“I’m too hungry to think of the Pandemic”: An Interview with Iftikar Hussain Siddique from Assam

Iftikar Hussain Siddique is a paralegal in Assam doing his part in ameliorating the conditions of those whose names are excluded from the NRC. This interview seeks to unearth the on-ground realities of Assam as it withstands floods, a pandemic and an identity crisis begotten by the NRC process. Mr. Siddique recounts his encounters and stories highlighting the condition of Assam at the juncture of this confluence of issues. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Aarushi Mittal: Thank you for agreeing to speak to us. Can you tell us a little bit about your work, and how you came to be working as a paralegal?

Iftikar Hussain Siddique: My work includes helping those who are excluded from the NRC List. My aim is to help those from our community who fall within the weaker section of the society. In my initial years, I tried to ensure a healthy and hygienic environment for children. It was around this time that I started helping D-voters in getting their case through along with advocates. Essentially, I assist people in filling up the forms that need to be submitted. Since a sizable proportion of the population is uneducated, they need some sort of help in filling these forms and understanding what they entail. 

Since these are uneducated people, they don’t know where their thumb impression needs to be put or if one needs to be put at all. They tend to ask around for help from shop owners. They don’t know anything which is written in the form. This is where my role begins. Further, I also help them in checking if their name is on the list. My friends and I assist them in formulating their claims to citizenship. We were guided by lawyer Aman Wadud in this regard. This is how we tried to help people on the grassroot level. We prepare them for hearings by explaining what all needed to be said and what documents had to be submitted. 

Sometimes the biometric machines do not function, so we collected data on which places need a functioning biometric machine to ensure that procedure was not stopped. It is important to submit certain documents, while others are often ruled to be redundant. For instance, many people had submitted their Panchayat documents which were not accepted by the courts as valid proof of citizenship. So, we tried to help them collate a different set of documents which could be submitted. 

AM: It has been one year since the final list of the NRC was released. Rejection slips stating the reasons for exclusion were supposed to have been issued to excluded persons, allowing them to file appeals. However, no rejection slip has been issued so far. What has been the impact of this delay on people?

IHS: A very funny yet very astounding impact of this has been with respect to marriages. People now ask whether the name of the prospective bride or groom is on the NRC and whether there has been any adjudication to that effect. There is no other standard. People who have returned from detention camps, their children are in most detriment. This is a major trouble. Halima Khatoon’s daughter is being rejected simply because her mother was declared a foreigner. This is reasoned by claiming there are chances of a legal appeal, and that they would have to pay for these cases by selling lands. 

On our part, we tried to help 2000+ families by providing them ration. It is absolutely imperative at this point in time when floods have wiped out fields and the pandemic has taken away work that such provisions be undertaken. People don’t have ration cards or any other means to procure a day’s meal. Many people in the detention camps do not have ration cards. While the government provided Rs.1000 to families, that is barely adequate. Jabeda Khatoon, who had submitted almost 15 documents and was still declared foreigner, had her entire house destroyed as a result of a cyclone. Aman sir tried to help out by contributing some money to fix her house. She was extremely sick and yet she couldn’t go to a hospital because of her status as a foreigner. We tried to get in touch with a few organizations to help her. With a family with no source of income, the cyclone, pandemic, and NRC impacted her greatly. 

In this one river island, there was almost 5 feet of water. The people would survive on barely any meals.  There had been waterlogging for almost 2 months. We were able to help on the first day of Eid. This was a situation which existed across the spectrum. There was once a huge population among 52 households built of concrete, the floods barely spared a few. These people definitely get impacted. The delay creates trouble in that sense. 

AM: Assam has faced the twin blows of COVID-19 and floods.You personally have been involved in a lot of relief work in lower Assam. In your observations, how has this situation impacted persons left out of the NRC? Has there been any government aid? 

IHS: The first lockdown was of 21 days. Those who left their houses were beaten up. Further, there was no sale of food grains. Social distancing is a luxury, one which no one can afford. People can’t leave homes, and even if they do, they don’t have a market for their grains since people aren’t leaving homes. Before COVID, hunger was enough of a concern. The pandemic was not a concern for poor people, hunger was. People would say that they were too hungry to think of COVID. 

Another issue is the weakened health conditions of those in the detention camps. This is exacerbated with the onset of the pandemic.  One by the name of Rajkumar was a daily wager and was travelling to work, he was not aware of the imposition of the lockdown. The police ended up beating him up badly for flouting the lockdown rules. Daily wagers are severely impacted. 

The government is only concerned with testing for people who are COVID-19 positive. The political parties come door to door to spread their agenda. They advertise schemes. The Health Minister himself does not wear a mask. The BJP representatives are flouting the norms of social distancing left and right. In furtherance of the elections which were slated to happen, too many meetings are held and there is no social distancing or use of masks. 

