Kadbhanu is a difficult woman to get hold of. You have to phone a specific relative – who accepts calls only from certain numbers – who will then arrange a meeting with her. She has been on the run ever since a tribunal in Assam declared her a foreigner on March 14, which means she is liable to be held in a detention centre, meant to house “illegal migrants”. It also means she will not be included in the National Register of Citizens, a list of bona fide Indian citizens living in Assam which is slated for release on July 31.
Kadhbanu was also in hiding at a relative’s home when her husband Hitmat Ali, a resident of Barpeta’s Kopahortari village, hanged himself to death on June 17. Ali was 50 years old.
While Ali’s citizenship was secure – his name was on the NRC draft – he was “terrified about his wife’s future,” recalled Shah Alom, a doctor in the area. A despondent Ali had visited Alom days before he committed suicide. He requested him to write a prescription saying that Kadbhanu was sick, in the hope that this would prevent the police from sending her to a detention centre.
“Medically, he looked like he had not slept for at least two days,” Alom said.
In neighbouring Bongaigaon’s picturesque Kheluagaon village, it was fear for her husband’s future that led Balijan Bibi to end her life, her family claimed. In September 2016, days after her husband was declared a foreigner by a tribunal and sent to a detention centre, 43-year-old Bibi hanged herself.
Nearly 200 km east, days before he was to make an appearance at a tribunal to prove his Indian citizenship, Gopal Das was found dead in the woods surrounding his home in Udalguri district in June 2018. The postmortem report put down the cause of death as “suicide by organophosphorus poisoning” – he had consumed pesticide.
After his citizenship had come under doubt, recalled his wife Joymoti Das: “He had become like a possessed man.”
Since 2015, when Assam began to update the National Register of Citizens, a list of bona fide 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.”
Scroll.in 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.
Having to prove that you are not a foreigner in Assam predates the NRC: the state police have a special border unit dedicated to identifying suspected foreigners and referring them to tribunals, which then adjudicate on the nationality of the suspected “illegal migrant”. From the late 1990s, the Election Commission also started suspending the voting rights of people whose citizenship status was in doubt. They are called “D” or “doubtful” voters and have to also clear their names at the tribunals.
Till recently, people declared foreigners by Assam’s tribunals could be subject to indefinite internment in detention centres, spaces carved out of prisons in the state. It was only in May that the Supreme Court ruled that those who had spent three years in the detention centres may be released after furnishing bonds worth Rs 2 lakh. But that relief has coincided with the border police putting more people into detention centres than ever before.
While the updating of the NRC and the foreigners’ tribunals are, in theory, two parallel mechanisms to identify undocumented migrants, they feed into each other. People declared as foreigners, or with pending cases in the tribunals, are not eligible for inclusion in the NRC. Neither are their direct descendants. The same goes for D voters and their descendants.
This is the story of three families who fought long and expensive legal battles to get their names cleared by the tribunals so that they could be considered eligible for the NRC. They ended up losing not just land and property, but also a loved one.
Hitmat Ali, 50
When Hitmat Ali asked Shah Alom, a doctor in the area, to write a prescription for his wife, the doctor obliged but cautioned him that it would not work with the police. “I told him he should instead hire a good lawyer,” Alom said.
It was advice that Ali had heard before – get a good lawyer to contest the tribunal’s order declaring his wife a foreigner in the Gauhati High Court. However, Ali, a marginal paddy farmer, had only one answer to that: “Where will I get the money from?”
According to Samsul Ali, his son, the family had already spent a whopping Rs 2-2.5 lakh on the tribunal case that they lost.
A tribunal decides nationality
The opinion, as tribunal judgments are called, cites various reasons for declaring Kadhbanu a foreigner. All of them lead to one central argument: the man Kadhbanu claimed was her father, who features in the 1966 and 1970 electoral rolls, was not her father.
To establish that she was related to her father, Kadhbanu, who has never voted or been to school, had submitted a gaonburah certificate. This was an attestation by the headman of the village where she had grown up that she really was who she claimed to be.
