Non-inclusion in NRC shatters Hajj dreams of many Muslims in Assam

Sakina and Miraj Ali

By Mahibul H,

 Assam: “For the last twenty years, my only innermost wish has been to perform Hajj. I wish Allah somehow fulfills that dream,” Sakina Khatun says.

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A visibly devastated Sakina explains that not many people in their area have been able to go to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage but when she heard about it, she wished from the bottom of her heart to visit the holy sanctuary once.

Hajj is an annual pilgrimage made to the city of Mecca and Madina in Saudi Arabia, the trip constituting one of the five pillars in the Islamic faith. She explains that her Hajj application process hangs in balance as she could not make it to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) updated in the Indian state of Assam last year in August.

Aimed at identifying illegal immigrants in India who entered and settled in Assam, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being hailed as the largest drive to verify citizenship in the country ever. Out of a total of 3.29 crore applicants, only 3.11 crore of those who had applied for the NRC have made it to the final list. This means 19,06,657 people, excluding those who could not submit the required documents face the fate of detention camps, often infamous for their inhuman living conditions.

Residents of a quaint village in Darrang district, around 120-km away from the capital Guwahati, Sakina Khatun and her husband, Miraj Ali have limited means to earn enough money to fund their pilgrimage journey. In a state that depends largely on agriculture as its main source of livelihood it is difficult for people to dream big as in the case of the peasant couple whose dream of going for Hajj means curtailing their day-to-day expenses over a long period of time to save up enough for the trip.

According to the Joint State Hajj Committee (which includes Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Sikkim) it costs around 3.20 lakh Indian Rupees for each pilgrim to perform Hajj.

After saving for several years, Miraj Ali has managed to accumulate around six lakh rupees. “I am afraid that if she cannot go with me, it will be very hard for me to go alone,” said Miraj hoping that Sakina’s application gets cleared by the state police’s border branch.

With a hope to perform Hajj, the couple had applied for a Tatkal (instant) passport and had completed their online Hajj application too. It was only after submitting their application for police verification to the border branch of Assam Police that Miraj’s application received clearance while Sakina’s continues to remain “rejected” because her name was not included in the NRC.

Bachiran Passport status

Citizen/Non-citizen Paradox

“As I am not literate, I do not have a school certificate to establish my lineage link with my father,” says Sakina. She explains that according to her documents, she was born in Godaijhar village in 1975 so most of her family members have made it to the NRC list, including her father who is in the 1966 voter list.

Although the coordination committee for NRC in the state has assured those excluded in the final list can appeal before the Foreigners’ Tribunals within 120 days, it is reported that there have been many bizarre cases where a siblings name was included in the list while the other’s got excluded or a father’s name is included and the children have been left out

Sakina further states that she has submitted a panchayat certificate to assert her citizenship as she also has a land document in her name.

For inclusion in the NRC, residents of Assam were required to submit documents establishing their stay in the state prior to midnight March 24, 1971, a date agreed upon by agitating groups and government of India in the Assam Accord following large scale violence. For a person who was born after the cut off date, the NRC process listed eight documents to establish a parental link.

These were birth certificate, land document, board/university certificate, bank/LIC/post office records, circle officer/gram panchayat secretary certificate in case of married women, electoral roll or ration card, any other legally acceptable document.
However, the validity of gram panchayat secretary certificates was challenged in Indian Supreme Court, which ruled that panchayat certificates should be allowed to use as identity document for inclusion in the NCR. In Sakina’s case, her citizenship claim remains doubtful even after submitting documentary proof.
Following the tedious NRC update practice, many remain oblivious why their application was rejected. The NRC officials are yet to start supplying rejection certificates, which may include reason/s why an individual’s name was not included in the NRC.

Contrasting Stance

Vicky Sarkar, a resident of another village of Darrang  (name changed) also hoped to perform Umrah (Hajj pilgrimage is fixed to the last month of Islamic calendar and is obligatory, but Umrah is performed any time of the year and is non obligatory).

He had applied for a passport with the intent to perform Umrah, but like many, his application is pending as he could not make it to the NRC. “Almost all our family members have been included in the NRC. But somehow my name did not feature in the (NRC) list,” says Vicky.

He says that his family is one of the oldest families living in the village and he fails to understand how his name was left out. He is currently waiting to get his passport as police are not sending verification report.

There are two ways of getting a passport in India- Tatkal application and general application. In Tatkal, police verification report is required later to make the passport valid while in general application, the local police station sends its verification report to the Superintendent of Police (SP) office.

Much later, according to the process in Assam, the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) of the border branch sends the ‘clear verification report’ to the concerned Passport issuing office after verifying the individual’s documents in person.

As visible from the plight of Sakina Khatun and Vicky Sarkar, obtaining a passport has become an even more arduous task after the publication of NRC.

Not far from the village in the same district is 35-year-old Samiran (name changed) who had run from pillar to post before giving up her hope of obtaining a passport. She had applied for a passport in July last year and had gone for the police verification by producing her documents.

She had been told that Police verification had been initiated and a request was sent to SP Office, Darrang and that the passport would be dispatched after a ‘Clear’ Police Verification Report was received.

Samiran’s passport application status now reads, “The applicant would receive an email/SMS once the passport is dispatched.”

In general, a passport is delivered within 30 days in India but Samiran lost all hopes when the authorities asked whether her name was included in the NRC. Her name is one of the lakhs of names excluded from the final list.

On withholding the verification reports, a senior police official who did not wish to be named said, “Those people who are not included in the NRC are doubtful citizens. We cannot issue a verification report for them. As of now, we mark their applications as ‘rejected’.”
The official further said that this was a temporary measure and once the government issues any notification (regarding police verification reports), they will act accordingly.

However, this ‘rejection’ of police verification is completely contrasting to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of the Indian government as the state police remain at a variance with the central government’s stand.  At present, many people who wished to perform Hajj or Umrah are not even applying for passport as they already have learnt that police is not clearing verification reports of those people who are not included in the NRC.

Following the chaos and confusion about the fate of those excluded from the final draft of NRC, the MEA had issued a statement which said, “Exclusion from the NRC has no implication on the rights of an individual resident in Assam. For those who are not in the final list will not be detained and will continue to enjoy all the rights as before till they have exhausted all remedies available under the law.” The statement also claims that non inclusion in the list does not make the excluded person “stateless” or a “foreigner”, within the legal meaning of the term nor would they be deprived of rights or entitlements of a citizen.
The MEA’s assurance and statement seem to have little implication on the ground as without any official order prohibiting ‘clear police verification report for passport’, the state police cannot simply keep ‘rejecting’ the applications.

“Denying passport to excluded people (in the NRC) exposes brazen hypocrisy of this government,”  Guwahati based human rights lawyer Aman Wadud said.

He feels that the current government is using NRC to harass its own citizens and stronglycondemned the government and state police’s actions on people who could not make it to the NRC calling a “gross violation of Fundamental Rights.”