On the third floor of a narrow, unpainted building in the heart of Hyderabad’s old city, Mohammed Sattar Khan sat on his carpet and laid out all the identity cards he owns: an Aadhaar card, a passport, an old voter id card and a new one with his new address, as well as his nikahnama, or marriage contract. He also displayed a few of his parents’ identity documents, in the hope that they would make it clear to any observer that he and his family have always been citizens of India.

“I have been living in Hyderabad old city since 2002, but before that I was born and raised in the main city area – all my old neighbours will tell you that,” said Sattar Khan, an auto driver and occasional wedding videographer in his early 40s. “My parents used to get government pensions for years before they died, so how can I not be a citizen?”

Sattar Khan’s citizenship came under question in February, when the Unique Identification Authority of India – the agency that issues Aadhaar numbers – sent him a notice asking him to prove his citizenship before a UIDAI inquiry officer on February 20 or risk having his Aadhaar cancelled.

He is one of 127 Hyderabad residents that UIDAI claims to have sent such notices to, although the Aadhaar agency has now extended the deadline for proving credentials to May.

Of these 127 people, at least 23 are Rohingya Muslim refugees currently imprisoned by the Telangana police, according to Sattar Khan’s lawyer. And at least three men – including Sattar Khan – have been described as Indian in the police’s own records from two years ago.

In January 2018, Sattar Khan, Ismail Khan and Mohammed Zaker – all residents of Hyderabad’s old city – were arrested by the local police on charges of helping three Rohingya refugees from Myanmar get Aadhaar numbers, voter id cards and even passports through false documents.

According to the police’s first information report and remand report accessed by Scroll.in, all six persons – the three Indians and the three Rohingyas who were clearly listed as Myanmar natives – were booked for forgery and cheating. They were released on bail after four days.

While the case has been transferred to a Special Investigation Team of the Hyderabad police and a chargesheet is yet to be filed, Sattar Khan, Ismail Khan and Zaker have been slapped with UIDAI notices demanding proof of their citizenship. According to an India Today report, two of the Rohingya refugees accused in the case have also been served the UIDAI notices.

According to the notices dated February 3, the UIDAI was acting on complaints that the Aadhaar-holders in question were not Indian nationals and had acquired their Aadhaar numbers fraudulently. Lawyer Muzaffarullah Khan Shafaat claims there is no basis for UIDAI to target Sattar Khan, Ismail Khan and Zaker, who are all his clients.

“The FIR against these three men alleges that they helped some Rohingyas get Aadhaar, it does not say that they are not Indian themselves,” said Shafaat. “UIDAI’s notice to the three of them cannot be connected to this case, and UIDAI does not have the authority to question their citizenship.”

The UIDAI’s demand for citizenship proof is baffling: the Aadhaar Act of 2016 makes it clear that not just citizens but any person who has been residing in India for more than six months is eligible for an Aadhaar number. Aadhaar is neither based on citizenship, nor does it confer any citizenship rights.

On February 18, after reports about the notices in Hyderabad emerged in the media, the UIDAI backtracked. In a press release, it said that the notices sent to 127 people had “nothing to do with citizenship”.

Instead, it described the notices as part of a “routine quality improvement process” being conducted because UIDAI’s Hyderabad office had received reports from the Telangana state police that the 127 people had been found to be “illegal immigrants” who are not eligible for Aadhaar. In September 2018, in its judgement on the validity of Aadhaar, the Supreme Court directed government agencies to ensure that Aadhaar numbers are not given to “illegal immigrants”.

But what is unclear is why would the so-called “illegal immigrants” be asked to prove their citizenship by UIDAI and not by police and immigration authorities?

It is not known how many of the 127 Aadhaar holders who received the notices are Rohingya. But in Balapur, a Rohingya refugee settlement in Hyderabad, several members of the Myanmar Muslim community were candid about using fake documents to get Aadhaar cards for themselves.

Meanwhile, non-Rohingyas like Sattar Khan are scrambling to put together documents to prove their citizenship, with no indication from UIDAI about what would be considered adequate proof.

Mohammed Sattar Khan displays all his identity cards at his home in Hyderabad's old city. Photos: Aarefa Johari

The Aadhaar-NRC link

The UIDAI’s notices to Hyderabad residents have come at a time of nationwide protests against the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s Citizenship Amendment Act and proposed National Register of Citizens. The CAA, passed by Parliament in December 2019, aims to fast-track Indian citizenship for undocumented migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – all except Muslims. The NRC, meanwhile, will list all the people deemed to be legitimate citizens, in order to weed out so-called “illegal migrants”.

Home Minister Amit Shah has repeatedly indicated that the CAA and NRC would be implemented in conjunction with each other, triggering widespread concerns that they will be used to harass and disenfranchise India’s Muslims.

Even though Aadhaar is not a citizenship card and has no overt connection to the NRC, the two are indirectly linked. The NRC list is to be created based on data from the National Population Register, a database of India’s “usual residents” that the United Progressive Alliance government instituted in 2010. While the NPR data was being collected, the government also instituted Aadhaar, a biometric-based identity number for Indian residents with the ostensible aim of improving welfare provisions for the population.

Over the years, UIDAI and the NPR authorities began sharing biometric data they had collected for millions of residents with each other. Now the NPR, which uses Aadhaar data, could be further used to create the NRC.

Muslims being targeted?

While Sattar Khan does not understand the specific links between these different population databases, he blamed the NRC for the notice that UIDAI issued to him and others. “Citizenship of Muslims has become an issue with this government and I think that’s why we are being targeted,” he said. “The government wants to spread fear among Muslims by doing things like this.”

The son of a labourer working in a private electronics company, Sattar Khan lives with his wife and three school-going children in Hyderabad’s Muslim-dominated Talabkatta area. He studied up to Class 7 in an English-medium school, but claims his comprehension of English is limited. When the UIDAI notice arrived at his home via speed post, he had to take it to his lawyer to understand its contents.

Shocked that he had been asked to prove his citizenship, Sattar Khan is now scrambling to figure out which identity documents would be required – a detail that has not been mentioned in the UIDAI letter.

He is also afraid that two specific things could work against him: he does not have a birth certificate, and his date of birth is different on his passport, Aadhaar and voter identity card. According to one, he was born in April 1978, while the others suggest he was born in January 1975.

“In those days, many people did not have birth certificates because parents were not aware of it,” said Sattar Khan, who claims he knows several people with the same problem. “The government officials who made these ID cards also understood this, and would put any date as the birth date.”

The pension form that allowed Sattar Khan's mother to receive her deceased husband's pension.

While Sattar Khan acknowledged the case against him for allegedly helping Rohingya refugees get illegal documents, he directed all questions about it to his lawyer, Muzaffarullah Khan Shafaat. “That case is different from this UIDAI letter, which is asking me to prove my citizenship,” said Sattar Khan.

Officials from the UIDAI did not respond to calls or emails from Scroll.in. Police officials from the Special Investigation Team looking into the case were also unavailable for comment.

Scroll.in also attempted to meet Ismail Khan and Mohammed Zaker – Sattar Khan’s co-accused who have been served UIDAI notices too – but they declined interview requests.

At the Rohingya settlement

A few kilometres away from Sattar Khan’s neighbourhood, in Hyderabad’s Balapur suburb, refugees at a dusty Rohingya settlement were far more forthcoming about the topic of illegally obtained Aadhaar.

“Yes, many people here have got Aadhaar cards made illegally, by paying money to people who help,” said Ayatullah Maliki, a 28-year-old refugee who came to India in 2012. “But does anybody think about why we do it, what our problems are?”

The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, have been fleeing persecution from Buddhist extremists in their home country for decades. In 2016-’17, brutal atrocities on Rohingya villages triggered a mass exodus of millions of Rohingya to Bangladesh, with many also making their way to India.

Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingyas has been globally described as a genocide, but the Bharatiya Janata Party government has repeatedly proposed deporting Rohingya refugees back to their home country, where their lives are at risk. In October 2018, the Supreme Court ordered the deportation of seven Rohingyas back to Myanmar.

While the UNHCR – the United Nations’ refugee agency – has been issuing refugee cards to Rohingyas in India and other countries, several of the Rohingyas in Balapur had settled in Hyderabad between 2012 and 2016, and did not have refugee cards for a long time.

“Many of us got Aadhaar cards made before getting refugee cards, but now the government is saying we Rohingyas cannot get Aadhaar at all, even if we do have refugee cards,” said Mohammed Salim, a Rohingya who escaped to India in 2012 after most of his family was killed by Buddhist extremists. Salim now lives in Balapur on a long-term visa and runs a small grocery store in the settlement.

Unlike him, most of the 3,500 Rohingyas in Balapur are unemployed, struggling to make ends meet with any labour work they can get. “We are denied work because we have no identity cards, except for the refugee cards which only make it harder,” said Maliki, who was denied higher education by Myanmar authorities after Class 10. While Maliki hoped he would have a better life in India, he was denied both education and work as a refugee.

Ayatullah Maliki claims he got an Aadhaar made so that his daughter could get treatment at a hospital.

“Mostly this is why people get Aadhaar cards made, so that we can survive and get some proper work and earn for our families,” said Maliki, who had a more personal reason for getting an Aadhaar made in 2015, when he was living in Delhi. “My baby daughter has thalassemia, but none of the government hospitals in Delhi would admit her for treatment without Aadhaar.”

Maliki claims that he did not have to resort to illegal means to obtain an Aadhaar in 2015. “I told the officers that I am a refugee from Burma [Myanmar] and it was no problem at the time,” he said. “But in 2017, after I moved to Hyderabad, the police arrested me and said my Aadhaar was not valid. I got bail after 12 days but the case is still going on.”

Such arrests are frequent in Balapur, and several residents mentioned that at least 50 Rohingyas from the settlement had been arrested by Hyderabad police in the last week. They have been imprisoned in the city’s Cheralpally jail and Chanchalguda jail, and lawyers from Muzaffarullah Khan Shafaat’s team have met 23 of them. All 23 have been served notices from UIDAI asking them to prove their citizenship or legitimate residency in India.

“They have been appointed a lawyer and they told us that the police has threatened them that their whole families would be arrested if they change their lawyer,” said Shafaat. “Our main issue is that the UIDAI does not have the authority to demand citizenship proof, but it is also worth asking a refugee residing in India cannot get an Aadhaar if he has a valid refugee card.”