The tribunal adjudicated that the certificate “could not be relied upon” as the village headman did not appear before the tribunal. Besides, the tribunal objected to the fact that “the state emblem is embossed at the top (middle) of the certificate”. “This unauthorised use of the state emblem itself renders the certificate ineligible,” the tribunal ruled.
Apart from that, the tribunal rejected the testimony of one of her brothers as “not reliable”.
A death and a plea for help
Relatives and neighbours say the financial and emotional toll of his wife’s trial left Hitmat Ali exhausted. “He once told me he would eat poison or hang himself,” said Jamir Ali, a neighbour.
On the morning of June 17, Hitmat Ali hanged himself from a beam in his empty house – their two sons had gone out to work and Kadbhanu was at a relative’s place, lying low.
The local police said no case had been registered because they had not been informed by the family. The family see no point in involving the police, considering Kadhbanu’s precarious situation.
Kadhbanu, for her part, rarely utters more than a few words and hardly ever meets people. On a rainy July morning, though, she fell at the feet of a local activist and cried loudly. “Save me,” she begged.
Balijan Bibi, 43
In 2016, Balijan Bibi’s husband, Ajbahar Ali, 53, was declared a foreigner twice. Both times in his absence. When he was put into a detention centre in Goalpara in June 2016, a third case was also pending against him – also in the same tribunal.
Multiple cases against one person are an outcome of poor investigation and record-keeping by the border police, tasked with identifying suspected foreigners. Often, it files fresh cases against people who it has already referred to the tribunals.
An ‘ex-parte’ judgement
According to the tribunal orders declaring him a foreigner, Ali, a carpenter from Bongaigaon’s Kheluagaon village, had “intentionally not appeared before this tribunal to face the trial”, compelling it to pass an “ex-parte” judgment.
While Ali’s family concedes that he had indeed not appeared in most hearings, they insist it was not intentional. “We could not comprehend what was happening since there was notice after notice against my father,” claimed his son Moinul Hoque. “We had hired a lawyer for the third case, even paid him Rs 20,000, but before that case could finish, my father was taken away.”
Hoque claimed that his father had attended all hearings in the third case till he was arrested and put in detention.
High court refuses to examine case
In September 2016, the family approached the Gauhati High Court for relief, confident that they would be able to prove their case. Both Ajbahar Ali’s father and grandfather, according to the petition filed in the court, featured in the original version of the National Register of Citizens published in 1951.
The family had mortgaged part of their farmland to pay the lawyer’s fee of Rs 40,000.
But the court refused to even examine the case, stating that “it is evident that more than reasonable opportunity was granted by the tribunal…but petitioner willfully and deliberately abstained”. As for the multiple cases, the court speculated that it had “possibly happened because of non-computerisation of case records and not having a proper database”.
A little over a week later, Ali’s wife, Balijan Bibi, committed suicide.
‘Where will we get more money from now?’
Bibi was there at the court premises the day the High Court convicted her husband, but not inside the courtroom. Her son, Hoque, who accompanied her, however, broke the news to her only when they got back to Kheluagaon. Her immediate reaction was: “Where will we get more money from now? We are already under so much debt.”
A family meeting was convened. It was decided that they would mortgage their remaining land and appeal to the Supreme Court.
On September 23, Hoque and a neighbour travelled to Guwahati to meet a new lawyer. “He told us it would take Rs 2.5-3 lakh to fight a case in the Supreme Court,” he said. “I told him it was not possible for us to arrange so much money, but I said we will mortgage our land and see what we can do.”
Hoque did not get to share these developments with his mother. He reached Kheluagaon at around three in the morning. Bibi was awake, but they did not speak.
The next morning, Hoque was still sleeping when Bibi hanged herself.
She did not die immediately. Hoque’s younger brother saw her through a crack in the door and barged in. They took her to the Bongaigaon Civil Hospital where doctors asked them to shift her to the Barpeta Medical College instead. But it was beyond doctors there too, who dispatched her to Guwahati. She died en route.
