful” voters, but the NRC does not determine citizenship, nor does it correct the voter list. During the process, which began in 2015 and was funded by the federal government, Assam’s state government reviewed some sixty-six million documents submitted by over thirty million applicants. Those who didn’t make the final draft were likely to face detention or deportation.

Assam’s Bengali-origin Muslims have come to be perceived increasingly as foreigners in their own state.

Predictably, the NRC exercise was highly polarized along religious lines. The atmosphere in Dhubri, where the Bengali Hindu mercantile class dominates, was rife with paranoia. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—a militant Hindu right organization and ideological parent of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)—and its affiliate bodies had come to the aid of Hindus, while Muslims were helped by the religious organization Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind. Meanwhile, at a federal level, the BJP passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), paving the way for the naturalization of all non-Muslim migrants who came to India before December 31, 2014 from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The BJP claims that the CAA is a humanitarian gesture intended to help religious minorities fleeing surrounding countries, despite the law making clear that all other non-Muslim religions were exempt from new citizenship checks—that in effect, it codified the selective disenfranchisement of Muslims as a whole. The announcement of the CAA sparked nationwide protests, and international media coverage, including in this magazine. But Bengali Muslims in Dhubri’s rural interiors were in dire straits long before the CAA. (It should be noted here that while they may oppose the CAA, both Bengali-origin and Assamese Muslims have supported the NRC, albeit for different reasons. Deshi Muslims, who’d been living in Assam for several generations, supported the mainstream demand for identifying the post-1971 illegal migrants; Bengali-speaking Muslims believed the NRC would allow them once and for all to clarify their residency—ergo Indian citizenship—in Assam prior to the cut-off date.)

In response to the flood of refugees escaping civil war in East Pakistan in the late 1960s, where Bengali Muslims were fighting to assert their bhasha (language) against the imposition of Urdu by their West Pakistani counterparts, two institutions were established to verify citizenship in Assam: the Foreigners Tribunals (FTs) and Border Police. FTs function similarly to the NRC in that they operate through paperwork; those under trial are required to provide legal documentation either of their residence or that of their (male) ancestors prior to March 25, 1971—the day before Bangladesh was created—and Bangladesh agreed to take responsibility for those who moved to India after that date. If they fail to furnish said documentation, they are deemed “illegal.” For their part, the Border Police identify suspected foreigners in Assam’s interior districts, including migrants who have been settled for over five decades since 1971.

My investigations in Assam revealed that in recent years these institutions have been systematically used to target and disenfranchise Bengali Muslims. On the one hand, the FTs and Border Police have been under political pressure to inflate statistics on the presence of “illegal foreigners” from Bangladesh, which in turn has led to them identifying in detail—but often at random—the state’s Muslim residents. On the other hand, non-state actors such as right-wing Hindu vigilantes and Assamese nationalists have been aiding state agents in this process. Together they’ve drafted a playbook for the Hindu nationalist BJP government to profile and criminalize ethnic and religious minorities as “illegal” foreigners, relegating them to a legal purgatory of statelessness in perpetuity. Furthermore, minorities of transnational identity—i.e., communities living on both sides of the border—are more vulnerable to state-backed and public-supported campaigns of profiling, discrimination, and arbitrary trial or detention.

A River Runs Through It

From its inception, India’s Northeast region has been a source of deep contention and exasperation for the country—no less than the disputed territory of Kashmir. Connected to the Indian mainland by a narrow strip of land known as the “chicken neck,” which is sandwiched between Nepal and Bangladesh, the region of eight states borders three additional countries: Bhutan, Myanmar, and the Republic of China. Years before the British formally agreed to independence in 1947, the Northeast “Frontier” had already witnessed several overlapping uprisings against the notion of an Indian nation state, as it was imagined in New Delhi, all while surrounding countries contested their claims to it. The Indian National Congress, which led the freedom struggle against the British, had little representation in the Northeast, where the Naga hill tribes were fighting for self-determination and the royal monarch of Manipur for an independent state—though both were eventually coerced into merging with the Indian union in 1947 and 1949, respectively. In this milieu, Assam was an exception: fighting, instead, to be a part of India because of the looming threat that it might be merged with East Pakistan.

