Stripped Off Her Citizenship For One Question

Despite having the documents, the Foreigners Tribunal rejected Seema's citizenship for not remembering minute details of her ancestry.

In 2008, Seema* was paid a surprise visit by the Border Police at the tea stall she ran with her sister in her village. They asked her for certain documents and left after taking some money for chai pani (petty expenses). 

In 2016, she was once visited by the Border Police who informed her that she had been sent a notice because she is suspected to be a Bangladeshi. The order from the Foreigners Tribunal, which was shared with Amnesty International India, had signatures of three witnesses.

One of the three witnesses who testified against my mother is a person who blackmails people by enlisting their names with the Border Police. Those who do not pay him get a notice sent against them. Sometimes, those who pay him still get accused of being a foreigner,” said Sanjeet, Seema’s son.

Citizenship-Assam-NRC
Seema submitted multiple documents to prove her citizenship. Credit: Devraj Chaliha

Seema, however, had all her documents in place to fight for her citizenship. She had legacy documents like her father’s name and elder sister’s name on the voter lists of 1966 and 71, her PAN card and her father’s land documents from her village in Barpeta district, where she was born and raised. 

But things changed at her hearing when the Tribunal asked her specific and minute details about her father and husband.

I was asked if I know where I came from. I told them that I was from Barpeta. But when they asked me where my parents came from, I couldn’t answer because all of us were born here,” said Seema.

The Tribunal quickly declared Seema a foreigner stating that during cross-examination, she wasn’t aware if her parents immigrated from Bangladesh or not. While the village head confirmed that he knew her for 32 years, he didn’t have any proof or evidence for the same. The village head of her native village also testified to knowing her father, but again had no evidence to prove the same. The Tribunal also persistently questioned why Seema’s name didn’t appear with her father in the voter lists of 1966 and 1971, not considering that Seema was a minor then. 

The Demand For Detail

In many more cases that Amnesty International India has assessed, the tribunals have been found to dismiss citizenship claims, due to the individual’s inability to answer specific questions on their ancestry and origins. In the case of Samina*, one of the reasons given to deny her citizenship was that she couldn’t name her grandfather’s constituency. 

The Citizenship Act 1955 doesn’t lay down that one must know the domicile status of their grandfather or father to secure their citizenship. Similarly, the village headman’s personal knowledge of one’s parents is also not a prerequisite for citizenship, though that has also been emphasised by the tribunals in many orders.

The Tribunal failed to clearly state why the documents presented by Seema were not accepted, and instead incessant questioning was used to determine her citizenship. Moreover, the burden to prove that her parents hadn’t migrated from Bangladesh was placed completely on her even though there wasn’t any proof submitted to indicate that her parents had indeed migrated from Bangladesh.

For more than 1.9 million who have been left out of the NRC, the fight is to now prove that they belong to India and work against the odds, the questioning and the ambiguity of the tribunals. It is not surprising that most fail to win against this system or are stuck in it for years. The Gauhati High Court too is complicit in letting the tribunals get away with these actions. 

In August 2019, Seema’s family filed a writ petition in the Gauhati High Court. “Once we get a date from court, we are thinking of getting another lawyer. This one is very lazy,” said Sanjeet.

Meanwhile, Sanjeet is keeping a close watch on his mother.

“They are outright harassing Indian citizens. This case has completely disturbed our lives and peace of mind.”

*Names changed due to reasons of privacy

Read Amnesty International India’s briefing, Designed To Exclude.