Samiran Nessa, Jahura Khatun and Laily Khatun
Shukhitan’s neighbour, Samiran Nessa must be over 50 years. She says has lost the will to live. She and her daughter have both been left out of the final NRC list. There seemed to be a problem with her birth date on the NRC form – there was only a ten-year difference between her daughter's age and hers. She pointed to some of the young girls standing around to indicate how old she must’ve been when she had given birth to her daughter, and from what it would seem, ten would’ve only been a couple of years off the mark.
Child marriage and early motherhood is not uncommon among several communities in Assam. The State claims to be committed to fighting such practices in a bid to uplift the socio-economic conditions of these communities. Yet, in an exercise designed by the State to determine citizenship, it uses these very practices to punish those who are already on the fringes of society and pushes them out, deeming their very existence illegal and rendering them stateless.
To get to Samiran’s village, we had to travel first by road to a point on the river, then by boat, walk a while, and finally climb onto another boat until we reached an island in the river. The land they live on are part of riverine islands on the mighty Brahmaputra, constantly subject to erosion and the force of the river.
Samiran Nessa owns two bigha of land which she cultivates for domestic consumption. The rest of the time she works as agricultural labour on other farms. The stress of being excluded from the NRC list has made her continuously ill, she says.
She recently returned to her desh, her country, to vote. Such a statement in this context carries an ominous weight to it. But, when asked what desh she was from, she says Goalpara, which is another district in Assam not far from her home here in Darrang. One wonders, having been excluded from the NRC list, what could Samiran Nessa now call her desh?
Sitting close by is Jahura Khatun, who, like Samiran Nessa has a strong sense of belonging to her desh. “Hum log phas gaye yahan videsh aakar - We made the mistake of coming to this foreign country, now we’re stuck”, she says. “Hum to Barpeta desh ke hain - We are from the country of Barpeta.”
Barpeta however, is not a country; it is a neighbouring district, even closer than Samiran’s desh, Goalpara. Jahura Khatun, who is evidently much older than 50, says she could be 20 or 30 years old. Everyone around her shreiks, asking her to stay quiet. “Don’t listen to her. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.” they say quickly. The soft laughter that ensues, at the obviously inaccurate claims about her age, is laced with a deeper worry, born of knowing the cost of such misinformation.
Laily Khatun, who lives in the same village and is standing nearby, unlike Jahura, is extra-cautious with her answers. When asked her name, she fumbles for a long time and searches for her husband. Her confusion is at complete odds with the confidence in her stance. “Am I Khatun or Begum?” she asks him calmly. It is only what is on paper that will validate her identity. A small discrepancy could cost her her citizenship, and take away her desh.