Bhagat, daughters Santosh (right), Heena at their Ambala boutique. (Express Photo by Jaipal Singh)
“We don’t know from where we can get nationality certificates. We have visited the Deputy Commissioner’s office, the Sub-Divisional Magistrate’s office and the Tehsildar office. No one seems to know,” say two sisters sitting at their boutique in Ambala.
Far removed from the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, Santosh (29) and Heena (26), who don’t have birth certificates, have been running around for six months trying to prove they are Indians. Complicating matters is a remark left by an official on their passport applications, that the two “look Nepali”.
On December 28, the sisters finally met Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij, who represents Ambala Cantt in the Assembly. Three days later, Ambala Deputy Commissioner Ashok Kumar Sharma said officials had been instructed to issue the two passports.
A puzzled Bhagat Bahadur, the father of four daughters, including Santosh and Heena, says “till now we thought we are Indians”. “I was born and brought up in India and the family was never asked to prove our nationality before this,” says the 54-year-old.
According to Bhagat, his father Gopal Singh came to India from Nepal before 1965, settled in Ludhiana, and in 1984, married a Gorkha woman living in the town. Later, the couple moved to Ambala and started doing stitching work. Bhagat was born in Himachal Pradesh. After his wife’s death, Singh went back to Nepal but Bhagat stayed on and got married. His wife Ruby Devi and he live with Santosh and Heena in their house in Krishna Colony of Ambala City. Santosh and Heena run a ‘dress boutique’ called Meera. The other two daughters, Meera and Komal, are married.
The family has Aadhaar cards, voter cards, a ration card as well as backward class certificates. Meera also has a passport, having acquired one in 2010 without any hassles. She planned to go abroad for study, but didn’t eventually and completed her M.Com from an Ambala college.
Having graduated in pharmacy, Heena wants to go to Canada for further studies, while Santosh, who has a diploma in fashion designing apart from an MA in History, is seeking a work visa. Komal, the youngest, does not have a passport.
Santosh and Heena had applied for a passport at the local office at Ambala on June 29. When, after police verification, their passports didn’t come, the two approached the Regional Passport Officer (RPO) in Chandigarh on September 16. There, an official remarked on their form that “the applicant looks Nepali”. The RPO told the sisters to get a citizenship certificate from the Deputy Commissioner’s office. It was then that the rounds of government offices started.
While issuing the two provisional passports, the RPO told Ambala Superintendent of Police Abhishek Jorwal to determine whether they are Indian citizens on the basis of birth. But neither Bhagat nor his wife and daughters have birth certificates. Police officials say it is difficult to establish citizenship in the absence of birth certificates.
“Police have visited our boutique and residence. We are being asked about our birth certificates repeatedly but we don’t have them. Being a poor family, we kept moving from one place to another for years before finally settling in Ambala a little before 1986. Our landlords did not let us give their address for a ration card. Ultimately, a landowner agreed and a ration card was issued to us,” says Santosh.
Ambala SP Jorwal says the family may seek citizenship on the basis of “naturalisation”, adding, “Our verification process is on.”
Passport officials say a person can apply to the Union Home Ministry through a deputy commissioner for citizenship if he or she has been a resident of India for 12 years. A senior passport official confirms to The Sunday Express that the Union Home Ministry has delegated powers to the deputy commissioner in cases “where the nationality is questioned”. “They can issue a citizenship certificate. That’s what the Chandigarh DC and many other DCs in Punjab do. They conduct an inquiry at their own level,” says an official.
However, Santosh and Heena fear what that will mean, and what will follow. While both Deputy Commissioner Sharma and Regional Passport Officer Sibash Kabiraj say the remark about Nepali looks was wrong, with Kabir saying officials could have just written “citizenship is questionable”, he adds that if the sisters’ citizenship is not established, “their passports would be revoked”.
Adds a passport official, “If somebody appears Nepali, the official will write on the file that he or she looks Nepali. All Nepali descendants are not necessarily Indian citizens, even if they have Aadhaar card, voter card.”