There is no ceiling fan in the Das’ living room anymore. Nirod Baran Das had hanged himself from it last October, damaging it beyond repair in the process. It has been a particularly harsh summer this year, but the family, who live in the tiny town of Kharupetia in Assam’s Darrang district, have not bothered to get a replacement. The heat is bearable, not the grief.

In the adjoining district of Udalguri, life changed for the Debnaths last October as well. Seventeen-year-old Puja Debnath and 14-year-old Priti Debnath live with their mother, Panchomi Debnath, in a house made of corrugated tin sheets in the town of Kalaigaon.

They moved here, leaving behind a large, airy house in Ghagra, 30 kilometres away, after their father, Deepak Debnath, killed himself.

Deepak Debnath, then 59, did not leave a suicide note. But the family say they knew why he did it. “The man changed after he received that wretched notice,” said Panchomi Debnath. “For three days after that he did not eat properly.” The notice in July 2018 had come from the Udalguri foreigners’ tribunal asking him to appear before it.

Both Nirad Baran Das and Deepak Debnath discovered in July 2018 that their names had been dropped from the draft National Register of Citizens, months after they had been reassured about their citizenship status.

The National Register of Citizens, currently being updated in Assam for the first time since 1951, is aimed at sifting Indian citizens living in the state from undocumented migrants. Those who cannot prove that they or their ancestors entered the country before midnight on March 24, 1971, risk being declared foreigners and deported.

The NRC authorities published two draft lists. A truncated list was released in December 2017, carrying 1.4 crore names. Both Nirad Baran Das and Deepak Debnath were on this list.

But NRC authorities later claimed this list was riddled with errors – some names had been entered by mistake. A second list was published in July 2018, leaving out about 1.5 lakh names that featured in the first list.

Nirad Baran Das and Deepak Debnath were among those who had been dropped.

Since 2015, when Assam began to update the National Register of Citizens, 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.

Nirod Baran Das, 63

Darrang district

Das was 63 years old. His world was small. For 33 years, he had taught in a government school in Kharupetia. He had studied at the same school as a young boy. An even-tempered man and a popular teacher by all accounts. Former students remember him as “chocolate sir” – his pockets were apparently always full of candy. Armed with a degree in law, he had also practised as an advocate at the local court for a couple of years after retiring from his teaching job.

It was as his wife Roma Das said: an uneventful but content life. Her husband received a regular pension that was more than enough to run the family; he took regular morning walks; the family was on good terms with their neighbours; their three daughters were married, but visited often enough.

Declared a foreigner

But, according to Roma Das, it all started unravelling after the final draft of the National Register of Citizens was released. It left out Nirod Baran Das, although the rest of his family had made it.

The rejection slip stated that he was a “declared foreigner”. People declared foreigners by Assam’s tribunals – quasi-judicial bodies that adjudicate on matters of nationality in the state – are not eligible to be included in the NRC. While the rules state that descendants of people declared foreigners are also ineligible to be included in the NRC, Nirod Baran Das’s three daughters were not struck off.

The rejection – and the grounds for it – came as a shock to Nirod Baran Das, said his wife. He had never been asked to prove his citizenship by the tribunals, let alone being declared a foreigner by one of them.

Mistaken identity?

When he approached the local border police and the foreigners tribunal, they purportedly failed to find any records of a case or complaint against him.

The local circle officer in charge of the NRC process also conceded that it could have been a case of mistaken identity, said Ganesh Das, a neighbour who said he had accompanied Nirod Baran Das to the circle office. “The circle officer said it was likely to be a mistake and that his name would probably reappear in the final draft if he submitted a fresh claim for inclusion,” recalled Ganesh Das.

A changed man

It was, however, no solace for Nirod Baran Das. According to his family, he took the accusation of being a foreigner as a personal affront. It did not help that the news spread quickly in the tightly knit community of Kharupetia. “The man completely changed after that,” said Roma Das. “He wouldn’t speak properly, he wouldn’t eat.”

His youngest daughter, Aparajita Das, had similar recollections. “I was the apple of his eye, but he would not even talk to me when I called,” she said.

All attempts to pacify him were futile, recalled his wife. “I would tell him, ‘Why are you worrying so much, you have so many documents’, but he was just consumed by it.”

A little over two months later, on the morning of October 2, Nirod Baran Das hanged himself shortly after returning from his daily walk. He left a matter-of-fact note instructing his wife to return small debts to neighbours and acquaintances. There was no mention of the citizenship tussle.

