Preface By Neha Dabhade to the Book: “Denial of Citizenship and Marginalization: Linguistic Bengalis and Muslims in Assam” by Shahiuz Zaman Ahmed
Many may feel that issues of some Muslims somewhere in Assam are inconsequential and irrelevant for them. For most, it’s ‘somewhere out there’. However these issues are all encompassing of citizenship rights which should be the concern of an aware and Justice seeking civil society. Thus issue of discrimination against Muslims and Bengalis in Assam is a matter of grave concern for every citizen of India. The discrimination faced by Bengalis and Muslims in Assam in the form of ‘D’ voters list is in blatant violation of article 14 of the Indian Constitution which states,
‘The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India’.
A brief historical account of the issue linking it to the present situation in the light of this article may justify the need of this book. Assam has a history of migration which has led to problems of identity and citizenship. The migration of Bengali Hindu and Muslims was British induced for its own imperial interests and perpetuation of power. In spite of the resistance of the native Assamese, the British administration encouraged the cultivators from the over populated Bengal which also was the stronghold of rebels against the British in the pre independence era. This was to create a communal situation in Assam, augur the revenues from agriculture since Assam had vast lands uncultivated and to weaken the resistance and unity in Bengal against the British rule. They eventually came up with the ‘Line system’ which divided the migrant Muslim population from the native Assamese. With the migrants demanding the abolition of this line and the Assamese wanting it, the situation precipitated in a question of identity and discrimination. The state administration betrayed a bias against the migrants and has been meeting out unequal and discriminatory treatment to the migrants especially the Muslims. While this was roughly the situation pre independence, the discrimination and state bias continues till date. The Assam accord (1985) that was signed agreed to a tribunal called the Illegal Migrants Detection Tribunal (IMDT) to detect and deport the Bangladeshi migrants who came into India post 1971. The IMDT puts the onus on the accuser to prove that a particular person is not a citizen of India. In spite of IMDT, not many ‘migrants’ could be detected and deported.
The Foreigners Act 1946 is a colonial act which was introduced by the British to detect and deport foreigners all round the country. According to this act, the foreigners had to produce valid documents that permitted them stay in India. However, the IMDT was carved out as an exception to this act since in Assam it would be very difficult to tell the Bangladeshi apart from the Indians. Both the Indians and the Bangladeshis have same culture, language and sometimes same religion as well. Thus it lays down an exception to the jurisprudence. These were the legislations that were used to detect and deport the Bangladeshi migrants. However due to the same culture, history and language of the Bangladeshis and the Bengalis, it’s impossible to tell them apart. Since this is the obvious problem in the implementation of the a cts, the s tate has now resorted to t his arb itrary provision called the ‘D’ voters list to arbitrary deport citizens and to strip them off their citizenship rendering them stateless. This has far reaching consequences on the economic, social, family and mental well being of the victims. Stateless persons undergo tremendous trauma and horror due to lack of security, protection, livelihood and political rights.
Today the state bias and disenfranchisement imposed by the state has come to haunt the Bengali Hindus and the Muslims in the form of ‘D’ Voters list in Assam. ‘D’ stands for doubtful. Thus the state of Assam is maintaining a register of doubtful voters implying citizens in the state. These ‘doubtful’ citizens inevitably happen to be the migrants, the Muslims and the Bengali Hindus. They are put in this category claiming that they are Bangladeshi migrants. These D category voters are asked to prove their citizenship by producing the valid documents. However anyone familiar with the rural Indian reality would know that poor in remote rural areas in any state would not have their documents due to poor documentation in rural areas. Besides, this indicates towards the arbitrariness of the state which has violated the principle of jurisprudence in India which puts the onus of proof on the prosecutor or accuser. Dr. Shahiuz in the report gives shocking examples of instances where the state arbitrarily puts the name of some family member from a same Muslim family the ‘D’ voters list while the other are Indian citizens.
Religious profiling by the state of Assam by rounding up Muslims and Bengalis arbitrarily and asking them to prove their Indian citizenship is not uncommon. Similar instances have taken place and still take place in places like Mumbai and Jaipur. The Muslims in Mumbai are also harassed and deported under the pretext that they maybe be Bangladeshi migrants. Similarly in Jaipur, post the Ajmer bomb blasts where the police suspected that HuJi members carried out the attack, the Muslims from slum areas in Jaipur, were put in enclosures. In this whole incident, poor daily wage Muslims suffered a lot. It took civil society intervention like that of PUCL Rajasthan in the form of filing a case to point out the obvious fact that these innocent Muslim daily wage workers arbitrarily detained in enclosure on the pretext that they were Bangladeshis were adversely hit since they missed their work. Their daily hand to mouth existence was affected. Similarly the fake encounters and state supported violence has appalled all secular minded citizenship.
Why this book? This book is an account of state driven arbitrary stripping of citizenship rights of minorities in the state of Assam and to leave the reader to reflect on similar discrimination and profiling elsewhere albeit in different forms. These reflections together will form a collective discourse on disenfranchisement and discrimination faced by innocent Minorities enjoying fundamental and citizenship rights under the Constitution of India. The issue also painfully reminds the reader of the impunity and omnipresent nature of the state that can render citizens without a state in an arbitrary manner defying the Constitution and human rights doctrines.
This book in its first half gives a historical overview of the issue while the second part is a report of a fact finding team that went to Assam to understand the problem at hand. The fact finding report was the outcome of the fact finding undertaken by a team comprising of L S Hardenia, Prof. Dilip Bora, Gauhati University, Hafiz Ahmed, President, Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, Assam and Prof. Hanif Mostaque Ahmed and Deepak Bhatt from Madhya Pradesh and Shahiuz Zaman from Assam. This fact finding was undertaken after a Resolution was passed in the 9th Annual Convention of the All India Secular Forum (AISF) in Bhubhaneshwar in 2010. The fact finding team then visited Assam and spoke widely to different sections of the society in Assam to get insight into the issue. After the intense discussions and interactions held with the cross sections of the society, Dr. Shahiuz compiled this report on behalf of the team to which the team consented to. AISF was instrumental in bringing the plight of the Bengali Hindus and the Muslims in Assam to the forth which wasn’t noticed before by the civil society. The campaign then picked up momentum in the civil society. We thus thank the fact finding team for the wonderful job they have done. AISF and particularly Dr. Shahiuz is relentlessly working to bring the discrimination against the Muslims and Bengali Hindus in Assam to the notice of the whole country and fighting to secure the rights of theses population by engaging with the state machinery. For instance AISF has passed a resolution in its 10th Annual Convention in February 2011 that it will focus on this issue till the ‘D’ Voters list is abolished.
IPSCR hopes that this publication will initiate an informed debate and future action in the direction of securing the rights of innocent citizens fighting against the bias and xenophobia of the state and help in restoring justice and citizenship rights. And we once again sincerely thank Dr. Shahiuz Zaman for this thorough study and report which will strengthen this campaign for justice.
Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution