A 50-year-old woman living in a remote corner of Assam, who has trouble feeding her family, has been fighting a lone battle- to prove that she is a citizen of India. Declared a foreigner by Assam’s Foreigners’ Tribunal, Jabeda Begum lost the battle in Gauhati High Court and now, the Supreme Court looks too far away.
Jabeda Begum lives the remotest corner of Assam – in Baksa district, around 100 km from Guwahati. She is the only earning member of her family – her husband Rejak Ali has been ailing for long. The couple had three daughters, one of whom died in an accident and another one went missing. The youngest, Asmina, is a student of Class 5.
It is Asmina’s future that worries Jabeda Begum the most. With most of her meagre earning being drained by the legal battle, the little girl sometimes goes to bed hungry. “I am worried what will happen to them after me… I have lost hope for myself,” Javeda Begum confided.
The woman who is from Goyabari village was declared a foreigner by the Tribunal in 2018. Her regular trips for a year were in vain. The High Court, citing one of its previous orders, declared the papers she submitted — land revenue receipt, bank documents and PAN card — were not conclusive proof of citizenship.
“I spent whatever I had. Now I am left with no more resources for legal battle,” she said, breaking into tears.
At the tribunal, she had submitted 15 documents, including the voter lists of 1966, 1970, 1971 of her father Jabed Ali. The tribunal said she has produced no satisfactory linkage proof with her father.
In absence of a birth certificate, she had submitted a certificate from her village headman that named he parents and place of birth. It was not accepted by the tribunal or the court.
“I was called as a witness. I told them I know her, vouched for her being legal resident… we give the ‘Gaon Bura’ certificate to prove permanent residency of people, particularly married women who used to stay elsewhere,” said Golak Kalita, the headman of the village. Jabeda Begum’s parents had migrated to Baksa from Hajo after losing land to the erosion of Brahmaputra.
The family did not make it to the National Register of Citizens that was rolled out in Assam last year. They did not vote either — both husband and wife were marked “doubtful voters”.
Dubious or Doubtful voter is a category of voters in Assam who are disenfranchised by the government on account of their alleged lack of proper citizenship credentials. The D voters are determined by special tribunals under the Foreigners Act, and the person declared as D voter is not given the elector’s photo identity card.
Jabeda Begum has already sold three bighas of land they had to pay then legal fees. Now she works on others’ land for Rs.150 a day.
“For us, hope is practically gone. Death is very near,” said he husband Rejak Ali.
Jabeda Begum’s troubles resemble many others’ in Assam, who are caught between poverty and a desperate need to prove their citizenship. Around 19 lakh people were left out of the final list in the National Register of Citizens – an exercise aimed at weeding out illegal immigrants.
The centre has said it will give legal aid to those who have been left out of the NRC through the district legal services authorities.