Public outrage and a probe

The suicide shocked Bengali-dominated Kharupetia. People poured out into the streets, blocking the highway to Guwahati.

The district administration ordered an inquiry to soothe tempers. However, the inquiry concluded that Das did not kill himself because his name had been left out in the NRC. “It had nothing to do with the NRC,” affirmed Bidyut Bikash Bhagawati, an Assam Civil Services officer who led the probe. “Lots of people received notices like that, but they did not commit suicide. Also, the suicide note did not mention anything about NRC, so I concluded that it was not related to NRC.”

The family has not been provided with a copy of the report yet, but any suggestion that Nirod Baran Das’s suicide was unrelated to the NRC is met with exasperation and anger at Kharupetia. “The same administration that wrongly put the stamp of a foreigner on him conducted a unilateral inquiry and came to its own convenient conclusion,” said Ganesh Das, a former student of Nirod Baran Das. “It is an unpleasant thing to say, but the official dared to do this only because he is a Bengali.”

In Assam, Bengal-origin communities have long felt marginalised and the NRC has deepened their fears of being unfairly targetted.

For wife Roma Das, the grief has turned to anger. “What mistake did he do that they did this to him?” she asked, holding back tears. “I want the person who wrote that my husband was a foreigner to be punished.”

Deepak Debnath, 59

Udalguri district

In July 2018, Deepak Debnath, the owner of a cycle shop, received a notice from the Udalguri foreigners’ tribunal asking him to appear before it. The border police, the notice said, suspected him to be a foreigner, an “illegal migrant” from Bangladesh.

This was confirmed after he was left out of the July 2018 draft of the NRC. The rejection slip referred to the case pending against him.

Deepak Debnath hit the panic button almost immediately, according to his family and neighbours. “He came to me with the notice and broke down,” said his elder brother, Gopal Debnath who lives opposite the Debnaths’ old home in Ghagra. “I told him, ‘How can you be a foreigner when I, your elder brother, am Indian? This is the order of our times – we will have to face it.”

Though Deepak Debnath hired a lawyer to represent him, his family say that he had been deeply affected by the notice. “In the market, people would say all sorts of things to him,” said Panchomi Debnath.

‘They will leave me in a jungle’

Indeed, news about the notice had spread far and wide. Ruhi Das Saha, who runs a tea shop next to Deepak Debnath’s now-closed cycle shop, said there was a “halla”, furore, in the market. “You know what it is like in a market – someone would come and say, ‘Deepak da, you won’t be able to stay here for too long,”’ said Saha, a childhood friend of Debnath.

Back home, Deepak Debnath started spending disproportionate amounts of time praying. “He would sit in our small Joyguru temple in the house with his NRC documents,” said Puja Debnath. “And when we would ask why he is so worried, he would say, ‘They will take me away and leave me in a jungle.”’

Two days before his scheduled hearing at the foreigners’ tribunal, Deepak Debnath hanged himself from a jackfruit tree behind their house.

‘I wish I am not born a Bengali in my next life’

As in the other cases of suicide, the authorities deny any link to the contentions over citizenship. “These are baseless allegations as the police have not recovered any suicide note,” said Udalguri deputy commissioner Dilip Kumar Das. “It is just an assumption.”

Deepak Debnath’s family now live in virtual isolation. A large open space where cows graze listlessly separates their house from the others in the neighbourhood.

Panchomi Debnath had moved the family to Kalaigaon to be close to her own parents. “Also, we save on money living here as the girls’ school and college are closer,” she explained. Yet it is almost as if they are outcasts – a solitary house separated from a busy neighbourhood.

Panchomi Debnath and her two daughters in their tin-sheet house. Photo: Arunabh Saikia

Also, unlike the other houses in the area, they have no electricity connection yet. The two sisters study in the light of a kerosene lantern. In Ghagra, they had an airy mud house with a thatched roof and a neat courtyard. There was electricity and they lived among relatives in a familiar place.

But Panchomi Debnath is bitter, convinced that their Bengali identity had led to their citizenship troubles and the ensuing ordeal. “I just wish I am not born as a Bengali in my next life,” she said.

Also read:

Death by Citizenship: A loving son, a brave mother, a distraught father – faces of Assam’s tragedy

Read all the stories in The Final Count series here.

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