Unwavering and relentless: CJP’s Assam Team in 2022 Wading through floods, reuniting families and bringing smiles to many faces
20, Dec 2022 | CJP Team
Every year, CJP brings to you an account of all the ways in which our team in Assam reached out to those in need of legal and para legal assistance. Every year there are different stories to be told, deepening the narrative with its complex contours, it is that the hapless and those trying to make ends meet on a daily basis are the ones that get targeted by the State and forced to ‘prove’ their citizenship. Although the spectrum of CJP’s work in Assam is wider than merely legally assisting people prove their citizenship –whether it be on the mired issue of inclusion or exclusion from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), or the ‘Doubtful voter’ issue, or the arbitrariness of the dreaded ‘Declared/suspected foreigner notice — these are the issues around much of the work done by our district volunteer motivators and our lawyers on ground.
Through 2022, dozens of fellow Indians, slept easy after breathing collective sighs of relief. There no longer is a hanging sword above their head. They are not any more “suspected foreigners” or “doubtful citizens”. Team CJP’s rigorous interventions has made their lives normal, liveable.
Every day of each week, a formidable team of community volunteers, district volunteer motivators and lawyers—CJP’s Team Assam – is providing ready at hand paralegal guidance, counselling and actual legal aid to hundreds of individuals and families paralysed by the citizenship-driven humanitarian crisis in the state. Our boots on the ground approach has ensured that 12,00,000 persons filled their forms to enlist in the NRC (2017-2019) and over the past one year alone we have helped release 52 persons from Assam’s dreaded detention camps. Our intrepid team provides paralegal assistance to, on an average of 72-96 families each month. Our district-level, legal team works on 25 Foreigner Tribunal cases month on month. This ground level data ensures informed interventions by CJP in our Constitutional Courts, the Guwahati High Court and the Supreme Court. Such work is possible because of you, individuals all over India, who believe in this work. Our maxim, Equal Rights for All. #HelpCJPHelpAssam. Donate NOW!
In February, CJP helped a nonagenarian woman defend her citizenship after an eight month long persistent legal campaign. When the CJP team met her the first time, she had sworn, “I will not die until I clear my name and have this dark spot of being a ‘foreigner’ removed from my head!” Moyna was first dubbed a doubtful voter (D Voter) in 2007, and was served a Foreigner Notice from Dhubri Foreigners Tribunal in 2018.
Moyna refused to go before court to prove her citizenship. She felt it was an affront to be even asked to do so. After much persuasion from the CJP’ Assam team, the frail woman was taken to court by the team. CJP also helped her submit documentary evidence such as a copy of her name in the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC), certified copy of the electoral rolls from 1966, 1970, 1977 and 1985 bearing her name, land ownership documents etc. ON February 16, 2022 she was finally declared Indian.
In July, Asiya Bibi from Barvita village, which falls under the jurisdiction of Krishnai police station of Goalpara district of Assam was declared Indian Citizen by the Foreigner’s Tribunal.
Asiya Bibi had been served notice on January 27, 2022, and she fearful of being summarily dispatched to a detention camp, she approached CJP. On February 1, 2022, Goalpara District Volunteer Motivator Zesmin Sultana and Roshminara Begum met Asiya Bibi on behalf of the CJP team at her home in Barvita village. CJP Assam state team in-charge Nanda Ghosh, discussed the matter in detail with CJP Assam legal team member Advocate AshimMobarak and the latter helped her file a written statement before the FT stating that she was an Indian Citizen by birth, and also produced various documents in support of her statement. These included a copy of the 1951 NRC data with her father’s name, and certified copies of 1966 and 1971 voters lists, where her mother Romisha Bewa’s name was recorded.
75-year-old Champa Das, a Dalit and a widow, was a resident of Boro Lechigaon village that falls under the jurisdiction of the Bijni police station in Chirang district of Assam. She was served notice by the Border Police on November 10, 2020 to appear before the Chirang FT by November 26, 2020. After having lost her husband and son, the distraught woman was living in fear that she would be put in a detention camp. However, CJP took up her case and after long and persistent efforts, ensured legal vindication –she now has a judgment that recognises her as a “stream refugee”.
Her family came to India from erstwhile East Pakistan in the period preceding the Bangladesh war, and settled in the Coochbehar district of West Bengal.
In 2009, a case was registered against Mamotaz and she was later served with a notice saying she was a suspected foreigner and this was months after an accident had rendered her to be a differently abled person. After seeking help from many others, she was led to CJP, in March 2022. Within 5 months, Maamotaz was declared an Indian citizen!
