It’s eight in the morning. The weather is warm and humid — the air is sticky. The sun still hasn’t pierced through the dark clouds hanging over the mighty Brahmaputra river, in the Northeastern state of Assam, India. It spreads out like the ocean in front us. I am waiting with a couple of teachers for the boat that will take us to the Chandanpur char. They teach there in a one room tin school. It’s about an hour away, just over the horizon.
A char, pronounced ‘chawr’ is a river island that is formed by the silt carried down the river. These chars rise up and get submerged every few years and sometimes even a few months. The people that live on them dismantle their homes and move on to the closest char by boat. They can’t afford to move to the mainland. The destinies of the Assamese muslims of Bengali origin keeps shifting like the chars in the Brahmaputra River that many of them live on.
The river is not the only uncertainty that they cope with. They must also deal with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a provision peculiar to the state of Assam. To reside in Assam legally one must be in the NRC. Around 4 million people were left out of this registry in the last draft published on the 30th of July, 2018. A final list that was published on 31st August, 2018 left out 1.9 million people.
People from the eastern part of Bengal in undivided India and present day Bangladesh were brought in to work on jute and rice farms since the 1870s by the British for programs such as “Grow More Food.” There were other reasons for migration in the first half of the 20th century, such as oppressive land revenue systems in East Bengal and availability of wastelands and chars in Assam that could be cultivated.
From 1905 to 1911 Assam and East Bengal were merged into one province by the British. The people naturally moved from the densely populated areas of East Bengal to the sparsely populated areas of Assam. After independence in 1947 until 1971 there was migration because of the economic mismanagement of the oppressive West Pakistani ruling elites, in East Pakistan.
This influx of people from other parts of India, has been very troubling to the Assamese mainstream people for a long time. They refer to themselves as “Indigenous”. An administrative measure known as the line system was brought in by the British provincial government in the early 20th century to segregate the people of Bengali origin from the mainstream population of Assam. The lines that were drawn then have only grown thicker and more divisive.
The NRC is not new. It was created in 1951, to identify illegal immigrants in Assam. The Assamese mainstream people wanted assurance from the central government that measures would be taken to protect their culture, land and natural resources. In the 1970s the biggest fear was of becoming a political minority, since the population of the Muslim dominated area was steadily increasing. The population growth rates in these areas were consistent with other areas in the country with socially and economically backward people. However many perceived this to be due to illegal immigration. In the absence of official records the rumours only helped inflate the numbers in the minds of the mainstream Assamese people. This was one the triggers for the sustained period of agitation by the All Assam Students Union in favor of strict immigration control and deportation.
In 1985, after a period of 6 years of agitation—a period that includes the Nellie Massacre where around three thousand people of Bengali origin were hacked to death — the Assam Accord was signed between the central government and the leaders of the Assam Movement. According to the terms of the accord anyone who came into Assam on or after 25th March 1971, would be considered a foreigner.
Ten million refugees came into India after the war began in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). According to Sibopada De, only about 340,000 of the 10 million Bangladeshi refugees came into Assam in 1971 during the war, 85% of whom were Hindus. The brunt of this burden was borne by West Bengal. A large part of this ten million went back to Bangladesh after the war. Some stayed back in India. It is estimated that around 60,000 stayed back in all of North East India and West Bengal.
After the war, there was a substantial flow of refugees into India because Bangladesh in the 1970s was devastated by war, natural disasters and famine. Over 225,000 people lost their lives just to cyclones. Hunger and survival instincts pushed people out of Bangladesh. Space and cultivable land across the Radcliffe line and the presence of relatives was the main reason for migration to India even after the war was over. It did not help that the border was very porous and not very well patrolled. There are no official records of how many came after the war.
In any case the number of illegal immigrants does not really add up to 4 million people by any stretch of the imagination. In the absence of official records the rumours have only helped inflate the numbers in the minds of the mainstream Assamese people.
The people who came long ago are being mistaken for illegal immigrants who came after the war, because the only way to tell the difference is documents, and not everyone has all the right documents. The Assamese muslims of Bengali origin are a marginalized community dealing with high rates of poverty and illiteracy with very little proper documentation.
The current conversation seems to be simplified around the idea of who is Indian and who is not. It does not seem to factor in colonial policies, the partition of India, the oppression of West Pakistani Urdu elites, the war, natural disasters and the instinctive migration of people to survive. It is based on the theory of a sovereign state with concrete boundaries that cannot be crossed, but the reality is much different. This issue challenges the archaic notion of a nation state and demands a more nuanced idea of what a sovereign state can be. It begs for a new policy that acknowledges that the border was porous, badly managed and destitute people often move to survive - not noticing the imaginary political lines.
