In India's Assam State, Residents Of River Islands Face Uncertainty Over Citizenship

Jul 21, 2019

By 8 a.m., the sun hasn't pierced through dark clouds hanging over India's Brahmaputra River, but it's already warm and humid. People wait for a boat to take them to the Chandanpur char, an island in India's northeastern state of Assam, an hourlong ride from the mainland.

A char is a river island formed by silt carried downriver. Chars rise up and are submerged every few years. Every time a char erodes, the people living there dismantle their homes and move to the next-closest char by boat. They can't afford to move to the mainland.

Houses on a char are built on higher ground to avoid flooding.
CK Vijayakumar for NPR

Many of those living on the chars of lower Assam are Muslims of Bengali origin. Their lives keep shifting like the islands they live on.

Assam borders Bangladesh and has long been home to migrants from there. For decades, the Indian government has been conducting a special census in Assam, called the National Register of Citizens, to try to figure out who is a valid Indian citizen — and who might be an undocumented migrant.

Young men fish in the Brahmaputra River. The river serves as a source of livelihood and transportation, but when it floods, it is also a source of destruction.
CK Vijayakumar for NPR

Residents of Assam must submit paperwork — birth certificates, high school diplomas and other documents — to prove their citizenship. But literacy rates are low, and poverty runs high. Many people find it difficult to provide those documents.

Last year, the state government issued a draft NRC list, and some 4 million people living in Assam who thought they were Indian citizens were left off. This comes against a backdrop of efforts by India's central government to pass a bill that would effectively grant citizenship to many other undocumented immigrants, except if they are Muslim.

India's Supreme Court has ordered Assam to issue a final NRC list by July 31.

Soleman Nessa's husband took his own life after authorities questioned his citizenship. "It was the month of Ramadan. The sun was rising. We were boiling rice and when my son went to the kitchen to get something, he saw my husband hanging there. He screamed. People from all over the village came and brought him down," Nessa says. The family had exhausted its savings to confirm Nessa's citizenship.
CK Vijayakumar for NPR

Once appeals are exhausted, some people could be rendered stateless.

The people of Assam's chars are among those affected. Photographer CK Vijayakumar, who is based in Bengaluru, documented some of their stories last year. He arrived in Assam about a month after the NRC list was issued and, working with local journalist Ashraful Hussain, focused on one district: Barpeta.

A woman walks through rice that is set out to dry before hulling begins. Most residents of Southern Assam's chars are landless farmers.
CK Vijayakumar for NPR

Speaking with NPR photo editor Claire Harbage, Vijayakumar describes people in limbo. "I was really shocked when I realized the scale of the issue," he says. "I have always been interested in the stories of statelessness. ... I find these stories interesting because borders are imaginary lines, and yet they come to define one's identity and destiny to such a large extent."

Sahera Begum, 45, was left off the NRC. Her husband is a carpenter, and she tends to livestock. They lost previous homes to erosion. Like many Muslim women in Assam, she did not attend school. "How is it possible that my father and all my brother's names are in the NRC, and mine is not?" she says. "It is not as if I fell from heaven without a father."
CK Vijayakumar for NPR

Interview Highlights

On the atmosphere in Assam

There was a general sense of apprehension and helplessness in the district of Barpeta. Many of the people we met lived in thatched roof huts with tin or palm leaf walls, eking out a living. They hardly had anything to their name, but the most prized possessions were the few scraps of official paper with their names on it, which may or may not have been useful in the NRC process. One of their biggest complaints was that they couldn't work, because they had to run around a lot for documents.

Nasir Uddin, 29, is the informal leader of the Chandanpur char. His mother and both sisters were left off the NRC. His sisters did not have high school certificates. For young women, inclusion in the NRC can help boost marriage prospects. "People these days ask if you are in the NRC before marriage," Uddin explains. "It will be very hard to get my youngest sister married."
CK Vijayakumar for NPR

I went to one of the many NRC service centers in Barpeta. The people, young and old, men and women, stood crowding around a school desk, behind which sat four officials. Everyone carried a small, translucent plastic bag with some documents and photocopies. They also carried a desperate, pleading look on their face, as if the officials could magically grant them citizenship on the spot. The officials could only collect documents and hand back a receipt.

A one-room school in Chandanpur char. "We have no electricity, running water or shops," says Hafez Ali, a resident.
CK Vijayakumar for NPR

No one seemed angry or indignant. There were a couple of young men outside laughing deliriously as if they had finally resigned [themselves] to the hopelessness of the situation.

On establishing trust with local residents

People had no qualms about sharing their stories. In fact, they were quite eager to share it. They were quite keen on letting the world know what they were going through, because I think they believed that what was happening to them was unfair.

Marion Nessa's husband was taken to a detention camp in June 2017. "These days," she says, "my life is being spent as a madwoman running from door to door for documents. It's the same case for my children. I am obsessed with getting them all on the NRC list."
CK Vijayakumar for NPR

On life on the chars

Life on the chars is unique because it seems to embrace the ephemeral nature of human existence. The homes were built with single sheets of tin or thatch tied together by thin strings — ready to be dismantled and transported on a boat. Even the school was built this way. The people didn't own too many things, lest they need to transport it in a hurry. There are of course bigger chars with more permanent structures.

I did not know about chars before I went to Barpeta. I did not know that people lived on islands in a river. People living such a bare, transient existence was not something I was expecting to see. I could immediately see the parallels between their lives and their status as citizens.

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Children play on the banks of the Brahmaputra River.
CK Vijayakumar for NPR