Bhandari Das is 80 years old. The most crucial piece of paper in her file of documents is a Relief Eligibility Certificate issued to her by the Union government in 1967. Three years later, in 1970, Das was enrolled as a voter in the Cachar district of Assam. Her name duly appeared in the 2019 National Register of Citizens (NRC). But on Monday, a foreigners' tribunal in Assam -- hearing a case registered against her by the Superintendent of Police(Border), Cachar in 2008 alleging that she was an illegal immigrant -- deemed Das a "streamlined foreigner".
This means that she will lose her right to vote for the next decade.
Despite this development, Das is not perturbed given the law states her name will be restored to the rolls after the expiration of a 10-year period. "In 10 years, me and my family members will be declared permanent Indian citizens," she said.
The case is symptomatic of the often fraught and complicated process of proving identity in Assam. Das has lived, and been a voter in India for over 50 years, entering the country to flee persecution.
After battling a case for three years and having her documents scrutinised, she has lost her right to vote for a decade. And yet, she is pleased with the decision, happy with the bare minimum that she has not been declared an illegal immigrant.
Das was 13 when she married Rajendra Das in Sylhet, Bangladesh in 1961, and crossed the border into India six years later. "We were being attacked from various sides because of our religious beliefs. Many of our neighbours had already left for India, and one day my husband decided to as well. It was the toughest time of our lives. When the notice came from the court three years ago, all I thought was that I would have to go back to Bangladesh, which I definitely did not want to do," she said.
They travelled for an entire day, with very little food or water, reaching a refugee camp near Siliguri by midnight. For three years, that's where Das and her husband lived. "Finally we managed to get some work in Bholanathpur village near Silchar town, and shifted there. My two children were born in that village," she said.
Das's husband Rajendra died in 2009 after years of being ill, and she now lives with her son Rajkamal and his family; her daughter is married to a farmer from a nearby village and has four children.
Rajkamal Das said that his mother has developed a hearing problem over the past few years that causes her much pain, but the hurt is the strongest when she talks of the time she crossed over. "I was born in 1971 at Bholanathpur and my younger sister was also born here. Before that our parents went through a pathetic life and they only survived because they supported each other. We are a family of farmers and our father taught us to be ready to face anything in life. When the case was filed against my mother, our father's words were what we remembered," he said.
In 2008, a case was registered against Das in 2008 by the Superintendent of Police (Border) Cachar, Silchar alleging that she was a foreigner who arrived in India after 25th March, 1971 from Udhopuz village under Ajmeri police station in Sylhet district of Bangladesh. While Das was unable to submit any document of her citizenship at the time, police officials said that, in 2018, the Foreigners Tribunal Court III in Cachar issued a notice asking her to prove her identity by producing adequate documentation.
Das, who appeared before the tribunal several times over the past three years, relied on two key documents. First, a certified copy of the 1970 voters list where her name appeared, and second, the Relief Eligibility Certificate issued by the Government of India to her in 1967. In the final order issued on October 4, the FT-III member (judge) B K Talukder termed her as a "Foreigner Of The Stream 01-01-1966 to 25/03/1971" and asked her to enrol her name as an emigrated Bangladeshi in the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO). The order says the her husband, who is now dead, and her children will be required to do the same, within 30 days.
In the order, Talukder wrote, "I have gone through the written statement, evidence and documents submitted by the lawyer of Bhandari Das carefully. My considered opinion is that the opposite party is a foreigner of the Stream 01-01-1966 to 25/03/1971. The OP (Bhandari Das) is directed to register her name along with her husband and children before the Foreigners Regional Registration Office, Cachar, Silchar."
Clause 5 of Assam Accord says that "All persons who come to Assam prior to January 1, 1966, including those amongst them whose names appeared on the electoral rolls used in 1967 elections, shall be regularised as citizens. Foreigners who came to Assam between January 1, 1966 and March 24, 1971 shall be detected in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946. Names of those detected foreigners will be deleted from the electoral rolls in force. Such persons will be required to register themselves before the Registration Officers of the respective districts in accordance with the provisions of the Registration of Foreigners Act and the Registration of Foreigners Rules, 1939. For this purpose, Government of India will undertake suitable strengthening of the government machinery. On the expiry of a period of 10 years following the date of detection, the names of all such persons which have been deleted from the electoral role shall be restored."
SP Cachar, Ramandeep Kaur, who also holds the post of SP (Border) said, that names declared as "foreigner of the Stream 01-01-1966 to 25/03/1971" by Foreigner Tribunal Courts are entered into the FRRO. Kaur said that there are six Foreigners Tribunal Courts in Cachar. "It is difficult to find records and say how many such cases we have dealt with so far," Kaur said.
Das's lawyer Tanmay Purkayastha said that the judgment was drawn as per the provisions of the Assam Accord. "Bhandari Das has proven that she has been staying in India since 1967 and the court has agreed that the documents she submitted are authentic. Now, after staying in India for more than five decades, she has to register her name as a migrant. We are part of this system and cannot criticise it but in my personal opinion, these people deserve better treatment," Puryakastha said.
Das though, was enthused with the order, and said that she did not want to leave a "bad legacy" for her children. Talking to HT, she said, "My only fear was to die without proving my Indian citizenship. I don't want to leave a bad legacy for my children. Now the court has said that if I wait for 10 years, my family members and I will be declared as permanent Indian citizens. At the age of 80, I am not sure I will live for another 10 years or not. But even if I die before that, my children I will live a respectful life as genuine Indian citizens."
Senior advocate Soumen Choudhary however called this "extended harassment". "It takes years for a person to prove his identity before the court because in many cases the document they submit needs verification. Various government departments delay these verifications which keeps the person waiting for a long time. But after facing all these processes, the Court calls the person streamlined foreigners, which in my opinion, is a half citizenship," he said.
Social activist Kamal Chakraborty said that there were other cases as well where people were declared "streamlined foreigners", and that activists in the area were now trying to raise awareness on the documents that they need before a tribunal. "I know a family who have land purchasing documents from 1964 but they did not submit this before court so the court declared them streamlined foreigners. Now they have to appeal again and it may take another episode to solve the issue," Chakraborty said.
Last year, 104-year-old Chandradhar Das died in Cachar district without being able to prove his identity after fighting for more than four years. His only wish was to die as Indian and had submitted a citizenship card issued in his name in 1964 in Tripura. The Tribunal Court sent this card for verification which never came back.