The deportation of foreigners is based on the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal ) (IMDT) Act, 1983. This put the burden of proof of citizenship or otherwise on the accuser and the police, not the accused. In 2005 Sarbananda Sonowal, challenged this Act and it was struck down by the Supreme Court of India. This put the burden of proof back on the accused. This meant that anyone who was accused automatically became guilty until proven innocent! This was a turning point.
Sarbananda Sonowal joined the BJP — a Hindu Nationalist Party in 2011 and went on to become the Chief Minister of Assam in 2016, campaigning on the plank of immigration control. In 2014 the BJP at the center. In 2016 they came in to power for the first time in Assam. They ran their campaign on the narrative of the “indigenous” versus the foreigners. They have also introduced Citizenship Amendment Bill(C.A.B). If this bill is passed it will effectively grant citizenship to all illegal immigrants who came before 2005, except if they are Muslims.. This was proposed apparently to protect the minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Many see it as tool to consolidate their vote bank of non-muslim voters by positioning them against the Muslims of Bengali origin. There definitely was illegal migration into Assam, but the NRC process is being used much larger political motives based on communal lines.
Even if the NRC is able to clearly declare who all the “infiltrators” are at some point in the future, the government has not said anything about what will be done to these people. There have been no negotiations with Bangladesh regarding repatriation of these individuals who will be declared foreigners. Therefore this issue will continue to serve as political fodder for some time to come, at the cost of the people whose lives are at stake. It will create an officially sanctioned group of ‘others’ inside the state without any rights, ripe for exploitation and persecution.
There are many uncertainties besides the ever-changing banks of the Brahmaputra. The dates and documents keep changing. The latest deadline as of September 2019 is the 120 days giver for filing appeals to those that were left of the final list on 31st August 2019.
The power of the supreme court, central and state government seems to flow like the mighty Brahmaputra, overwhelming, brutal and incomprehensible. The Assamese Muslims of Bengali origin are perched on the edge of the river bank watching closely each twist and turn, hoping for the best, fearful of the worst.
Here are some stories of the people whose lives have been affected by the NRC:
Nasir Uddin, 29, is the leader of Chandanpur char, one of many chars in Barpeta district. His mother and both his sisters’ names were not in the latest NRC draft. They did not have high school certificates because they dropped out of school early. High school certificates are an important document that people can use to help establish their citizenship. A large number of the Muslims of Bengali origin are illiterate and impoverished and have not maintained proper documentation.
“People these days ask if you are in the NRC before marriage,” he says. “One of my sisters was married before the first draft was published. She may face domestic issues if she does not make it into the final list. It will be very hard to get my youngest sister married.”
Soleman Nessa, 55, is from Chata Gaon, a village in Barpeta. Nessa’s husband Lalsan Ali found out there was a case registered against him as a suspected foreigner in May 2018, when NRC officials came to his house for verification of citizenship. Two days after their visit, Ali hanged himself.
“It was the month of Ramadan. The sun was rising. We were boiling paddy [unmilled rice] not too far from the house. 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,” says Nessa.
Her husband was overcome by fear and anxiety, she says. He had no money to fight the case because they had already spent a lot on Nessa’s own case in 2016. Nessa too was accused of being a foreigner, but she had shown her documents and had been declared an Indian that same year. She hopes that her name will be included in the next NRC.
They had also lost their land to river erosion in 1983, increasing their financial difficulties.
“We had 8 hectares [20 acres] of farming land. When my first child was in the womb, our char started eroding. I went to my mother’s place for childbirth. When I came back with the child, the land and our house were gone. We became landless laborers since.” says Nessa.
Md. Mugul Hussain, 58, is the leader of Kaltali village, Nalbari district. A false case was registered against him by the border police stating that he came from a particular village in the Mymensingh district, with dates and routes that he had purportedly confessed to. Hussain says that he has never exchanged a word with the border police. He went to the high court and won the case. He has been declared Indian, and hopes to make it into the next NRC.
The lawyers’ fees have left him in debt.. Yet he vows to sue the police once he makes it into the NRC list. “I am very angry. I wanted to sue the police for registering a false case against me. But my lawyer has asked me to hold off till my name appears in the NRC.“
“How is it possible that my father and all my brother’s names are in the NRC, and mine is not? It is not as if I fell from heaven without a father.”
Sahera Begum, 45, Guma Village, Barpeta did not find her name in the NRC in July, even though all her brothers were included. Her husband is a carpenter and she tends to the livestock at home. The have lost their home to river erosion three times. Her brothers testified for her, but she says she hasn’t been declared an Indian because the NRC officials are not accepting the village administration document showing the relationship between her and her father. Like many Muslim women in lower Assam, she did not go to school and has no educational certificates to bolster her case. “How is it possible for us poor people to run around collecting documents? The government need not catch me and throw me away. I’m sick and tired of this and I’ll die soon anyway.”
