NEW DELHI: The 1.9 million people in Assam excluded from the August 31 final list of National Register of Citizens are scrambling once again to furnish documents to prove their citizenship to the government. Property deeds, birth certificates, educational records and spelling mistakes are all being called into question.

Amidst stories of physical and mental distress emerging once more from Assam, many have begun to question the state’s threat of statelessness that many say is also highly gendered in nature.

Women in Assam are finding the burden to produce documents too heavy to bear, reveals a fact-finding research trip by Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression. Having historically faced exclusion due to patriarchal norms that have kept them from holding entitlements to land or lineage, many women in the state are unable to produce the “legacy documents” that have now been deemed necessary for citizenship.

“They are the worst kind of victims, I believe,” says Nisha Biswas, convener of WSS. “Once again, their autonomy has been refused and in this patriarchal system they were told that their in-laws’ families, into which they are married, were their own. They have disinherited their parental family, but now they have to go to their parental family to produce documents regarding legacy.”

Under the NRC experiment, individuals have been asked to state their patrilineal legacy to prove their citizenship. A person’s matrilineal legacy is immaterial to the process, even if it meets all documentation requirements.

“Women who thought their legacy means their in-laws’ legacy have filed these forms. Now legacy once given is frozen. You cannot change it. You cannot make any corrections. So their name is not there on the list,” Biswas explained.

Marriage before the age of 18 years is still a widespread practice in many parts of India including Assam. As such, many women forego their education and have been left in the lurch with no school certificates. Birth certificates are also rare, due to the practice of giving birth at home that has continued in the state until recently.

Biswas, who was part of the nine-member team from WSS that visited Char and Chapori in the Barak Valley region, and also villages in the Jorhat, Sivasagar and Hojai districts, told The Citizen that prior to 1971 the eligible age for voting was 21 years, not 18. In those days, since most girls were married long before they turned 18, none of them had cast a vote and hence were not documented in voter lists.

“Women have no property in their names,” she said. “So they have to go to their parents. Parents are also worried that if they include them in the family tree... many people have included them but there are certain cases where the parental family has hesitated to include the woman in their family tree because they think that probably now she is going to claim the property,” Biswas explained.

She shared the story of a girl who has been living with a relative since her parents passed away. “Now she went to her father’s family and mother's family also. But no one has given her this legacy document. Why did they not give it? Because there is a house that they want in her father’s name. This is a kind of disinheritance,” she stated.

The gendered nature of the NRC process is also evident in the treatment of women at the hearing centres. Reports suggest it is nearly impossible for women to attend hearings without being accompanied by male relatives, as the officials, adhering to patriarchal norms, address themselves only to the males present.

Often a husband and wife were called for hearings at two different centres on the same date, forcing women—who had earlier never been allowed to travel alone—to traverse long distances to attend their hearing.

“There they were expected to use a language that is neither their own, nor one they were ever allowed to learn to read, and testify to a lineage they have been disinherited from, all to secure a place in a family ‘tree’ that cements the patriarchal family all over again,” WSS state in their press release.

The NRC process is further characterised by an “arbitrariness” denying citizenship to certain members of families by excluding their names from the list. “There are very few families in which everyone’s name has come in the list. In villages, in every family one or two names have been excluded, whether they are Hindus or Muslims,” Biswas told The Citizen.

WSS cites an instance where three siblings made the list, but two others with the same documentation proving lineage were excluded.

Even minor discrepancies in names have created havoc in the NRC process. Once a Muslim woman is married, changing one’s name from Khatun to Begum is a common practice, according to WSS. Such changes have cost many individuals their place in the register.

Even suffixes that relate to one’s social identity, such as Munshi, added by officials a long time ago, have become reason for rejection.

Many attested that Hindu officials at the centres also had trouble getting their names right while filling out forms for Voter IDs or panchayat certificates.

Biswas told The Citizen the story of one woman, born in 1953, whom she met during the fact-finding trip. Her father’s name was Ramizuddin while another man in the same village was called Ramiznuddin. While this woman’s older siblings all found their way onto the list, a simple mistake naming her father as Ramiznuddin instead of Ramizuddin while filling the form, cost her her place. “Now she’s finished,” Biswas said.

Since legacy is “frozen” and cannot be corrected, anybody whom government officials wrongly link to another in terms of defining their lineage cannot rectify the mistake. There is no provision for accepting revised documents, leaving many classified under the labels of “illegal immigrant” and “foreigner”.

“We met one girl who was married to a person from another religion. She went to her parents for legacy data. Now they say we consider you dead. Humne toh tumhara shraad bhi kar diya. Now you are not in our family,” Biswas said.

