Friday, May 24, 2024

“It’s a trap”: Why Bengali Hindus in Assam are opting out of Citizenship through CAA

Montu Das from Kakubari wants to apply for citizenship for his wife Nisharani Das under CAA. But he thinks his wife will face legal issues if she applies as she has to show Bangladeshi documents. Arshad Ahmed/ Maktoob

Forty-three-year-old Montu Das was happy after the Indian government announced the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) rules on March 11. 

The CAA grants fast-track citizenship to migrants in India from six faiths — Hindus, Christians, Jains, Parsis, Buddhists, and Sikhs — who fled from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan and entered India before December 31, 2014, facing religious persecution. 

The Muslims are, however, excluded from using the new method. 

The reason Das was elated with the announcement was that he was waiting for the CAA to become law so that he could apply for citizenship for his wife, Nisharani Das. Das, who lives with Montu Das in Kakubari in southern Assam’s Cachar district, was left out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in 2019.

The NRC was an updated exercise of the 1951 NRC exclusive for Assam till date, carried out again in 2015 to detect undocumented immigrants living in Assam who migrated to the state from Bangladesh after 24 March 1971, following India’s war with Pakistan in Bangladesh then called East Pakistan. 

Over 19 lakh people were left out of the 2019 NRC draft. Of this seven lakh were Muslims, five lakh were Bengali Hindus, and two lakh were caste Assamese Hindus and sub-groups, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said

Additionally, 1.5 lakhs were Gorkhas. Sarma, however, did not give the figure of the rest of the 3.5 lakh people and the community they belong to. 

The CAA for the five lakh Hindu Bengalis left out of the NRC, including Nisharani Das, is a pathway to Indian citizenship.

And, so is the case for over 1.59 lakh people — an unspecified number of them Hindu Bangalis — declared “foreigners” by Foreigner’s Tribunals (FTs), a quasi-judicial court unique to Assam responsible for ruling on people’s citizenship.

However, the rules notified under CAA by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the centre have left Montu Das sore at heart. 

Kaise apply karein? (How will I apply?). The documents they are asking for to apply…we don’t have them,” Montu Das said, sounding anxious. 

His apprehension surrounding these rules stems from the procurement of some documents that “one way or the other prove our lineage to Bangladesh,” he told Maktoob.

The CAA rules are divided into schedule IA and schedule IB.

Nine of these rules under schedule IA ask the applicant to furnish documents such as a copy of passport, birth certificate, driving licence, and land or tenancy records among others issued by the government of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. 

Under schedule IB, among other documents, an applicant who wants to apply for Indian citizenship is asked to submit documents corroborating their entry to India before 31 December 2014 — a cut-off date stipulated in the CAA legislation. 

“We are Indian citizens. My wife’s family has lived in India all their lives. The public administration here honoured her father by naming a school in Kakubari. So how can we show documents from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh?” Das asked. 

Speaking to Maktoob, senior Gauhati High Court advocate, Shantanu Borthakur said, “Even if we go by these amended rules, I don’t think these people [Bengali Hindus] will be benefited from CAA. The CAA seems to be a chimera.”

“Any of these documents out of the nine mentioned under schedule IA will not be possible to produce for 99% of the Bengali Hindu population,” he added.

Documents conundrum

Kamal Chakraborty, an activist from Cachar’s Silchar who helps people declared foreigners by FTs, feels that the new rules further exacerbate the citizenship anxieties of those left out of the NRC. 

“Once you are excluded from the NRC, visas, and passports cannot be issued in your name. The rules ask them to produce documents from Bangladesh. Without visas and passports, how can they travel to Bangladesh to collect these documents?” Chakraborty questioned. 

During our interviews with many Bengali Hindus in March from Barak Valley encompassing Cachar in Assam, we found that even those with roots in Bangladesh do not possess these documents under Schedule IA and  Schedule IB. 

Anjana Rani Sarkar from Kakubari whose family migrated to India from Bangladesh after 1971 does not have the required documents under CAA. Now left out of the NRC, she wants to apply for citizenship under CAA. But the lack of documents is a hurdle on her way to Indian citizenship.

She told Maktoob, “I was just seven months old when my parents crossed the border of Bangladesh and entered India. I do not even remember where I came from.”

A similar document conundrum is faced by many, mostly Bengali Hindus whose grandparents or great-grandparents came to India after 1971, according to Chakraborty. 

“How is it possible for the second or third generation of these Bengali immigrants to gather these documents?  Most have never been to Bangladesh,” said Chakraborty.

He also raised the alarm on what is at stake for the Hindu Bengalis in Assam, especially those left out of the NRC or declared foreigners, once they submit the required documents to apply for Indian citizenship through CAA. 

Most of these people are “Indians, and fighting their cases in the FTs by showing Indian documents,” he said.

“Submitting these documents will be incriminating for them as they will be proving themselves as Bangladeshis. So no one will apply for citizenship under CAA provisions.”

While the Indian government said it does not maintain data on CAA applicants, only one person from Barak Valley has so far applied for citizenship under CAA, Sarma said.  

Montu Das and Anjana Rani Sarkar also mirrored Chakarborty’s concern regarding their application under CAA. 

Expressing fear, Montu Das said: “Hum fas jayega (We will be trapped) I will never apply come what may.

“I have nothing to do with Bangladesh, nor do I know anyone from Bangladesh to help me with these documents. I will not apply,” Sarkar said  

‘It’s a trap’

Anjana Rani Sarkar came to India when she was seven months old. Despite her roots in Bangladesh, she does not have the documents to apply for citizenship under CAA. Arshad Ahmed/ Maktoob

The Sangh — an umbrella term for Hindutva organisations affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — in Barak Valley has welcomed the CAA with tacit disapproval. 

While CAA was the need of the hour and long-standing demand for the RSS affiliates here, the new rules have irked some of these organisations. 

“We demanded unconditional citizenship for Bengali Hindus here,” said an officer bearer of RSS-affiliated All Assam Bengali Hindu Association (AABHA). 

“But these new rules are not going to help the Hindu Bengalis here.” 

The officer bearer who requested anonymity also expressed anger at the way both the centre and the state government — both ruled by the BJP — have “abandoned the Bengali Hindus in Barak Valley which gave the BJP so much”. 

Historically the Barak Valley has been a cradle for the saffron party in Assam. “The lotus first bloomed here,” they said referring to the 1991 state’s assembly poll results. The Hindu nationalist party that year won nine seats from the Barak Valley comprising three districts out of the 126 seats. 

“But now the CM [Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma] is appeasing the Assamese nationalists,” said Sadhan Purkaystha. 

Purakaystha who heads the Citizens’ Rights Preservation Committee (CRPC), a citizenship advocacy group for linguistic minorities in Assam, was referring to Sarma’s recent remarks to the media.

Sarma has recently said that he will be the first to resign “if a single person who has not applied for NRC gets citizenship.” 

His statement came on the back of strong opposition to CAA from Assamese nationalist groups in Brahmaputra Valley where politics over an alleged Bangali influx from Bangladesh has always fanned anxieties among the Assamese.

“The CAA rules that the government framed are not made for Bengali Hindus. These rules are a trap to mark out the Bengali Hindus living in India,” Purakaystha added. 

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