10, Nov 2023 | CJP Team
The multiple systems and legal procedures seeking to keep a check on those wrongfully alleged to be “illegal migrants in Assam” has unleashed a citizenship crisis for Indians that has resulted in a largescale humanitarian crisis. Close to a third of the state’s population cutting across ethnicities is affected, a victim! The crisis extends far beyond mere documentation hurdles.
For those caught up in the NRC process (exclusion), it’s a life-altering experience, regardless of the outcome. CJP has been acutely aware of this since the inception of Team Assam over five years ago. Our r approach goes a lot further than just providing essential legal assistance in foreigners’ tribunals and courts. CJP’s team talks, counsels, provides both para-legal and actual legal counsel to those who need it. That is how we seek to alleviate the casualties of those caught in the fires in the citizenship crisis.
Every week, CJP’s dedicated team in Assam, comprising community volunteers, district volunteer motivators, and lawyers, provides vital paralegal support, counseling, and legal aid to many affected by the citizenship crisis in over 24 districts in Assam. Through our hands-on approach, 12,00,000 people successfully submitted completed NRC forms (2017-2019). We fight Foreigner Tribunal cases monthly at the district level. Through these concerted efforts, we have achieved an impressive success rate of 20 cases annually, with individuals successfully obtaining their Indian citizenship. This ground level data ensures informed interventions by CJP in our Constitutional Courts. Your support fuels this crucial work. Stand with us for Equal Rights for All #HelpCJPHelpAssam. Donate NOW!
CJP understands that the citizenship crisis affects every aspect of an individual’s and their family’s life, as the possibility of being declared stateless and robbed of their nationality and livelihood and freedom looms over them at any moment. The arbitrary denial of citizenship, being dubbed “foreigner” is a “civic death;” your ties with family, neighbour and state are severed, your existence in crisis and under question; insecurity and dangers the result.
CJP’s dedicated team works tirelessly every week, overstretching itself, reaching out to those affected across 12 districts intensively –stretching this to 15 districts when the needs are critical. What does the team actually do? Engaging with individuals and their families, inter-facing with Block Level Officers, and going the extra mile to ensure that people grappling with this crisis are not just aware of CJP’s presence – an organisation that is resolute in its commitment to justice and support. But can turn to it, to us, whenever and whatever the need.
In 2017, CJP initiated its mission to tackle the complex citizenship crisis in India’s Assam. This ongoing initiative has been a beacon of hope for nearly 35-40% of the population, genuine Indian citizens, who are unduly and adversely affected by systemic exclusion by the National Register of Citizens process, or the classification of Indians as ‘D’ Voters, or those who are wrongfully served suspected foreigner notices.
CJP’s reach extends to 12 districts in the state, with a broader network of community volunteers active in three other districts which includes the Barak Valley region. The collective and organised effort of this intensive work is a remarkable success rate of 15 to 20 cases actually successfully won annually where individuals successfully regain their Indian citizenship status.
Taking a step beyond
In addition to extending legal aid and facilitating administrative processes, the CJP Assam team takes a holistic approach to assist those grappling with the repercussions of the NRC. This includes offering crucial psychological counselling for individuals who may be battling suicidal thoughts or tendencies. Furthermore, the team provides family-based counselling, particularly to women facing disputes or uncooperative behaviour from their husbands. As our experience has shown, the vast majority of those affected by the crisis remained marginalised. Women, too, are adversely additionally vulnerable –disproportionate high numbers of those affected by this crisis are women –due to the fact that they have to shift from their natal home to the married family- amidst which they face institutional hurdles in accessing or managing documents. As Zesmin Sultana, one of CJP’s dedicated team members working in the Goalpara district of Assam, says, “Women are mainly affected in this citizenship problem. Marriage which results in shifting addresses frequently create difficulties for proper documentation. However, we go with them, to their parental home to even office after office and make them feel they are not alone.” This level of in-depth work that CJP undertakes – which is very hands on and ready to tackle the unprecedented and multi-faceted difficulties one may encounter while trying to reclaim ones’ citizenship.
The engagement and commitment don’t stop there. The team maintains regular contact with individuals who have been released from detention camps and aids them in their rehabilitation and reintegration into society, offering support in various ways. For those who find themselves overwhelmed by the daunting task of fighting for their citizenship rights, the CJP team offers a lifeline that remains present in the lives of people even long after a citizen is declared Indian. The crisis is so divorced of humanity – a harrowing example of which is a recent case where CJP’s team sought to ease the troubles of a grieving family – whose bereaved member, now dead, was served a suspected foreigner notice! To the dismay of the grieving family, they had to prove his citizenship as well as the fact that he was dead! While CJP diligently helped the family arrange documentation, the case remains a dark and bizarre instance of the real-life consequences of this callous state-driven arbitrariness that is for hundreds of thousands –the citizenship crisis.
