A state of doubt

Updated: Oct 06, 2019, 06:52 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

With the NRC debate having reached Karnataka, a 20-minute documentary by a journalism student talks why we need to join forces with Assam

Filmmaker Azharuddin Pilakodan
Filmmaker Azharuddin Pilakodan

On July 8 this year, 59-year-old Ambar Ali, a daily wage labourer from Sunbari village in Assam, jumped in front of a running train. His 21-year-old son, Hazrat Ali, wife Hazra Ali, and daughter believe that the Indian government is responsible for Ambar's death. "My husband had been running from pillar to post to get our names in the National Register of Citizens (NRC)," rues Hazra. "He couldn't bear the fact that our entire family had been excluded from the draft list that was released in December 2017. So he killed himself," the 55-year-old widow continues, teary-eyed, as she is interviewed for Stateless, a documentary on the NRC.

Produced by the Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO), the 20-minute film is directed by 26-year-old Azharuddin Pilakodan. "Since its inception 36 years ago, SIO India has been working towards highlighting issues related to religious minorities and human rights. We have cadres across the country, and also in Assam; these people know the ground reality and understand the woes of the people. So, they approached us to make this film," says Fawaz Shaheen, the national secretary of SIO India.

This is not the first film produced by SIO India. Pilakodan, a Mysuru University journalism graduate, says, "In 2016, the Karnataka chapter of SIO India had announced that it would make a film on people illegally detained by the police on charges of terrorism. Titled, Unsolved Stories of the Unheard, this documentary was my directorial debut." Tapping into similar socio-political issues, SIO India has also made documentaries on Delhi-based Mohammad Amir Khan, who was picked up by the police in 1997 and jailed for 14 years after being falsely branded a terrorist.

Hazera Khatun
Fifty-five-year-old Hazra Ali, in a still from the film, recounts the tragic death of her husband who killed himself after the family was excluded from the draft list

This is not the first time that the SIO has made a film on the Assam imbroglio. In 2018, the organisation made State of Doubt, which gave an overview of the problems faced by the people of Assam in the light of the NRC. "The narrative in Stateless, however, is different. In this film, we have spoken to families who have been excluded from the draft list and eventually the final list. There are women whose husbands are in detention, some others who have entire families in those camps. It is heart-wrenching," Pilakodan, who is currently pursuing an MA in sociology, adds.

The NRC was prepared in 1951 under the purview of the Census Act, 1948. The process to update it started in 2015. Over the last four years, 329 lakh people living in Assam have had to prove their Indian citizenship. In December 2017, the first draft of NRC was published, in which 140 lakh people were included. After the second draft was published in July 2018, more than 40 lakh people were excluded. This number has now come down to 19 lakh in the final list, which was released on August 31 this year. "Those excluded are Bengali Hindus as well as Muslims, most of whom are not from a good economic background and have had the worst of the struggle. Our aim through this film is to take a slice of what the entire NRC process is like and the uncertainty of it," Shaheen explains.

Despite her husband's tragic death and her family's fate in uncertainty, Hazra is fighting for justice. "Many others like her are saying they are citizens of India, and what happened is unfair to them. Interestingly, they wanted NRC to happen. When asked why, they said they were tired of being deemed foreigners in their own country, and wanted a decision to be made once and for all. Now that the verdict is out, but not in their favour, they have no option but to fight," Pilakodan tells us.

HR Chaudary
HR Chaudary in a still from the film

One such story is that of local activist Shahjahan Ali. This 30-year-old is a resident of Aikhari Bilor Pather in Jalah Revenue Circle, Baksa district, Assam. He has been travelling across western Assam districts to help those who were left out of the draft list and file fresh claims of citizenship. "Unfortunately, he himself did not make it to the final list. He is now filing fresh claims of citizenship for his own family," Pilakodan says.

There is still a flicker of hope for those excluded from the NRC. Now 521 Foreigners Tribunals will deal with the cases of people who are excluded from the final list. The centre has extended the time limit for filing of appeals before the Foreigners Tribunal from 60 days to 120 days. But Shaheen feels not much will change even after that. "Over 19.5 lakh people will have to file fresh claims, and the number of tribunals is around 500 and the time limit is 120 days. Arithmetically, it will not help the people of Assam," Shaheen adds.

Stateless was screened at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi on Saturday, and released for public viewing on YouTube on the same day.

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