At midday June 27, wails and shrieks pierced the moist air in Rowmari Chapori, a village on a sand bar in the Brahmaputra river, inhabited by Bengali Muslims, in Assam’s Darrang district. The body of 17-year-old Noor Nehar Begum had arrived home from the district hospital in Mangaldai, where a postmortem was conducted. Begum had hanged herself with a churni almost exactly 24 hours ago.
Her suicide was being connected to the National Register of Citizens – the list of bona fide Indian citizens living in Assam that is currently being finalised. Noor had not made it to the list.
As her body was placed in the courtyard, wet from the morning rains, her parents lunged towards her. Halima Khatun, the mother, lay down and hugged her deceased daughter; the father, Abdul Kalam, kneeled down next to the body and cried loudly.
But Kalam was interrupted. The grieving could wait – the ambulance driver had to be paid first: Rs 1,650 for ferrying his daughter’s dead body from the morgue.
It was money that Kalam, a daily-wage labourer with stones in his kidney and an enlarged liver, could ill afford. The family’s fortunes had declined with Kalam’s health. Earlier, he would go to Dimapur in neighbouring Nagaland – a place he referred to as “bidesh” or foreign land - where the wages would be higher. But after the stones in his kidney got painful, he stopped venturing out too far.
One of the first casualties of this fall in income was Noor. As she cleared her Class 8 exams – the highest grade in the government middle school Noor attended – she was pulled out of school. The nearest government high school was almost 10 kilometres away and it was beyond Kalam to pay for a private school.
Noor started staying home, tending the household and doing little else, according to relatives and neighbours. Always an introvert, the few friendships she had forged in school also started to wither.
Was she upset about having to leave school? “How would I know?” retorted an old friend who went to middle school with Noor. “After she stopped going to school, I would hardly get to meet her as she would rarely step out.”
All of Noor’s relatives and neighbours concurred. Noor was painfully shy, had little by way of a social life, and spent most of her time at home. “All the girl knew was home, home and home,” said a neighbour Hafiza Khatun.
Not an Indian (yet)
There was another situation Noor was struggling to come to terms with, according to Khatun: her failure to make it to the draft list of Assam’s National Register of Citizens.
Although Khatun is almost twice her age, the two of them got along well and she was possibly the only person Noor would regularly interact with outside her family. Recalled Khatun: “She would often tell me, ‘Jethi, the first draft came and went, my name did not come, even in the second draft my name didn’t appear. What will happen if it doesn’t come at all?”’
What rankled even more was that all of her seven siblings, along with their father, were part of the roster. To be included in the register, you had to prove that you or your ancestors had entered the country before the midnight of March 24, 1971. Only her mother and she had been left out. According to the authorities, she had not been included as she could not adequately prove that she was the daughter of Kalam.
Of the 3.3 crore people who applied to be included in the National Register of Citizens, around 2.89 crore people have made it so far. Those who did not make it to the draft list could make one last claim for inclusion before the final consolidated list is published on July 31. Noor did, too.
A death and a list
As news of Noor’s suicide spread, several reports (which wrongly said she was 13 years old) hinted at an NRC connection. What further bolstered the theory was that she had killed herself barely hours after a fresh exclusion list was published, of people who had been included in the draft list, but were later found to be wrongfully included.
But Kalam insists she did not even know about such a list – no one in the family did. Yet that morning, at breakfast, consisting of leftover rice from dinner soaked in water, a local delicacy known as poitabhat, Noor had some troubled questions for her father. Two men from a neighbouring village had been arrested because their names were not in the NRC, she had heard.
“Abba, is it true that the police arrested two people because their names are not in the NRC?” Kalam recalled her asking. “My name is also not there. Will they pick me up too?”
Of half-truths and fears
It was a half truth. Two men from Kheroni, a village little over a kilometre away, had indeed been arrested by the local police on June 25, charged with being foreigners and dispatched to a detention centre. It was not because they did not feature in the draft NRC, but because they had been declared foreigners by a foreigners’ tribunal.
