Once elected youngest ward commissioner, local politician finds ‘citizen status’ in jeopardy

Syeda Ambia Zahan | Aug 5, 2018 | 4 min read


Bongaigaon (Assam): Samrat Bhowal made history when he was elected the youngest ward commissioner in the 2009 municipal polls in Bongaigaon district of Assam. A prominent figure in local politics, Bhowal has since then also established himself as a leader of the Bengali community in the region. But the 36-year-old was in for a rude shock when he found his name missing from the second and final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) released on July 30.

“I had not expected to be left out of the list. I’m very disappointed. I had submitted all necessary documents required to prove my citizenship. Could I have held an elected post if I was not even a citizen of this country?” says Bhowal, his voice choking with emotion.

Bhowal had fought on a Congress ticket and won a seat in the municipal polls in 2009 with a record margin. In 2011, he was elected the Youth President of Bodoland People’s Front in the district.

Later, Bhowal decided to take a break from politics and started working towards welfare of Bengali Hindu residents of the state under the aegis of All Assam Bengali Youth Students’ Federation, an organisation where he serves as General Secretary.

Bhowal says that Bengali-speaking residents of Bongaigaon are a linguistic minority and are often labeled as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh due to their linguistic and cultural similarities to people from the neighbouring country.

According to Deputy Commissioner of Bongaigaon, Babulal Sharma, 78% people from the district have been left out of the final draft of the NRC.

This includes Bhowal’s wife Shubhra. The 33-year-old is the daughter of Mohit Ranjan Sarbabaidya, owner of the oldest Fair Price Shop in Bongaigaon, which was allotted by the then Assam government in 1966.

Shubhra says, “I don’t know how this happened. My name was there in the first list of NRC but it is not there in the final draft.”

Bhowal says that his family’s fight for citizenship status has been a long drawn one.

Bhowal’s father, Sridam, who was born in Dhaka in 1944 moved to Assam as an eight-year-old in 1952 soon after India’s independence, and was included in the voter list in 1961. But the transition was not smooth, says Bhowal, adding that both his parents fought cases in Foreigners’ Tribunal to prove their status as Indian citizens.

“My mother was suspected to be an illegal immigrant in 2003, while the same charges cropped up against my father in 2008. My mother was certified as an Indian national in 2004 and father in 2013 from the Foreigners’ Tribunal court,” he says.

Bhowal says that the voter list in many districts of Assam has not been updated, so people do not have voter identity cards to show as proof to get their names into the NRC.

“We had gone to the election office last year to procure the election certificate from 1961 to show that my father was a voter. But we were given the list from 1971 as the deputy commissioner told us that data had been damaged and was being restored. How can the government initiate the process of NRC without having complete record of voter lists in Assam?” he asks.  

Bhowal may have suffered a setback but it has only made his intent to fight for people’s rights stronger. He is now helping others like him whose name have not appeared in the NRC.

“I’m fighting for genuine citizens of India to be recognised. There are people who were orphaned at a very young age and don’t have identity proofs. There are some retired employees of Indian railways in this area who have lost their documents in accidents and thus could not make it to the list. I’m helping them collect documents to establish their identity,” Bhowal says.

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