Often, those under trial must build cases for themselves without ever learning on what grounds they were suspected.

Over the centuries, Assam has played host to communities that have migrated there from the east and west, settling in the two valleys divided by the mighty Brahmaputra and Barak rivers. Originally home to numerous communities such as the Bodos, Dimasas, Kacharis, and Mising, it saw an influx of both Hindus and Muslims during the medieval period. Identities here were as fluid as the landmass, constantly made and unmade by the shifting rivers—that is, until Chaolung Sukapha, an Ahom ruler from Yunnan province in precolonial Burma, invaded in 1228 and established a six-hundred-year dynasty. The Ahom rulers subjugated the smaller monarchies, like the Chutias (pronounced Sutias) and Kacharis, into the larger Assamese identity, as the Tai/Shan-origin rulers adopted the Axomiya (Assamese) language and Hinduism.

Under colonial rule, especially after the partition of Bengal Province—which, in 1905, included Assam—there were drastic shifts in the region’s demography, as workers from the Chotanagpur plateau in eastern India were brought to cultivate tea in Assam’s “wastelands.” The British administration specifically encouraged the migration of Bengali Muslims from Deltaic East Bengal from the early nineteenth century—a policy that gained momentum under the “grow more food” program of the 1940s. The historian Sanjib Baruah has written at length about the “seismic” effects that migration from eastern Bengal had on Assamese politics and culture. He explains that by the 1940s, tension between migrants and locals—Bengali Hindus and Assamese Hindus on the one hand, and Bengali Muslims and Assamese tribals on the other—had already been brewing for two decades. Matters came to a head by the late sixties, as waves of both Hindu and Muslim refugees from East Pakistan’s bloody war of separation began arriving in West Bengal and Assam. It was then that the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), a conglomerate organization of various ethnic student unions, rose to prominence and sparked a new wave of xenophobic passion.

The AASU was originally formed in 1916 as a literary club, the Assam Chattra Sanmilan, that promoted Assamese against Bengali, which was seen as the language of the administrative elite. By the sixties, however, it had evolved into a full-fledged political organization, backed by vigilante-fueled muscle power, with a presence across the state. Capitalizing on public grievance around unmanned border checkpoints and unabated migration, the AASU launched the Assam Agitation movement against illegal foreigners in the late seventies. As the prime movers behind protests, oil and gas strikes, and even ethnic clashes, they were made a signatory to the Assam Accord signed in 1985. The three-way agreement between the AASU and federal and state governments brought an end to the six-year-long civil disobedience movement. After the Assam Accord, many AASU leaders branched out into politics and formed the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).

Though they won state elections twice, first in 1985 and again in 1996, the AGP has failed to maintain political momentum. Yet the party transformed the state’s political complexion by framing itself as the official representative of Assamese “indigeneity,” often speaking on behalf of the state’s various ethnic groups and tribes. Moreover, the AASU became an organizational model for dozens of student groups (e.g., the All Bodo Students Union, the Khasi Students Union, and so forth) to ostensibly protect their language, land, and women. These groups followed the strategy of demonizing “outsiders” and agitating for power in various state departments. In the 2000s, when the RSS finally broke through in Assam, the stage was set for a violent conflagration and acceleration of Islamophobia.

Siddique was released from the detention center on the condition that he makes weekly appearances at the Jorhat police station. He started recording the dates in this notebook. © Prakash Bhuyan.

Going Rogue for the State

Around the same time Siddique first appeared on the Border Police’s radar, over a hundred miles away in the north bank of the Brahmaputra, a local businessman was commanding an army of thousands of young volunteers across the valley. The Asom Sena (Assam army) was formed in 2005 as a vigilante wing of the AASU, with an aim to “secure regional interests” in the state’s economy. Led by its first chief convener, Niranjan Nath, it had also taken on a mission to “tip off the police on suspected foreigners,” as the fifty-one-year-old businessman told me at a cafe in Guwahati last December. Lamenting that the Border Police were incompetent, Nath claimed the Asom Sena was doing its job for them. “It’s not like we just catch anyone walking on the road,” he clarified. “We keep a check on places where foreigners live, basically minority [a euphemism for Muslims] areas. If we have a doubt, then we make inquiries about their origins and arrival.”

