Aman Wadud, Guwahati-based human rights lawyer, has in six years fought more than 300 citizenship cases for people who have been declared foreigners in Assam. He has taken up most of these cases pro bono. Keen on removing the ‘Bangladeshi’ tag from Bengal-origin minorities, he has helped “manufactured foreigners” regain their Indian status.
While this has earned him respect within the legal fraternity, he has also been threatened with criminal cases and been told to back off. In this interview, the 34-year-old discusses the social stigma that minorities face, the iniquities of the legal process, and how he was drawn to the cause.
What made you take up law as a profession?
The trigger was a TV channel flashing the word ‘Bangladeshi’ while covering the 2008 communal riots in Udalguri. The scroll on the screen read “Clash between Bangladeshis and tribals in Assam”. I called up the TV channel from Bengaluru, where I was studying, and told them to prove those people were Bangladeshi or change the caption.
They soon changed it to ‘Muslims’, which was more acceptable, although not ideal. That made me change my mind too — from preparing to be a civil servant to becoming a lawyer.
When did the stereotyping of Bengal-origin Muslims hit you?
Goroimari, the village where I grew up, has a large Muslim population followed by Bengalis and Assamese Hindus. We never knew about illegal migration or foreigners or Bangladeshis. Cricket, the same thing that forged communal harmony among diverse communities across our rural landscape, ironically put up barriers when I moved to Guwahati for college. Being called ‘Pakistan supporter’ and ‘Bangladeshi’ because of my identity as a Bengali Muslim, despite our community’s efforts over a century to adopt the Assamese language and assimilate, rankled.
Then came a series of riots and a community constantly branded as Bangladeshi because of a narrative built over the years, a narrative that painted Bengal-origin Muslims as aggressors, encroachers, settlers. I wanted this narrative changed.
Was the National Register of Citizens (NRC) an opportunity to change that narrative?
Unlike the national NRC being planned, I supported Assam’s NRC. So did those who wanted to be rid of the stigma of being called a Bangladeshi in their own motherland. We wanted a free and fair NRC under the supervision of the Supreme Court because we believed it would bring out the truth. After the list came out on August 31, 2019, some people started saying the NRC was not acceptable.
Why, because ‘only’ 19 lakh (out of 3.3 crore applicants) were left out, that too with parents in, children out? Three of my cousins were left out of the list while my uncle and aunt are in. This, when our great-grandfather settled in Goroimari in 1890. This pointed to a design. Many Bengali Hindus were left out because their refugee certificates, which were admissible, were rejected. Those excluded will have to go to the Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) within 120 days of receiving notice from the NRC authority. If the FTs decide these cases judiciously, there will be less than one lakh people who will end up as declared foreigners (DFs). That will primarily be because of bad legal representation, since there are hardly any foreigners in Assam.
Wasn’t the NRC demanded in the belief that Assam has at least four million ‘Bangladeshis’?
Various imaginary figures have been thrown around. But what has become gospel is a false, bigoted report on illegal migration in Assam submitted by former Governor S.K. Sinha in 1998. The SC subsequently justified his document and it became gospel for the political narrative on illegal migration.
The report revived the illegal migration issue, which had been dead after the Assam Accord. It sells in politics; if you don’t have anything better, rake it up. If there are illegal migrants, the government has completely failed to detect them. So illegal migrants have been manufactured by turning genuine Indians into “foreigners”, destroying lives of mostly poor, illiterate people. I have not seen any foreigners, neither did my seniors who fought more than 3,000 cases.
How fair is the process of detecting illegal migrants?
The Border wing of the Assam Police and the Election Commission of India are set periodic targets. I have met investigating officers who confess that they were under pressure to detect between five and 20 per month. Each case referred to the FT has a column stating “country of origin”. They name districts such as Mymensingh, Sylhet and Rangpur (all in Bangladesh) but the police station and village names are fictitious.
I have googled to find many of those names in Bihar and West Bengal. The entire process is bunkum because when you can’t find foreigners, you manufacture them. FT members who fail to send a certain number of DFs to the detention centres are chucked out.
Most FTs were quite judicious before 2016 because there was no pressure on them. I don’t disagree with the view that the FTs are violating the processes of fair trial. They should be allowed to act independently, as they decide the most important constitutional right to citizenship.
How justified are the detention centres?
The Centre has sought to establish detention centres across the country. Such centres with proper facilities and consular access are for foreigners who overstay their visa period. Every such foreigner is ultimately deported. But most of those in Assam’s detention centres are DFs, so declared by the FTs for mere technical reasons.
Most of their parents and family members are Indian citizens. They cannot be deported to an alleged country of origin. In the last seven years, not more than five DFs have been deported. They can’t be deported because their country of origin is India.
Many were indefinitely detained from 2010 and were released only after the Supreme Court ordered the release of anyone who had completed three years in detention. Following our petition in March, the SC reduced the detention period to two years, ensuring the release of more than 300 DFs. If deportation is not forseeable, detention for even two years is not reasonable. But the government is building an expensive, exclusive detention centre in Goalpara for 3,000 people.
Where is the issue of illegal migrants headed?
At some point in time, the government should be embarrassed about the handling of this issue that has killed 30 people in detention centres, separated mothers from children, sent fathers to their deaths still hoping to free their sons, and made Indian Army soldiers like Ajmal Hoque and Mohammad Sanaullah foreigners.
It is expected that those excluded by the NRC will be tried when normal life resumes after the COVID-19 lockdown. The excluded people will have to appeal before the FTs, which should be allowed to function independently without any pressure. The rule of law should not be subverted just because the results don’t match decades of lies around the issue of illegal migration.