In India’s Assam State, Residents Of River Islands Face Uncertainty Over Citizenship

By 8 a.m., the sun hasn’t pierced through dark clouds hanging over India’s Brahmaputra River, but it’s already warm and humid. People wait for a boat to take them to the Chandanpur char, an island in India’s northeastern state of Assam, an hourlong ride from the mainland.

A char is a river island formed by silt carried downriver. Chars rise up and are submerged every few years. Every time a char erodes, the people living there dismantle their homes and move to the next-closest char by boat. They can’t afford to move to the mainland.

Many of those living on the chars of lower Assam are Muslims of Bengali origin. Their lives keep shifting like the islands they live on.

Assam borders Bangladesh and has long been home to migrants from there. For decades, the Indian government has been conducting a special census in Assam, called the National Register of Citizens, to try to figure out who is a valid Indian citizen — and who might be an undocumented migrant.

Residents of Assam must submit paperwork — birth certificates, high school diplomas and other documents — to prove their citizenship. But literacy rates are low, and poverty runs high. Many people find it difficult to provide those documents.

Last year, the state government issued a draft NRC list, and some 4 million people living in Assam who thought they were Indian citizens were left off. This comes against a backdrop of efforts by India’s central government to pass a bill that would effectively grant citizenship to many other undocumented immigrants, except if they are Muslim.

India’s Supreme Court has ordered Assam to issue a final NRC list by July 31.

Once appeals are exhausted, some people could be rendered stateless.

The people of Assam’s chars are among those affected. Photographer CK Vijayakumar, who is based in Bengaluru, documented some of their stories last year. He arrived in Assam about a month after the NRC list was issued and, working with local journalist Ashraful Hussain, focused on one district: Barpeta.

Speaking with NPR photo editor Claire Harbage, Vijayakumar describes people in limbo. “I was really shocked when I realized the scale of the issue,” he says. “I have always been interested in the stories of statelessness. … I find these stories interesting because borders are imaginary lines, and yet they come to define one’s identity and destiny to such a large extent.”

Interview Highlights

On the atmosphere in Assam

There was a general sense of apprehension and helplessness in the district of Barpeta. Many of the people we met lived in thatched roof huts with tin or palm leaf walls, eking out a living. They hardly had anything to their name, but the most prized possessions were the few scraps of official paper with their names on it, which may or may not have been useful in the NRC process. One of their biggest complaints was that they couldn’t work, because they had to run around a lot for documents.

I went to one of the many NRC service centers in Barpeta. The people, young and old, men and women, stood crowding around a school desk, behind which sat four officials. Everyone carried a small, translucent plastic bag with some documents and photocopies. They also carried a desperate, pleading look on their face, as if the officials could magically grant them citizenship on the spot. The officials could only collect documents and hand back a receipt.

No one seemed angry or indignant. There were a couple of young men outside laughing deliriously as if they had finally resigned [themselves] to the hopelessness of the situation.

On establishing trust with local residents

People had no qualms about sharing their stories. In fact, they were quite eager to share it. They were quite keen on letting the world know what they were going through, because I think they believed that what was happening to them was unfair.

On life on the chars

Life on the chars is unique because it seems to embrace the ephemeral nature of human existence. The homes were built with single sheets of tin or thatch tied together by thin strings — ready to be dismantled and transported on a boat. Even the school was built this way. The people didn’t own too many things, lest they need to transport it in a hurry. There are of course bigger chars with more permanent structures.

I did not know about chars before I went to Barpeta. I did not know that people lived on islands in a river. People living such a bare, transient existence was not something I was expecting to see. I could immediately see the parallels between their lives and their status as citizens.

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