Birosmoni Das struggles to complete a sentence without breaking down. But this much she remembers clearly: her son, Bhaben Das, did not sleep a wink on the night of March 2. The next morning, as the day broke, he went out clutching a thick wad of papers: documents he would furnish at a hearing in neighboring Kalaigaon in Udalguri district ten days later to prove his and Birsomoni Das’s citizenship.

Both mother and son had been left out of Assam’s draft National Register of Citizens, a list which aims to sift “illegal immigrants” from bonafide Indian citizens. The draft list was published on July 30, 2018, while the final list is slated for release on July 31, 2019.

At the hearing conducted by an NRC official, they could make one last claim to citizenship.

Bhaben Das, 50, returned home around 8 am, put the documents back in their original place in a rusty black trunk and said, “Ma, I am not going to touch these papers again.” Then he stepped out again.

Minutes later, he was found hanging to a nearby tree. According to the postmortem report, Das died of asphyxia – lack of oxygen – “following suicidal hanging”.

The previous month, 40 km away, Sandhya Chakraborty had died in Mangaldai town. According to the postmortem, the cause of her death was “shock as a result of burn injuries”. But ask any of her family or neighbours in Mangaldai’s Ward Number 5, and they will tell you it was really the fear of being put in a detention centre that killed her.

Chakraborty, 57, had not made it to the draft NRC. Exclusion from the final NRC would have meant appearing before one of the foreigners’ tribunals, quasi-judicial bodies tasked with ruling on matters of disputed nationality. Those declared foreigners by tribunals are sent to detention centres. Chakraborty feared she would land up there.

Rahim Ali, 36, had no such fears. He had made it to the draft NRC. So had his entire family.

But on June 29, he was in Guwahati scavenging glass bottles from the city’s garbage dumps when his family back home in Barpeta’s Bantipur received a letter informing them that all five of Rahim’s children – the eldest of whom is 16 and the youngest five – had been wrongly included in the draft NRC. Ali’s father, Moij Uddin phoned him to come back home immediately – the children had to attend a fresh hearing on July 6.

On July 4, two days before the hearing, Ali hanged himself.

Since 2015, when Assam began to update the National Register of Citizens, a list of bonafide Indian citizens living in the state, media reports spoke of a new trend: people ending their own lives because of anxieties over citizenship.

But can the fear of losing citizenship really explain so complex a decision as suicide? The authorities deny it. Psychologists and psychoanalysts warn against simplistic assumptions, pointing to the need to look at people’s lives and personalities more “holistically”. According to psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakkar, “The fear of losing citizenship does not cause suicide but can produce excessive mental pain in the vulnerable who already lack the capacity to modulate painful emotions. The driving force behind almost every suicide is mental pain.” travelled across Lower and Middle Assam tracking down 10 of the reported cases. In every place, friends and family insisted that citizenship had been the driving factor behind the tragedy.

In a couple of cases, however, the distress predated the uncertainty over citizenship. A government school teacher in Mangaldai town, whose death has been linked to the National Register of Citizens by local activists and the media, had spent time in a mental health facility well before the process of updating the register began. Similarly, a Nepali businessman who hanged himself in 2015, days after applications to the NRC were called, apparently because he was worried about not having the required documents, seemed to have been struggling with mental health problems since much before.

In at least eight of the cases, however, there seemed to be a compelling link between citizenship and death. This series, which is part of the month-long reporting project called The Final Count, tries to tell their story.

Bhaben Das, 50

Udalguri district

Bhaben Das, 50, lived with his mother in a thatched mud house without electricity next to a tea garden in Udalguri, one of the four districts that make up the Bodoland Territorial Area Council. A daily wage labourer, he was married with a son. The wife and the son, however, had been living separately for the past couple of months.

Both his mother and he had failed to make it to the NRC draft, published in July 31 last year. This constantly worried Bhaben Das. “He would keep rummaging through our papers in the candlelight,” said Birosmoni Das.

People excluded from the draft list could make fresh claims to citizenship and go through hearings conducted by NRC officials. Bhaben Das and Birosmoni Das had also made fresh claims and had been asked to appear for hearings on March 12 and March 13.

A meticulous man

Bhaben Das had been meticulous in preparation, determined to have all documents in order this time. He would, neighbours recalled, go around the village with his documents and show it to anyone who bothered to look. “He would keep asking people if his papers were all right,” a neighbour said.

It was particularly important to him that his mother made it to the final NRC even if he did not. “He told me, ‘What will happen to me will happen, but for your hearing we will definitely go and I have collected all the papers also,’” his mother recalled him saying.

He had even requested his younger brother, who lives two blocks away, to come along for the hearings. “Bhai, you will also have to come, can you arrange for a bike, I will pay for the fuel,” Bhaben apparently told his brother who had made it to the draft NRC. Both of them had drawn their legacy to their deceased father, Bojendro Das.

‘Had all the required documents’

According to a police enquiry into Bhaben Das’s suicide, he, too, would have made it to final NRC had he attended his hearing and submitted his documents. “He had all the required documents,” said Nirmal Ghosh, the police officer who conducted the probe.

By extension, the enquiry report concluded that his suicide was not related to NRC. “We go by the material facts of the case,” said Ghosh. “Since he had all documents to prove that he was bona fide citizen, there is no reason for him to commit suicide because of that.”

Birosmoni Das is not convinced. “He worried himself to death,” she said. “That morning he must have shown his papers to someone who told him something bad is going to happen to us. If I had known I would have never let him go out.”

Sandhya Chakraborty, 57

Darrang district

Chakraborty, 57, had not made it to the final draft of the NRC. Her rejection slip said “family tree mismatch” – according to the authorities, she did not belong to the family she claimed to.

Though Chakraborty had another chance to stake claim to be included in the NRC before facing a foreigners’ tribunal, her family members say this possibility was clouded over by the fear of being arrested and incarcerated in a detention centre.

No amount of reasoning would convince her otherwise. “I even took her to the local NRC centre where the officials told her that she still had another chance to make it but it did not help,” said her son, Tinku Chakraborty.

Parul Mandal, a neighbour, concurred. “She would not listen to anyone,” said Mandal. “Apparently, someone had told that she would be sent to the detention centre and she just would not believe anything to the contrary.”

Sandhya Chakraborty, her son recalled, would repeatedly ask him why she had been left out of the NRC while her siblings had made it. She did not seem to have grasped that, according to the NRC authorities, they were not her siblings at all.

On the morning of February 8, she locked herself in the bathroom, doused herself in kerosene oil, and set herself ablaze. “By the time I could slam the door open, her body had been completely charred,” remembered Tinku Chakraborty.

The postmortem says “almost 100% of total body surface area” had been burnt.

A courageous woman

The police have filed a closure report on Sandhya Chakraborty’s “unnatural death” – the official term for suicides. Her family claims to have alleged in statements to the police that Chakraborty’s exclusion from the NRC triggered her suicide. But the closure report refrains from drawing a link to NRC, and does not even bother refuting the family’s claims.

The district administration is also dismissive. “Just because they say it is because of the NRC, it is not necessarily that,” said a senior district official. “There is no dying declaration that she killed herself because of the NRC. It could be anything.”

Sandhya Chakraborty’s family insists she had no other reason to take her own life. After all, since her husband died in 1989, she had single-handedly raised her three children, selling incense sticks.

Tinku Chakraborty holds up his mother's picture. His sister stands next to him. The old woman is his grandmother – Sandhya Chakraborty's mother. Photo: Ayan Sharma

The family’s financial situation had only improved in recent times – Chakraborty’s two daughters had been married off and her son, too, had started earning. “My mother was a courageous woman: when my father died, she was seven months pregnant with me,” said Tinku Chakraborty.

“She raised me and my sisters all by herself,” he added. “But the NRC completely broke her.”

Rahim Ali, 36

Barpeta district

On June 26, the NRC authorities published an exclusion list of 1.02 lakh people. These people, the authorities claimed, had been included in the July 2018 NRC draft by mistake. Rahim Ali’s five children were among them.

According to a press statement by the NRC authorities, the exclusion list comprised people suspected to be foreigners or declared to be so by tribunals, as well as their descendants. Neither Rahim Ali nor his father Moij Uddin Ali fell in either category. Both have already been counted as Indian citizens.

The June 26 list also excluded some people who had appeared as witnesses during the claims and objections process. This process allowed those excluded from the July 2018 draft list to make fresh claims to citizenship and go through hearings conducted by NRC officials; likewise, objections to those included in the list were also heard. None of the five children had been summoned to any such hearing as a witness.

A third category of exclusions, however, consisted of people who were found to be ineligible during a verification carried out by the Local Registrars of Citizenship, officials who head the NRC seva kendras, or help desks. The NRC rules give them discretionary powers to carry out special verifications at any stage of the exercise. In the absence of any other explanation, it is likely that Ali’s five children were found to be erroneously included under this category.

On June 29, they were handed a note which said “found reject in family tree verification,” implying they were not Rahim Ali’s children. They had submitted their ration cards to establish their relationship with their father.

The distraught father

When Ali arrived in Bantipur on the evening of July 1, he was a worried man, scared that he would have to part with his children. “I have no money to fight any case in the court,” he reportedly told Moij Uddin. “What if they take my children away?”

Moij Uddin says he tried calming his son down. “I told him, I will sell off everything if need be to raise money,” he said.

But it did not seem to reassure Ali. “He did not eat for two days,” said his wife, Halimon Nessa, who also used to live and work with Ali in Guwahati.

Rahim Ali's wife holds up his picture, flanked by their five children, and his mother. Photo: Ayan Sharma

It perhaps did not help that several villages in Assam with a majority of Bengal-origin Muslims have been rife with rumours and half-truths about the NRC process. “We keep hearing all sorts of things these days: that people whose names are not on the NRC will be taken away, will be deported to Bangladesh,” said Jinnat Ali, a cousin of Rahim Ali. “It is very scary, we don’t know what to believe or what not, as we don’t know to read or write ourselves.”

When Ali killed himself on the evening of June 6, Moij Uddin had gone to the gaonbura, the village headman, seeking assistance in filling up the forms for the children’s forthcoming hearing.

The police have registered a case of suicide. “Investigation is going on. It is difficult to confirm if it was really connected to the NRC,” said Pranjit Das, the officer heading the local police station.

A day after their father’s funeral, Rahim Ali’s five children attended the hearing to convince the authorities they were indeed his children. While they wait for the final verdict on July 31, his wife Nessa is gripped with anxiety. “My brain has stopped working,” she said. “How will I raise five young children on my own? We don’t even own any land.”

Read all the stories in The Final Count series here.

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