“Her mother-in-law is saying my son will remarry. The father-in-law is considerate, he is giving her his own legacy but that the court is not approving,” she added.

WSS reports that not a single woman from outside the state who is married to someone belonging to Assam and moved there after marriage has been included in the final list. Biswas stated that this is also the responsibility of other governments.

“In West Bengal more than 20,000 verifications have come to court. The West Bengal government did not verify them. So these women have been excluded,” she told The Citizen.

While married women have it tough, extreme hardships are also being faced by those who are single mothers or widowers. “Life is very difficult for women now,” Biswas said.

WSS further revealed that around 2.5 lakh objections were filed in a span of 12 hours on the last date for filing objections against the name of any person included in the list. These objections were primarily filed against names of those belonging to the Muslim or other marginalised communities.

Almost all the objectors were unknown to the individual they had objected against, stated WSS.

Firoza Begum too faced such an “objection”. Begum was declared a voter in 1997. However, in 2014 the Foreigners’ Tribunal—which are not staffed with trained judges—categorised her as a Doubtful Voter or D-voter. “It is generally very difficult after getting this declaration to have your name included in the voters’ list. We have seen many judgements of this kind where people are still D-voters,” Biswas stated.

According to Biswas, Firoza Begum’s family somehow managed to get her name added to the voters’ list. She was given a temporary voter’s card and cast her vote in the 2019 general election. In September however, she received yet another notice summoning her to the Foreigners’ Tribunal, as someone had objected to her name being included in the list.

WSS cites examples of this “targeted randomness” in the exclusion of two 2-year-olds and one 9-year-old who had objections filed against them, even though their parents’ names were on the list.

The NRC has therefore drastically impacted not only the lives of women, but also those of children and others belonging to marginalised communities.

A Supreme Court order dated August 13 states that no child born after December 3, 2004 should be included in the NRC if even one of the child’s parents has been declared a D-voter or a “foreigner” or has a case pending against them in a Foreigners’ Tribunal.

Due to this order, Biswas claimed, the WSS team had met children as young as 1 or 2 years of age whose names have not been included in the register.

“What will happen to these children?” asked Biswas. “Will there be any provision to ensure that children are heard in Juvenile Justice Courts as per the Juvenile Justice Act and not in regular courts?”

Biswas further stated that now residents need to have proof of temporary or permanent residence to apply for schools, colleges and even jobs. “If some young boy or girl wants to go to school and his/her name is not there in the list, that poor boy or girl cannot go to school or college or apply for jobs. They can manage some private job but there is always a threat,” she told The Citizen.

The NRC is ruling the lives of the people of Assam. Biswas claimed the situation was dreadful, to the Orwellian extent that a young child, 2 or 3 years of age, “threatened” his mother who was putting him to bed saying, “Mom, your name has not come in the list. The police will come and catch you and put you in detention.”

Poor, uneducated families who have no access to documentation are struggling to find proof of their residence in India. The NRC process is a trying one. “To go to Foreigners’ Tribunals you need a lawyer. Very inefficient lawyers are also charging exorbitant fees. People are already spending lakhs. The government is saying we have spent 1,600 crores… they should see how much people have spent,” Biswas told The Citizen.

The gendered nature of the NRC does not stop with ciswomen. Those belonging to the transgender community continue to languish in the background. Having changed their names, renounced their families and created their own through bonds of solidarity, trans people have been completely excluded from the register, reported WSS.

Those belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have also been left out and are facing immense difficulties in procuring the necessary documentation.

The burden of proving one’s citizenship has fallen on the people of the state. Biswas stated that this was not supposed to be the case. “The government has taken responsibility to give them papers,” she said.

According to her, the government possessed voter lists for all the elections conducted in Assam since the first NRC exercise conducted in 1951. But it has only released the lists for 1966 and 1971 elections online, she claimed. Voter lists for three elections in the interim—those held in 1951, 1956 and 1961—have not been released.

“When describing the process of NRC online, they say ‘Don’t worry’ because every document can be digitised and you will have access to physical documents also. You can go to the centre, Seva Kendra, or the panchayat office, or even the original panchayat office where the 1951 NRC was done. You can verify with physical papers. Whereas nothing has been given… nothing,” Biswas told The Citizen.

The statement by WSS observes that the structural inequality that remains embedded in the social system has found its way into the NRC, creating criteria for conditional citizenship. Those with a long history of subjugation—women, children, transgender persons, Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Muslims and the poor—become the targets of the exclusionary NRC.

The massive and unwieldy registration exercise has created waves of distress that are spreading from Assam to the rest of India, given the government’s commitment to a countrywide NRC as recorded in the Rajya Sabha by Union Home Minister Amit Shah.

“What will be?” the only question that lingers in everyone’s mind.