Published: 23rd September 2019
The Curious case of NRC and vanishing voters of Assam: Who are the much-debated D-voters?
The D simply stands for Dubious or Doubtful — whose citizenship cannot be confirmed by the Government of India
Assam's National Register of Citizens (NRC) was uploaded online — with the names of those included and excluded from the list — on August 31. A total of 3,30,27,661 people applied and 3,11,21,004 were considered eligible. This leaves 19,06,657 people in the state without a state — around 6 per cent of Assam’s population, the population of entire Nagaland and double the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. They will now have to appeal against the decision in Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT). The NRC was first published in 1951 and was updated to exclude those who may have illegally entered Assam via Bangladesh after March 25, 1971.
A lion's share of these 19 odd lakh people are D-voters — a term coined in 1997 when the Election Commission of India, issued a circular to the Government of Assam directing it to remove non-citizens from the electoral list. They won't be able to vote or contest in elections.
D for Dilemma: The process to determine whether an individual is Indian or not is conflicting (Pic: PTI)
The Growing D-Company
The D simply stands for Dubious or Doubtful — whose citizenship cannot be confirmed by the Government of India. But what seems bizarre is the process of delisting the voters — it is as binary as it can get. Some of the D voters have voter ids and passports as well. The process to determine whether an individual is Indian or not is also conflicting. "My father and mother are Indians – my who family belongs to this place. I have all the documents with me. But no one even wants to see those documents. They say such documents are available at any paan shop," Bassu Ali (39) of Lakhipur, Parsim Kataudi, told a team of journalists and activists, associated with the United Against Hate, who visited Assam to ascertain the situation on the ground level. Their report, Democracy under detention: the horrors of NRC from Assam, documents the testimonies of many like Bassu.
Prutima Banai, a 27-year-old from Goalpara told the team that her case has been going on in FT for more than six months now. "I have been declared as D-voter despite having all documents with me. We are three brothers and four sisters and I am the lone D-voter in the family. There is no D-voter in my husband's family either – then why was I singled out?" asked Prutima. "I have no idea how or why this happened to me. In my village, 12 people have been declared as D-voters of them 10 are women," she added. Married women have a hard time proving their nationality as they are neither a part of the property distribution nor do they have documents to prove any connection to our country. Once someone is declared a D-voter they are sent to detention centres in jails across the state. "On January 26, 2014, the police picked me up from my home. After a day at the police station, I was sent to jail. Once I appeared in court, my lawyer told me to be there and go inside when someone calls me and then disappeared. An officer called me in and asked as where I lived. I told him that I live in Karbala. He said that he had heard that I came from Bangladesh. I was directly sent to jail after that. I was kept in a small cell with 50 people where each of us had only two feet of space to sleep. I will die, I will commit suicide but will never go there," said Bassu.
On July 17, 1997, the ECI, ordered the Government of Assam to mark those who were not Indian citizens and remove them from the electoral list. An intensive revision of electoral rolls followed in Assam — door to door surveys became the order of the day to enlist only the genuine Indian citizens. Those who could not provide evidence in favour of their Indian nationality were marked with 'D' in the electoral rolls to indicate doubtful or disputed status. But absentee voters were marked with a 'D' as well during the course of the survey. Around 3.7 lakh people were declared as 'D' voters by the ECI. As on December 2017, there were 1,25,333 D voters — 77,799 or 62 per cent of them women.
Those marked as D-voters were barred from contesting the elections and casting their votes. The ECI said that the D voters should be put on trial before the FT set up under the Foreigner (Tribunal) Order of 1964. Only 1,99,631 cases were referred to the tribunals for verification. During the initial trials, 3,686 of them were found to be foreigners, whose names were removed from the electoral rolls. The trials at the 36 Foreigners Tribunals proceeded at a slow pace.
In all this humdrum, a section of the Bangladeshi illegal immigrants who were marked as D voters and awaiting the trials became absconding. On April 4, 2004, the Gauhati High Court ordered the D voters to be sent to detention camps till their cases were disposed of. Accordingly, the D voters facing trial before the Foreigners Tribunal were sent to the detention camps at Goalpara and Kokrajhar. In 2005, another door to door survey was carried out of the Election Commission. It was found that a huge number of D voters, who were blacklisted in 1997, could not be traced anymore.
Where to go?
Political parties, including the Bhartiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress, have criticised the NRC over and over. The Bengali-speaking Hindus who were kept out of the list form a major section of the BJP vote bank. "Tension is palpable on the faces of those Muslims who have been left out from the final list of the NRC but no such anxiety is discernible among Hindus because they feel that the government will bail them out," reads the report. The Supreme Court's verdict, people feel, raised important constitutional concerns. A people's tribunal, who recently met in Delhi, said that the SC judgement that paved the way for the NRC exercise had relied upon “unverified, and now disproved, data to hold that migration amounted to ‘external aggression’ upon India”. In doing so, the court “in effect, dehumanised migrants and infringed their rights to liberty and dignity”.