Neither the foreigners’ tribunal nor an RTI could provide any record to show why Manju should be considered to be a ‘doubtful’ citizen. The ordeal to prove her citizenship has been painful so far, said Manju. “When you don’t know why you are being tagged as a ‘D’ voter, the mental torture increases. In the first list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), my son and daughter were not included because of my ‘D’ voter tag. I came to a conclusion that it is because of utter negligence of the authorities that the problem remains unresolved even today,” she added.
As Assam gears up for the Lok Sabha polls, a sense of anger is perceptible among the state’s 25 lakh-strong Gorkha community that constitutes a sizeable chunk of voters spread across at least seven out of the 14 parliamentary seats. The cause of anger is the problem of the ‘D’ voter tag that many of the members of the community have been carrying for years now.
According to assembly records, 1,19,559 people were marked as ‘D’ voters in the draft electoral rolls published on September 15, 2018. This number was 1,60,051 in the 2005 electoral rolls and 2,02,092 in 1997. While majority of the ‘D’ voters belong to Bengali-speaking Muslims and Bengali Hindu communities, many Gorkhas, Koch Rajbongshis and other ethnic groups have also been carrying the tag for a long time now, which makes them ineligible for inclusion in the NRC. Around 20,000 Gorkhas are still carrying the ‘D’ voter tag now – a crisis that has led to widespread discontent among the community and can be a key issue in the Lok Sabha polls this year.
Of the seven parliamentary seats where there is a seizable Gorkha population, Tezpur constituency has the highest number, at around 3 lakh. In the remaining six seats, the number of Gorkha voters ranges from 60,000 to two lakh. All the seven seats cover at least 30 assembly segments where Gorkha votes could be a deciding factor.
Assam Gorkha Sanmilan (AGS) secretary Dipak Nirola said that the frustration of Gorkha people has increased manifold after the state government did not seriously pursue the implementation of a notification which was issued by the Union ministry of home affairs (MHA) last year. The notification had stated, “Gorkha community [members] who were Indian citizens at the time of commencement of the Constitution, or those who are Indian citizens by birth, or those who have acquired Indian citizenship by registration or naturalization in accordance with the provisions of The Citizenship Act, 1955 are not “foreigners” in terms of Section 2 (a) of The Foreigners Act,1946 as well as The Registration of Foreigners Act,1939, therefore, such cases will not be referred to the Foreigners Tribunals.”
“An estimated 20,000 Gorkhas are still carrying the ‘D’ voter tag. When BJP came to power in the state in 2016, it promised that the issue will be resolved. But it seems like the BJP is not serious about solving the problem. Otherwise the government would have followed the MHA notification,” Nirola said.
Moreover, in recent years, many of the members of the Gorkha community have been declared foreigners by the foreigners’ tribunals that deal with cases of migrants who had entered Assam from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971. One such example is Tanka Maya Newar (51), a Gorkha widow, who was declared a foreigner in November last year.
This is also in contravention to Article 7 of the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950 which states: “The Governments of India and Nepal agree to grant, on reciprocal basis, to the nationals of one country in the territories of the other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature”.
“It is unfortunate that the community is being seen as doubtful citizens or foreigner even when we have a glorious history of our presence in Assam. We had our first representative, Dalbir Singh Lohar, who was elected from Dibrugarh in India’s first election in 1952,” said All Assam Gorkha Students Union (AAGSU) president Prem Tamang.
In Udalguri, which falls under the Mangaldoi parliamentary constituency, Gorkhas are further worried about the deletion of the names of 18 people from the 2019 voters’ list. These people, whose names figured in the 2018 list, are from the Phulbari village, which is 15km from Udalguri town, close to the Bhutan border.
“When there is so much of tension already because of our members being tagged as ‘D’ voters and declared foreigners, this sudden deletion of names is more worrying for the community members. We inquired and found out that all these names which were deleted had been included in the NRC,” AAGSU’s Udalguri unity president, Somraj Sonar said.