Soldiers from Assam village fight a bitter battle to prove citizenship


The Indian Army, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Border Security Force (BSF) have never had a problem counting these soldiers as their own and deploying them to protect the country’s borders from the frozen reaches of the Siachen glacier to militancy hit Kashmir or to combat home-grown insurgents.

But these battle-hardened men from a western Assam village have struggled for years to overcome a bigger threat back at home — a system that continues to doubt their citizenship.

Barpeta district’s Saru Harid, about 145 km west of Guwahati, is often referred to as a village of ‘faujis’. At least half a dozen youth from the village of some 6,000 people, most of whom are Muslims, join the security forces every year.

But that has not stopped the local administration, particularly the State’s Border Police, from suspecting them to be foreigners and asking them to prove their citizenship.

The irony does not escape farmer Ratul Ali, whose brothers are among at least seven serving soldiers or paramilitary personnel from Saru Harid labelled foreigners since 2003.

“As we speak, my uncle’s son Mafuzur Rahman could be battling foreign mercenaries on the frontier,” says Mr. Ali. “But he is deemed a foreigner at home along with all members of his family.”

Mr. Rahman, who joined the Border Security Force more than a decade ago, is posted along the Line of Control in Kashmir, on the border with Pakistan.

Mr. Ali’s elder brother Rubul Ali is with the CRPF, and engaged in checking Maoist activities in Jharkhand. Much of his leave period, however, is spent dealing with the Border Police’s reference case, says the younger sibling.

A reference case is made against a person if a local investigation officer of the Border Police — a special branch set up in 1962, initially to prevent infiltration of Pakistanis — has sufficient ground for doubting his or her citizenship. Members of this unit have special powers to check documents and if they are not readily available, can demand production of the proof of citizenship within 15 days.

For 43-year-old Shahidul Islam, a Subedar in the Army who served in north Kashmir’s Baramulla and at the Siachen Glacier, nothing is more painful than carrying the ‘foreigner’ tag while defending the country from foreign forces. He was posted to Kolkata five months ago, around the same time he received a notice from the Foreigners’ Tribunal 11 at Sorbhog town (about 5 km from Saru Harid).

A reference case was made against Mr. Islam and three other members of his family in 2003. The others are his father Abdul Hamid, who died in 2005, brothers Mizanur and Delbor with the Central Indian Security Force and Army Medical Corps respectively.

Mizanur and Delbor are mentioned as minors in the 2003 reference case.

Mr Islam said the “accusation” (of being a foreigner) rankles but he might not be able to appear for the hearing of his case on March 18 because of the nature of his duty.

The case against Abdul Halim, a Naib Subedar with an Army unit in Assam, has its roots in a case against his 70-year-old mother Nasiran Nessa under the now-scrapped Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act in 2003.

“Se was declared an Indian in 2007 but served notice again in 2015. That case was settled in 2016. The third notice came seven months ago. We don’t know when this harassment will end,” said Mr. Halim’s brother Mojid.

The ordeal has not ended for the village’s Haidor Ali, who retired from the Army a few months ago, while it has started for Azit Ali, a soldier posted in northern India. “There was no problem with my nationality when I joined the Army in 2012, but I came to know only a week ago that my entire family has been declared foreigners,” he said.

The names of all members of Azit Ali’s family was put on hold – pending verification of nationality – when the complete draft of the National Register of Citizens was published in July 2018. The case is similar with most of the others deemed suspected foreigners.

Apart from fighting for the families of the six soldiers suspected to be foreigners, the western Assam-based Association of Protection for Indian Citizenship Rights has taken up cases of 30 other families of Saru Harid facing a similar situation.

“We have been going wherever citizenship rights are hampered, organising public awareness and providing legal help. We will challenge the report against the six soldiers and their families in the high court and go to the Supreme Court too, if necessary,” Shahjahan Ali Ahmed, the association’s general secretary


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