In 2013 India began a formal process of updating its National Register of Citizens (NRC) in its border state of Assam. When the list was published in August 2019, 1.9 million people out of a population of 33 million in the state were not included, effectively invalidating their Indian citizenship, and leaving them citizens of nowhere. Detention camps have been created to hold them, and more are being built.

This has disproportionately affected women, a little-reported aspect of this process. Poor women have even fewer documents than poor men, documents with which they can potentially prove the long-term residence of their ancestors in Assam in north-eastern India.

Many of them are women from families that live in river islands – called char – in the transboundary river Brahmaputra and its tributaries. Many others live right along the banks of the rivers. These women take an active part in water management, building and maintaining little mud dykes and channels for small-scale irrigation and to get water for the home. Such activities by thousands of women add up to a considerable defence against erosion, one of the biggest banes in the Brahmaputra basin. It is an important part of sustainable development, a part that is now at risk as some women get carted off to detention centres, while others stare at the same fate.

The NRC exercise is based on paperwork, a particular challenge for the poor and illiterate. As Sucharita Sen, the former executive director of SaciWATERs, has written, “it is only the poorest of the poor who stay back by the river to face the increasing uncertainties that come with it. People who had the opportunity and resources have moved away from the river over time.” The long history of mismanaged response to floods in Assam has meant that living by the river is a gamble with death and destitution. In some cases the disaster of losing their farmland and homesteads to flooding and river erosion is the very reason people’s names have been struck off the NRC.

See: Climate refugees stripped of citizenship in Assam

The case of people like Achabhanu Bibi and Suryabhan Bibi, detained in one of the six detention camps set up in Assam’s jails for those marked as “foreigners”, are illustrative of the challenges that women face. On December 6, 2017 they had presented themselves at a Foreigners’ Tribunal (which vetted paperwork for the NRC in case of doubt). The tribunal, they were certain, would to go through the papers – they had taken voter identity cards and marriage certificates – and realise a mistake had been made. Instead they were arrested and sent to Kokrajhar detention centre, Assam’s only camp for women who have been declared foreigners.

Both women are married to Biraj Ali. When I met him in early January 2020, his wives had already been in jail for two-and-a-half years. Going over the documents one more time, Ali said both his wives had valid documents, which should have been enough to keep them out of the detention camp.  In the documents, Suryabhan Bibi’s father’s name was incorrectly recorded as ‘Afsar’ instead of ‘Jabbar’; and Bachiran Bibi’s father, Maqsid, was spelled as ‘Muskat’. Both women were jailed because of the typographical errors – not in their own identity cards but in their fathers’.

Patrilineal process

As Assam becomes India’s first state to prepare a list of legal citizens, it is becoming hard to ignore that woman comprise the overwhelming majority of the 1.9 million people left out as ‘foreigners’ under the country’s contentious National Register of Citizens. To prove their citizenship under NRC, people are expected to present patrilineal legacy – documents linking a person to their father. A person’s matrilineal legacy is immaterial to the process, even if it meets all documentation requirements. Decades of strong patriarchal traditions, like acceptance of child marriage, reluctance to send girls to school, and excluding women from entitlements to land or lineage, have come together to place a crushing burden on women who are unable to produce the “legacy documents” that have now been deemed necessary for citizenship. To add to this, Assam has low rates of institutional delivery (delivering babies in hospitals) which has meant that fewer children have birth certificates.

In absence of birth certificates and school leaving certificates, women like Suryabhan Bibi and Bachiran Bibi have ended up in a detention camp as they cannot establish a legal chain of documents linking them to their fathers.  Every time I visit Bachiran, she asks for poison so that she can kill herself, said Biraj Ali.

“The camps are full of women who are in jail for typographical errors,” said Darshana Mitra, a human rights lawyer who provides support to people who are at risk of being stripped of their citizenship rights in Assam.

Women face a bigger problem than men for another reason. “The most common type of cases among female detainees is that they have one document from their life before marriage, and one from after marriage,” Mitra said. “There is no document linking the maiden name with the name they acquired after marriage. The emphasis on kinship and legacy documents has meant that people who fall in the margins of the patriarchal Indian family will also find themselves in the margins of citizenship.”

Climate impacts hit women the hardest

The lack of documents will be no surprise to those studying the effects of climate and gender in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, of which Assam is a part. In its landmark Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme report, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development noted, “Climate-related water stresses and gender inequalities aggravate the situation for women and girls in a number of ways. For example, poor families have been forced to marry off very young girls, resulting in many dropping out of school and others experiencing violence.” The early marriages and low school attendance, as well as lack of autonomy in decision-making, has meant that poor marginalised women have limited control over the documents now being demanded by the authorities.

In November 2019, a nine-member fact-finding mission lead by Nisha Biswas, of the Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), released a statement categorically laying out the gender issues with the NRC exercise. “Since entitlements relating to land and lineage have historically been denied to them, the burden of producing documentation was that much harder for women. Legacies centred around birth-ties meant that women, even those who have been married for decades, were required to provide ‘legacy data’ from their paternal families. In Assam where women are often married off before the age of 18, and many don’t complete school (even as of 2001, female literacy in Assam was only around 50%) voter IDs and school certificates are also not common. The widespread practice of giving birth at home till very recently meant that documentation in the form of birth certificates too is rare. Marriage certificates are rarer still, creating a problem for women who have had to change their surnames after marriage to once again establish paternal legacy,” WSS said after a visit to the state’s Barak Valley region.

Biswas’s team had met women who had lost their citizenship for following the practice of signing off their name ‘Khatun’ before marriage, and as “Begum” after marriage, as is customary in Muslim communities. At the end of the visit, Biswas says she realised that anyone who does not fall within the purview of the institution of marriage and family – single women, widows, abandoned women and children – have an even slimmer chance of providing documents to establish citizenship in the eyes of the authorities.

Managing the future

While these factors have led to the incarceration of women, they also shine a light on the future of development in the region. Key regional trade initiatives such as the development of inland waterways in the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) sub region have raised concerns about the marginalisation of communities by the rivers. Without the pro-active incorporation of these communities, and especially women from such communities, these initiatives may not achieve their stated objectives of developing an environmentally friendly alternative to road and rail transport that brings prosperity to the communities of the region.

Women across the HKH region bear the main responsibility for water for household projects. Given the low possibility of economic opportunity alongside the rivers, many such households end up with men migrating to cities to work, in which case the ecology of the river also ends up as the responsibility of women. On the Nepal side of the Mahakali river basin, organised women’s groups have managed to play a greater role in managing the ecology of the rivers they live besides, and monitoring the pollution. Such a successful model requires the empowerment of women from marginalised communities along the river, not their harassment or incarceration.

See: Boosting river transport on Ganga and Brahmaputra has costs

It is worth noting that the Assam budget for 2019-2020 has boosted expenditure on policing by 11% over the previous year. At 6.1% it is substantially higher than the average of 4.3% that the other states of India spend. At the same time spending on irrigation and flood control fell 36%; the drop on the welfare of historically disadvantaged groups was 20%.

With additional inputs by Omair Ahmad and Joydeep Gupta

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