Abanti Deka had no idea when she married her husband that taking his name would jeopardise her Indian citizenship.
That was before authorities in the northeast Indian state of Assam, where she has lived all her life, launched a vast and highly contentious exercise to register all its citizens as part of a campaign against illegal immigration.
When the register was published at the end of August, the names of nearly 2 million of the state’s about 33 million people were missing, plunging them into a bureaucratic nightmare that human rights experts fear could render some stateless.
Abanti was one of the unlucky ones.
“The notice came suddenly,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at her lawyer’s office.
“I don’t understand. I was born here, I have voted here before, but suddenly none of that matters any more.”
Resentment against illegal immigrants has simmered for years in Assam, one of India’s poorest states, with residents blaming outsiders for taking their jobs and land.
To be included on the register, residents had to produce documents proving their families lived in India before March 24, 1971, when hundreds of thousands of people began fleeing conflict across the border in what is now Bangladesh.
Lawyers and campaigners dealing with such cases say they present particular challenges for women.
About one in three women in Assam is illiterate – a higher proportion than for men – and many marry young, moving away from home and losing access to any documents that might prove their origins.
They also take their husbands’ names, a move that has complicated things further for many married women in a region where family names are markers of ethnic and religious affiliation.
“The women have had to pay a higher price,” said Tanya Laskar, a lawyer working on such cases.
“They have struggled the hardest to get relevant documents and many failed because they were child brides or the family did not put their names on a land document because women are not entitled to property in many homes.”
India is expected to face pressure at a major intergovernmental meeting in Geneva on Monday to assess progress in a global decade-long campaign aimed at eradicating statelessness by 2024.
On Wednesday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi expressed concerns that the Assam exercise could result in some people being made stateless.
There are an estimated 10-15 million stateless people worldwide who are not recognised as nationals of any country and are deprived of basic rights most people take for granted such as education and healthcare.
Those excluded from India’s register will have 120 days to prove their citizenship at hundreds of regional quasi-judicial bodies known as foreigners’ tribunals. If that goes against them, they can appeal all the way up to India’s Supreme Court.
From land deeds to school leaving certificates, voter lists and birth certificates, residents of Assam have had to spend thousands of rupees to access their documents from government offices.
Laskar, who runs awareness campaigns on the process, said poorer families often spent their limited resources on the men.
“In poor families, a woman’s right to justice comes at the end,” she said. “We have had women fainting in our awareness meetings because they are so worried of what lies ahead. Many know that they will have to fight lonely battles.”
Education is another factor, said Digambar Narzary, head of the Nedan Foundation, a human rights charity that works in a remote autonomous region inhabited mostly by tribal people.
“In many parts of the state, access to education for girls has been a challenge,” she said.
“Since they haven’t been to school or dropped out early, they do not have essential school leaving documents that establish one’s age and other details.”
State authorities have not provided a breakdown of men and women omitted from the register. But many married women like Abanti say they have been left off even though their siblings and parents were included.
Among them is Aladi Mondol, 42, the only member of the family she was born into whose name is not on the citizens’ register.
Mondol lost key documents in flooding, common in Assam, and said she did not realise how important they would become.
“I was trying to salvage so many things from the house as the river crept in,” she said.
“I cried when I found out because my brothers and parents are on the list. I am a little scared.”
Debasmita Ghosh, the lawyer representing Abanti at a foreigners’ tribunal in the state capital Guwahati, said her client had not known that her married name would cause problems.
“They are Assamese and she was born here. She didn’t realise that the surname mattered,” Ghosh told the tribunal at a recent hearing to which the Thomson Reuters Foundation gained rare access.
“In fact, she never mentioned her father’s name to us either, we found it by chance in an old document she gave us,” said Ghosh, who works with the Human Rights Law Network, a collective that provides legal aid.
That proved Abanti, who does not know her exact age but is in her 40s, was called Deka before she married Adhir Hajong and took his name, which many associate with Bangladesh.
Abanti said her ordeal had made her feel almost invisible, but knew she had to see it through for her children’s sake.
“If I am declared a foreigner, it will impact my children. They will not get jobs or benefits from the state,” she said.
“I am not a criminal, but if the tribunal is not convinced that I was born here then I might be in a detention camp and that will be the end of the road for my children as well.”