Humans of Assam is a collection of stories of people living in the state who fear losing their Indian citizenship. It is part of the month-long reporting project called The Final Count.
Ram Bahadur Chhetry has been making phone calls to acquaintances at odd hours, sounding disoriented and hassled. “The kind of psychological pressure I am facing right now, no one should be made to go through that,” said the 55-year-old man, who teaches at a lower primary school in Assam’s Baksa district.
The cause of Chhetry’s distress is the National Register of Citizens – a list being drawn up of genuine Indian citizens living in Assam. To be included in the list, applicants have to prove they or their ancestors had entered India before the midnight of March 24, 1971, the eve of the Bangladesh war.
Chhetry had made it to a draft list released in July 2018 – only to be told last month that he had been wrongly included.
He was among the 1.02 lakh people featured in a fresh exclusion list published by the NRC authorities on July 26. This list, the NRC authorities said, included people who had been declared foreigners by tribunals or who had cases pending there, as well as people disfranchised by the Election Commission and marked “D” or “doubtful” voters on the suspicion of being undocumented migrants from Bangladesh.
Chhetry was in neither category. Instead, he was found ineligible while appearing as a witness to support his sister’s claim for citizenship in March.
How it happened
Those excluded from the July 2018 draft list could make fresh claims to citizenship before NRC officials. When Chhetry’s elder sister, who had been excluded from the July 2018 list, used this provision, he was summoned to attest to her credentials.
He vouched for the fact that she was indeed his sibling and the daughter of Gopi Ram Chhetry, their father whom they cited as their ‘legacy person’ or pre-1971 ancestor. Gopi Ram Chhetry’s name features in an older version of the NRC prepared in 1951.
Apart from Ram Bahadur Chhetry and his sister, three of their other siblings were also present at the hearing. All of them submitted to the official that she was indeed their sister and their father’s daughter.
But at the hearing, the official seemed to suggest that his sister’s proclaimed age didn’t quite add up, recalled Chhetri. “He said that my father was too young to have her, according to her documents,” he said. “It was a minor mismatch. Everyone knows that back then, the official age was not always accurate.”
While the official at the hearing insinuated that he wasn’t quite convinced about his sister’s case, Ram Bahadur Chhetry said he had no inkling that his own citizenship would also come under the scanner. After all, he had produced original copies of a range of documents that day to establish his identity yet again. “I showed them my matriculation pass certificate and my voter ID card,” he said.
Yet, he has now been served a rejection note. “Legacy person is not parent/grandparent/great-grandparent,” it said, implying he had lied about Gopi Ram Chhetry being his father.
A strange contradiction
Along with Ram Bahadur Chhetry, his daughter has also been found to be ineligible. However, his son, who had also drawn his legacy to his grandfather Gopi Ram Chhetry through Ram Bahadur Chhetry, continues to be on the list.
In other words: the NRC authorities are convinced that he is the grandson of Gopi Ram Chhetry, but not the fact that his father Ram Bahadur Chhetry is the son of Gopi Ram Chhetry.
The sudden doubt cast on his Indianness has deeply unsettled Ram Bahadur Chhetry, who belongs to the Nepali-speaking Gorkha community with long roots in India.
“My father was a freedom fighter,” he said. “I was born here and have lived here all my life. For 33 years now, I have taught Assamese to children, and this is what I get in return. This stigma of my nationality being questioned is debilitating.”
Ram Bahadur Chhetry will have to file a fresh claim to be included in the final NRC and will have to go through another hearing.
Nepali civil society groups in Assam say they were running out of patience at this “unnecessary harassment of genuine Indians”.
“This is a direct result of a prejudiced official who perhaps has his own idea of who should be part of the NRC,” said Prem Tamang, the Assam Gorkha Students’ Union’s president. “We have kept quiet so far because we also want a foreigner-free Assam, but then when a set of people’s self-pride is hurt, they can only keep quiet for so long.”
He added, “People have furnished as many documents as the NRC authorities have asked for and as many times they have asked. All we ask is for proper procedures to be followed.”
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