Why retired Army officer in Assam was asked to prove Indian nationality

Between history's healed scars and freshly opened wounds in 'New India' lies the never-ending irony of identity crisis.

 |  7-minute read |   02-10-2017
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In India, the election voter ID card cuts both ways. To acquire one you have to furnish proof of your citizenship, and to prove that you are a citizen of India, your voter ID card is enough. Of course, the much-debated Aadhaar may soon become the only identity card in future replacing all other types of I-cards, including the voter ID and PAN. But let's keep the validity of that "formal fallacy" for another time.

There is one more identity that makes you a proud, uncontested citizen of India - your badge of patriotism (read Hindu nationalism) and how high up on your chest you wear it. No other affiliation can undo the superiority of that identity. Not even if you have served as a soldier in the armed forces and risked your life for the nation. Your non-Hindu identity will make you as much an outsider as any other refugee.

And this is what has happened to a soldier who after serving in the Army for 30 years has been asked to prove his Indian citizenship in the state of Assam.

His "crime": his Muslim name - Mohammad Azmal Haque.

assam1_100217033343.jpgMohammad Azmal Haque (Photo courtesy: Family album/aljazeera.com)

The foreigners tribunal (Number 2) at Boko in Kamrup district of Assam reportedly issued a notice to Mohammad Azmal Haque, a junior commissioned officer who retired in 2016, following a police report that suspected him of illegally entering India from Bangladesh after 1971.

According to this report, Haque joined the Indian Army as a sepoy on September 13, 1986, and retired on September 13, 2016.

"It hurts to receive such a notice after serving and defending one's motherland for three decades," the ex-serviceman was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.

According to Haque, he received the notice asking him to appear before a local tribunal on October 13, with relevant documents to prove that he was not an illegal Bangladeshi migrant.

Notices similar to the one that placed Haque in the doubtful-voter category ('D' voter), he claims, have been served to 40 others from his native village.

"Considering the current situation in the state, I am forced to think that it had happened to me only because I belong to a particular community. Around 40 others from my village have been given such notices and I personally know that they are all Indian citizens," he added.

But this was not the first time he has been served with such a  notice. He claims to have received a similar notice in 2012 saying he was a doubtful voter. "...but I submitted all documents in the tribunal court and it had declared me as an Indian citizen," he said.

"Why do I have to be humiliated so many times? I request the prime minister, the president and the home minister to end this harassment of a proper citizen," Haque was quoted as saying by the PTI.

He said a notice was slapped on his wife also in 2012, but the "tribunal declared her an Indian citizen after she furnished proof".

For the record, Assam has 100 foreigners tribunals to detect illegal migrants. Under the 1985 Assam Accord, 1971 has been designated as the cut-off year. The tribunals have been entrusted with the task of detecting the "authenticity of a person claim to citizenship" based on police references.

While the Army has offered to provide the required assistance to Haque, when reporters contacted Assam DGP Mukesh Sahay over the controversy, he reasoned out that "receiving a notice doesn't mean that one has been branded an illegal migrant".

"When a court or foreigners tribunal issues notice to a person, it does not do so as to whether that person is an Army personnel or not. The onus to prove that one is an Indian citizen is on the person served with notice. It's a 2008 case and on October 3 when the court reopens, we will send for the documents."

"The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being updated in Assam and it is a matter of procedure to asks for documents to prove one's citizenship," he told mediapersons.

Sahay is right. Of course, a notice asking to prove citizenship doesn't brand anyone an illegal migrant, but what he failed to reason out is that it also means that your identity has been questioned.

Even if we consider the tribunals are just doing their jobs, will a Bengali/Assamese/Hindi-speaking Hindu man who has served in the Army for three decades be asked to prove that he is not an illegal migrant? More so, when the "soldier" has become a stick for the chest-thumping hypernationalists to beat any anti-establishment voice. 

Is that not ground enough to feel discriminated against because of religion?

Between history's healed scars and freshly inflicted wounds in New India lies the never-ending irony of identity crisis, especially with the RSS-BJP narrative of Hindu nationalism.

The way the Assam DGP defended his force for "persecuting" an ex-serviceman on religious grounds couldn't be more indicative of the callousness with which the detection of illegal immigrants is being carried out.

The BJP came to power in Assam on the promise of flushing out Bangladeshis from the state where illegal infiltration has remained the most-contentious issue for decades. The BJP government also promised to seal the 263-km-long Indo-Bangladesh border.

(Assam shares only 263km of the 4,096km boundary between India and Bangladesh. Plans to erect a barbed wire fence along the entire stretch has remained incomplete for a long time. One of the reasons behind the delay is that about 44km of the border is porous - it passes through the Brahmaputra. While releasing the vision document in Guwahati ahead of Assembly elections, the BJP, however, had clarified that the border will be sealed in all places, except the riverine frontier where wires could not be put up.)

However, at the same time, the BJP decided to grant citizenship to Hindu refugees who migrated because of "religious persecution" - something that became a major poll plank of the party during the Assam Assembly election last year.

This announcement though didn't go down well with coalition partners, the AGP, which came into existence in 1985 after a six-year-long Assam Agitation against illegal infiltration of Bangladeshis. The AGP had clearly distanced itself on the issue saying the party doesn't distinguish between Hindu and Muslim immigrants.

There have been many incidents when "genuine" Indian citizens have complained of being harassed by police and other law enforcing agencies in the name of detecting illegal foreigners.

But this has happened not just during the current BJP rule. There also have been instances when government officials, including Assam police personnel belonging to the Muslim community, were enlisted as 'D' voters.

The most surprising were the cases when family members of Assamese actor of international repute, Adil Hussain, and Padma Shri Eli Ahmed were also branded as 'D' voters.

The BJP has also promised to complete the mega project to update the National Register of Citizenship, which began on 2015. However, fingers have been raised over the promise after the government missed the first deadline - December 2016 - and again the revised deadline of March 2017.

The government is now fighting hard not to miss the December 2017 (re-revised) deadline for completing the NRC in Assam.

The updated NRC is expected to include in the electoral roll the "names of persons or their descendants who appear in the NRC 1951, or in any of the electoral roll up to the midnight of March 24, 1971, or in any of the admissible documents issued up to the midnight of March 24, 1971".

While citizenship is a much-complicated issue, especially in Assam, it's strange that the Indian government has not been able to see the irony in the exercise. While the agency suspecting or accusing someone of being an illegal immigrant doesn't have to prove the basis of their allegation, the onus to prove that a person is not an illegal immigrant lies only on the accused. 

According to government data, there are 141,733 'D' voters in Assam. Interestingly, more than 92 per cent of the resolved cases of 'D' voters have been declared as genuine Indian nationals, according to a white paper published by the Assam government in 2012.

Whether Haque is an illegal migrant or a genuine Indian citizen will be decided by the tribunal, but the latest case also raises fingers over the army's recruitment, and thereby the entire government machinery. 

The onus is now on the Indian government and its bureaucracy to prove the "success" of Indian democracy.

Also read: In Assam, Indian Muslims are being abused as 'Bangladeshi'

Writer

Sanghamitra Baruah Sanghamitra Baruah

Works at DailyO.

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