Release still “in process”
Last month, Ali completed three years in detention. Based on the order passed by the Supreme Court in May, he was eligible for release, provided he could furnish bonds worth Rs 2 lakh.
Ali’s sons cannot afford to pay this amount but the people of Kheluagaon have offered to crowdfund it. However, when the family approached the border police, officials told them that they had not yet received a copy of the Supreme Court’s order. When Scroll.in contacted the chief of Assam’s border police, Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, he said the release of detainees who had served three years was still “in process”.
Kheluagaon’s residents are waiting. “We will manage the money somehow,” said Anowar Hussain, a neighbour. “The man should just come back home. His wife killed herself for that.”
Gopal Das, 60
The cowshed in the courtyard of the house was empty. Joymoti Das said her husband, Gopal Das, had sold the three cows to raise money to prove that he was an Indian citizen and not an “illegal” migrant from Bangladesh.
A few metres away, a black umbrella stood erect, part of its handle buried in the ground, protecting the patch of land where Gopal Das’s body was kept before his funeral.
Gopal Das first realised that he was a “D” or doubtful voter – a suspected “illegal” migrant from Bangladesh – when he was not allowed to vote in the 2016 Assam assembly elections. It is unlikely he would have been too shocked: it was an allegation that had plagued the family for a while. Both his sons had been accused of being foreigners in the past, both had successfully defended their Indian citizenship in tribunals in 2009.
Eager to clear his name like his sons, Das, a resident of Udalguri district’s Khoirabari area, approached a lawyer in the summer of 2018. After all, he had enough documents to prove he was Indian – his father’s name featured in several pre-1971 electoral rolls. Besides, if his sons had been found to be Indians, how could he be adjudicated as a foreigner?
Documents not enough
However, Gopal Das would soon find out that it took more than just documents to prove one’s citizenship in Assam’s tribunals. First, the lawyer told him he had to procure a copy of the notice issued by the Election Commission declaring him a doubtful voter, recalled his neighbour and friend Lalit Das who had accompanied him to the town.
According to the rules, the notice should have been delivered at his home. But Gopal Das ended up spending Rs 300 to get it.
“We do not understand what is good, what is bad,” said Lalit Das, who had also successfully fought a foreigner case against him in the past. “We do not know how to read and write – we have made the government our god. There is little else to do.”
But the notice was the easier – and cheaper – piece of paper. Next, the lawyer asked Das to arrange Rs 15,000 for a bail bond. Though not executed uniformly, tribunals are empowered to ask suspected foreigners to furnish a bail bond. This is done to ensure attendance and so that people do not flee fearing arrest.
To add to all of that was the lawyer’s own fee.
A mountain of debts
A marginal farmer, Das had no way of paying so much money at one go. He sold his three cows. But it was not enough, said his son Ganesh Das. Since he did not own any land of his own, he had to request a neighbour to mortgage a piece of land to borrow cash from a money-lender.
“We are poor people,” said Ganesh Das, who runs a cycle repair shop. “We had already spent a lot of money in my own and my brother’s cases.”
The regular visits to meet lawyers and moneylenders had taken a toll on Das, his family members and acquaintances said. “He would open the trunk multiple times a day to check on our papers,” recalled Joymoti Das, his wife.
The day before he drank pesticide mixed with milk, he had been particularly agitated, claimed his son.
Yet, the district administration of Udalguri is dismissive of any suggestion that Gopal Das’s suicide may have triggered by his citizenship woes. “There is no suicide note, so it is all baseless and hearsay,” said deputy commissioner Dilip Kumar Das.
Foreigners once again
After Gopal Das was declared a ‘doubtful voter’, his sons, Ganesh and Narayan, were saddled with fresh citizenship battles. They were excluded from the draft NRC in July 2018 on account of being “descendants of D Voter”.
They submitted fresh claims which led to a hearing before an NRC officer. “The officer said we can only be included if get our father’s FT [foreigners’ tribunal] judgment copy declaring him an Indian,” recalled Ganesh Das. “How do we get that now? He is dead.”
Read all the stories in The Final Count series here.
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