“There might not be anyone poorer than me in this village. I have suffered a lot due to the NRC. It has made me sick.” says Daliman Nessa, 70. “I can’t sleep much these days. And even when I do, I dream that the police is waking me up.”
Nessa was declared a foreigner in September 2017. The Foreigners Tribunal found her family tree to have “Unbelievable age difference”. Her father had two wives and she was born to the second wife. Her step-brother and mother were almost the same age and she says the tribunal found this suspicious, even though her name appears in a 1971 voters list.
She appealed her case at Assam’s Gauhati High Court and has been fighting since she was declared a foreigner over a year ago. She is on bail until her appeal is resolved. Her family has spent over $670 on lawyers’ fees and are deeply in debt.
“When I hear that the police is coming around picking up foreigners, I hide myself in different places even though I am out on bail right now. I am very scared”
“When Allah takes away your husband, he gives you the courage to live. But living a life of a widow when my husband is still alive is unbearable,“ says Marion Nessa, 55. Her husband Fadus Mia, 68. was taken away to a detention camp in June 2017, on the 28th day of Ramadan.
“When I visit him at the detention center, I see him waist up, far away behind an iron fence,” she says. “We can’t even hear each other. When the policemen see me crying, they let me in a little closer to him.“
Mia’s father died when he was in his mother’s womb, and he was informally adopted by his aunt and uncle. He had used his adopted father’s name for all documentation. Because of that discrepancy he was declared a foreigner by the foreigners tribunal.
He later found his name on the 1951 NRC. The family has hired a lawyer to fight the case. “These days 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,” says Nessa.
Manowara Begum, 58 and her husband Ashan Mollah were tried as foreigners in 2003 by the Foreigners Tribunal based on a false case registered against them in 1998. They were not aware of the case until they received a notice in 2003 from local police. They were declared Indians based on the pre 1971 documentation. Despite this one of her sons, Mainal Mollah, had a separate case registered against him by the police. He was declared a foreigner and taken to a detention camp in 2013.
“When they took him to the detention center, I felt all alone in the world. When it was Eid or some other festival I could only cry out loud. I thought I would never see him again,” says Begum. “Since we didn’t have enough money, we were able to visit him only once every year at the detention center. When I saw him there, standing far away behind the iron fence, I couldn’t speak. I could only cry. “
Mollah’s case went up to the Supreme court, and he was declared Indian in 2016, after his lawyer presented all the proper documentation. Mollah’s parents, grandparents and great grandparents have all voted since independence. His grandfather even has land documents from before independence.
Mainal Mollah, 35 “My daughter was six months old when they put me away in the detention center. I thought I might never see her again.“ Mollah hopes that after what he has gone through already, his name will appear in the next NRC.
A large section of Syrian refugees are stranded in Turkey with the status of 'Guests' as against 'Refugees'. This status does not give them all the rights that refugees are provided under the UN Convention on Refugees 1951, Geneva. Turkey has ratified this convention albeit with a geographic limitation - It only applies to Europeans. However Turkey also is not allowed to send them(non-Europeans included) back to their country since the war is on, according to the convention. There are some refugees that can afford to find their way to Europe but most do not have such resources. In Europe they have rights as refugees. They also cannot go back to Syria since it is too dangerous. Therefore they are stuck in a Limbo in Turkey.
New Marshfield was a bustling town until the 1930s. It was a center of transportation for the coal and ancillary industries. When the coal production moved on, so did the economy. The school was moved, and then the railway line followed by the re-routing of the state route 56. The only purchase to be made is from a soft drink vending machine that stands in front of the old VFW(Veterans of Foreign wars) building currently in disuse.
New Marshfield is an impoverished town with almost half the population living under poverty. More than one-third of which is living under extreme poverty. Many of the families depend upon welfare with most people claiming physical disability. The primary and higher education levels of this town are well below state average. Drug problems associated with a bad economy and low education is present, however it is apparently on the decline. Capitalistic ideas of growth and progress have come and gone in this town. Mainstream ideas of well being such as education and economy have come and gone. One thing remains constant, and that is the beauty of this blessed land. Those that understand and appreciate this, rich or poor, live here peacefully.
Vembanad lake is an estuarian lake that is below sea level. The salt water comes in during the summer and fresh water comes in during the monsoons. The upper caste farmers with political have built a dam in the middle of the lake to control the fresh water. This has affected the ecosystem and the lower caste fishermen who have been fishing sustainably for centuries if not for a millenium.
