‘Doubtful’ voters major poll plank in Assam’s Barak valley

Silchar/Karimganj, Apr 24 (PTI) Despite the Foreigners’ Tribunal declaring her a bona fide citizen of India in 2015, Anjali Roy of Saidpur village in Assam’s Cachar district is unable to exercise her franchise as ‘doubtful’ voter mark against her name on electors’ list is yet to be removed.

Roy got the ‘D’ voter tag in 2012.

Similar is the case of Banesa Begum, a resident of Chailtakandi village in the district, who had spent two years in the Silchar detention camp after being declared a foreigner.

Though all other members of her family have found their names in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and have the right to vote, Banesa will not be able to go to a polling station on April 26 to exercise her franchise in the Silchar Lok Sabha constituency.

Anjali and Banesa are among many people, who will not be able to cast their votes due to the ‘D’ voter tag in Karimganj and Silchar constituencies in Barak valley which shares a 129-km-long boundary with Bangladesh.

Displaced from the neighbouring country, Hindu Bengalis in large numbers had settled in the valley over the years, and all political parties and contestants have made issues concerning their citizenship and ‘D’ voter tag a poll plank in the Lok Sabha polls.

The concept of ‘D’ voters was introduced in Assam in 1997 by the Election Commission. It does not exist anywhere else in India.

There are 96,987 ‘D’ or doubtful voters in the state, as stated in the assembly by Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

During the ongoing election campaign in the two constituencies in Barak Valley, Sarma announced that the citizenship issue of the Bengali Hindus and the ‘D’ voter tag would be removed within six months after the polls.

”We could not make any promise earlier to resolve it as some work was left to be done by the Centre but it has been completed now. I can assure that the issue of ‘D’ voters and other problems related to the citizenship of Bengali Hindus will be resolved within six months,” Sarma said during an election campaign.

Countering the chief minister’s statement, Karimganj Congress nominee Hafiz Ahmed Rashid Choudhury, a prominent advocate who has legally fought many citizenship-related cases, told PTI that the government cannot do anything about it as ‘D’ voter was introduced according to an Election Commission guideline.

”The government cannot withdraw it or do anything on their own. It can ask the commission that the guideline issued in 1997 should be withdrawn,” he said.

“One can be a citizen or not but there is no provision for doubtful citizen. A case is still pending in the Supreme Court on whether the ‘D’ voter should be completely removed or not,” he said.

BJP’s Silchar candidate Parimal Suklabaidya claimed that once the citizenship issue is resolved under the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the issue of D-voters for the Bengali Hindus will also be addressed.

“It is just a matter of time. The issues of displaced people due to the partition of the country will be resolved with the initiative of the NDA government at the Centre,” Suklabaidya told PTI.

His Congress rival Surya Kanta Sarkar said that the chief minister is making it an election issue but ”people are not convinced about his promises”.

”If Sarma wanted to resolve the issue of Bengali Hindus, he could have done it earlier. It is also not possible to do it in six months with any government policy. The administration can only ask the EC to withdraw the directive,” he added.

Social activist Kamal Chakraborty, who has been working for the removal of the foreigner tag on many people in the Barak valley and also for the release of those detained, said there are around 3,500 ‘doubtful’ voters in the Barak valley and most of them are below the poverty line.

“When they were sent to detention centres, their lives were ruined to meet legal costs and most of them suffered from health issues. However, no one is now in the Silchar detention centre,” he told PTI.

Prominent lawyer Aman Wadud, who fights cases in the Gauhati High Court for those trying to prove their citizenship, told PTI that people were marked as ‘D’ voters in an “arbitrary manner and without any investigation”.

“The ‘D’ voter issue is not unsolvable but the BJP does not want to solve the citizenship issue, rather they want to make it more complex so that there is more fear and insecurity among the people,” he alleged.