Passport to Kill
For 50 years, illegal immigration has been at the centre of Assam politics. The anxiety over NRC is now pushing people over the brink: 33 people have killed themselves so far, six in July itself
News18 Immersive
Passport to Kill
For 50 years, illegal immigration has been at the centre of Assam politics. The anxiety over NRC is now pushing people over the brink: 33 people have killed themselves so far, Six in July itself
By Aditya Sharma

Guwahati: Angad Sutradhar, an unschooled labourer from Assam’s Baksa district, left home for a stroll on the evening of 8 July 2015. Locals spotted him sitting alone on a bridge over a nearby stream. That was the last time anyone saw Angad alive.

The 57-year-old later took ropes used to hold cows at his shed and hanged himself from a tree. He was reportedly anxious over the complicated verification process for the National Register of Citizens (NRC). A failure would snatch away his citizenship.

“That was the time when there was a lot of brouhaha over the NRC,” recalled Jyotish, Angad’s eldest son. His father’s was the first suicide linked to the government’s anti-infiltration operation in the eastern state.

The NRC was created in 1951 to ascertain who was born in Assam and is Indian, and who could be a migrant from neighbouring, Muslim-majority Bangladesh (East Pakistan, at the time). The register is being updated for the first time.

It deems as Indian citizens those who can prove they were residents of Assam prior to 24 March 1971 – the day before Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan. Detractors fear it might strip citizenship from many, particularly Muslims, who have lived here for decades.

Jyotish, a 30-year-old resident of Baksa’s Pakoriguri village, said he was moved by a certain sense of purpose when he decided to submit the NRC application form for his family of nine. He was told the exercise, earlier ordered by the Chief Justice of India to be completed by 31 July 2019, will use an ancestors’ proof to ascertain their nagorikata (citizenship).

The family had been preparing for months to make the submission: fetching the application form from the NRC Seva Kendra (help centre), or NSK, getting together documents of identity proof, seeking help to fill out the application form and visiting the NSK at Ananda Bazar in Baksa district to search, extract and print the Legacy Data – necessary family history records to get enrolled in the citizenship register.

Jyotish Sutradhar with his wife, son and mother. (Photo: News18/Aditya Sharma)

However, Jyotish failed at his first attempt to submit the application because of the “heavy rush at the local NSK”.

“The NRC had just begun then, so there were a lot of people with many different queries about application submission,” he explained. While thousands queued to submit applications, Jyotish was there to furnish a missing linkage document, following which he had planned to make the submission.

Meanwhile, his father Angad had finished his din huzuri (day-wage labour) and was anxiously waiting for the news of his son’s successful trip to the NSK.

“He immediately enquired if I had submitted the documents at the NRC office. I told him that I couldn’t,” Jyotish said.

Sensing uncertainty, his father offered to make the submission himself.

That night, Jyotish was the first to see “the body hanging from the tree in the dark”.

Sub-divisional magistrate Ananda Kumar Das, a team from the Salbari police station and the gaonburah (sarpanch) gathered at Pakoriguri the next day to conduct an inquiry into the death.

I
Anatomy of Suicide

At the margins of society, the traumatic experiences of families like the Sutradhars are often overlooked because the NRC narrative in Assam glorifies citizenship to the extent of disregarding, often, its impact on the existing citizenry.

Speaking to News18, Sushmita Dev, former Congress MP from Silchar, called the NRC an “insensitive exercise” which has been conducted in “sheer ignorance” of the poor’s plight. “The state government has offered no basic facilities like legal help and subsidised transportation. Who is going to fund the costs involved in proving citizenship?” she asked.

"Bureaucratic pressure certainly causes anxiety. If you are under judicial or police action, you are bound to get anxious."

However, the Baksa district magistrate’s (DM) Action Taken Report (ATR) into Angad’s “unnatural death” concluded that the death cannot be attributed to “pressure/tension” in NRC matters because the deceased showed no signs of “hopelessness”.

News18 spoke to M Hazarika, the-then DM of Baksa, on whether, four years later, the NRC process still doesn't trigger tension or pressure for the people. His stance today is somewhat different. “Bureaucratic pressure certainly causes anxiety. If you are under judicial or police action, you are bound to get anxious. But what may cause anxiety to you, may not cause anxiety to me,” he said.