What a week looks like for the tireless team members of CJP Assam:
As every week CJP’s weekly report from its work in Assam rolls in, a detailed list of tasks carried out by the team unfolds as a record. As CJP’s team Assam is invested in alleviating the casualties from the large-scale citizenship crisis in the affected state, the team runs a tight schedule every week with team members visiting remote locations, reaching out to people, and organising workshops, sensitising and counselling people and much more – braving the weather, sun, rains, and storm. The most notable aspect about team Assam is that it does not sit stationary or work a desk job; the team is on ground all days of the week, actively conducting meetings with Block Level Officers in their efforts to thoroughly reach out to affected people as well as try to work with the BLO officers in terms of improving efficiency, as well as organising legal training workshops.
All in all, CJP’s team consists of eight dedicated District Volunteer Motivators (DVMs) who operate in over two dozen districts throughout the state. Their relentless efforts enable them to reach about five or six affected families each week. These interactions hold various forms of support, including legal and psychological counselling, documentation assistance, para-legal aid, and connecting with our team of five district-level lawyers, each accompanied by two junior lawyers.
The team also effectively monitors if there are any conflicts of communal or hateful nature that may or are erupting in the region – even more so, the team remained informed and vigilant about the democratic processes taking place in the state such as elections as so forth, which informs their work better. Assam State coordinator Nanda Ghosh helms the task of overseeing the activities of the team in Assam, doing on ground work, as well as looking for democratic developments in the state, he describes the work of CJP as the following, “Our work to help the ‘D’ voter, Foreigner Notice Victims, Passport Act victims, NRC excluded, Aadhar Card barred Victims counties in every corner in the state of Assam. This is both significant and very, very important work and CJP’s team of volunteers undertake this every single day. From legal aid to rehabilitation, we stand by with the victim, proper counselling is being given to the 52 released detenu. In readiness for legal battles, my interaction with our advocates and the careful documentation of each victim’s case help us –immensely–to fight a case strongly. It is not an easy path; apart from natural obstacles like intense rain, floods, administrational hurdles that makes easy things, difficult. But our persistent work never stops till a victim gets substantive justice.”
CJP’s approach to the survivors of the citizenship crisis is one that is humane, compassionate and comprehensive; the team members ensure that contact is regularly maintained with victims. Many, even, long after their released from being detained or being suspected as foreigners – thereby, forming a sustained relationship with the survivors. This means ensuring that released detainees, once they’re proven as Indian by the courts, see a smooth return to society. CJP has experienced how they often face stigma, discrimination and further hurdles after they are released – and hence our evolved approach. CJP’s team members — as you will see in the snippets from our work in Assam (below)– maintain communication, assuring help, for a sustained duration.
This is no easy task, however, and demands a lot from the team, who have to toil through all sorts of adverse weather conditions, and brave the vast and often difficult terrain to reach out to victims often in remote locations. One of CJP’s volunteers, Joynul Abedin who works in Darrang District, notes, “In Chaar area it’s hard to find a victim and his/her house location. There is no proper way for communication. In some places I have to walk miles to meet a citizenship victim.”
The work is hard, and demanding, but the team braves it with astonishing courage, resolve and perseverance. For instance, one of CJP’s District Voluntary Motivators (DVMs) reaches out to families in not one but two districts of Chirang and Bongaigaon districts in a week. His tireless efforts include visiting villages, foreigner tribunals, and individual households to support victims, released detainees, and those facing FT notices. The team’s relentless work showcases the unwavering commitment of CJP team Assam in their pursuit of justice and human rights.
As noted earlier, CJP has helped about 52 people secure their Indian citizenship again. The work continues with deepening resolve as CJP witnesses changes in the lives of the people as it continues its work in Assam, here are a few snippets from the lives of the people CJP works and grant us a glimpse at the harrowing plight of the citizenship crisis victims and their ongoing struggles as CJP perseveres and resolves to help them:
CJP has helped over 50 people from Assam regain their citizenship with the help of their team of lawyers and volunteers. One of the recent cases is from September, 2023, where Taijuddin Ali, a disabled man from Assam, was granted Indian citizenship after a lengthy legal battle.
Taijuddin Ali was born in 1974 in a village which is now part of Bongaigaon district. However, his citizenship was brought into question when he faced accusations of being a suspected foreigner from Bangladesh. Despite personal challenges, including severe health issues and financial difficulties, Taijuddin fought for his rights with CJP’s support and finally was delivered free and secure from the horrifying prospect of being stateless which had caused him a great deal of anguish and horror over the years. Taijuddin’s victory is a testament to the relentless efforts the people of Assam and CJP’s team to find hope in the face of this humanitarian crisis.
From CJP’s deep rooted work in Assam, we come across the story of Sumoti Das, a 52-year-old woman from North Raipur in Assam. She was born into a Scheduled Caste family and has faced poverty from the beginning to the point where even seeking medical attention for her ailing health was a distant possibility.
To add to her troubles, Sumoti was labelled a ‘Doubtful’ citizen by the state. This worsened her health further, causing her trauma and anxiety to the point where she would panic if she were to even see a police car in her vicinity. Despite having documents dating back to 1951 to prove her family’s Indian heritage, she remained trapped in this harrowing spot which even denied her access to welfare schemes, and her name on the ration card regardless of her rights.
In her darkest hours, Sumoti found hope and support in the form of CJP. Their dedicated team, including community volunteers and lawyers, assured her that she wasn’t alone in her struggle.
During one of CJP’s weekly visits, they encountered Basu Bewa, a frail 97-year-old woman who is suspected of being a foreigner in Assam. She had received a Suspected Foreigner Notice and had been living in fear and isolation for a year. The advocate handling her case, who had previously helped Moyna Barman prove her Indian citizenship, had not communicated with her family in months, leaving them distressed and uncertain about their future. Basu Bewa’s traumatic encounter with unknown authorities had left her unable to sleep or eat properly, fearing detention until CJP’s team in Assam stepped in to offer support, promising to communicate with the advocate and provide assistance to the family.
Three years after the legal team at CJP successfully secured the release of Shanti Basfore, a Hindi-speaking Dalit woman from Assam, they continue to provide support for her rehabilitation. Shanti had endured a harrowing two-year period in the Kokrajhar detention camp, the only one of its kind for women in Assam. For someone who has been released from such a situation, reintegrating into society is a challenging journey, marked by social stigma, poverty, and mental health issues. These are just a few of the many hurdles they face.
In April 2023, members of CJP’s Team Assam conducted one of their routine visits to Shanti Basfore’s home. During this visit, they checked on her health and made their customary weekly stop at the Agomani police station. Habibul Bepari, DVM at CJP, along with Community Volunteers Alpona Sarkar and Saddam Sarkar, learned that Shanti Basfore’s health had improved since their last visit in March 2023. She had also been doing well with her handicraft business, selling her products in the local market, which was a source of support for her.
Shanti Basfore had managed to obtain an Aadhaar card since her release and during this visit, she sought guidance from CJP on applying for a ration card. In response, CJP’s team members assured her that their advocate would be the best point of contact to address her query, and they pledged to provide her with the necessary legal assistance.
In the Chirang-Kokrajhar district of Assam, CJP’s team visited Ajiron Nessa’s house in Pub Enkorbari village. Nessa’s case as a suspected foreigner is currently in progress at the Kajalgaon FT. Tragically so, she was left in the dark about the developments in her own case, and even after two years of waiting for updates, she remains unaware about the status and details of her case. Her financial woes further worsen her state as she also lacks the financial means to continue the legal battle, as is the case with several of victims of the crisis in Assam. The lawyer she hired has been uninterested to work further for her unless his fees are paid. In this desperate situation, she reached out to CJP for assistance and CJP assured her that the team will discuss the matter with their lawyer and provide as much support as possible.
The team visited Pokalagi village to meet Behula Mandal who has been classified as a ‘D’ voter. Behula Mandal is an elderly resident of Pokalagi village. When CJP met her, she had difficulty engaging in the conversation about her. Her age seemed to have taken a toll on her understanding, and she requested to speak with her son. However, her son was not at home, and neither was her daughter-in-law. She pointed to a wall where her son’s contact number was written, and the team went ahead and made her son a call and discussed the issue of his mother’s citizenship. It was conveyed that she has been marked as a ‘D’ voter and is consequently denied access to government welfare programs. Her son was advised to visit their home upon his return from his relative’s place.
