NRC exclusion causes distress deaths in Assam

The black-and-white nameplate still hangs outside Nirode Baran Das’s house in Kharupetia town in Assam, but since October 21, no client has visited the house of this once sought-after lawyer.

“Citizens left out of the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) flocked here as they considered the lawyer to be well-versed with the NRC process. He empathised with those who were worried after the NRC exclusion and did not even take fee from poor clients,” Das’s wife Roma told DH.

The 69-year-old lawyer practised in Mangaldoi court in Darrang district after his retirement as a teacher in 2011. On July 30, Das got the shock of his life when he found that his name was excluded from the final draft of the NRC. Das, who found himself among over 40 lakh people in Assam whose names were off the draft NRC, felt deeply humiliated when a lawyer colleague taunted him as a “Bangladeshi lawyer.”

On October 21, Das, a Bengali-speaking Hindu, ended his life by hanging himself from the ceiling of the visitor’s room in his residence situated in this town, about 100 km west of Guwahati. His family members testified from Das’s suicide note that he had taken the extreme step to escape the humiliation of being called an “illegal Bangladeshi migrant.”

Decades of discord

The 1951 NRC is now being updated in Assam to solve the state’s illegal immigrants problem and to address the continuous agitation by organisations representing indigenous communities. A bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi is supervising the NRC exercise. The NRC considers March 24, 1971, as cut-off date in order to segregate Indian citizens and the suspected foreigners illegally living in the state that shares borders with Bangladesh. The cut-off date was agreed in the historic Assam Accord, which was signed in 1985 by the Union government and the organisations leading the Assam Agitation or anti-foreigners movement.   

Names of Das, his wife Roma and three daughters appeared in the first draft of NRC released on December 31, 2017 after he submitted the 1966 electoral roll containing his father’s name as a legacy document to prove their Indian citizenship.

He had submitted his school certificate as linkage document. Electoral roll up to March 24, 1971, is one of the 15 legacy documents admissible for inclusion in the updated NRC. But the final draft containing over 2.89 crore applicants surprisingly dropped his name while the other members were included. When Das visited an NRC Seva Kendra on August 10, he was informed in a notice that he was already declared a foreigner by a tribunal and hence his name was dropped.

“He was a cheerful person and was loved and respected by all as a retired teacher and a good-hearted lawyer. He was known as a ‘Chocolate Sir’ as he always used to have a box of chocolates in his bag for the children. He felt humiliated after receiving the notice and fell into depression,” said Ganesh Ghosh, vice-chairman of Kharupetia Municipal Board.

“He was born in Tezpur in Sonitpur district and did matriculation in 1968 from Sailabala High School here and joined the same school as a teacher in 1977. How can he be a foreigner?” Ghosh asked. The family lodged an FIR seeking justice but has neither got any answer from the police nor any compensation from the government.

A month later, Monnas Ali, a 65-year-old Bengali-speaking Muslim farmer at Kamarchuburi village in Sonitpur district, about 60-km Northeast of Kharupetia committed suicide in the same manner. His family said Ali was depressed since his name was found dropped in the final draft.

According to an independent survey, at least 39 people, mainly Bengali Muslims, Bengali Hindus and the Koch Rajbongshi community, have committed suicides in Barpeta, Goalpara, Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Baksa districts in eastern Assam and Hailakandi, Cachar and Karimganj districts in south Assam since the first draft of the NRC was released. The family members blame the anxiety and fear of being declared ‘illegal Bangladeshi migrants’ as the reason for these self-inflicted deaths.

However, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal recently assured that no genuine Indian citizens would be left out of the NRC and utmost care would be taken to prevent any illegal migrants from being included in the NRC.

The members of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a Mumbai-based rights group assisting the NRC left outs to submit fresh claims, said they had compiled as many as 39 such suicide cases from across Assam this year, which were said to be triggered by the harassment caused during the verification of documents required for inclusion in the NRC.

“Frequent orders issued by the NRC officials changing norms for verification of documents and for filing claims have caused so much anxiety that many are forced to take recourse to the extreme step. Applicants are being harassed despite having the required documents just because they are Bengali-speaking Muslims or Bengali-speaking Hindus in Assam and don’t speak Assamese.

We all are in favour of a fair NRC to solve the foreigner issue in Assam but harassment of the citizens must stop,” CJP’s Assam coordinator, Zamsher Ali said. He cited four such deaths in Baksa, Chirang, Karimganj and Hailakandi districts in the last 12 days.

Assam police officials, however, said their investigation could not prove the links of the suicides to the NRC exclusion yet, despite the family members’ blame. An official of the Home Department in Assam government, however, admitted that exclusion from the draft NRC caused fear and anxiety, despite the BJP-led state government’s repeated assurance that no genuine Indian citizens would be left out of the list.

The Supreme Court on December 12 extended the deadline for submitting claims and objections for inclusion and exclusion from the final updated NRC till December 31 as only 14 lakh of the 40.07 lakh applicants who didn’t find their names in the draft NRC had filed claims so far.

All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) attributed such low turnouts in filing claims to the delay in deciding a petition filed in the Supreme Court by NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela, which sought to drop five legacy documents during the claims period. “Hajela issued another order saying the link documents issued after August 31, 2015, can not be accepted for filing claims for inclusion in the NRC to check forgery of documents. On December 12, the Supreme Court rejected Hajela’s plea but another cut-off date had already created much confusion among the NRC left-outs and slowed the claims process,” AAMSU president Rejaul Karim Sarkar said in Guwahati recently.

Chiranjeet, son of Pradip Kumar Saha, a Bengali-speaking grocery shopkeeper at Kharupetia market, looked confused. “Will our names ever appear?” asked the 25-year-old boy as he attended customers at their shop. Names of Pradip, his wife Soma Rani and their two sons had appeared in the first draft but the final draft had only his wife’s name. “We submitted the citizenship certificate issued to my grandfather Haridas Saha in 1956 and our link documents. Now we don’t know what new documents we need for resubmission,” Chiranjeet said. Fatik Saha, who runs a bookstall near Pradip’s shop for more than 50 years, was blunt. “The NRC is just to exclude the Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims,” said Saha, whose family was also dropped out of the NRC for being ‘doubtful’ voters.

NRC officials denied the harassment allegations saying the exercise was not aimed at any particular community but those who migrated from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971.

DH News Service

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NRC exclusion causes distress deaths in Assam

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