Although the NRC authority stopped launching enquiries into further suicides and withheld the publication of further ATR’s on their website in 2015, Hazarika today believes that the NRC may have been a cause for Angad’s anxiety. “Had he left a suicide note, it could have been more conclusive.”

In the absence of tangible proof, citizenship anxiety in Assam, thus, must be revisited as a language issue: a discord between the Assamese and the Bengali people absorbed in the communal tear of the Partition and the creation of Bangladesh. This cultural and linguistic tension received religious overtones when shifting state borders caused the Muslim population in the state to rise beyond the natural rate vis a vis the Assamese population.

The genealogy of anxiety in Assam – that has increasingly narrowed claims to citizenship in India – then may be traced from an anti-Bengali mind-set sowed in British India to an anti-immigrant or anti-Bengali Muslim narrative in Independent India.

Jyotish Sutradhar sifts through his NRC application form at home in Baksa district, Assam. (Photo: News18/Aditya Sharma)

The poetics of Assamese culture refers to its people by the valley they live in: Barak in the south and Brahmaputra in the north.

Bengali is the dominant language and identity in Barak valley – the epicentre of the 1961 Language Movement in Assam. The campaign, during which eleven protesters were killed in police firing, opposed the-then Congress government’s move to make Assamese the official language of the state. May 19 is commemorated as Language Martyrs’ Day in Barak valley.

In contrast, Brahmaputra valley is mostly dominated by Assamese-speaking indigenous communities, who, since 1947, have demanded the strengthening of Assamese identity and language to prevent cultural erosion at the hands of Bengalis. The Assam Agitation of 1979-85 and the NRC emerged as voices from within this middle class, noted intellectual Hiren Gohain said.

Since the NRC campaign began in 2015, multiple cases of suicide and other irregularities, have been reported in the media. However, Angad Sutradhar was the first and only case where state inquiry was initiated.

“Western understanding has narrowed the idea of suicide to the concept of a suicide note,” Abdul Kalam Azad, a human rights researcher from Assam, told News18. “Most of those killing themselves in Assam are uneducated. How does the government expect them to leave a suicide note?”

“People have been in Detention Centres for as long as 10 years without committing any crime. There is no option of payroll, there is no means of communication with family, whole families are separated if detected illegal. Communities know this after all these years.” he added.

These deaths in the eastern state, when compared to the nationwide attention riveted on farmer distress and suicides, appear politically neglected by the BJP and the Opposition, socially insignificant to the larger narrative of “mainland” India, and historically absent in the account of Assam.

Azad has maintained a record of 33 suicides across 13 districts related to NRC angst since 2015, which News18 has access to, by compiling on-ground interviews and media reports.

Organisations such as the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) place the number of suicides at 57. However, all unofficial counts are alarmingly high for the year 2018 when the draft lists of the NRC were published.

According to the data, the year 2015 reported three NRC or citizenship-related suicides in Assam. This figure dropped to one suicide in 2016, while doubling in 2017. The year 2018 alone accounted for the rest of these deaths. Ahead of the final NRC enumeration on August 31, July witnessed six suicides.

II
Find The Immigrant

Not far from Angad Sutradhar’s home lives the family of Ambar Ali. The 59-year-old daily wage labourer from Sunbari village committed suicide on July 8 by jumping in front of a running train because his entire family was excluded from the NRC.

His 21-year-old son, Hazrat Ali, said the government is responsible for his death.

“In 1997, the government suddenly decided to cast doubt over my father’s citizenship. He had voted as a legitimate citizen in all the elections before that. Based on that dubious categorisation, none of our family members were included in the NRC, despite the fact that we had all the right documents,” he said.

Ambar Ali’s wife Hazra Khatun shares her son’s pain. “My husband attended so many NRC hearings to prove his citizenship to the government. Because of the NRC all this happened. Will they save us or kill us?” she wondered, teary-eyed.