India’s Northeast region has been a source of deep contention and exasperation for the country.

By 2015, the Asom Sena was eventually dissolved after an internal dispute over whether its members should take up arms, a senior AASU leader told me on the condition of anonymity. But by then, several other vigilante groups had sprung up in the state. Among these are the Veer Lachit Sena, which formed in Jorhat in 2010. When I was in Sibsagar in November 2021, I met thirty-two-year-old Shrinkhal Chaliha who headed the Veer Lachit Sena within that district. A former AASU leader at his school and college days, Chaliha had switched to the Veer Lachit Sena because he was attracted to its more overtly militant approach, which recalls that of Bal Thackeray (1926–2012), a chauvinist Marathi politician who led campaigns to oust “outsiders” from the state of Maharashtra. He believes the Sena stands up for Indigenous Assamese who are being overrun by outsiders, whether from Bengal, Bihar, or Marwar. When I told Chaliha that I had met Miyas—a pejorative term used for Bengali Muslims—who were in possession of documents dating back to 1951 that prove their citizenship, his response was prompt: “They’ve managed to secure them during the Congress era, but they’re all fake.”

One likely victim of such vigilante groups is forty-year-old Kitfur Rahman, who in 2014 was rounded up by police with twelve other laborers in the Upper Assam town of Moran. Like Siddique, they had been brought by a contractor from Dhubri to build a bridge under the state public works department. When I met him in November 2021 at his native home, a small, single-story house, Rahman told me, “Police showed up in the afternoon while we were having lunch. They asked to see our documents.” When the laborers said they didn’t have them, the police took down their addresses. A year later, a notice was sent to Rahman’s home in Dhubri, summoning him to the FT in Jorhat. “It was Asom Sena only,” Rahman said pointedly, as his former landlord—a schoolteacher and district AASU president—belonged to the organization. “He reported all of us, including the contractor.” After being declared an illegal foreigner of the post-1971 stream, Rahman served more than two years in the Jorhat Central Jail.

Rahman and his brothers, who have been traveling around Assam for work since the nineties, said that harassment by Assamese vigilante groups had peaked around 2014, after the BJP came to power in New Delhi. Then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had warned illegal immigrants to “pack their bags” just days after thirty Muslims were gunned down in ethnic clashes in Kokrajhar in 2012. “It was happening all over Assam. In Sibsagar, Veer Lachit Sena bash up any laborer coming from Dhubri, as if anyone from here is a Bangladeshi,” said Zilani Rahman, Kitfur’s younger brother, who runs a small business and lives separately with his own family in a more modern and spacious apartment. Though they are the ones building the bridges, culverts, government quarters, and commercial buildings, the Border Police refer to them as “illegal foreigners.”

Despite my attempts to interview the sardar (labor contractor) who brought Rahman to upper Assam, he could not be reached. Although Siddique managed to get his former contractor on the phone line, he refused to speak to me.

In his first book, India Against Itself, Sanjib Baruah discusses the pre-independence Assamese nationalist Ambikagiri Raichoudhury, who had formed the “volunteer corps” Axom Atmarokhwinin Bahini (Assam self-defense force) to “resist further immigration” to the region. Although Raichoudhury’s ideas had been significant in the resurgence of Assamese nationalism, Baruah argues that the present movement to reduce Bengali settlers to noncitizenship would have met with his disapproval. “Raichoudhury was also a strong advocate of the acculturation of immigrants into the Assamese way of life,” Baruah recently told me on the phone. “That the descendants of east Bengali immigrants settled in the Brahmaputra Valley are almost all native Assamese speakers can be seen as a realization of his dream.”

