Guwahati/New Delhi: Minutes before publication of the final list of the National Register of Citizen (NRC), 60-year-old Sayera Begum, who belonged to Sonitpur in Northern Assam, committed suicide by jumping into a well in her house in Dolabari village on the morning of August 31.
She took the extreme step believing rumours that her name was not on the list. She was dragged out and rushed to a hospital, where she was declared dead.
When the final list was made public an hour later, her name was found in the citizenry register, which validates legal Indian citizens in Assam, along with her husband and son.
At least six people reportedly committed suicide in the state in the month of July allegedly because of the issues relating to NRC, the final list of which was published on August 31. A total of 3.1 crore people were included in the list, leaving out 19 lakh applicants.
The alleged suicide deaths started from June 26 when a 14-year-old girl took her life after her name appeared in the exclusion list. The girl was unaware of the fact that the list sums up only those who are excluded in the final NRC, and that her name could have been part of the final list.
According to Citizen for Justice and Peace (CJP), 57 cases of suicides relating to NRC have been reported in various police stations across the state. Activists claim that the reason behind these suicides is immense stress that has been put up by the foreign tribunals and their advocates.
After four years of work, the citizenship register was finally updated after 68 years. It was done in response to a four-decade-old demand seeking detection of illegal immigrants. The list is unique to Assam and was first prepared in 1951. It includes those whose names appeared in the 1951 document and their descendants. The list also includes those who had been on India’s electoral rolls up to March 24 (midnight), 1971, or in any other document approved by the central government.
Though different political parties, activists and other stakeholders expressed their disappointments over the updated list and called it “flawed”, the registry authorities claimed that the entire process was carried out “meticulously” and in a “transparent manner”.
Calling the process a “farce”, Monosijo Bhattacharjee — a law graduate from Assam University — shared the story of his grandfather who could not make it to the final list.
“My grandfather has served the Assam police since 1953 and retired as the assistant commandant of the BSF (Border Security Force) where he was sent on deputation. For more than 30 long years, the man kept serving our nation in the worst upheavals of history including, quite ironically, in the liberation war of 1971 too. My mother and my aunts could never have a fair share of paternal care because he kept on defending India on its arid deserts, snowy mountains and uninhabitable jungles. He is suffering from Alzheimer’s Syndrome (a neurological disorder in which the death of brain cells causes memory loss and cognitive decline),” he told NewsClick adding that “the only memories that he still cherishes are his exploits with the forces and the pride he took while defending our motherland on its borders.”
But his name did not feature in the final NRC list. “How do I go and tell him — ‘You may not be an Indian any more?’” he asked.
Bhattacharjee — a resident of Hailakandi district — said when the first draft list was published, his grandfather’s name was not there. “Later, he submitted all the documents and officials at NRC office had said that these were “perfectly admissible documents”. We were almost sure that he would make into the final list, which did not happen. A similar case has also been found in Karimganj district where the name of a retired Army officer did not feature in the final list. It is part of a series of such cases where genuine Indian citizens have been de-franchised across the state,” he said.
He added NRC will go down in world history as one of the “worst possible State-orchestrated human tragedies thrust upon its people”.
Accusing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of manipulating Hindu sentiments, he said, “The BJP does not care one iota about Hindus. All that matters is feeding on their raw sentiments. As a matter of fact, more Hindus are off the NRC list than Muslims. Bengali race has lost its grit and lustre. May 19 is a long lost memory we have learnt to live without. We are content with reading one or two couplets on Rabindra Jayanti, lighting a few candles on unishe may and fretting over the ‘podma r ilish’ we can’t get. We have learnt the art of submitting to this grotesque, mindless and inhuman game of nationality test — which is being played with us for the past five years.”
“We can live with the economy that they have destroyed. We can live with the media that they have sabotaged. We can live with the bureaucracy that they have usurped. But please, for God’s sake, stop being so cruel and heartless to the ones who dedicated their lives to their great nation,” he urged.
These are not isolated case. There are reports of hundreds of other cases where some members of a family were included but others were not.
Abdul Halim Mazumdar, a bank employee who belongs to Goroimari Satra village in Kamrup district, had used 1966 electoral roll of his father to establish his legacy. The names of all five members of his family were mentioned in the draft NRC, which was published on July 30, 2018. He, along with other members of his family, was sure that they would make it to the final list.
But when they reached nearest NRC Seva Kendra (NSK) to check their citizenship status after the final list was published, to their surprise, all of them, excluding Mazumdar’s wife, were out of the citizenry logs.
Dipali Das, 42, found herself, her husband and her four married daughters on the list. But Das was unhappy because her 23-year-old son, Rahul, was excluded. She said she will put in an application for his inclusion.
A frail man in his late 70s, Binoy Bhushan Sarkar, found his name online, but not in the hard copy of the list available for people to check their names. He said he has been voting since the age of 21, including in the recent national elections. “I don't know what to do,” he said.
The government said it carried out the mammoth exercise to detect and deport illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. But the final publication of the citizenship list has stoked fear of loss of citizenship and long periods of detention. It is unclear what happens next. However, the government in the Centre and the state have clarified that those left off the final citizenship list will not be declared foreigners.
Those excluded will have to appeal in the Foreigners’ Tribunals within 120 days of from August 31. The tribunals have to decide on the cases within six months. If a person is declared a foreigner, then only he or she will be sent to detention centres.
Rights bodies have urged the Assam government to ensure that the tribunals function with “utmost transparency and are in line with the fair trial standards guaranteed under national and international law”.
BJP President Amit Shah, who is now Union Home Minister, had earlier called Bangladeshi migrants “infiltrators” and “termites”. The Narendra Modi-led government, which fully backs the citizenship project in Assam, has often vowed to roll out a similar plan nationwide.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on September 1 said people left off the NRC are “not stateless” and will continue to enjoy all the rights as before till they exhaust all the remedies available under the law.
It said exclusion from the NRC has no implication on the rights of an individual resident in Assam and that they will not be deprived of any rights or entitlements which they have enjoyed before.
The MEA’s comments came in the wake of commentaries in sections of the foreign media about certain aspects of the final NRC which it said are “incorrect”.
“Exclusion from the NRC has no implication on the rights of an individual resident in Assam. For those who are not in the final list will not be detained and will continue to enjoy all the rights as before till they have exhausted all the remedies available under the law,” MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said.
“It does not make the excluded person ‘Stateless’. It also does not make him or her a ‘foreigner’, within the legal meaning of the term. They will not be deprived of any rights or entitlements which they have enjoyed before,” he added.
The spokesperson also said that to expedite the process of receiving applications for inclusion, the Assam government is establishing 200 more tribunals, in addition to the existing 100.
“A further 200 more tribunals will be set up by the State of Assam by December 2019. These Tribunals will be set up at block level for the convenience of appellants,” he said.