The case of Mohammed Sanaullah, declared a foreigner and held in one of Assam’s detention centres, is rich in ironies. That a serviceman employed by the Indian Army, often at border postings, is now considered an “illegal immigrant” violating those very borders. That he later joined the border police, the special unit of the Assam police tasked with identifying suspected foreigners. That his brother and close relatives have been certified Indian by the National Register of Citizens, but he has not.

So far, all institutions have failed him. The border police has discharged him and stripped him of all benefits provided to government employees. Most tragically, the army he served for 30 years says it has “big heart” for the retired soldier but cannot do much to help.

Individual army officers spoke of contacting his wife to “share the grief”. Assam’s Directorate of Sainik Welfare has reportedly guided Sanaullah to approach the Gauhati High Court to challenge the decision of the foreigners’ tribunal, one of the quasi-judicial bodies in Assam set up to decide on cases of disputed nationality.

Gestures of sympathy aside, it has done little to claim the war veteran as one of its own. By declaring Sanaullah a foreigner, the tribunal directly challenges the army’s own verification processes for new recruits. But the army seems content to let it pass.

Which Sanaullah?

From investigation to verdict, Sanaullah’s case is riddled with the grim absurdities of Assam’s foreigner identification machinery. The border police filed a first information report and started investigating him in 2008. Since then it seems to have developed amnesia, recruiting Sanaullah to its ranks nine years later even though the case had not been resolved.

Questions have been raised about the details of the 2008 investigating officer’s report. Sanaullah’s profession, according to the report, is “labour”. He is described as “illiterate” and, in a so-called confessional statement, he apparently admits to being born in Dhaka and migrating to India for a better life. Instead of a signature, the report contains his thumb print, which his lawyers claim was forged.

Now, the investigating officer has claimed that the person he interrogated in the case was not Sanaullah at all. That would square with what the former soldier himself told the tribunal: he had never been questioned by the border police and at the time of the supposed interrogation, he had been part of counter-insurgency operations in Manipur. Witnesses apparently questioned by the investigating officer have also filed charges saying they never gave testimonies against Sanaullah or signed off on any statement.

The foreigners’ tribunal, alleges Sanaullah’s lawyers, adopts the flawed inquiry report completely. It also dwells on inconsistencies between information submitted by Sanaullah himself and the investigating officer’s report or the verification process for the National Register of Citizens.

The register, currently being updated for the first time since 1951, is meant to be a list of bona fide Indian citizens living in Assam. Yet the final draft list published last year left out over 40 lakh people. Throughout the verification process, applicants have been done out of citizenship by errors and inconsistencies, some of which crept in because the register’s own officials entered the wrong data.

The tribunal finds fault with the fact that Sanaullah was not on the voter rolls in 1987, when he was 20. But the voting age, his lawyers point out, was reduced to 18 only in 1988.

Soldiering on

It is not clear why the tribunal chose to privilege certain documents over others. But it would seem to fit a pattern of tribunals declaring foreigners on technicalities, ignoring evidence to back claims of citizenship, making no allowances for the imperfections of bureaucratic processes. Local accounts suggest cases of mistaken identity are legion when it comes to declaring foreigners.

What is more disheartening is the army seems to have accepted the tribunal’s rationale without question. A letter from the directorate of Sainik Welfare in Assam to the Kendriya Sainik Board lists out six reasons why the tribunal rejected Sanaullah’s claim to citizenship, noting that the tribunal had not looked at his service documents. While the letter admits “confusion” over his identity, it does not seem to challenge the tribunal’s verdict.

Sanaullah is not the first soldier to fight for citizenship in Assam, and it is possible he will not be the last. The army has not disowned them, suggesting it does not really think such individuals are genuine foreigners. But it has not made much effort to come to their defence either.

Soldiers have become the most fetishised citizens in India’s new wave of nationalism. But there are few who will fight for their rights as citizens: better conditions of work, pensions, even citizenship itself. If the army truly cares about those who serve it, it should do more than show heart.