Ambar Ali's two sons, wife and daughter have blamed the government for his death. (Photo: News18/Aditya Sharma)

In the NRC narrative, the involvement of state actors like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Congress, as well as non-state actors such as the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Assam Sahitya Sabha (Assam Literary Society) have amplified the sensitivity towards and the gravity of “genuine” Indian citizenship.

Amid derogatory parlance, poor state bureaucracy and attack on their political leaders, twelve Bengali Muslims reportedly committed suicide due to citizenship anxiety. The community has been led to believe that its members can be detained or deported for illegal immigration. The state does not protect them any more; no one does.

“Even if a person in some remote village in Assam does not understand the idea of statelessness,” Azad reasoned, “he knows – practically – what it means; he knows human rights.” That’s the outcome of a deep sense of vulnerability.


News18 spoke to Ashraful Bahari, a civil society activist from Barpeta district, where the NRC pilot project was conducted in 2005. He alleged that Bengali Muslims committing suicide were reduced to vulnerable citizens due to a certain “political environment”.

He alleged that this political environment sparks misinformed anxiety.

When information reaches the poor and uneducated that people with the right documents are also being declared “Bangladeshis”, society gets infected with the angst of being detained, separated from families and kicked out of the country without any legal recourse, explained Bahari.

Today, under the jurisdiction of Foreigners Act 1956, “if there are hundred cases of suspected immigrants at the Tribunals, only two of them see victory, rest all lose despite having the right documents” because the burden of proof has shifted to the accused.

Subjecting the accused, who in most cases is an uneducated, poor person, to technical and public scrutiny in the Court has developed a fear among a generation of Muslims.

“It is the failure of government systems to make a person feel secure and respected in their own country. They are accustomed to hearing that they (government) will make you an immigrant at any cost,” the activist said. “Only fear is enough to harass these vulnerable communities”.

III
Dawn of the Dread

Indeed, the BJP-led state government's August 2 release of the district-wise data of people excluded from the NRC adds to the already present fear and uncertainty.

The government's argument of a higher inclusion rate in Muslim-majority districts associated with migration and lower in other districts assumes that areas close to the Bangladesh border are bound to have more illegal immigrants.

However, to the layman, the BJP's ‘border logic’, appears as the devious plan of a political environment that aims to detect, delete and deport.

In Assam, the term ‘Bengali Muslim’, over time, has become synonymous with both ‘bideshi’ (migrant) and ‘miya’ (Bengali-Muslim Bangladeshi) because of a failed Assamese-Bengali ethnic coalition following Independence.

In fact, the plight of Ambar Ali's family is something Abhijit Sarma of the NGO Assam Public Works had warned of back in 2009. As the main petitioner, who had moved the Supreme Court to update the NRC, Sarma had raised this issue of identification among Muslims.

“The NRC process will not differentiate between Bangladeshi Muslim and indigenous Muslim. This process will mix up one Ali from Bangladesh and one Ali from Assam. This is a serious issue for the locals. In our petition, we have written about this. But the court and the-then Congress government didn’t listen to us,” he told News18.

The village of Sunbari in Baksa district has witnessed broken families because of an erroneous NRC process. (Photo: News18/Aditya Sharma)

Given the identity overlap, Barak valley, which was previously part of the Bengali- Muslim-dominant Sylhet province of Colonial Assam, over time became the epicentre of Bengali-Muslim anxiety after repeated episodes of linguistic and ethnic discord.

The Immigrant (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950, passed by Parliament to drive out immigrant Muslims from Cachar district in Barak valley, is one such seed of ethnic trouble.

Seventy-two years after Independence, through decades of political scheming, Barak valley has seen its social unity disintegrate, so much so that Bengali-Muslim suicides remain heavily concentrated in the valley.

With only six detention centres and lakhs of suspect detainees, Assam is years away from sweeping the state clean of the 41 lakh left out of the register, forget deporting them without a repatriation treaty with Bangladesh. Then, why the anxiety?

Samujjal Bhattacharya, chief adviser to the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which led the Assam Agitation and drafted the Assam Accord, alleged “misinformation campaigning, publicity by different groups” before the publication of the first draft list. “They had propagated that the exercise is against Muslims and Bengalis,” he declared.