One hundred quasi-judicial bodies called foreigner tribunals adjudicate on matters of nationality in Assam. Till recently, those declared foreigners by these courts were sentenced to indefinite incarceration in detention centres, which share space with district prisons.
Now Kalam insists it was the fear of being sent to a detention centre that led his daughter to hang herself barely hours after breakfast, when his wife and he had gone to the local NRC office to submit the latter’s biometrics. The Assam government has collaborated with the Unique Identification Authority of India, which runs Aadhaar, to collect the biometric data of people who were left out of the draft list and filed fresh claims to be included.
Being a teenager with contested nationality
But how bothered can a teenager really be about her citizenship status? Quite a bit if, like Noor, you lived on one of Assam’s chars, or riverine islands, often vilified as sanctuaries of undocumented migrants.
“The fear of being put into detention centres is real these days,” said Saidur Rahman, a neighbour. “We keep hearing these stories: someone was picked from some place the other day, some other person from another place next day. Kids in our area are terrorised.”
While many of these stories may well be uncorroborated rumours, there has certainly been a surge in the number of people being put in detention for being foreigners in the last couple of months. After being told off by the Supreme Court for detaining few declared foreigners, the state police have activated a special task force to launch a crackdown on such people.
The fact that literacy is abysmally low among those living on the chars does not help. “This is a result of ignorance,” said Abdul Rahman Biswas, a member of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union, which largely represents the interests of the state’s Bengali-speaking Muslims. “When she asked her father that morning, he should have been able to make it amply clear to the girl that not being on the NRC doesn’t make her liable for arrest. The NRC authorities should have organised awareness camps. We should have too. It’s a collective failure.”
Noor’s family seemed to been roiled by citizenship anxieties, particularly after the exclusions of the mother-daughter duo. “They would come to me occasionally and ask, ‘What will happen if our names do not come at all?”’claimed Sharafat Ali, a neighbour and a teacher at the local lower primary school.
A ‘holistic’ view
But professional psychologists are loath to ascribe Noor’s suicide directly to the citizenship tangle. “It is important to look at the child’s life holistically,” said Sangeeta Goswami, a Guwahati-based counselling psychologist. “It could be a whole gamut of issues: her personality, if she had friends. Also, if she was not going to school, what was she doing with her time?”
Goswami said it also needed to be understood “how the NRC has been interpreted to her”. “It could be a result of basic insecurities within the family: what would happen if she was to separate from the family because of the NRC and if that led her to feel unwanted.”
Of police complaints and statements
The police, for their part, belligerently deny any links with the NRC. “It has just been done to create sensation,” said the police chief of Darrang district, Amrit Bhuyan.
Mukhtar Rahman, who heads the local police station, cited the complaint and the father’s statement, neither of which mentions anything about the NRC. “Now they have been counselled by some AAMSU [All Assam Minority Students’ Union] boys to add colour and talk about NRC,” he alleged. “The thing is there is not even 1% Assamese Hindu or Muslim in this area, only 100% Bangladeshis. 100% Bangladeshis. As the river drifts along leaving behind these sandbars, every day people from Bangladesh come and occupy them.”
The first people from the family to go to the police station were Noor’s uncles: Hobibul Islam and Suleman Ali. The official complaint – on the basis of which a case of “unnatural death” was registered by the police – was filed by Ali. It is a matter-of-fact summary that gets Noor’s age wrong: “Today 26-06-2019, at around 11.30 in the morning, my niece, Noor Nihara Begum, age approximately 15, hung herself to the ceiling and committed suicide. You are requested to do the needful.”
Islam claims his brother and he quickly scribbled what the police officials at the station asked of them. “We were told to give in writing that she committed suicide, so we did that,” said Islam.
Why did Kalam not talk to the police about the NRC connection he suspected? “My daughter had just died, I had gone into a delirium,” he insisted. “Only now have I come back to my senses a little and what I am saying, this is the truth: She was scared that her name was not in the NRC.”