On December 16, 2019, protesters listen to an address by chief advisor Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharya and general secretary of All Assam Student Union (AASU) Lurinjyoti Gogoi, in Guwahati, Assam. © Prakash Bhuyan.

Papercuts

Rahman was Siddique’s fellow inmate in the Jorhat Central Jail before he was conditionally released in 2019. While incarcerated, he claimed to have ascertained that the eleven hundred inmates with him were all legal Indians. “I checked all their documents since I could read a bit of English,” he told me. “Five of them were Bengali Hindus who were born here but their father had crossed over from Bangladesh.” However, most of them, he said, were Muslims, likely targeted by the Border Police for their identity.

Siddique may be out of jail but he’s still a prisoner.

This points to a broader practice. Technically, the job of the Border Police is to make inquiries in interior villages and towns, check documents of residents under suspicion, collect evidence including at least two witness statements, and attach them to a report to be submitted to the Superintendent (SP) of the Border branch for referral. But, according to 102 police inquiry reports I had exclusive access to, standard procedure is seldom followed. Some 30 percent of the inquiry forms were left completely blank by the Border Police inquiry officer; in such cases, there wasn’t even a reason listed for why the accused was suspected to be illegal. In 40 percent of the cases, a common refrain was that a person was “prime facie” unable to produce any documents; this was supported by vague assumptions about their “home address” being in Bangladesh and generic reasons for their crossing over, like “domestic problems hardship,” “economic livelihood,” and “poverty.” Many of them were wage laborers. In 27.5 percent of the cases, people were booked despite producing their voter lists as documentary evidence because their names (or their ancestors’ names) which appeared in electoral rolls were found to be “illegible.” In all but three cases, where the district Border SP dropped the inquiry due to lack of evidence, the inquiry report was sent on to the FTs despite a total lack of cogent evidence. Even when documents—like land deeds, the 1951 NRC, voter lists, panchayat certificates, or high school admit cards—were produced, the inquiry officers ignored these, making claims like: “There is no evidence that he entered India before 1971 but there is more evidence that he entered India after.”

The inquiry officer produced witnesses in only 26.5 percent of the cases I had access to. The bureaucratic pressure to detect suspected foreigners is so high that even when fingerprints and a photo were collected in an inquiry—which itself is rare but a requirement—a Bengali Muslim was booked twice in a span of two months. Until I compiled this data, accounts of the Border Police’s shoddy inquiries and false cases were mostly anecdotal, since the person under trial (or even their advocates) rarely had access to their own inquiry reports. Often, those under trial must build cases for themselves without ever learning on what grounds they were suspected. For instance, Siddique, Rahman, and their lawyers have never seen a copy of their inquiry reports. They’ve filed requests to obtain copies of these reports under India’s 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act but were denied by the state government, who cited invalid exemptions.

In places where Border Police officials have followed fair inquiry processes, the FTs still find ways to issue notices. Siddique’s case makes clear just how single-minded they can be in their pursuit of so-called foreigners. Although he submitted ten documents to the tribunal in 2016, his case was rejected for failing to prove his linkage to his grandfather, whose name was recorded in voter lists prior to 1971 as Afer Ali Sheikh and subsequently, Aper Ali. An affidavit submitted saying the two were the same was considered “self-serving” by the Gauhati High Court, where Siddique filed an appeal. Nor did the High Court judges examine any of the flawed evidence produced by the Border Police. In my research, a pattern appeared: the Border Police’s faulty inquiries mostly go unchallenged, both in the FTs and the Gauhati High Court. I analyzed all the Gauhati High Court orders on foreigner cases passed between 2010 and 2019 that were originally procured through the RTI Act by Daksh, a Bengaluru-based nonprofit. Of the 1,536 orders, only 50—or 3.3 percent—cited the findings of the inquiry official or the petitioner explicitly challenging these findings.