Bhattacharya, however, refuses to acknowledge any form of citizenship anxiety or suicide in Assam. “It is propaganda. It is not right to say that the suicides took place because of NRC. Rather, the indigenous people of Assam are under tremendous mental pressure because there is a threat to our language, culture and identity from illegal immigrants,” he told News18.

In the final draft NRC, out of 3.29 crore hopefuls, 40.37 lakh applicants were not included of which 36.2 lakh have claimed inclusion. On June 26, the NRC authority published an additional draft exclusion list containing the names of 1.02 lakh people. A majority of the total excluded – now more than 41 lakh – are claimed to be identified as Bengali Muslims, or, now, Bangladeshis.

IV
Missing in Action

On 8 July 2015, Jyotish scuffled with the NRC to verify citizenship, the state health department to register his father’s suicide, and the police to probe the death.

The NRC, in its official response to Angad Sutradhar’s suicide, asked “members of the public” not to “pay heed to any rumours being spread” regarding exclusion. That, wide “publicity” has been given in print, electronic and social media so that people do not “panic and get provoked,” and submit application forms with ease.

The NRC authority’s response to this suicide positively established two things. Firstly, it acknowledged that “rumours of exclusion” for the want of documents could kill “members of the public”. Secondly, it said NRC “publicity” was carried out extensively to help people seek clarification and contain the rumours.

News18 found in its analysis that 28 people committed suicide in Brahmaputra valley against five in Barak valley. Focusing attention on suicides in Brahmaputra valley revealed that 14 were Hindus, while an equal number were Muslims.

Hindu suicides reflect a sentimental shift in Brahmaputra valley, where the NRC and anti-immigrant narrative came to the fore and grew. However, it also opposes the accepted account that Bengali Muslims in Assam are most prone to citizenship anxiety.

The sentimental shift among Assamese and Bengali Hindus, Abdul Kalam Azad told News18, is caused by a certain sense of “betrayal”.

Pradeep Bordoloi, a resident of Jagiroad area of Morigaon district, and his entire family were not named in the draft NRC lists. A student leader during the 1961 Language Movement and the Assam Agitation between 1979 and 1985, Bordoloi said the citizenship registration exercise has caused his family physical and mental harassment, and he has been made to suffer anxiety.

“The NRC has pushed me to serious physical and mental agony. As an exclude from the list, only to attend one hearing at the court cost me Rs 40,000. I had to urgently fly in my son and daughter from Delhi and Bangalore. My family has had to attend multiple hearings,” he said.

“We want illegal immigrants to leave Assam. The state is full of them. In a few years, the Assamese people will cease to exist. Others will become the majority and we will become the minority. My sentiments are completely with the cause of the Assam Agitation. I even went to jail for it. But, how can my name be missing from the NRC?” he added.

Retired official Pradeep Bordoloi and his wife bore a travel cost of Rs 40,000 only to attend NRC hearings. (Photo: News18/Aditya Sharma)

Bordoloi knows it’s a clerical error, but it’s hard for him not to feel a sense of shame at being clubbed with the very people he wants to weed out. His sentiment perhaps resonates within the AASU chief adviser’s description of the agitation: a national issue where more than 855 students, women, youth, sacrificed their lives fighting for rights.

In 2015, the state asked for a similar sacrifice – by seeking participation in an exercise that may revoke one’s citizenship and rights.

V
The Chaos Theory

NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela’s bureaucratic rationality submitted to the Supreme Court that successful identification of “genuine Indian citizens” rested on the active participation of people through the exercise’s ten phases, starting February 2015.

To ensure participation, publicity was done across 33 newspapers in seven languages, 18 TV/radio channels, cinema halls and social media, the NRC media cell stated. Also, a total of 8,500 community-level meetings for training and awareness were conducted.

Hajela retailed the appeal of Assamese identity into every household with 2,500 NSKs across the state for registration and verification of applicants; one help centre was assigned 2,500-3,000 households.

News18 spoke to an official at Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) to get the ground report on NRC publicity in Barpeta district.

“Initially, the government, political parties and organisations like the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) and AASU campaigned together to create awareness about the different phases of NRC. There was participation and immense enthusiasm,” said the official who wished to remain anonymous.

But, “by the verification phase and the registration of claims and objections, in 2018, NRC campaigning was nothing close to how it began. People were driven into a frenzy and left,” he added.

A woman registers her iris scan for NRC and Aadhar at Seva Kendra in Bashbari Range, Baksa. All Claims of Inclusion in the NRC have been asked to re-enroll in the Aadhar. (Photo: News18/Aditya Sharma)

In fact, Jyotish recalled the tumult from the time when his family attended community meetings to educate themselves on the NRC and be part of the conversation. “My father used to hear all sorts of things from people,” Jyotish said.

Angad would ask him to “visit the village teacher to get the NRC application forms filled correctly to avoid mistakes”. The family – having lived and voted in Pakoriguri village for over a generation – was under stress to prove their domicile.

On August 5, a similar frenzy to attend NRC hearings saw the accident of a bus, that was ferrying applicants from semi-rural areas to Guwahati. The collision with an oil tanker caused burn injuries to 30 people.

“Earlier, those who believed in democratic values thought that if you are a citizen then the state will protect you… because you have an affiliation to a political community regardless of ethnicity or religion. But, today the government is the most powerful perpetrator,” Azad said.

News18 found that most people who committed suicide (with a mean age of 51) had endured the changing political landscape of an ethnically volatile Assam: from under the Congress to AGP to now a BJP government; through the Language Movement, Assam Agitation and now the NRC exercise.

In the Assam Agitation and the Language Movement, the Assamese society, state lawmakers and sub-nationalists had united to fight for the same goal – protect Assamese rights, culture and language against illegal immigration.

Today, a poorly implemented NRC exercise has shaken the confidence of those who displayed loyalty towards their state and people during the agitation. The government is making its own citizens stateless.

Brahmaputra valley has been fractured by this feeling of betrayal.

Congress MLA and leader of Opposition in Assam assembly, Debabrata Saikia, told News18 that while the state wants the NRC to root out illegal immigrants and the social stigma associated with it, the authorities must be careful so that no genuine Indian is left out.

“There are many reasons because of which we doubt that many Indians may not be able to make it. For example, in some cases we have the legacy data, and the 1951 NRC is not functional for all districts of Assam,” he claimed. “For many districts, the voter list before 1971 is also not available. Secondly, no one thought that the NRC would be updated in 2015. Earlier, there were some mistakes committed while making the voters’ list. Now, people are finding it difficult due to the discrepancies in spellings of names.”

"I submitted these documents for the NRC so that my family can live in peace."

Flood and erosion is another turmoil in Assam that returns annually. People become landless and homeless every year. “In many cases, the documents are not there. How can one furnish a government paper?” asked Saikia.

The inability of the administration and law to understand the anxiety around the NRC has conditioned Assam to respond differently to catastrophe. When the flood water rushes in, Haider Ali, who lives with his family in Morigaon district, has learnt to save his documents before his life.

Amid ravaging floods, Haider Ali’s family in Laharighat stores their NRC documents in steel trunks. Ali’s daughter in law and son take documents out of in plastic sheets first. (Photo: News18/Aditya Sharma)

“These documents are for our existence. I have documents from 1962 and 1966. I have my land records. I submitted these documents for the NRC so that my family can live in peace,” he said.

It’s the fourth monsoon since the exercise began. And Angad’s death no longer haunts the Sutradhars. Jyotish has cut down the tree his father hanged himself from. His grandson has grown old. All of his family has been named in the NRC.

But, Jyotish still doesn’t understand the exercise that consumed his father.

“It is required for our nagorikata (citizenship); that’s what I have been told,” he said.

Unaware of what ‘citizenship’ means, millions of people applied for an exercise that tested their fate. Jyotish said people told him submitting the NRC application was necessary, otherwise he would be called a ‘Bangladeshi’. “My children will not receive an education. I will not receive ration from the government,” he said.

“So, whatever the NRC required we rushed to do it all!”

Credits

Produced by — Fazil Khan
Lead Illustration — Mir Suhail