“Election day is like a festival in this area,” says Marjina Khatun, sorting through the clothes she will weave into a quilt. “People who have gone to other states for work, come back home to vote.”

The village of Rupakuchi, where she lives, falls under the Dhubri Lok Sabha constituency where the voting took place on May 7, 2024.

But the 48-year-old Marjina did not vote. “I ignore the day. I even hide inside the house to avoid people.”

Marjina is listed as a Doubtful Voter (D-Voter) in the electoral rolls – one of the 99,942 people in this category of voters who have allegedly been unable to provide credible evidence to prove their Indian citizenship. Most are Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims of Assam.

In Assam, the only Indian state to have D-voters, alleged illegal immigration from Bangladesh is a key issue in electoral politics. The Election Commission of India introduced the D-Voter system in 1997, the same year Marjina first gave her name to the enumerators to be included in the electoral roll. “Back then, school teachers used to visit houses to include peoples’ names in voter lists. I also gave my name,” says Marjina. “But when I went to vote during the next elections, I was not allowed to vote. They said I was a D-voter.”

PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque

Marjina Khatun (left) is part of a weaving group in Rupakuchi village, Assam and usually weaves traditional quilts locally known as kheta . She holds up a pillow cover designed by her with similar stitches

In 2018-19, many D-Voters in Assam were arrested after being declared illegal immigrants in the Foreigners’ Tribunal, Marjina says as we make our way to her house.

This is when Marjina tried to find out why she was identified as a D-voter. “I paid three advocates around Rs. 10,000 before the Covid-19 lockdown. They checked the documents in the circle office [in Mandia] and in the tribunal [in Barpeta], but found nothing against my name,” she says, sitting in the courtyard of her kutcha house, searching through her documents.

Marjina is a tenant-farmer – she and her husband Hashem Ali have leased two bighas (0.66 acres) of unirrigated land for Rs. 8,000 each and grow paddy and vegetables like brinjal, chilli, cucumber for their own consumption.

Fishing out her PAN and Aadhaar cards she says, “am I not suffering and being deprived of my voting rights arbitrarily?” All members of her natal family have valid voter cards. The certified copy of the voters’ list from 1965 shows Marjina’s father, Nachim Uddin, as a resident of Maricha village in Barpeta district. “Neither of my parents have any links to Bangladesh,” says Marjina.

But exercising her democratic right to vote is not the only worry plaguing Marjina.

“I was afraid they were going to put me in a detention centre,” Marjina says in a low voice, “I thought about how I would live without my children, who were very young at the time. I used to think about dying.”

PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque
PHOTO • Kazi Sharowar Hussain

Left: Marjina and her husband Hashem Ali are tenant farmers. Marjina is listed as a Doubtful Voter in the electoral rolls although other members of her natal home have valid Voter Identity cards. But without a valid Voter ID of her own, Marjina worries about her own future and the future of her children. Right: Marjina has found solace in the company of her weaving group which assembles at Inuwara Khatun's (first from right) home in the village on the banks of the Chaulkhowa river

Being part of a weaving group and the companionship of other women have helped Marjina. She first learnt of the group during the Covid-19 lockdown. The weaving group was set up by the Barpeta-based organisation, Amra Pari, who had come to the village to distribute relief, when, Marjina says, “ baideu [ma’am] asked a few women to start weaving kheta s [quilts].” The women saw a possibility of earning without having to step out. “I already knew how to weave kheta s, so I could easily blend in,” she adds.

It takes her around three to five days to weave a quilt, and she earns around Rs. 400-500 from each sale.

PARI also visited Marjina and roughly 10 women at Inuwara Khatun’s home in Rupakuchi where they had gathered to weave these traditional quilts, locally known as kheta .

Through conversations with the other women in the group and human rights activists who visited them, Marjina was able to regain some of her confidence. “I work in the fields and weave kheta s or some embroidery work. During the day, I forget everything. But I still feel stressed at night.”

She is also worried about her children’s future. Marjina and her husband Hashem Ali have four children – three daughters and a son. The two elder daughters are married, but the younger siblings are still in school. And they are already worried about not getting jobs. “Sometimes my children say that even if they get educated, they won’t be able to get a [government] job without my citizenship documents,” Marjina says.

Marjina wishes to vote at least once in her lifetime. “This will prove my citizenship and my children will be able to pursue whatever job they want,” she adds.
Mahibul Hoque

Mahibul Hoque is a multimedia journalist and researcher based in Assam. He is a PARI-MMF fellow for 2023.

Other stories by Mahibul Hoque
Editor : Sarbajaya Bhattacharya

Sarbajaya Bhattacharya is a Senior Assistant Editor at PARI. She is an experienced Bangla translator. Based in Kolkata, she is interested in the history of the city and travel literature.

Other stories by Sarbajaya Bhattacharya