What’s In a Name? The Das Family’s Citizenship Claim in Assam

Narayan Das found out that a simple name change could not only strip him of his citizenship, but also break his family apart. 

For over two years now, 25-year old Amrit Das and 18-year Jhuma Das are awaiting the return of their parents, who are detained in Goalpara, more than 170 kms from their village. Narayan and Amari Das were arrested in 2017, three months after being declared foreigners by the Foreigners Tribunal in Tamulpur, Baksa District. 

In 2015, the Border Police sent multiple summons to Narayan Das, except that they were addressed to a Narayan Biswas, a commonly held last name in Assam and one that Narayan Das had not been called for 40 years. 

“My father changed his surname from Biswas to Das in 1979. Our lawyer said that such cases have also got relief in the Tribunals,” said Amrit

Relieved at first, Narayan found out that a simple name change could not only strip him of his citizenship, but also break his family apart. 

Despite producing valid documents like his voter ID, PAN Card, and submitting the voter’s list from 1965 and 1979 as evidence to prove that he was indeed Narayan Biswas at one point in time. However, on 18 March 2017, the Foreigners Tribunal declared him a foreigner, stating that there was no valid proof that he had subsequently changed his name to Narayan Das.

A year later, Narayan’s wife, was also sent a notice, asking her to prove her relationship to her father. Amari who had been married before 18, neither had her birth certificate nor a school certificate like most women in India whose births are often not registered and rarely sent to school. An uneducated and dependent Amari’s name didn’t appear on the voter’s list after 1979 either.

Her only proof was the letter by the village head from her native village, which wasn’t enough to save her citizenship.

“I was most shocked when she was declared a foreigner because there were no discrepancies in her name in any of the documents,” said Amrit.

The question of unquestionable documentation 

Expecting individuals to produce the highest standard of documentary evidence, which may sometimes even be out of reach for learned and informed citizens, owing to the fractured state of issuing of documents in India, is a systematic way to set up the most vulnerable individuals against the odds to prove their citizenship.  The case gets worse for women who are often married young and are expected to secure documents linking them to their parents.

In fact, the Gauhati High Court itself has admitted in a judgement, “…that in our country, majority of the population are illiterate and where till recently there existed no system for registration of birth of a child even in urban areas, it was too much to expect from a villager to produce documentary evidence in support of their birth in India.” 

Citizenship-Assam-NRC
The burden of proof is often put on the individual. Credit: Devraj

Speaking to Amnesty International India, Gautam Bhatia, an expert on the Constitution of India also corroborated,

The standard logic of putting the burden of proof on the person proving his/her nationality is that it is easier for them to produce the relevant documents, a principle found in another common law countries as well. However, in India, documentation has always been sketchy, particularly with vulnerable communities.”

To navigate the intricate requests and scrutiny by the Tribunals, most have to completely rely on the help of lawyers. 

The lawyer who had first assured Narayan that his name change can be proved, informed him after a 2 year-long battle that he could not obtain relief from the Foreigners Tribunal and that the High Court had given him only three months to file a writ. The lawyer used up most of this time to retrieve a certified copy of the Foreigners Tribunal opinion.  

Amrit says that the lawyer also asked for an additional Rs. 20,000 which would ‘guarantee a positive judgment’. “But he wouldn’t say how. We pleaded with him to win this case for us and we will give you whatever amount you want.”

The lawyer also failed to inform them that the case has been sent back by the High Court to the Foreigners Tribunal, where it was once again rejected on the same grounds. 

Jhuma and Amrit meet their parents only once or twice each month at the detention centre. “The food is really substandard. My mother rinses off the potatoes from the curry and then eats it. There’s nothing much to do there except just sit around all day in a cramped space. About 50 detainees are in a single room,” says Jhuma. Unable to do anything more, the siblings are hopeless for their return and uncertain about their own future. 

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