Another example of the hands-on approach that CJP holds is illustrated with this visit, when once again in September last month, in Darang district, CJP’s team made a visit to the residence of Nasimuddin, who had recently been released from detention. Nasimuddin’s home, which is nestled in the village of Khunti, under the watchful jurisdiction of the Dalgaon police station. Unfortunately, upon the team’s arrival, there was no one present at the house. However, despite the fact that the team could not find the person they intended to meet, they took the opportunity to hold a conversation with some of the locals from the village. Their discussion primarily revolved around the voter draft list for 2023, with a special focus on the aspects of corrections, inclusions, and exclusions. This provided a platform for a thoughtful exchange of ideas and perspectives. CJP’s team values the participation of local volunteers and citizens to disseminate the message of justice and harmony.
CJP has also been conducting legal aid workshops and assistance to those who need legal aid etc., ensuring that everyone has access to the means to achieve justice. The organisation’s unwavering commitment to the cause has given hope to those affected by the crisis. The fact that the experience gained from CJP’s legal interventions is shared among other intervenors and practitioners in workshops and online meetings ensures a wider community support for this demanding task.
For instance, CJP held a workshop in Barpeta, Assam in 2022. It was a significant event where the team held it as they braved challenging weather conditions. Over a hundred legal and paralegal members, alongside the CJP team, gathered for the workshop. The day included participant registration, breakfast, and presentations by legal experts on citizenship issues. A thought-provoking short film was screened, and a powerful poem addressing citizenship issues was recited. The workshop provided an important platform for dialogue on critical citizenship issues in Assam. Most significantly, the discussions between legal practitioners from Guwahati high court and district courts and tribunals showcased emerging jurisprudence emerging on the citizenship issue that provided a legal bedrock for more concerted battles in future.
Bringing change from within: CJP’s legal activism
While CJP works tirelessly with people on the ground, providing them support in multiple ways, CJP also remains vigilant about large state and community processes undertaken in the state. This endeavour is in consonance with CJP’s larger goals of establishing constitutional values through its work.
For instance, in August 2023, CJP filed a complaint with the National Commission for Minorities urging swift and stringent action in response to alarming events which involved the distribution of arms and the organisation of arms training camps with young Indians in Darrang district of Assam as well as in Rajasthan.
In Assam, the arms training camp was conducted by the Rashtriya Bajrang Dal where, according to reports, about 350 Hindu youths underwent training in various seemingly militant acts, including firearm handling, martial arts, survival techniques etc. The alleged purpose of this camp was to combat what has been referred to as “love jihad” which seems to have the objective of worsening the communal divide further.
Similarly, in March 2021 CJP submitted a plea that focuses on the need for effective mechanisms for legal aid, involving the establishment of panels of trained lawyers and the provision of sufficient front offices. Thus, an aim at tackling larger problems with the help of available legal mechanisms has also been an approach that the team takes.
CJP’s commitment goes beyond mere legal victories; they envision a sustained effort to ensure the holistic reintegration of individuals into society. This includes assistance in exploring livelihood options, offering counselling to family members and individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts, providing legal knowledge and resources through paralegal workshops for those affected, and intervening in ongoing legal battles.
Habibul Bepari, one of the DVMs from Dhubri district, talks about the success of the paralegal workshop conducted by CJP, “Apart from all the important works, CJP’s para legal workshop helps the legal community tremendously. Important and significant (remarkable) judgments, resources have been shared with the legal fraternity so that every citizenship victim get justice easily and swiftly from their respective lawyers. CJP ensures the involvement of as many advocates that work on the issue ”
Here is a clip of one of CJP’s paralegal workshop with Teesta Setalvad, Secretary of CJP, at the helm at the event which also saw the participation of lawyer Mihir Desai Sr Advocate Bombay High Court, A R Sikdar Sr Advocate Guahati High Court, Zamser Ali, who is a journalist and activist along with others. The workshop saw discussion on FTs, NRC, ‘D’-Voter and so forth.
CJP’s work addresses each of the multi-faceted crisis that this humanitarian disaster has thrown up. Through documentation and discussion, our interventions calibrate and evolve, growing in depth and experience.
Armed only with constitutional values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, CJP conceives of a state where there are no casualties that result in such a crisis. CJP firmly believes in upholding the rights of the marginalised, ensuring communal harmony and combating communalism, and in the process of due law to bring justice to those whose rights are hampered with. With resolve and courage, the team at CJP in Assam continues as it does, each week, bringing news stories to light, bringing hope to these stories, and inching closer towards collective justice. Though it appears at the moment –given the numbers involved –that there is no end in sight, CJP firmly believes in developing jurisprudential interventions that will –in the not so distant future—actually tip the scales. For lasting alleviation of the crisis and change.