In January this year, Rupbhanu, a daily wage worker, was served with a notice by the Border Police to appear before the Foreigners’ Tribunal. She immediately sought help from CJP and thus began the process of helping Rupbhanu prove that she is a citizen of the country she was born in. “I have all the documents. I was born in this county. Even my father was born in this country… How I am Bangaldeshi?” was a question that loomed over her. With CJP’s help, Rupbhanu appeared before the FT, submitted her written statement and also submitted documents that her father Raham Ali’s name appeared in the voters’ lists in 1966, 1970, 1979, 1989 and 1997 as also her own name in voter’s list since 2005.
This was one of the fastest conclusions of proceedings in CJP’s five year long experience. After being served a notice, Rupbhanu was declared citizen within barely 6 months!
Roy’s case was different than that of the others since he was born in a village in Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan). Before East Pakistan became Bangladesh, Roy’s father along with the family entered India, in 1964, fleeing religious persecution. They took shelter in a refugee camp and, in 1965, Mohan’s father Mahendra bought land in the village and in 1970, he got the registration certificate of Indian citizenship from the sub-divisional officer of Barpeta. Yet, over the years his family members were served with notices repeatedly to prove their citizenship. In June 1990, his parents and siblings were found to be Indian citizens under the now repealed Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IMDT Act) and then again his father was served notice under the Foreigners Act and was declared Indian again in July 2009.
Roy was served notice twice, in 2002 under IMDT and again in 2015 under the Foreigners Act. Finally in July this year he was declared Indian citizen by the FT. yet, his woes do not end here. His wife has been served with the D-voter notice and their struggle continues.
Nasimuddin was declared a Doubtful voter and in February 2018 received a notice from FT to prove his citizenship. However, he was unable to prove his citizenship and was sent to Tezpur detention camp in 2020. He was a daily wage worker and after being sent to detention camp, his family including his wife and children had to go through hardships to sustain. His wife had to pick up odd jobs and ask for help from other family members to keep her children from dropping out of school. CJP team stepped in and began the uphill task of finding a bailor and other required documents. The team moved from pillar to post, often visiting the same office more than once to complete the procedure. The team’s perseverance paid off when Nasimuddin was released on March 24, 2022 and team witnessed what can be called an emotional reunion of the family.
Usha Baishya was named a doubtful voter (D Voter) in 2004, and was served a suspected foreigner notice from the Foreigners Tribunal in 2020.Usha Baishya refused to go before court to prove her citizenship, however, after much persuasion from the CJP Assam team, the frail woman was taken to court by the team. CJP also helped her submit documentary evidence such as a copy of certificate of Registration 1956 , certified copy of the electoral rolls from 1966, in the name of her parents, certified copy of voter list 1979 , 1989,1997, 2005 , 2008, panchayat certificate, Ration Card etc. bearing her name. Finally CJP helped her defend her citizenship after 8 months of the team’s persistence, Baishya was declared Indian citizen.
Fajiran Bewa, a regular voter, was born in 1944 in undivided Goalpara and was born out of wedlock. An FT case was registered against her in 2004 witghout her knowledge and she was served notice this year. Due to financial constraint, she was unable to go to the FT to defend her citizenship. However, with CJP;s assistance, whereby the Assam team helped her submit documentary evidence such as certified copy of the electoral rolls from 1966, till 2022, she was declared a citizen within 2 months!
Lakkhan Das, a regular voter received FT notice from the Border police. He was born in 1952 in Nasatra village, Barpeta which was ravaged with floods and was forced to migrate to another village. Once again due to floods, he had to migrate to Jamdoha No. 2 in Bongaihaon. Further, during the Assam movement their house was set ablaze forcing them to take shelter at a temporary camp set up by the government. Despite, the tragedies that had befallen him in his past, and with the limited documents he had at hand, CJP was able to help him defend his citizenship
Jamila Khatun, born in 1950 in undivided Goalpara was marked as D-voter in 1997 and FT case was registered against her in 2008 without her knowledge. She was served with a notice by Bongaigaon FT in 2021.CJP helped by submitting documentary evidence such as certified copy of the electoral rolls from 1966, till 2022 in the name of her parents and brothers, land jamabandi copy, panchayat certificate, Ration Card etc and she has been declared a citizen on November 30, 2022
The bane that is NRC, the boon called CJP
During the period when the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was being updated in Assam, as many as 500 CJP volunteers, spread across 18 districts, had helped 12,00,000 Indian citizens compile documents and file applications for inclusion of their names in the NRC. During that time, we had also set up a helpline number for citizens in distress. CJP had also helped people defend their citizenship during the Claims and Objections stage.
We had also conducted training programs and workshops to empower our volunteers to offer paralegal assistance to people during the citizenship crisis. Even today, they reach around 100 families each month, ascertaining new challenges, and helping overcome different crises such as people getting served D Voter or Suspected Foreigner notices from Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT), appeals against FT orders, etc.
