‘D voters’ remain a key issue in Assam during India's general elections

Tagged as D-voters, they are deemed ‘aliens’ in their own land. Screenshot from YouTube video report by East Mojo. Fair Use.

Tagged as D-voters, they are deemed ‘aliens’ in their own land. Screenshot from a 2019 YouTube video report by East Mojo. Fair Use.

The third phase of India's ongoing general elections has concluded in Assam as the final phase of voting done on May 7, 2024. The second and third phases of the Lok Sabha election have covered areas with a large number of Bengali-speaking people, including Hindus and Muslims. Alongside other issues, the struggles of “D voters”, detention camps, and their sense of belonging have emerged as core factors influencing voters in these areas.

Who are D-Voters?

In Assam, D Voters are voters who lack proper documents to prove their Indian citizenship — often Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims. These individuals are disenfranchised and barred from voting in the election.

In 1997, the Election Commission of India ordered the Government of Assam to remove non-citizens from the electoral list, thus initiating the classification of D voters. More than 370,000 people were accused of being D voters, and nearly 200,000 were sent to tribunals for foreigners.

The accused must prove their citizenship through a cumbersome and lengthy verification process at the foreigner tribunals, which are quasi-judicial bodies in Assam that specifically deal with cases related to proving one’s citizenship. As of 2024, there are 100 foreigner tribunals in Assam, an increase since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the state.

Individuals who fail to prove their citizenship in these tribunals are sent to detention camps. These camps are special centres in Assam where declared foreigners are held. The state also has India's largest detention camp, completed in 2023.

Location of Assam. Image via Wikipedia by Porikolpok Oxom. Public domain.

Location of Assam. Image via Wikipedia by Porikolpok Oxom. Public domain.

Marginalization and dignity?

Assam has a long history of conflicts over the status of bona fide citizens. In 1979, the All Assam Student Union and other ultra-nationalist organizations initiated the Assam movement to identify and deport illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh living in the state. The movement concluded in 1985 with an accord that promised to update the National Register of Citizens in Assam minus the D voters. The process of identifying foreigners through the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a register of all legal citizens of India, came to an end on August 31, 2019, rendering nearly 1.9 million people who had never been added to the NRC stateless. These people might lose their citizenship or face expulsion, exile or detention camps. The exclusion of NRC also barres them from obtaining an Aadhaar card, which is a mandatory government biometric ID to avail many government facilities.

In addition to the NRC, the citizenship crisis has another dimension — the issue of “D Voters,” which is often overlooked. Individuals who receive D-voter notices are forced to engage in a protracted and arbitrary battle with the judiciary, with most cases dragging on for years, leaving the accused to live in uncertainty.

The foreigners’ tribunals, established to decide citizenship, often operate in biased and arbitrary ways, frequently targeting the state’s linguistic and religious minorities. D-voter cases are supposed to be investigated by the border police department of Assam and then referred to the foreigner tribunals. However, in most cases, this process does not occur, and people are directly served notices by the foreigners tribunals.

D voters are often impoverished and make a living as daily wage workers or farmers. Laden with poverty, the additional financial burden of fighting a case in court further marginalizes them.

In 2023, BBC India released a documentary (in Hindi) illustrating how genuine Indian citizens are harassed due to mere suspicions. The story features Shanti Debnath and Asmat Ali, both accused of being foreigners and asked to prove their nationality.

Shanti Debnath, a small shopkeeper and a disabled person, was served a foreigner notice in 2019. For almost three years, he had to live with the burden of doubtful citizenship until he could prove his citizenship in 2022. Similarly, Asmat Ali, a poor farmer, was served a foreigner notice in 2013. Ali, who resides in a low-lying area on the bank of the Brahmaputra in the Barpeta district, had to travel to the distant city of Guwahati to prove his citizenship. Ali was declared an Indian citizen in 2022, nine years after the accusation.

Asmat Ali remarked, “I was shattered, I cried a lot. I went from home to earn money for my family and children, but I was accused of being a Bangladeshi. I wanted to die at that time. Even after having all the documents of my father, if I am a Bangladeshi, then it is better to die.”

In 2021, a woman named Tahamina Khatun couldn’t vote in the state assembly election because she was marked as a D voter in the electoral roll. However, her son, Faruk Khan, contested the election as an independent candidate from the Jania constituency in the Barpeta district. In India, only genuine Indian citizens with all the necessary documents can contest an election.

In 2019, Amnesty International raised questions about the foreigner tribunals and questioned the accountability of the process. It alleged these tribunals were biased and arbitrary in most cases.

Non-profit Citizens for Justice and Peace posted on X:

The struggle of a D-voter doesn’t end in the foreigner tribunals; if they fail to prove citizenship, the accused are sent to detention centres, similar to jails but specifically built for foreigners unlawfully staying in India. There are a number of instances where Indian citizens were wrongfully sent to these detention centres.

One example of this is Chandrakanta Das, an elderly man who spent three months in a detention center while awaiting his tribunal case. He raised questions over why was detained even when he had documents proving he was an Indian citizen. He was later released on bail. Many detainees like Das have complained about the unhealthy conditions in these centres.

Deaths in the detention camps are another major cause of concern — although the administration claims that the deaths are only due to poor health, the detainees inevitably lack access to adequate medical care. Nazrul Islam, who was just 45 days old, died in a detention camp as her mother was in a detention camp in the Kokrajhar district. Nazrul was the youngest among those who have succumbed to the harsh conditions of these camps. Similarly, Basudev Biswas, 58, died in a detention camp in Nagaon. However, when the police tried to hand over the body to the family, protests erupted in their village. The family argued that Basudev was a legitimate Indian citizen.

Election campaign promises

During an election rally in Hojai, Assam, in April 2024, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma stated that the state government would resolve the issue of D-voters among Bengali Hindus within six months after the election.

Similarly, in Dhubri, Western Assam, the All India United Democratic Front supremo, Badaruddin Ajmal, alleged that the Indian National Congress has targeted Muslims by designating them as D voters. He claimed that the Indian National Congress-led government had granted land for India’s largest detention centres and ignored the issue, forcing them to live with the label of a D-voter.

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