Racine, is a little village at the edge of Ohio on the banks of the Ohio River. The streets are deserted. The old banks and offices are used as housing. Across the river in West Virginia is a power plant and an aluminum plant spewing thick white smoke against the blue sky. Racine was a river economy tied closely to the Appalachian coal mines. But now the economy is gone and most of the people have migrated. The local people attribute the economic slowdown to the proliferation of automobiles coupled with the low cost retailers such as Walmart in neighboring towns. This project was undertaken to understand for myself how landscape comes to represent the identity of a people, especially in a post-industrial setting.
These photographs were taken in Turkey during the 2014 Presidential Elections, in which Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected. This was predicted to be the turning point from which Erdogan was expected to turn Turkey into a presidential system through constitutional reforms.
The photographs themselves were not meant to illustrate Erdogan's rise to power. My interest in Turkey is numerous, and varies from the modern history of Turkey to the Syrian refugees, and from the cinema of Turkey to the literature.
Bruce Springsteen wrote the song ‘Youngstown’ in 1995, about 20 years after the collapse of the steel industry. He talks about what happens to cities when ‘the industry’ leaves. When the steel mills closed down and almost two-thirds of the people left, all the other structures like schools, churches, roads, grocery stores, etc. that support a community also came crashing down. The Mahoning River that flows through Youngstown, was lined with steel mills for over 20 miles, from the early 20th century until the late 70’s. The blast furnaces ran full steam for 24 hours a day, spewing thick gray smoke that blocked out the sky. Steel workers completed their grueling shifts and went down to the bars that surrounded the mills to tune-out of their brutal work environments. Rumbling freight trains plied ceaselessly, coming in with iron ore, coal, and limestone and then heading out with steel. The city was covered in soot and smelt of sulphur and the river was all but dead as it drained out the hot polluted water. Youngstown was all steel, and nothing but steel.
The steel mills were all using pre-World War I technology. The newest blast furnace was installed 1921. As transportation costs went up steel-making went to ports like Gary, Cleveland and Chicago. Foreign competition started hurting Youngstown steel due to lower overhead costs or higher quality steel. Unlike in Allentown, PA, other industries were not allowed to establish themselves in Youngstown because the Steel industry was quite possessive of it’s labor pool. Finally on Monday, September 19, 1977, it was announced that the Youngstown Sheet and Tube company in Campbell would be closed down by the end of the week. It was known as Black Monday. It came as a shock to most since they did not see the signs of decay setting in like cancer, a couple of decades earlier. The city simply collapsed since it had no other substantial industry. A couple of medium sized steel mills and handful of ancillary steel factories such as foundries and tube mills, still operate, catering to smaller markets with more specific needs, where the economy of scale is not a problem.
African-American people started moving into Youngstown in the late 19th century, to take up low level jobs. The jobs remained segregated until the late 60s and early 70s. However as black workers started getting into better positions the steel industry collapsed. Many of the white workers moved out of Youngstown into other big cities and others moved into the suburbs of Youngstown where smaller industries and other jobs could be found. The Black community could not do the same and this resulted in the burgeoning ghetto in the South-side of Youngstown. Crime and drugs skyrocketed in the 80s and 90s and still continues to haunt this area. Sports and religion are two things that help keep the kids from getting into crime and drugs. African-Americans form the largest demographic group at 43 percent, followed closely by the White population at 40 percent.
The hard, gritty but friendly blue-collared work ethic of this city has produced a surprisingly large number of athletes for its size. Sport is considered as one of the silver linings of Youngstown that keeps the hopes of the city alive. Kelly Pavlik, Ray Mancini, Jim Tressel, Deacon McGuire and Bob Dove are a few of the great sportspersons from Youngstown. The friendly, competitive, fighting spirit of the people of Youngstown is something that can never be taken away from them.
As the population dropped from a whopping 170,000 in the 1930’s to the current 65,000 the number of abandoned buildings and open lots blighted the city especially when crime moved into such buildings. The city tore down many buildings but that’s still what one mostly notices in this city. The plants have slowly started reclaiming the spaces that have long been vacated by humans. As people mourn the loss of a good life and a livelihood, Nature slowly and apathetically takes back what was alway its own. The striking beauty of this tragic situation is almost comforting and forces one to look at it from a different perspective.
However all is not lost in Youngstown. The controversial practice of fracking to extract fossil fuels has entered the Mahoning Valley despite the opposition from environmental activists, and the earthquakes that have been associated to it. The business incubator is providing substantial support to small businesses and young entrepreneurs. Downtown Youngstown is also picking up in terms of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and other small businesses. The people of Youngstown havefaith and hope that Youngstown will rise again.
Country Pastor and his Church
Churches often become the only source of civic engagement in small towns in America, and the pastor becomes a spiritual guide. Pastor Bernard Cheatwood's Redtown community church is one such church. He like many of his church attendees, is unemployed for most part of the year. However the community formed in the church helps tide through tough times, emotionally and financially.