Guwahati has some restrictions, but these are being flouted by political parties. People don’t trust the hospitals. They just buy medicines and stay home. I believe that Modi and Trump both would simply use the pandemic as an excuse for inefficient functioning. So, they are causing COVID to worsen to bolster their excuses. People have tried to reduce their expenditure on subsidiary items like clothing or going out. The poor Muslim people have been targeted specifically and deemed to be the cause of the spread. They are making a disease communal. While the doctors are cooperative, the media has portrayed a communal image. 

The masks are not provided, the government should be distributing masks. The hospitals are not good, doctors are not treating patients properly. Those who are positive are caught and after two days they are released. No containment zone is being made. The people who are positive are not being treated adequately. Hygiene again is a luxury – when a person cannot afford food, how are they to buy sanitizers. The government spends so much money on ancillary things like prizes to state toppers – this is not the time to make such promises. You need these funds to fight COVID. The NGOs must be employed in this regard too. People don’t have soaps to take a bath, hand washing is not possible. The pandemic is for the rich to worry about. 

AM: We know that persons declared foreigners by the Foreigners Tribunals are being detained in detention camps. What are the conditions within these camps? There is a stand-alone detention camp coming up in Goalpara–what is the status of that camp? How have local communities near the construction site reacted to the presence of the detention centre?

IHS: Jails had quite a few cases since they have people coming from outside. If one person is positive then all would be positive: jails were sealed and people testing positive were removed. The Supreme Court ordered that those who had been in the camps for over 2 years be released. As a result of the same, less than 50% people were released. 

However, now those who leave the camps, they will have to go to the police stations. This has caused a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Police stations. Those with COVID-19 still have to travel once a week. One person, who had to walk to a police station for almost 2 hours, had COVID. I asked him to inform the officers as him going to the station would not be safe for the police station in any way. The police asked him to come next week. There is no proper system in place. These people should not be asked to traverse to these stations at a time like this for a few months. Public transport is not functioning, police stations are far off and women cannot cycle to these stations. People need to walk for hours on end and be exposed to the risk of contracting a deadly disease. There is a need for intervention to that effect. 

As for Foreigners Tribunals, they are not currently functioning. The Buksa District Tribunal, however, has sent multiple notices. People do not have money, and these notices are released. Now they need to pay lawyers for this. People cannot fight these cases. They say that they’d rather have poison than exist like this. I cannot sleep listening to these stories. I do not know how I would tackle these situations. One person goes through multiple trials and tribulations with reference to their identity as an Indian. I’ve stopped asking people because it disheartens me so much. 

The detention camp in Goalpara had stopped construction initially and now it has begun again recently. Those who are excluded are really suffering. People keep asking me questions on how to ensure citizenship. They wake me up at 5 AM asking me how to go about this. I tell them that once the process begins again, I will help. The process of scanning documents has recently begun, they have started curating speaking orders. However, official documents still remain inaccessible.  

It’s great for government teachers, the lockdown, they can work at home. The poor people however are in too much pain. This one person had no money whatsoever and we gave him some money. We tried to give some food to people — however so many people came that we had to call the police to calm the crowd. People require food. If you give food to one person, multiple people come for it. Parents ask for food for their children. This one time, I gave one packet of biscuit to this one child and he ran off. It made me cry. His mother kept weeping outside my house. She was a widow. She couldn’t reconcile with the reality that had befallen her. 

AM: Have the FTs been functioning during the pandemic? If yes, do you think adequate measures are being taken to make sure that people are able to receive a fair trial?. Are cases dismissed hurriedly given that there was a pandemic or is the pandemic being used as an excuse to deny due process?

IHS: The advocates have lost a lot of money as a result of this lockdown. They used to earn a lot of money in these proceedings. What will happen is that they will now increase their charges for the case. This would further deprive people of the justice that they deserve. People will receive lesser money for their assets due to the lockdown. There might be people who are witness to some cases. If they are casualties to the pandemic, someone loses their chance at citizenship. People might not be able to come. People are not able to procure documents. It takes about 15 days to get documents, this is effectively delayed. People need to apply for certified copies. If these offices do not have officers however, they cannot procure such certified documents. The District Collector’s offices cannot be approached by outside people. How are they to fight cases?

The 6th citizen concept has become the talk of the town recently as a result of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. People will be deprived of political rights, rights to buy land, or get jobs. In 1950, many places were really backward, they were not consulted in the first consensus. They remain unnamed. This would be highly unfair. It is a really bad situation. The 200 members appointed for the FT aren’t doing anything, they are just being paid taxpayers’ money. The staff that has been appointed to operate computers and all are not being paid salaries since March. They need to cover costs on their own. The system is not at all effective or people friendly. The reverification is also being discussed. People are being harassed. It’s a politically motivated system of harassment. Nobody knows how the government plans to tackle this. It eludes everyone, it’s only politics.

Aarushi Mittal is a 3rd year law student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences. She is a research volunteer with Parichay.

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