As the decade-long National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise draws to a close on August 31, Haider Ali, a resident of Laharighat in Morigaon district, recalled the many steel trunks he used to store the documents that prove his citizenship.
“These documents are for our existence. It is to save my citizenship that I save my documents. My family will survive because of these documents. I have documents from 1962 and 1966. I have my land records. I submitted these documents for the NRC so that my family lives in peace,” he told News18.
For decades even before the NRC exercise began in 2015, Haider has been in the practice of wrapping his proof of citizenship within thin sheets of plastic before sealing them inside a file folder. The silver steel trunk that lies protected under the bed – for his family of four – holds many such file folders.
“The documents important to our citizenship have passed through many hands,” he said.
In the past 50-plus years, the 3.9 crore applicants to the NRC managed to preserve and produce 6.6 crore documents – all submitted to the NRC as proof of citizenship.
News18 spoke to Prashenjit Biswas, an academic and human rights activist based in Assam, to grasp this change. He said while people have diligently preserved documents for decades, some of these papers may not hold ground in the court of law today.
“According to the law on retention period, a document which was issued in 1971 may not be held by the government in today’s time. Many applicants are facing this problem because for the government, his/her records may be non-existent.”
Biswas remembered the time from when he produced his father’s citizenship certificate of 1955 in an NRC Seva Kendra in Guwahati. The authorities said they cannot accept it because there is no backend copy.
However, at the end of the citizenship exercise, people in Assam have adopted practices, after being conditioned by a citizenship discourse, which make them fear less for life but more for the loss of their documents. So much so, that they even respond to natural catastrophes differently.
When the flood water rushed in July 2019, Arfan Ali, who lives with his family in Morigaon district, reached out to save his NRC documents before his life. The physical misery following rising flood waters compounded on the grief caused by the loss of their documents.
“There are four members in my family. All of us applied for the NRC. Out of the four, three were named in the first draft. My wife was left out. I have claimed for my wife’s inclusion in the list. But the flood washed away all my documents. My home was washed away,” he told News18.
For Arfan, the publication of the final NRC was the much awaited end of his family’s constant struggle to retain their Indian citizenship. “Our documents from the 1960s would live longer than us,” he said, expressing uneasiness.
In fact, Biswas takes note of the entire process of hoarding that Assam has evolved from under the discourse of citizenship.
“We have moved from traditional to modern ways of keeping documents. In the 1950-60s, people in villages stored important papers in the hollow space inside big pieces of bamboo. The almirah entered the commercial markets in Assam only in the 1970s. During floods, people kept stored documents at higher places inside their homes,” he said.
In Baksa district, Gobinda Nandi and his family have not been named in the NRC. Although Nandi is unable to understand how he failed to prove his citizenship despite the right documents, he recollected his father’s insistence to safeguard documents.
“My siblings and I were very young when my father first bought a folder to store these documents. When I was growing up, we were made to store our school answer sheets too. These things don’t matter in the lives of other people. But they are witnesses to our existence in this land,” he said.
Nandi had submitted his father's original Permanent Resident Certificate from 1964 and school admission document from 1968 for the NRC.
With many such stories, the academic from Assam noted that through the change in storage infrastructure, “the process of hoarding documents moved from an unprotected environment to a protected one.”
While the NRC will render many stateless, there is a large chuck of people who still hold on to their documents. For some it is a matter of sentiment, for others it is a question of their identity.
Sifting through his father’s Refugee Certificate from 1964, Pradeep Chandra Dey of Goalpara district, reminisced refugee camp no. 11 in Dudhnoi where migrants from East Pakistan had settled.
“My elder sister had managed to find work in the camp. We received free ration. My family was issued refugee certificates. We submitted them to the NRC in 2015. I wonder how many from the camp made it to the list,” he added.
Dey and his family of eight were excluded in the NRC despite submitting land documents from 1966 and his father’s refugee certificate from 1964 in original.
“We had sought a loan of Rs 2,600 from the government in 1966. With that money we bought a small plot of land in Tamulpur. If the registered land exists after 53 years, how can the document be invalid?” he asked.
Between 2015 and 2019, the family had to make rounds of the NRC office in Guwahati to prove their case. “My father and I did not save these documents in file folders for decades to be excluded,” rued Dey.