FT members, many of whom are lawyers with just seven years of legal practice, are hired on a contractual basis by the state on the recommendation of the Gauhati High Court. But the renewal of their contracts is decided based on the number of persons they successfully declare as foreigners. In Dhubri, a Border Police official told me that there were exceptions wherein the Superintendent has suspended references after an inquiry found a suspected person to be an Indian citizen. However, the newly appointed FT members hired to preside over appeals from those omitted from the NRC have been on overdrive, rejecting police closure reports left and right.

A Border Police official I met in Jorhat’s police station said that the inquiry officers often relied on their experience to detect foreigners, as well as tip-offs from vigilante groups, security guards, village heads, and the like. “One can tell from their looks, the way they dress, and whether they have a Muslim or Bengali name,” he said. In 2017, eleven relatives of the first deputy speaker of the Assam Assembly, Moulavi Muhammad Amiruddin, were referred by the Border Police to the FT. They, too, said the Border Police never met them during the inquiry process and were served a summons directly from the FT. In March 2019, Mohammad Sana Ullah—a Border Police official who had served in the armed forces for thirty years—was declared an illegal foreigner by a tribunal in Boko. The report claimed that Sanaullah was a landless, illiterate farmer found to be suspicious by two witnesses, later discovered to be his relatives, who claimed they’d never met the inquiry officer nor signed any testimony against him.

In the twenty years that FTs operated under the 1983 Illegal Migrants Determination of Tribunals Act (IMDT), and the burden was on the State to prove that a suspected citizen was an illegal foreigner, screening committees acted as a buffer between the Border Police and the FTs. But after the Supreme Court squashed the IMDT in 2015 on the grounds that it was discriminatory toward Assam and violated the Accord, the number of references to the FTs multiplied. A 2012 government white paper reported 42,553 were made between 1985 to 2005, as opposed to 111,122 from 2006 to 2012. Government records obtained through the RTI show that only 112,791 inquiries were forwarded to the IMDTs out of 414,255 referred to the Screening Committee. After the IMDT Act, all Border Police inquiries that were earlier rejected were “suo moto” taken up by the tribunals. My data analysis showed that the IMDT inquiry reports offered more information than those of the Border Police, like the suspect profile or annexing witness statements when referring an Indian citizen.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a retired Border Police official told me that since 2007, each Border branch was given a monthly quota, and, if unmet, the BP would not pay their salary or punish them in some other way. It’s not difficult to imagine that police officials fabricated false cases under these circumstances. Officials would even use registers of village surveys in a local station to easily pick off names to charge. “This is what happens when you’re working under pressure to report ten to fifteen cases every month,” the official said. The quotas, of course, are not recorded in any official communiqué by the higher authorities.

Imprisoned by Circumstance

“We all cried a lot,” Siddique said about his return home in March 2020. “No one in my village had expected to see me after all these years.” Soon after, the Covid lockdown began, and he was left without work for the next two months. “The police shouted down abuses for not appearing on time,” he told me when I met him again in September last year. “They said, so what if there’s a lockdown; our station is still open. You must report on time.” Siddique has since brought his wife and the two younger kids to live with him in a single-room barsaati (room on the roof of a building) that he’s rented for $25 a month in Jorhat. The family of four barely gets by on the little he makes on construction sites.

Siddique only grew mournful about his fate while thinking of Rahman, his fellow inmate in jail. After the tribunal had again declared Rahman a foreigner the second time around, he was released from detention after signing a document declaring himself as belonging to the post-1966 stream of migrants. In exchange for freedom, Rahman gave up his right to vote for ten years. Siddique, on the other hand, hopes that he might become Indian once again—though others believe he is likely to remain stateless forever.

Sangeeta Dutta, a Jorhat-based lawyer, took over four months to secure Siddique’s bail. She was left deeply disturbed by his case, which seemed like a cruel joke—while his parents’ names were found in the NRC, he remains an “illegal” foreigner. His parents sold off everything they owned for the bail money, only for him to be a prisoner in a city hundreds of miles away from home. “Woh khulli aasman mein hote hue bhi ek kaidi hai,” Dutta told me. “He may be out of jail but he’s still a prisoner.”