Strangers in their own land

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: India

Publishing organisation: The Baffler

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-10-01

Language: English

Authors: Makepeace Sitlhou


Makepeace Sitlhou is an independent journalist reporting human rights, gender, politics and culture in long form, investigations and documentaries. Her work has appeared in several international and indian media news outlets and has won the South Asian Journalism award, Hostwriter prize for collaborative journalism and the Red Ink, to name a few.

Project description:

My investigation in Assam revealed that the Border Police, Foreigners’ Tribunals and Guwahati High Court have been systematically used to target Bengali Muslims. They have been under political pressure to inflate statistics on the presence of “illegal foreigners” from Bangladesh, which has led to them identifying in detail—but often at random—the state’s Muslim residents. non-state actors such as right-wing Hindu vigilantes and Assamese nationalists have been aiding state agents in this process. Together they’ve drafted a playbook for the BJP government to profile and criminalize ethnic and religious minorities, relegating them to a legal purgatory of statelessness in perpetuity.

Impact reached:

81,900 impressions on Twitter

Justice N Kotiswar Singh has made important observations in the Guwahati High Court, as the only judge on the foreigners’ bench, and other public events following my investigations.

Gauhati HC sets aside FT order which declared Cachar family as ‘foreigners’ https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/assam/gauhati-hc-sets-aside-ft-order-cachar-family-foreigners-7647974/

Gauhati High Court orders release of woman first declared ‘Indian’, later a ‘foreigner’ https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/assam/gauhati-high-court-release-woman-declared-indian-foreigner-7675218/

Person once declared Indian, can’t be tried again as a foreigner: Gauhati HC https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2022/may/07/person-once-declared-indian-cant-be-tried-again-as-a-foreigner-gauhati-hc-2450744.html

“Judiciary is one of the important limbs of democracy and democracy without an independent judiciary is hollow,” Justice Singh, who was the chief guest of the august gathering, said. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/democracy-without-independent-judiciary-is-hollow-gauhati-high-court-judge-3189766

Techniques/technologies used:

I analysed over a 100 police inquiry reports (procured with great difficulty through a source) establishing the thin grounds on which allegedly illegal foreigners were being reported by the police. Even when documents—like land deeds, the 1951 NRC, voter lists, panchayat certificates, or high school admit cards—were produced, the inquiry officers ignored these, my data analysis showed. I also spoke to former and present members of the the All Assam Students Union on how they were once involved in profiling the Muslim migrants/residents to the Border Police. It was also crucial to highlight the role of an independent institution like the High Court, which doesn’t come under the Executive in India, and how Border Police’s faulty inquiries were going unchallenged.

I analyzed all the Gauhati High Court orders on foreigner cases passed between 2010 and 2019 that were originally procured through the RTI Act. Of the 1,536 orders, only 50—or 3.3 percent—cited the findings of the Border Police inquiry official. In Siddique’s case, the foreigners’ tribunal found a linkage issue because of spelling differences in his grandfather’s name in different documents. Gauhati High Court found his affidavit clarifying that they were the same people to be “self serving”.

On March 24, 2021, the Gauhati High Court for the first time laid down the requirements of a fair trial and investigation before a notice is issued by a tribunal. The opinion passed by a tribunal in Baksa against Sona Khan was set aside on the grounds that the reference made must be specific and materials collected during the investigation to be produced before the tribunal.

The court was of the view that “if no materials are available before the Referral Authority to doubt or question the citizenship of the person concerned, no reference can be made to the Tribunal”.

Context about the project:

I filed request for Border Police inquiry reports through India’s Right to Information Act, 2005 and exposed the myriad ways in which information to do with people’s right to life and civil liberties are denied under everything from ‘national security’ to ‘privacy’. My RTI request, however, yielded figures from the home department that were contradictory to the data released by the state government nine years ago. This again exposed how government’s own record of tracking data was flimsy and unreliable.

The anger against the government that was once so palpably visible in Assam has died down and people voted to bring in the same government for a second term. Much of that anger has since been directed towards the already vulnerable Bengali Muslims who have been vilified as Covid super spreaders, illegal squatters and terrorists. To lay these facts bare to people in Assam has resulted in their wrath and social media trolling – a group of local journalists once included me in a public list of ‘anti NRC’ journalists. https://www.newslaundry.com/2019/08/28/what-the-spam-dossier-on-journalists-covering-nrc-tells-us-about-assamese-supremacy

Despite this attempt at defaming me, I continued working and cultivating my sources on the ground. The most difficult and an unsuccessful part of the project was not being able to access the police inquiry forms of both my primary characters (something they hadn’t seen ever or owned a copy of) because of the opaqueness of the Border Police.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

It took me four years to publish this investigation for two reasons. Despite trying all funding options, grants and fellowships, no agency showed any financial support for this project until The Baffler commissioned it in July 2021. Secondly, it took me a year to find a bulk of police inquiry reports for a data based investigation after years of applying for RTIs that were rejected by the government on one or the other grounds. The sensitivity of the cases (many of them pending) also didnt allow many lawyers to share their client’s police report and most of them had never managed to gain access to it.

I’m most proud of this investigation because hardly anyone believed in it and I had no resources or even a great incentive to finish it other than bringing out the truth of this institution. What other journalists can learn from this project (particularly those who are freelance) to persist on their curiosities and pursuit for truth for no greater reason than to speak truth to power.

Project links: