For months now, ever since the publication of the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), almost all revenue-related work, including registration, mutation and payment of land taxes, etc, at the Sonapur Circle Office in Kamrup Metropolitan District had either been on hold, or at the bottom of the list of priorities, as officials struggled to complete the task of verifying the documents and compiling the family trees of applicants.
The same situation prevailed all over Assam, involving millions of applicants for inclusion in the NRC.
But already, doubts are being expressed whether this massive exercise would ultimately turn out to be an exercise in futility.
“Let’s hope that something comes out of all this. This would have been a worthwhile effort if about 50 lakh people can be identified as foreigners,” Jogen Das, an employee of the Assam Power Distribution Company Limited ( APDCL), said on Wednesday.
Das and his colleagues in the Electricity Department are not involved in the compilation of the NRC. But he is highly skeptical.
Bipin Boro, Gaon Burra (village headman ) of Tepesia 3 No Lat, Sonapur said, “ I can say with confidence that there are no foreign nationals in Tepesia. I should know, because I issue residential certificates. Tepesia village covers eight suburis (wards) and falls in a tribal belt.
Bhaben Rohang, secretary of the Borkhat-Panbari Gaon Panchayat Cooperative Society, concurs. His job is to issue ration cards and oversee the distribution of PDS commodities.
Jogen Das, Bipin Boro, Bhaben Rohang and this writer are among the lucky ones; their names ,and those of their family members appeared in the first draft of the NRC, published at midnight of December 31-January 1.
But others, mostly poor (BPL) and illiterate, are not so lucky, though they are undoubtedly Indian citizens.
Among them are Pilpili, a Bodo woman, and her husband Arjun Sutradhar, both born in Nazirakhat suburi (ward) of Tepesia.
As is Anil Boro. All three belong to the BPL category, and work as daily wage labourers.
The documents they possess, including the gaon burra’s certificate, BPL cards, and even voter’s identity cards or ST certificates issued by the All Assam Tribal Sangha (and counter-signed by the revenue authorities) are not accepted as valid documents by the officials verifying family trees.
Romila Gowala, an Adivasi woman and widow, who too is BPL and a daily wage worker, is in tears : she has lost her voters identity card.
On the other hand, Ali Hussain, a small-time businessman and contractor, has no worries.
“My name, and those of my family members, has appeared in the first list. Everyone in my village are Indian citizens.”
Ali was born in a village in Mayang of Darrang district, but carries on his business based in Nazirakhat.
There is also no tension in Topatoli, a Muslim-majority village on the western edge of Sonapur town.
“They are all ‘Goria Muslims’ in Topatoli. There are no Bengali Muslims there,” Ali says.
“But there is a lot of tension in the Boko-Chaygaon area, where there are a lot of Bengali Muslims. There may be trouble when the second list is published. ”
The Sonapur area, outside of the Tribal Belt, is home to an estimated 150 Bengali Hindu families who settled here after 1947.
“Originally, there were only eight Bengali families when my family came here from Sylhet in 1950,” says Santosh Paul, who owns a grocery-cum-hardware shop in Sonapur bazaar.
Now there are 150. They are mostly shop keepers.
Paul himself has no problems, as his grandfather, father and uncles all figure in the voters’ lists of 1951, and thus can establish linkages and family trees.
But many Bengali Hindu applicants are having problems because they lack the legacy documents.
But, as I found on two visits to the Sonapur Circle Office to pay my land revenue (the first time I was turned away and told to come on another day because the officials were all busy in the NRC work), the people facing the maximum harassment while trying to get their names included in the NRC, were undoubtedly indigenous Indian citizens.
Particularly married women, born in the area but left for their husband’s places elsewhere.
I overheard three married-middle aged ladies talking and could understand they were nurses, working in Sri Sankaradeva Nethralaya in Beltola, Guwahati.
Though born in the Sonapur area, they are also married and settled in Guwahati.
Because of the nature of their work, they had to request for night duty so their days could be free to come to the Sonapur Circle Office for verification of their family trees.
Moreover, they had to hire a private taxi, spending more than Rs 3,000, and bring their ‘tiffin’ as they were not sure how long the process would take.
And Guwahati is only 26 km away.
Others I met in the Sonapur Circle Office had come from Bishwanath Chariali, Bijoynagar, Baksa, Dhubri, and even Shillong and Dimapur, where they were living and working.
I did not come across a single Muslim applicant, whether Indian citizens by birth, or of doubtful nationality, during my two visits to the office, though there must have been some on other days.
On the other hand, I met several Muslims of doubtful nationality at the Sonapur Electrical Sub-Division office of the Assam Power Distribution Company Limited.
They were all clamouring for registration in Prime Minister Modi’s scheme to provide electricity connections to BPL families.
They got into heated arguments with the electricity officials because they could not provide the required documents, mainly land pattas.
Sonapur circle, one of six in Kamrup Metropolitan District, may be an exception in Assam. But I have chosen to focus on this circle for two reasons.
The first is that our family has owned land here since 1976, and I myself moved here permanently from my family home in Guwahati in 2013.
I know this area and its people well.
The second reason is that this circle illustrates, in microcosm, that compilation of the NRC is a total mess, no matter what Prateek Hazela, State Coordinator, or Sailesh, the Registrar General of India, or other officials may claim.
The bottom line is that the second draft of the NRC, to be published on June 30, will satisfy no one.
On the one hand, the indigenous people, described by one political commentator as ‘nativist forces’, will feel unhappy if at least 50 lakh people are not excluded from the NRC.
On the other hand, those who are left out, presumably people of ‘doubtful nationality’, and principally living in the nine Muslim-majority districts of Assam, will create trouble after June 30.
This is the reason why 85 companies of central para-military forces have already been deployed throughout Assam, and 150 additional companies requested from the Central Government, in anticipation of trouble after June 30.
The Army is also on stand-by.
Utpal Bordoloi is a Guwahati-based senior journalist. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org