Over 50 detainees released
CJP has helped secure release of over 50 inmates of detention camps, many during the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2019, the apex court had directed that those who have spent more than three years in captivity be set free on bail subject to certain conditions. Almost a year later, in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the apex court then understanding the need to decongest prisons and detention centers, modified its own previous judgment and reduced the time served requirement to two years and surety amount to just Rs 5,000/-. It was under these court’s directions that the CJP team worked with and managed to secure release of 50 persons from detention camps across the state. The list of such person can be viewed here.
CJP’s work is not limited to securing release but the team stays in touch with these families and provide them psychological support and some rehabilitation too, on a need-based basis. One of the key problems faced by the released detainees, all of whom hail from marginalized communities, is the legal requirement of reporting to the local police station each week incurring both a burden in terms of distances that this means and expenses that such visits entail. This is also why when we discovered that many of the detainees who hail from extremely impoverished families were struggling to find even a morsel of food during the Covid-19 pandemic. We delivered rations including food grains, cooking oil, basic spices, and other essential commodities to many detainees.
The Assam team also provides constant support to those released from detention camps, helping them get back, re-adjust to their normal lives, post release, this help is not just provided to those who CJP helped, but also others who have been released from detention camps. Close to 100 such persons receive assistance from the CJP Assam team to mark their attendance at police stations and to fulfill such other conditions imposed when had been released from the detention camps.
Floods are a phenomenon that Assam gets struck by every year and unfortunately it is the poor and hapless who get most adversely affected, with floods sometimes washing away the existence of entire villages! Rivers overflow and people are forced to displace themselves and find place in relief camps. Floods this year also caused landslides in some places, and hampered communication with electricity, mobile phone and internet services down in several areas.
CJP Assam state team in-charge Nanda Ghosh said, “33 out of Assam’s total 35 districts are affected. This includes 5,137 rain and flood affected villages. 74 deaths have been recorded so far, and 1,86,424 people have been displaced and are living in relief camps”.
Wading through submerged roads, knee deep waters our CJP team members reached out to people in Goalpara as well as Dhubri district.
Endeavours at court
In March 2022, the Gauhati High Court granted four weeks’ time to the State of Assam and the Union of India (UoI) as a final opportunity to file their respective affidavits in connection with the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by us which raises concerns over the quality of legal aid to be provided to those people in Assam who were exclude from NRC. This petition experienced a break through moment even before the court could make any significant observations. The Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA) admitted that lack of financial resources to provide requisite training for legal aid.
In November 2021, the High Court asked the Centre as well as the Assam State Government to indicate their stand on provision of funds for legal aid.
In 2019, CJP had conducted an independent survey in 10 districts of Assam to assess the preparedness of District Legal Services Authorities (DSLA) which revealed that the front offices were either not present or the ones that had front offices were inadequate in terms of space or in terms of staff. It was also found that personnel were not trained in Citizenship laws, NRC related procedures, Immigration law or the Foreigners Act, in any of these 10 DSLAs, even though in-depth knowledge of all these laws, procedures and Acts are vital for offering quality legal assistance to NRC-excluded people who will now have to defend their Indian citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals.
In March 2022, CJP also filed a public interest petition before the Gauhati High Court espousing the cause of those left out from the Aadhar enumeration even after being included in the NRC while others who are excluded are also being denied the Aadhar Card. Relying on the Aadhar Act itself, CJP has argued that this UDAI identification has no connection to citizenship at all. CJP’s Assam team first collected a detailed data base of 300 persons who have not been issued Aadhar card and 213 of these are included in the NRC and yet not given Aadhar card. CJP has underlined that issue of citizenship has no link with issuing Aadhar cards since Aadhar can be issued to any person residing in India for more than 182 days in the 12 months immediately preceding the date of application. Today, in Assam, the absence of an Aadhar card is denying young children admission to schools, adults from accessing government schemes and jobs and even opening bank accounts. CJP has also brought this PIL to the notice of the Supreme Court of India where similar issues have been agitated in another petition.
Workshops and trainings
CJP’s philosophy and raison d’etre is to widen the arc of ordinary Indians with an understanding of rights, fundamental rights, law and the Constitution. In any of our areas of intervention, we are committed to sharing this legal know how with the widest possible section of stake holders: lawyers, activists, para legal workers, teachers, administrators. Hence, along with intervening ourselves we hold legal education workshops to share our learnings with the wider community.
In May 2022, in Barpeta District, legal and paralegal training workshop was held where 140 legal, paralegal and community volunteers took part and was conducted by Senior Advocates with Gauhati High Court, Mr. Mrinmoy Dutta and Mr. Oliullah Laskar. Mr Dutta spoke about milestone judgements of the Supreme Court as well High Court on citizenship issue while Mr. Laskar spoke about future of declared foreigner and their legal heir. Secretary, CJP, Teesta Setalvad gave the wider perspective on Citizenship laws and the Indian Constitution,
Voices from the remotest lands
A significant aspect of CJP’s work involves recounting the travails and stories of fellow Indians from the most remote corners of Assam so that those in the more fortuitous centres absorb and respond to these ordeals. Our intrepid team members from Assam, young and diverse, are doing just that. In August this year, were the first to report how residents of Dhubri district, including those from indigenous communities, were inundated with notices telling them that as they are suspected foreigners, and that they must appear before the local FT and defend their Indian citizenship.
“We have observed an increase in the number of notices served in four districts over the last two weeks. These are Dhubri, Bongaigaon, Chirang and South Salmara-Mankachar,” said Nanda Ghosh. We discovered that all the people who were served notices hailed from extremely economically backward families. Notices were sent to virtually all of the dwellings in the villages of Moisha, Ramraikuti, and Shernagar.
In the next month, the same FT notices were served to the people living in the village of Soulmari part I. Soulmari is a char settlement that experiences floods each year. CJP reassured them that those who are unable to engage lawyers would be represented by our team of lawyers and that we would assist them in every way possible to prove their citizenship.
Fight over hate
Hate Watch is a core programme of CJP. We believe there can be no real equality or dignity in life without a hate-free environment. So, along with battling for citizenship rights, CJP’s team in Assam kept its eyes and ears trained on hate –and we intervened with a measure of success, too.
In November 2022, CJP brought to the notice of National Commission for Minorities (NCM), as a part of its consistent ‘Hate Watch’ campaign, the vile and disparaging remarks made by BJP leader and former MLA, Shiladitya Dev. His comments were caught on video where he can be heard saying, ““Assam is filled with Miyas, so why there is need for a Miya Museum, it should be set on fire and set ablaze.” He then continued, “After the CAA protest, one section of the community wants Miya Museum in Srimanta Shankardev Kalakhetrya, specially one MLA.” This reference to one MLA, by Dev was meant to target Sherman Ali Ahmed. He also spoke of the origin of today’s Muslim, “90-99 out of 100 Muslims in Assam have been basically converted from the Hindu religion; and even today, some of them still have a Tulsi plant in the verandas of their homes in upper Assam.” He also demanded that the authorities demolish the Miya Museum forthwith.
Within a month, the NCM took prompt action and has sought an action taken report from DGP, Assam in this matter. While it will take some time for this case to reach its culmination, the prompt action from the NCM gives force to the relentless efforts of CJP team to fight against hate, one incident at a time.
Correction in Voter lists
From our experience we have seen that many people have been ‘declared foreigners’ by FTs even for minor errors or mistakes present in the Voter list. So, this year, the CJP team has actively helped many people in correcting or making such changes in the draft voter list for 2023, in Assam. The team also held mass awareness campaign in many districts during the ‘correction period’ announced by the Election Commission, especially in South Salmara Mankachar, Dhubri, Bongaigaon,Kokrajhar, Chirang, Goalpara, Baksa, Barpeta, Kamrup(R) Darrang district.
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Foreigner Tribunal Cases
There are multiple cases that CJP is currently battling before the FTs on behalf of persons from the most marginalized of backgrounds as well as those who are differently abled. Many of those who come to CJP for help or CJP gets in touch with, have no clue on how to handle this process of defending their citizenship. Most people express shock that their citizenship status is suspect in the first place, considering they were born in this country. CJP not only helps them maneuver through this complex process of proving their citizenship but also provides any other assistance they need.
- Halima Bibi, who asks for alms (begs) to make ends meet, has a husband who is paralyzed and there is no other family member to support them. CJP is handling her case before the FT.
- Romila Begum is a poor widow who works as a domestic help. She and her family members including her now deceased husband and her sons were repeatedly served with FT notices. CJP is now helping with her case
- Samida Bibi, also working as a domestic help, has a husband who is ailing and is on bed rest due to an accident. The Gangadhar river erosion washed away all of their belongings along with important documents. CJP’s Assam team is trying its best to help her gather whatever documents she has to go before the FT and prove her citizenship.
CJP has also come to the aide of persons suffering from mental illness, who were served with FT notice, including Sukur Ali and Monowara Khatun, as also women from economically and socially weak backgrounds, working as daily wager workers – Jahura Bibi is from a religious minority and Mridula Saha belongs to a linguistic minority – with nobody to support them, but CJP. These are only but a few instances highlighted by our team, where assistance is being provided to the marginalized and to the socially backward. CJP endeavours to continue in its efforts year after year and consistently providing aid in times of adversity.
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